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Finding Hope in an Unwanted Diagnosis

My story of course began in eternity past when our good God determined to glorify Himself, to do good to me, to do good to my family, to do good to my church family, and many others through the disease of cancer.

I remember it really well. It started with a common physical from my doctor. I was about 45 years old at the time—in 2014. He found a mass in my throat and after about a week and a half of additional tests, I found myself canceling a flight to the ACBC conference in Los Angeles and instead on this very day five years ago, I had my first surgery.

That surgery produced further testing, and they found that I had actually two different kinds of cancer. One in particular was pretty difficult to treat (or at least had that reputation) and we also found out that it had spread through my lymph nodes. That’s stage three cancer, for those of you who are familiar. That led to a second surgery and some radiation treatments that following December.

I want to share with you some of the things that brought particular comfort to me, especially during those early weeks and months. I’m really appreciative of the three men who sort of teed all of this up for me. I was listening and just getting the affirmation of God’s Word as they were teaching. Remembering how precious that was to me, I want to share that with you as you minister to others or maybe even as you are walking through similar things yourself.

I want to caveat this by saying I was not free of sin and the need to repent during this account. Even though it’s my narrative, so to speak, God is the central character in that narrative as well as in all narratives of Scripture. Therefore, it’s not my desire for you to be impressed at all with me. If you find anything praiseworthy, I want you to be impressed with my Savior through it all. A couple things I want you to see through this that the Lord taught me and my family in bold relief during that time that suffering is a vehicle that reconnects us back with the truths about God’s glory: His love, His goodness, His sovereignty. His attributes don’t fade or shift even during our hardest trials. It also reconnects us with our utter dependence upon Him for all that is comforting and good in our lives. At the end of the day, it’s a nudge—sometimes less gentle than others—to the fact that Jesus alone is enough.

Even if our bodies are wasting away—and really they are—we have no less cost to praise God with everything we can muster. My text is in Philippians 1. This has a been a text that has ministered well to me, even recently as some of my fellow elders at Grace Community have taught through this during one of our morning Sunday schools.

In this text, Paul is suffering. Even though it’s not a medical diagnosis, his example to us is very important. It’s exactly the orientation that we need when we get that bad news from the doctor. It’s the right orientation. We’ll start in verse 12 to give us a little bit of background and context.

Philippians 1:12-24 says,

“Now I want you to know, brethren, that my circumstances have turned out for the greater progress of the gospel, so that my imprisonment in the cause of Christ has become well known throughout the whole praetorian guard and to everyone else, and that most of the brethren, trusting in the Lord because of my imprisonment, have far more courage to speak the word of God without fear. Some, to be sure, are preaching Christ even from envy and strife, but some also from good will; the latter do it out of love, knowing that I am appointed for the defense of the gospel; the former proclaim Christ out of selfish ambition rather than from pure motives, thinking to cause me distress in my imprisonment. What then? Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed; and in this I rejoice.

Yes, and I will rejoice, for I know that this will turn out for my deliverance through your prayers and the provision of the Spirit of Jesus Christ, according to my earnest expectation and hope, that I will not be put to shame in anything, but that with all boldness, Christ will even now, as always, be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death.

“For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. But if I am to live on in the flesh, this will mean fruitful labor for me; and I do not know which to choose. But I am hard-pressed from both directions, having the desire to depart and be with Christ, for that is very much better; yet to remain on in the flesh is more necessary for your sake.”

Find Hope in God for Present Faithfulness

Now it may not be obvious at first, but Paul only has one orientation here. There’s no tension there between the two things he’s desiring. It’s one orientation: Present faithfulness with an earnest expectation of future glory.

He has a present faithfulness that earnestly anticipates and hopes for future glory. [1]Click To Tweet [1]

He has a present faithfulness that earnestly anticipates and hopes for future glory. It’s in that orientation, even with an unwanted diagnosis, that we find this overabundance of hope. By example, Paul shows us a couple things. He shows us that we can find hope in God for present faithfulness. I’ll unpack that into four areas.

Find Hope in Magnifying Christ while Living

When we enter into a trial involving our health, we find hope in magnifying Christ while living—regardless of the quality of that life, as we may describe it from our physical health. In Philippians 1:18, Paul says, “Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed; and in this I rejoice. Yes, and I will rejoice, for I know that this will turn out for my deliverance.”

