Question: "What does the Bible say about coping/dealing with a terminal illness?"
Answer: It certainly can be difficult to accept some of the sorrowful twists and turns that life brings our way. And there are few things that can stir the human soul more than the news of a terminal illness diagnosis. First of all, know that Jesus cares. Our Savior wept when His beloved friend Lazarus died (John 11:35), and His heart was touched by the sorrow of Jairus’ family (Luke 8:41-42).
Jesus not only cares; He is at hand to help His children. Our God is an “ever-present help in trouble” (Psalm 46:1). The Holy Spirit, the Comforter of our hearts, dwells with us, and He will never leave (John 14:16).
Jesus told us in this world we would have troubles (John 16:33), and absolutely no one is spared (Romans 5:12). Yet coping with any degree of suffering becomes easier when we understand God’s overall design to redeem our fallen world. We may not be guaranteed physical health in this life, but those who trust in God are promised spiritual security for all eternity (John 10:27-28). Nothing can touch the soul.
It is good to remember that not everything bad that happens to us is a direct result of our sin. Having a terminal illness is not proof of God’s judgment on an individual. Recall the time Jesus and His disciples came upon a man who had been blind since birth. They asked Jesus, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus responded, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned. But this happened so that the work of God might be displayed in his life” (John 9:2-3, emphasis added). Likewise, Job’s three friends were certain that his calamity resulted from sin in his life. Like Christ’s disciples, they were very wrong.
We may never understand the reasons for our particular trials this side of eternity, but one thing is clear – for those who love God, trials work for them, not against them (Romans 8:28). Moreover, God will give the strength to endure any trial (Philippians 4:13).
Our earthly life is a “mist” at best, and that’s why God has set eternity in our hearts (Ecclesiastes 3:11). God’s plan for His children includes their death, which is “precious in the sight of the LORD” (Psalm 116:15).
Ultimately, God’s will for us is to glorify Him and to grow spiritually. He wants us to trust and depend on Him. How we react to our trials, including the trial of terminal illness, reveals exactly what our faith is like. Scripture teaches us to offer our bodies as living sacrifices (Romans 12:1). In fact, “dying to self” is a requirement for those who seek to follow Jesus Christ (Luke 14:27). This means we completely subordinate our desires to those of our Lord. Like Christ at Gethsemane, “my” will needs to become “Thy” will.
The writer of Hebrews exhorts us to consider the suffering our Savior endured so that we ourselves do not grow weary and lose heart in our own trials. It was “for the joy set before Him” that Christ was able to endure the suffering of the cross. This “joy,” for Christ, was in obeying His Father’s will (Psalm 40:8), reconciling His Father with His creation, and being exalted to the right hand of the throne of God. Likewise, our own trials can be made more bearable when we consider the “joy” set before us. Our joy may come in understanding it is through testing that God transforms us into the likeness of His Son (Job 23:10; Romans 8:29). What we see as pain and discomfort and uncertainty our sovereign Father – who ordains or allows every event during our time on earth – sees as transformation. Our suffering is never meaningless. God uses suffering to change us, to minister to others, and, ultimately, to bring glory to His name.
Paul reminds us that our earthly troubles, which last only a short time, pale in comparison to our eternal glory (2 Corinthians 4:17-18). Commenting on these verses, one theologian stated, “God will never be a debtor to anyone. Any sacrifice we make or hardship we endure for His sake and by His Spirit, He will amply reward out of all proportion to what we suffered.”
If you have been diagnosed with a terminal illness, we would humbly offer this advice: make sure that you are a true child of God, having trusted Jesus as your Savior (Romans 10:9-10). Then, as Hezekiah was told, “put your house in order” (Isaiah 38:1); that is, make sure your will is ready and other important arrangements have been made. Use the remaining time God gives you to grow spiritually and minister to others. Continue to rely on the power of God for day-to-day strength, and, as the Lord gives grace, thank Him for your “thorn in the flesh” (2 Corinthians 12:7-10). Finally, take comfort in Jesus’ promise of eternal life and peace. “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid” (John 14:27).