By Jim Tune
Paul Kalanithi, a nonsmoking neurosurgeon, was diagnosed with late-stage lung cancer at the age of 36. He chronicled his experiences in his memoir, When Breath Becomes Air. Kalanithi wrote:
Death, so familiar to me in my work, was now paying a personal visit. . . . Standing at the crossroads where I should have been able to see and follow the footprints of countless patients I had treated over the years, I saw instead only a blank, a harsh, vacant, gleaming white desert, as if a sandstorm had erased all trace of familiarity.
Death makes life seem absurd. Carefully constructed plans unravel when death suddenly visits. Shock and disbelief set in when a person discovers the life he or she has carefully mapped out is to be suddenly cut short.
Hezekiah knew this well. This youthful king led Israel through a period of triumph and restoration. He took on the idolatry that was corrupting the nation. He routed the Philistines and the mighty Assyrians. He was on a winning streak when he became seriously ill. The prophet Isaiah told him to put his house in order, for God said he was going to die.
It made no sense. Hezekiah had done everything right. He pleaded with God, “Remember, Lord, how I have walked before you faithfully and with wholehearted devotion . . .” (Isaiah 38:3; 2 Kings 20:3). In disbelief, Hezekiah asks, “In the prime of my life must I go through the gates of death and be robbed of the rest of my years?” (Isaiah 38:10).
I find Hezekiah’s reaction to be reassuring—especially considering his credentials. We might have expected such a faithful man of God to calmly accept his fate, at ease in the center of God’s will. But Hezekiah was human.
My track record as a believer is considerably less impressive. God owes me nothing. Yet I would have reacted in the same way or worse. And that’s OK with God. Death is a terrible thing.
A Christian acquaintance of mine was diagnosed with a rapidly advancing terminal cancer. No one, not even those closest to him, ever saw him glum or bewildered during the 10 short months he lived after his diagnosis. I admired his fearless and positive disposition. Perhaps he had no fear of death.
Jesus, though he knew he would raise Lazarus, still wept near his friend’s tomb. Constantine Campbell observes: “Jesus weeps because Lazarus has died. Though Lazarus will live again very soon, he has experienced death, and death is awful. Even though death may be overcome by resurrection, we must not make light of the dark and evil tyranny of death.”
If death were no big deal, we wouldn’t need Jesus. Maybe you received a bleak diagnosis or discovered a lump your doctor wants to take out. Is it scary? Of course. Does it make you angry? Yes, and justifiably so. Death is an intruder into life as God intended and “the last enemy” that Jesus will destroy (1 Corinthians 15:26).
It’s OK to be a mess when you receive devastating news. The point is not how stoically you handle it. Our hope does not rest on our ability to cope. Our hope is in how Jesus defeated death and the certainty that we will ultimately participate in his triumph.