So we ask, deliverance from what?

From his suffering? Does this mean that he’s confident that he’s going to be healed? That’s not what he’s talking about. Before I move on, note the vehicle through that deliverance is obviously the provision of the spirit of Jesus Christ as well as the prayers of the saints.

What is he confident in? What is he wanting to be delivered from? Verse 20 says, “according to my earnest expectation and hope, that I will not be put to shame in anything.” Paul is confident that he will be delivered from shame—not the shamefulness of his infirmity, or his trial, or the others, but here’s what he says in verse 21, “but that with all boldness, Christ will even now, as always, be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death.” That’s what opposes shame.

Paul’s ultimate hope isn’t in living or dying. It’s not even really the point at all. It’s in having Christ proclaimed, boldly magnified in him. It is so important to Paul, that to fail to maximize Christ’s exaltation in his trial is shameful to him. It’s that important to him.

Counselors, it’s not unloving to compassionately point suffering people to pursue God’s glory above all things. In fact, it’s shameful not to. We do that gently, but we do that without apology.

We who suffer desperately need our eyes off ourselves and our eyes fixed firmly on the one true source of hope, Jesus Christ. I needed over and over to get my eyes off Tim. Believe me there were a lot of eyes on Tim. Doctors are talking about Tim, we’re talking about Tim’s health, we’re talking about Tim’s treatments, we’re talking about Tim’s outlook. But it’s Tim Savior that Tim needed to be focused on.

All else is irrelevant as long as it accomplishes Christ’s glory in our lives. The very next thing Paul writes in verse 21 is “For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.”

In an unwanted diagnosis, we find hope and we counsel hope to make every effort to boldly magnify our Savior while we suffer. We want to use every ailment, every progress, every setback, no matter how small to point people to Jesus. He never waivers and He never fails.

It’s good and right to desire to be healed. A lot of my friends prayed for God to do great things to heal me, but that desire is always to be in subjection to the glory of God. When we are weak, faint-hearted, or small-souled, we need frequent reminders of that. We need friends who will love us with the love of Christ to remind us how important and how hope-filling that is. In our prayers, we learn to pray, “Help me to desire to magnify Christ even above my desire to survive my diagnosis. Help me to do that.”

Find Hope in His Character

Present faithfulness also means that we find hope in His character. Those early weeks and months were really the most challenging for me, I think. Mostly because there was this huge disparity between what I knew and what I wanted to know.

On this hand, I knew I had multiple stage 3 thyroid cancer—and that’s about all I knew early on. Over here, I wanted to know if the doctors were going to be successful in removing the cancer, or if it was going to come back again in the future. I wanted to know if I would at least be able to finish raising my three children. I wanted to know that if the Lord did take me home that my precious wife Carmen would be able to take on the additional burden of being a single mom and that my children—Ella, Gabe, and Noah—would not be in embittered towards the Lord.

But I also knew that God has always been faithful, that He was presently faithful, and that He will always be faithful. That guarantee of God’s faithfulness trumps all this other stuff that I was desiring access to.

At all times, and especially in those early weeks, who God is was the most important truth that I had to cling to. We can stand on the many promises in Scriptures, and we do and we encourage one another to do that, but only if we trust and love the God who makes those promises. If we do that, we can rejoice because God offers us something infinitely better than our idea of a successful outcome—He offers us grace, He offers His benevolent sovereignty. That’s way more important than my physical health.

I want to encourage you to encourage your counselees as they suffer to have a worship goal. A goal of worship, that their love for Christ would be deepened through their suffering, that we would come out on the other side loving Him more.

You can’t even accurately evaluate what you’re going through without trusting God and His character because everything God does—even involving my situation—He does right and He does well. I can rejoice in the Lord always, even while suffering with cancer.

Psalm 149:4 says, “For the Lord takes pleasure in His people; He will beautify the afflicted ones with salvation.” My Redeemer takes pleasure in me. And He also stands ready to comfort me. As 2 Corinthians 1:3-4 says, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction so that we will be able to comfort those who are in any affliction with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God.”

I’m just comforted by how many times it said comfort in that passage.

