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Finding Hope in an Unwanted Diagnosis

Truth in Love 211

There are many unknowns after receiving an unwanted diagnosis, but we do know that God is always faithful.

Jun 18, 2019

Dale Johnson: This week, I am delighted to have with me Tim Keeter who is a lay elder at Grace Community Church in Huntsville, Alabama. Tim speaks quite often for us at ACBC in our regional CDTs and he’s a frequent speaker at our Annual Conference during breakout sessions. In fact, this coming year in October, he’s going to be one of our plenary speakers for our Pre-Conference called “Human Suffering and Heavens Hope.” Tim, welcome to the podcast, we’re excited about the topic that we’re going to talk about today.

Tim Keeter: Thank you, Dale. It’s always a pleasure to be here.

Dale Johnson: Now, when we say we’re excited to talk about a topic like this, it’s certainly not because it’s a fun topic to talk about. But I will say, it’s good for us to have these discussions, especially when we think about these ideas of diagnosis, often terminal diagnosis or difficult diagnosis, when we have a Christian paradigm. We think differently about these types of ideas. Tim, you’ve experienced this type of diagnosis. You’ve sat in the room and heard those words of a difficult diagnosis. For many of our people who are counseling, they have loved ones who have gone through this. Maybe they’ve gone through this themselves. It’s always difficult, even when you’re a counselor to know, “What do I say? What do I do?” in difficult moments like that. You want to be encouraging, but you don’t want to be deflating, and you’ve walked through that.

I want to ask you a couple of questions particularly about your experience in ways that you can encourage some of our counselors as they deal with this, maybe personally, but certainly as they encounter others who are walking through some of the difficulty as well. In your life, you were diagnosed with cancer. How have you learned to find hope in this type of unwanted diagnosis?

Tim Keeter: One of the things I love about biblical counseling is that the Lord tells us to love people, whereas the world might say to keep a safe distance. You’re thinking about the right thing to say, but really the love we have for one another that is controlled by the love of Christ, as we see Paul says in 2 Corinthians, is so important. That was true for me practicing as a counselor for many, many years—for 20 years before this diagnosis came about. It was true for me during that time as I was the one being ministered to. I wasn’t free from sin and repentance during that account either.

I think the most challenging time for me to find active hope, not to see something that I didn’t already know in Scripture but to find that hope, was at the very beginning. It’s a confusing context at the beginning because there’s a great disparity between what you do know and what you really, really want to know. The only thing I really knew is that I had multiple stage 3 thyroid cancers, and that was about it. I wanted to know if the doctor was going to be successful. I wanted to know if I was going to even be able to at least finish raising my three children. I wanted to know that if the Lord took me home, that Carmen, my wife, would be able to take on that additional burden as a single mom and that my children would not become embittered towards God.

But I also knew something way, way more valuable. I knew that God has always been faithful in my life and the life of you and other believers, and that He is faithful right now and that He’ll always be faithful. That basically trumps any other concerns that we have if we really allow, as a worship goal, these moments to deepen our love and trust in Him and Jesus.

Dale Johnson: It’s an interesting dynamic when you bring up that you’re the husband, you’re the guy of the house, and you’re dealing with this on one level as someone who’s being diagnosed even when you come to a place where you’re finding hope in the faithfulness of the Lord. Tell me about those early days of that diagnosis. You’re wrestling with this and we can look back now after four or five years and we can say, “We really found hope in the Lord.” But those first few weeks I’m sure it was difficult to do that. As you think back to that time and you’re discovering the beauty of the Lord’s faithfulness, talk about what God used a means of comfort for you and for your family.

Tim Keeter: We can stand on, and we should, the many promises of Scripture. But we only really do that well if we trust and love the God who made those promises to us. Who God is by far is the most important dynamic and truth to cling to overall. Specifically, because of who God is, I knew I could rejoice because he was offering me something infinitely better than relief or even whatever my idea of fairness was. He was offering me grace. I don’t need relief as much as I need benevolent sovereignty in those moments. Therefore, I am free to not sin while I suffer. I’m free to live as a trophy of God’s grace. I’m free and able, really it’s a privilege, to use every affliction in my life to point others to God. To have that chosen and wisely formed for my life now, especially now, but in the time, in the moment it was important and humbling to see.

That’s really the big challenge, not to find joy after the trial so much, it is to find it in the trial and be able to say that everything God does, He does right and He does well. We find comfort in Scripture. Second Corinthians 1 is a wonderful passage. There’s something about that passage that in those early times really meant the most to me. I’ll read it to you, “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 may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God.” We read that and we see how present suffering prepares us for later ministry, and that’s very good.

