“You have terminal cancer.”
Those were the words heard by a family friend last week.
I wasn’t there, so I don’t know the exact words, but a death sentence like this sears the soul.
When one feels healthy, we don’t think about death.
We enjoy our life and the petty challenges it brings. We know we’ll die, but we don’t worry about it.
But with a surprise shadow that appears on a regular cat-scan, a doctors visit with an “I’m sorry there is little we can do,” suddenly we know that death is coming.
Days are numbered.
Salvation — when your days are truly numbered.
When teaching and speaking of salvation, it’s easy to say what needs to be done to help people find Christ, and to dream about what you would say in a given situation.
It’s a hypothetical person we speak of when we do evangelism theology, as we examine the process of conversion, the work of the Holy Spirit, and so on.
But when a personal friend who bears no evidence of a conversion to Christ receives the sentence of death from a terminal illness, theology isn’t comforting.
The reality of what the Bible teaches after death stares you right in the face.
Your loved one is either going before Christ as one redeemed, or one who will remain eternally separate from God.
In the latter case, the mind races for exceptions to God’s grace.
The mind argues for a different standard of righteousness than what God has ordained.
Some of you pastors have walked through this when a congregation member receives this news.
Some of you have walked through this when your family member receives this news.
I suppose there is an emotional difference depending on level of personal connection – a family member, a friend, a distant co-worker . . .
Some of you have walked through this with Christians and non-Christians.
The evangelist has a very sensitive role to walk when dealing with a non-Christian in the shock of such news.
It’s not the time to argue why God has allowed it, or how sin is the cause of sickness.
It’s not the time now to say Get your life right with God – that can come when the earth shaking shock passes.
It’s not the time to be like Job’s friends and find blame or reason.
The question is – what is the best reaction? How and when? When is it wise to speak, wise to remain silent?
The Role of the Holy Spirit
Here is where listening to the guidance of the Holy Spirit is necessary.
The evangelist could rush in and make sure a conversion happens by the evangelical prayer formula – and then be at peace that another soul has been saved.
While that is indeed a desired outcome, many have experienced that as mere manipulation, taking advantage of the circumstances, and a way to put the evangelist at peace with the dying one’s eternity.
When the news of terminal cancer is only a few days old, is that the best response NOW?
The Holy Spirit knows when it is best to speak. When we discern the right moment, trusting the sovereignty of God, we know that the Holy Spirit will give us the right words.
The Holy Spirit knows the intimate fears of the dying one and is capable of causing such spiritual unrest that eternal conversations will happen – not when the evangelist forces one, but when the evangelist is present at the right place in the right time.
The Holy Spirit is the one who regenerates the soul. It is the Holy Spirit who draws the dying one to repentance (God’s kindness leads to repentance).
The evangelist should be listening to the promptings of the Holy Spirit to know
- when to speak, when to be silent.
- What to say, what not to say.
- How to listen and how to listen some more.
Let me ask you this?
What would you do in the first two weeks after a close non-Christian friend or family member receives such bitter news that they will die?
This is a hard question, Chris. If one has been seeking an opportunity to share one’s faith and despairs that their friend may not know Christ, they might “jump at the chance”. Best to pray and wait a bit. As you demonstrate caring in other ways, be sensitive to their words, questions, etc. and respond to the Kairos momements given by the Spirit.
I think this is a time to ask, “Can I pray for you?” Even non-believers tend to appreciate prayers on their behalf in a time of crisis like this, and very few will refuse the offer. Then you can pray for God to be at work in their life, and let the Spirit take it from there. It also gives you permission to follow up with them to ask about what’s been happening and how you can continue to pray for them.