We can read that and see how present suffering prepares us for future ministry. The part of that verse that brought the most comfort to me early on was that my Father is the Father of mercies and God of all comfort—not of most comfort, but all comfort. There is no true comfort that we can offer someone apart from God Himself. It’s tempting though to seek comfort in statistics. In probable outcomes of treatment, in testimonials, in the doctor’s reputation and their staff. But here in 2 Corinthians, it’s clear to me that before I even saw the first statistical table, I already had the source of all comfort.

I had God Himself and there is really no true comfort apart from Him. And since He is the source of all mercies and all comfort, where do we go to meet Him in that comfort? We go to Scripture because that’s where God has revealed Himself to us. Psalm 119:50, says, “This is my comfort in my affliction, that Your word has revived me.”

Our great Father is also a God of perfect compassion.

The Bible frequently compares the church to weak things. I want to commend to you the Puritan Richard Sibbes, he has a wonderful text called The Bruised Reed. He points out that in Matthew 12:20 when Christ is quoting Isaiah 42:3, he says, “A bruised reed He will not break off, a smoldering wick He will not put out.” That’s what we all are in different degrees. We are bruised reeds and smoking flax—not strong oaks, but bruised and battered reeds. In His compassion, through our suffering, Sibbes tells us God makes a way within our hearts by leveling off proud attitudes so that we can see more clearly that we are by nature weak, and in desperate and continual need of mercy. I need that. Our counselees need that. He also helps to see that the happiest people in the world aren’t those with good statistical outcomes, but those who walk in the comforts of the Spirit.

And so we pray, and I prayed many times, “I have Jesus, let that be enough. Oh Lord, let that be enough.” It’s wonderfully humbling to have anything else that I might have been depending on stripped away from me during that time. Our suffering reminds us of the redemptive beauty of Christ’s crucifixion. His death proves His love for you and for me. His death makes it possible to draw near. His death means we do not have to sin as we suffer. That’s key.

I know God and that brings me great comfort. J. I. Packer, in his book Knowing God, points out something else. He says, “I am never out of his mind. All my knowledge of him depends on his sustained initiative in knowing me. I know him because he first knew me, and continues to know me. He knows me as a friend, one who loves me; and there is no moment when his eye is off me, or his attention distracted from me, and no moment, therefore, when his care falters.”

He knows us and there's no moment when we are not under His good and merciful care. [2]Click To Tweet [2]

He knows us and there’s no moment when we are not under His good and merciful care.

With my new diagnosis, I knew I had another challenge. I’m a husband and I’m a father, and it’s not just about me in those moments. I had to shepherd my family through this and I knew I had to break this to my children once we knew the diagnosis was certain. My wife and I went to lunch afterward to praise the Lord and to pray for wisdom and help.

I’ve been influenced by ACBC for over 20 years, and the teaching didn’t have to change because all of a sudden it was happening to me. I knew I wanted to point my children to the beautiful character of the Father of mercies and God of all comfort as well. Us Keeters over the years have learned to take note from Jerry Bridges in his excellent introduction to Trusting God Even When Life Hurts.

So we called a family meeting to have the children come and sit down. They asked, “What’s going on, Dad?” I responded, “Well guys, when we talk about the Lord, we mentioned that God is perfect in His love for us, right? That means that at all times God wants what is best for us. You agree?”

They agreed, so I went on, “But not only is He always, at all times, perfect in His love for us, He is infinite in His wisdom. So not only does God want what is best for us, what?”

One of my more analytic children responded, “Well, Dad, that means that He knows what is best for us.”

“That’s exactly right—He wants what is best for us, and He knows what’s best for us. And at all times God not only is perfect in His love and infinite in His wisdom, but He is completely and fully sovereign. You know what that means? Not only does He want what is best for us, and absolutely know what is best for us, He will without failure bring it about. Do you believe that?”

They responded, “Yea, Dad. We believe it.” So I went on, “That’s good, because I’m going to give you an opportunity right now to exercise that.”

And there was a lot of sobbing. It was a really hard conversation, but God was with us. And we understood, in part, that while we did not know what was going to happen, we saw the importance in the living room that day of remembering our God. As I think of those things, I can honestly say that it wasn’t nearly as hard for me personally to find joy in my trials, as it was for me to find joy in my family’s trials—my wife and my children.

Find Hope in Fruitful Labor

This is connected, as Paul has taught us, that we can find hope in God’s character, we can also expect to find hope in fruitful labor. Finding hope in magnifying Christ and in the character of who God is, drives us to fruitful labor even through our physical infirmities.

