What If the Worst Comes?
From Gospel Translations
How God Calms a Fearful Heart
Bad news is all around us. If you scroll through your social media feeds, turn on the actual news, or even walk through the checkout line at the grocery store, you are confronted with bad news: wars and threatened wars. Murder. Injustice. Grief. In normal circumstances, bad news was already all around us. Now, in the midst of a pandemic, bad news is our near-constant friend.
We have become accustomed to this kind of bad news in our connected society. Its distance from us helps us cope with it a little better. We may be saddened at first glance or listen, but then we move on with the scroll of our thumb. The sheer volume of bad news numbs us to the horror of bad news.
Another kind of bad news is harder to cope with, though: the bad news that is personal. It is unexpected. It can be life-shattering. A routine doctor’s visit sends you to the hospital. A wife comes home to find her husband gone, taking his love and possessions with him. A phone call tells us of the death of a parent, a friend, a sibling. A once secure job vanishes in the midst of economic upheaval. In one instant, the world becomes confusing and filled with terror. Life changes with the presence of bad news.
Blindsided by Bad News
I’ve had my fair share of bad news in my adult life. I’ve been in the ultrasound room when the technician is unable to find a heartbeat. I’ve taken a child to the doctor, only to discover that he actually needs surgery, or prolonged therapy, or a hospital admission. I’ve listened to doctors explain the fragility of my own life. I’ve received disappointing emails and rejection letters. That’s why this verse has been my mantra these last two years:
He is not afraid of bad news;
his heart is firm, trusting in the Lord. (Psalm 112:7)
But even with all of these unexpected deliveries of bad news, there is one I was not prepared for: “You have cancer.” I’ve spent the better part of the last decade trying to come to terms with what seems like an endless cycle of bad news. This was one that left me reeling, grasping for faith when the future seemed bleak.
I might be able to handle a hard situation when I have mentally prepared for it, but when I am blindsided by bad news, I find I have no footing. I have faced a number of circumstances that are utterly frightening, even for the most faith-filled among us. Maybe you have too — a life-threatening medical diagnosis, a sudden need for surgery, illness after illness, multiple false alarms. God continues to force me to reckon with my heart’s response to bad news.
One particular moment last year was my breaking point. We had a scare with one of our boys that could have resulted in emergency surgery. I couldn’t bring myself to even imagine that he would walk out of that hospital without surgery. I was prepared for the worst, because so often it seems like we are dealt the worst-case scenario. After months of hospital visits, surgeries, surprise tests, and doctor’s bills, I was convinced that, yet again, our family would be back in the hospital.
But we weren’t.
I still can’t stop replaying that moment in my head. I want the kind of trust the psalmist has in Psalm 112 — to not be afraid of bad news, but instead cast myself on the Lord. Little by little, God is working this into me. With every doctor’s visit, where I’m anxiously holding my breath as the doctor looks over my child, I’m forced to believe this again.
Then God gave me another chance to live this verse out, but this time I didn’t walk out of the doctor’s office with good news. I walked out with a cancer diagnosis and a sudden surgery. In those scary days and weeks as I waited for final pathology and recovered from surgery, God worked this psalm into my heart again. “He can be trusted. Bad news may come, but he can be trusted.” While I may have believed the worst, I can see now that in these persistent sufferings God is working something deeper into me that I wouldn’t have understood if I had never been blindsided by suffering.
God can be trusted. Even when bad news comes. That is the hard part about this psalm — it forces us to reckon with the uncertainty of life. But it does so from the vantage point of trust.
World of Our Own Making
The psalmist speaks from experience. He sees the good fruit that trusting in the Lord produces in a person. He prospers in the land (Psalm 112:2–3). And because he has trusted in the Lord, his life has a direct blessing on those around him (Psalm 112:9–10). The psalmist can make a bold statement like the one in Psalm 112:7 because he has seen what a life of trust does in a person. And he wants us to have that life as well.
I have spent a lot of time creating scenarios in my head, so that when bad news arrives I am prepared. But what the psalmist is saying is entirely different than a prepared trust.
Anyone can have a prepared trust rooted in a controlled environment (or one we imagine is controlled). It’s only when the unforeseen comes that you realize you actually were trusting in a world of your own making, and not the God who is sovereign over it all. When I manufacture scenarios in my head, I am unable to live a fruitful life the psalmist talks about: a life of trust in the Lord that leads to a life of blessing toward those around me.
Our Fixed Reality
To get to this point does not mean we pretend like the worst can’t happen to us. It just means we are trusting in a fixed reality that can’t be moved when the bad news comes.
We know the world is a dangerous place. We know that life in a fallen world means our worst nightmare can happen at any moment. The antidote to fearing the worst is not ignoring this reality. That won’t support us when we get that phone call or diagnosis. The psalmist’s heart is instead rooted in God, who is unchanging. So, come what may, he will trust.
Bad news may come, but we won’t fear because of who God is, not because of what we can control. The psalmist is able to remain firm because of something outside of himself. The bad news may come, but he is anchored in the Lord. His trust rests on God, so even when the storms of bad news rage all around him, he is steady and safe.
God’s Unchanging Word
What is it about the Lord that helped the psalmist trust in him when he thought of bad news? In the beginning of the psalm, he tells us that the blessed life is one spent delighting in God’s commands (Psalm 112:1). This is a message woven through the book of Psalms. Psalm 1 begins,
Blessed is the man
who walks not in the counsel of the wicked,
nor stands in the way of sinners,
nor sits in the seat of scoffers;
but his delight is in the law of the Lord. (Psalm 1:1–2)
The psalmists don’t gloss over the reality of life in a broken world. They often confront this life head-on. Sometimes they do it with a stream of questions poured out to God. Sometimes they do it with resolute trust. Sometimes they mix it all up, because life can be a jumbled mess of trust and grief. But the bedrock foundation that keeps them going is their delight in God’s word.
They meditate on it. They know it. They are sustained by it. And as a result, they do not fear when bad news comes. They do not make shipwreck of their faith when suffering plagues them. And they hope in God, knowing they will one day praise him, even if they aren’t right now (Psalm 42:5, 11; 43:5).
Kinship in Suffering
I wish I could say I had turned a corner in my fear of bad news. I am getting better, but my heart still seems to stop when I step into a doctor’s office. Maybe it always will. Cancer seems to do that to a person. The world is a scary place, and even though I trust God to remain faithful in whatever storms come, I don’t love bad news. I’m sure you don’t love it either.
But the Psalms can help us know we aren’t alone. We aren’t the first to have received a hard diagnosis or an uncertain outcome. We aren’t the first to be staring down the tunnel of suffering, wondering how God will work it all out. But we are joined to a great cloud of witnesses who found him sufficient to keep them all the way to the end. That’s our anchor when bad news scares us.
When we are afraid of the outcome of the diagnosis, we remember that God is good to all (Psalm 145:9). When the fears do not leave us, we recall Psalm 46:1: “God is . . . a very present help in trouble.” When it doesn’t seem like we will walk before the Lord in the land of the living (Psalm 27:13), we remember how the Psalms start out: “The Lord knows the way of the righteous” (Psalm 1:6). The way they cope is by knowing God, and the way they know God is by knowing his word.
Bad news is all around us. It is coming for us. And with it comes a whole host of fears. But as Psalm 2 reminds us, there is a King ruling over all things. He delivers us from fear and gives us words to cope in our wrestling. Bad news might scare us, but it will never ultimately destroy us.