Our church has been remarkably hit with the pain of cancer. Three of our beloved church members (Jim Rosien, Arlena Tinnes, and Julie Zieser) have been recently diagnosed with cancer and are undergoing various treatments (i.e. infusion, chemotherapy, etc.) in response to this terrible illness. Each one of these dear saints has approached the news and difficulty of cancer with great joy and courage. Each serves as a living, breathing illustration of strong, genuine faith in God. I am proud to be their pastor.
But as a young church pastor, I am often at a loss as to what to say or do when staring into the face of cancer and various other diseases. Sure…it was easy to banter back forth in college, with other healthy classmates, concerning a particular case study of what we would do as a pastor in this or that situation…but real life is different. The truth of the matter is that sometimes I feel rather foolish offering the hope of the Gospel and reaffirming the goodness of God to people who are really hurting and in great pain. I mean…it’s easy for me to say those things…I’m so healthy and strong, but they’re the ones dealing with the reality of intense pain.
In fact, as I was recently walking the halls of a hospital, I remembered back to my Army days. It was in the military that I learned just how strong, resilient, and powerful the human body could be. However, en route to yet another church member struggling with their health, I was reminded of just how fragile and weak the human body could be. In just a moment in time, you can go from completely fine, walking around, living your life, to suddenly fighting for your life and unable to do all the things you once loved to do.
I mean…what is a young pastor to do in moments of crises in his congregation’s life? What counsel should he give? Where should he point them? In fact, pastor or not, what should you do when you encounter painful circumstances in the lives of your family and friends?
Well…I’m no expert, but I have learned to do the following four things when staring into the face of cancer and other various illnesses:
- Do believe the Gospel yourself and point them to the ultimate hope of the Gospel. In other words, it is never foolish to remind people of the goodness of God in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The very Gospel that saved you (and that has or can save them) has imbedded within its message the fact that one day all things wrong will be made right. There is coming a day when “this corruptible has put on incorruption, and this mortal has put on immortality…” (1 Cor. 15:54a). Simply put, there is coming a day when even cancer and other terrible diseases will be no more.
- Pray. The Bible is so clear: “The effective, fervent prayer of a righteous man avails much” (James 5:16b). We must earnestly pray for healing, comfort, and that our loved ones would be overwhelmed with thoughts of the goodness and grace of God in the midst of their pain. Prayer is not a magic rabbit’s foot that guarantees healing, but if healing is a part of God’s plan for them, He will certainly use prayer to bring that about…so pray!
- Recognize that your presence (devoid of any talk or counsel) is ministry enough. Job’s three friends kind of missed the memo on this one. They honestly thought that more talk and counsel was the answer. Indeed…most of the time when it comes to people who are hurting…less is more in terms of talk. I have found that simply being with people in crisis is ministry enough.
- Point them to God’s fierce love for them by means of loving them yourself. Growing up my father phrased it like this: “God is all we need, but each other is all we have.” Don’t take this pithy statement too far or rip it out of context, but simply put, we are to be the tangible expressions of God’s love toward all people, but especially towards those who are in great pain (cf. Matthew 25:31-40). Thus, be sure to end your phone calls, text messages, food drop offs, care packages, etc. with a note or line that simply says (using your own words and style)…I love you, but God loves you more.
Indeed…to all of my dear congregants struggling with cancer and other terrible illnesses…I say just that. Stay strong.