2 Corinthians 1:3-4 also has that other facet, where we are ministering to others, which is part of exalting Christ in our body while we live. In Philippians 1, Paul continues with that same thought process. In verse 22, he says, “But if I am to live on in the flesh, this will mean fruitful labor for me; and I do not know which to choose.” He mentions in verse 23 that he is hard-pressed from both directions, recognizing that to remain on in the flesh is necessary for their sake.

Suffering isn’t a pass to check out on laboring in serving Christ and His people. It’s a call to boldly magnify Christ, within the limits imposed by our physical infirmities.

Encourage your counselees to be creative. Have them eagerly look for ways to joyfully serve and love others.

My illness did wonders for my prayer life. Even when all I could do is sit around at home and recover from the various types of treatments and things, it was amazing how important praying for others who suffered in my church became to me—even more so than normal. It became so important for me to think about and evaluate my life, and how I might use it to love other people.

Fruitful labor gives hope, because we realize that we're not only depending upon the Lord, we are endeavoring to live for Him. [3]Click To Tweet [3]

Fruitful labor gives hope, because we realize that we’re not only depending upon the Lord, we are endeavoring to live for Him. We’re trusting that in our weakness, He is made strong. And that is the Lord who is doing the work through us.

Find Hope in His Provision of Your Church Family

Finally in terms of present faithfulness, we find hope in God’s provision of your church family. I can’t emphasize this enough. The church loved Paul, he talked about “my deliverance through your prayers” in verse 19. My dearest friends are at our church. We are to be the hands and feet of Jesus to one another. We don’t just take food—which we do in the South very well—but we walk and suffer with them. Not just for the first couple weeks, but for the ensuing months and years. One of the most comforting phrases I’ve heard is, “Hey, we’re not going anywhere. Doesn’t matter how long it takes. We’re not planning to go anywhere.”

That’s humbling for me. I’m the counselor in my church. It was good for me to suffer that humility and become dependent on others. Besides the fact that God was demonstrating His kindness towards me through these people, I learned to rejoice that He put my church on notice. God put Grace Community Church in Huntsville, Alabama on notice to sacrifice, to serve, and to help the Keeters bear our burden. Grace Community Church in Huntsville was being sanctified through my cancer.

What a privilege that the Lord would use me for these dear people to become more like their Savior. It was good to see that, and we could rejoice in it. They found ways to minister to all of us. The things that meant the most to me is how they wrote letters and prayed with my wife and my children, and encouraged them as well. It wasn’t just focused on me.

Not to mention the fact that how my church loved me was evangelistic in nature. Christ said that they will know you are my disciples if you have love for one another. We’ve lived in Huntsville now for 25 years. We know a lots of people—believing and unbelieving. The testimony of my church was amazing, that people never once found us in want. I had people in my neighborhood who actually got a little bit frustrated with Grace Community Church.

They would ask, “We can’t bring meals when?” “What about this day?” “I’m tired of hearing that your church has always got things covered.” And eventually it came to them saying, “We don’t care what your church is doing, we’re going to bring some spaghetti over anyway.” So we put the spaghetti in the freezer.

Find Hope in God for Future Glory

We find hope in God for present faithfulness. That points us to our future glory because it’s connected. My favorite aspect about progressive sanctification and growing to be more like our Savior is it’s going to be over one day. I know that one day, I will sin my very last sin. And probably very shortly after that, I will never again be hindered in my communion with Christ ever.

Even though we can’t get all of that right now, we hunger and anticipate for just a little bit more of a taste of that until Christ brings us home—most of us through a disease of some sort. Or until He comes again.

Paul also shows us present faithfulness by example and connects that to finding hope in God for future glory.

We can read Philippians 1 and perhaps even see a tension between staying here and faithfully ministering for Christ and dying and being with Christ. But this is not some tension between two opposites, saying: I want to be here, but I want to be there. Which do I choose?

Both of them are actually centered on the same objective. The same objective is to magnify Christ in life and in death. Paul says quite clearly that is the Christ is exalted in his body in life and in death. Richard Sibbes says, “So let us then never give up, but, in our thoughts, knit the beginning, the progress and the end together, and then we shall see ourselves in heaven out of reach of all enemies.”

