Today’s email comes to us from podcast listener Austin: “Dear Pastor John, I’m seventeen and I have terminal cancer. Doctors say my cancer will come back and that my body cannot handle any more chemo or bone marrow transplants. God has used the past five years of fighting it to bring me closer to him and to use my situation to bring a few people closer to himself too. But I’m getting weary and I am ready to go home. I don’t like to admit it, but I pray that God would take me home, but he keeps sustaining me. His answer is clearly ‘no’ or ‘not yet.’ How do I keep my joy even when life is hard and painful?”
I feel like when I approach this question it is entering into holy ground. What I mean by that is ground just outside heaven, like this is like a step away from heaven. I am standing here on the edge, and heaven has made this ground holy. It is like giving advice just outside the door of God’s temple. And he can hear what I am saying. Of course, he can hear what I am saying all the time, but there is something sacred about talking to someone who is likely about to stand before Jesus in a very short time.
“There is something sacred about talking to someone who is likely about to stand before Jesus in a very short time.”
I want Austin to know that my faith is strengthened and my love for God is intensified in hearing him ask the way he asks. Mainly because you, Austin, have not expressed anger and bitterness towards God. You may have had at some time and, of course, he can handle that. But you didn’t. You seem to speak with remarkable faith. And so you have the aroma of heaven already on you and that is mighty strengthening to me.
So let me just focus on your last words. You say, “I am getting weary and am ready to go home. I don’t like to admit it, but I pray that God would take me home. But he keeps sustaining me. His answer is clearly ‘no’ or ‘not yet.’ How do I keep my joy when my life is hard and painful?”
And maybe the first encouraging thing, I hope, that I can say is that you don’t need to be embarrassed to admit that you are praying that God would take you home. At least, you don’t have to be embarrassed around me. I have prayed that many times and have offered to go more times than I have prayed to go if it would have a greater effect than my life would. “Lord, I give myself to you. You know what I long for in my life. If not having my life would help that come about, I am ready. Take me out.”
“You don’t need to be embarrassed to admit that you are praying for God to take you home.”
Frankly, Austin, I think that a person who has been a follower of Jesus for some time and has never prayed to go home to heaven with him either hasn’t seen Jesus very clearly or has not been involved in much misery over our own and others’ sins. Paul had zero shame in saying he wanted to die and be with Christ (Philippians 1:23). It is an honor to Christ to want to leave this life and be with him. But you, Austin, clearly are right in believing this is God’s decision, not yours. Suicide — assisted, merciful, or otherwise — is not just self-murder; it is role-reversing with God, and you are right to leave it with him. So your great struggle is how to make it to God’s appointed end, short or long, with joy when your life is painful.
There are so many things that could be said, but I am going to go with what is right on my front-burner. I am reading a biography of John Knox. I am just going to let John Knox finish this off. When John Knox, the great Reformer of Scotland, was dying in 1572, he asked his wife to read him two things: First, he said, “Go to the place where I first cast my anchor,” meaning the first sermons he preached were from John 17: “When Jesus had spoken these words, he lifted up his eyes to heaven, and said, ‘Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son that the Son may glorify you, since you have given him authority over all flesh, to give eternal life to all whom you have given him. And this is eternal life, that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent’” (John 17:1–3).
“Suicide — assisted, merciful, or otherwise — is not just self-murder. It is role-reversing with God.”
And then Knox asked his wife to read him the sermons of John Calvin on Ephesians 1:3–6, which says, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love he predestined us for adoption to himself as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace.”
So, Knox wanted to die with the rock of God’s absolutely free electing love and electing grace under his feet. He wanted to hear from John 17:2, from the mouth of Jesus: I give eternal life to all whom you have given to me. He wanted to be reminded that God has chosen him and given him to the Son, and the Son had authority infallibly to give eternal life to all whom God had chosen and given to the Son. And he wanted to hear it from the apostle Paul that before the foundation of the world he had been chosen unto the praise of the glory of his grace.
“Nothing is deeper and stronger and more sure than the eternal purposes of God.”
I have never been in Austin’s shoes except for maybe a few weeks after a cancer diagnosis a few years ago, which turned out to be treatable. But John Knox walked in these very steps right to the end. So maybe this simple glimpse into how he moved towards the presence of Jesus at the end will help.
Someone might say, “Well, how in the world does the doctrine of unconditional election help a person who is dying?” And my answer would be threefold:
Nothing makes it clearer that no sin of mine could ever have been the ground of God refusing to choose me. He chose me unconditionally — absolutely unconditionally before I was born. Therefore, no foreseen sin could ever stop him from choosing me.
Nothing makes it clearer that my salvation is by grace, all grace, all grace, than that I was chosen before I had done anything good or evil — before the foundation of the world.
Nothing is deeper and stronger and more sure than the eternal purposes of God. And that is a kind of rock we need at the moment of death.
So, Father, I pray for Austin and others like him and all of us eventually who have been told our time is short. Open to him, I pray, the door of heaven and let the light of your glorious, sovereign grace lead him home.