Find Hope in Magnifying Christ through Dying

As this text continues, we can see two different ways that hope for future glory can manifest itself. It manifests itself by magnifying Christ even through our dying. Paul says in verse 20, “according to my earnest expectation and hope, that I will not be put to shame in anything, but that with all boldness, Christ will even now, as always, be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death.”

He’s not taking this unbiblical attitude of saying, “I hate this world. I’m just ready to get out of it. Look at the elections. Look at all the garbage going on. Well, I just want to get into heaven so I don’t have to deal with this any longer.” That’s not what he’s saying. He’s saying (in my Tim Keeter paraphrase), “I so long to enjoy Christ in eternity that for as long as the Lord still desires for me to be here on earth, I want to strive to maximize my future joy in Christ by serving Him and others now.”

And that’s how that flows. As one commentary says, “If he is condemned to death, he will go to the Lord with unwavering faith and with a song in his heart.”  Either way—death or not—it will become evident what the Lord, through His grace, can accomplish in the heart of His child. Thus, Christ will be magnified.

If the diagnosis is potentially terminal, then we seek to magnify God in the process of death. Doctors don’t ultimately know—life is in God’s hands. They’re really smart, but we never really know. But even if the diagnosis is potentially terminal then seek to magnify God in the process of death. It’s a very fragile discussion, but we should be able to ultimately aim to do that with confidence and joy that our struggle with sin is about to end forever, and that we are about to see our Savior. Instantly to breathe our last breath, and be with Him. Our best life is definitely later.

Find Hope in the Eager Expectation of Eternity with Christ

We want to magnify Christ even in our dying, but we also want to find hope in the eager expectation of eternity with Christ. Paul in verse 23 says, “But I am hard-pressed from both directions, having the desire to depart and be with Christ, for that is very much better.” Amen to that. It is very much better.

I don’t know that our sanctified imaginations help us as much as they should to anticipate the glory of heaven. We should study it. We certainly sing about it. We should sing about it.

But I can say in those initial moments, there’s turbulent moments where there’s a concert of different emotions going on—a dissonance of types.

Even if the disease returns after a time of recession, it’s hard to get to the outlook that Paul has that we read here. And I can’t imagine that it’s any easier to go through this at the age of 45 than it is of the age of 85.

We are weak and we are frail. We the church patiently comfort them. We point them patiently to Jesus. We patiently love them and their family who suffers with them. We suffer with them. Yes, we cry out to God to do great things and to heal them. Over all else, we ask the Spirit with confidence to exalt Christ in their living and in their dying. The Bible even calls even a lifelong trial “a little while.” In Peter 1:6, Peter says, “In this you greatly rejoice, even though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been distressed by various trials.” They were facing some pretty significant trials there in 1 Peter. He says little bit later in 1 Peter 5:10, “After you have suffered for a little while, the God of all grace, who called you to His eternal glory in Christ, will Himself perfect, confirm, strengthen and establish you.”

Paul writes in Romans 8:18, “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed to us.”  Praise God that my greatest breakthrough is already behind me and it has nothing to do with whether or not there’s still cancer in my body. Nothing to do. He’s given us all we need.

Ephesians 1:3 says, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ.”

We have every spiritual blessing already, even the spiritual blessings that we need to endure difficult diagnosis. [4]Click To Tweet [4]

That means that at salvation, He doesn’t give me most spiritual blessings to get started on—He gives us every spiritual blessing. From there on out the goal of living for Christ isn’t to gain more, so that I can get better at it, it’s to appropriate more of what I already have. We have every spiritual blessing already, even the spiritual blessings that we need to endure difficult diagnosis.

By the way, December is my five-year anniversary relative to my last treatment. Most of the time when I talk about this, I forget to bring this up and I’ll leave all my poor listeners hanging. My family is very grateful for what appears to be a successful treatment thus far. We are thankful for that. The Lord has been gracious in that endeavor. It doesn’t make Him any less good or more good, but we are nevertheless grateful. Regardless from here on out, I know I will never suffer alone and I will not suffer indefinitely—and neither will you if you walk with the Lord. Our victory is certain in Christ.

Shortly after I’ve committed my very last sin, I will be with Jesus forever. I will worship Christ one day—completely unhindered by sin with a vast sea of worshippers. We will all together sing with one voice, “Worthy is the Lamb that was slain to receive power and riches and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing.” Amen. That’s been done for us.