But in those early weeks, the part of that passage that ministered the most to me was that my Father is the Father of mercies and God of all comfort. It’s so easy to be tempted to seek comfort in statistics, probable outcomes of treatments, testimonials of other people that have been through this. But in 2 Corinthians, God reminds me that I already have the source of all true comfort, and that’s God himself. It’s not anything else I might find. That redirects your pursuits and it informs your prayers. Above all things, I have Christ and that has to be enough. It’s in those moments where God wonderfully strips everything out from under you that you might have been holding onto and you’re forced to deal with that.

Dale Johnson: Not long ago, I was reading a sermon by Charles Spurgeon. He talks about this idea of the comforts of God and he talks about the beauty of the comforts that God gives us through the Scriptures, talking about who God is and that we can find rest in Him. He made a statement where he was describing that the reason that the comforts of God are so special is that, for us as believers, we walk through times where we deeply need comfort.

It’s important for us to see here. You’re an elder at your church, you’re a mature believer, you’ve been walking with the Lord faithfully, you and your family for quite some time. To hear a diagnosis like this is not something you just pull yourself up by your bootstraps. There’s wrestling, there’s grief, there’s even anxiety that you’re facing. If not falling into that temptation, you’re definitely tempted by that. I think sometimes we have a misnomer that mature believers shouldn’t deal with stuff like that. But the reality is, when you hear something like that, you’re wrestling, right? That was a part of where you deeply needed the comfort of God. Can you talk about what that wrestling was like very early on?

Tim Keeter: The psalmists do teach us that it’s never right, obviously, to accuse God of wrong. But sort of in a sanctified, “Lord, I just don’t understand. Help my unbelief, help me in my weakness.” It rattles you and so many things just come pouring in all at once. Not just about me and my health and what’s going to happen in the next six months and a year and five years, but how am I going to shepherd my children through this? How am I going to comfort my wife? I mentioned earlier, I don’t think I had as much trouble finding joy in my trials as it was to find joy in theirs. You’re conflicted because I’m a father and I’m a husband as much as I am “just Tim,” and all the other contexts that I live in.

Dale Johnson: As a husband and a father, you’ve just heard this diagnosis, but you’re also thinking about “How am I going to tell my family this?” You have young kids in the home and you’re going to tell your wife this news. How do you go about doing something like that?

Tim Keeter: The interesting thing about the medical process here is the Lord did actually provide some time for me to anticipate some of this. Even when some of the nurses and those performing the tests were being fairly dismissive, “All this is probably nothing,” kind of thing. I knew well enough that I needed to be prepared to have the hard conversation if it came. All the things that I’ve been involved in with 20 years of teaching and instruction from NANC and ACBC didn’t have to change because I was experiencing it. I wanted that to frame the context of the new. Basically, here’s what I did. I sat down, my wife and I went to lunch, we thanked the Lord, we prayed, we asked for wisdom, and then we got the kids together and went home.

In the book Trusting God by Jerry Bridges—which is a classic and is on my shelf and has been handed out to others that I’ve had the privilege to minister to—he, in the introduction talks about three things about the Lord that are very important to frame this. He is at all times perfect in love, infinite in wisdom, and completely sovereign. We set the kids down and said, “Hey, family meeting.” They all sit down, it was just my boys because my daughter was in college at the time. They don’t know what’s about to happen, and I say, “Guys, we know that at all times God is perfect in His love, right? That means at all times, God wants what is best for us, agreed?” They were like, “Yeah, yeah, Dad we get it. So what’s going on?” “Well, we also know that at all times God is infinite in wisdom. That means that not only does He want what is best for us, but what else?” My oldest son, Gabe, my little theologian, goes, “Well dad, that means that He also knows what is best for us.” “Exactly, Gabe. That’s exactly right. And not only is he perfect in His love at all times and not only is He infinite in wisdom, but He’s completely sovereign. So guys, that means that at all times God wants what is best for us, He knows exactly what is best for us, and what?” They answered properly, “He will bring it about, no matter what.” And I said, “Do you trust that?” “Well, yeah dad, we be believe that to be true.” “Good because I’m going to give you a chance to practice that right now.” Then we have that conversation that truthfully was a hard conversation and one that I hope the Lord doesn’t call me to have again—anytime soon anyway. It was important to remember His faithfulness and to use that to frame then the hard conversation, “Where are we going to go from here?”

Dale Johnson: I love the way that you’re building a lens to help your kids to see this properly from God’s perspective, from what we know about God and what He’s revealed about Himself. What a lens to be able to help your kids to see that well, even with difficult news like that. It wasn’t just your family fighting this battle. There were other means that God used in the process. Briefly talk about what some of those other means were that God used to sustain you guys through this process.

Tim: Two others in particular, one was in helping me to have a greater dependence on my church family. Grace Community Church in Huntsville was a huge part of the story and that’s exactly what I wanted. They’re my church family. There’s where my dearest friends are and it’s a provision of the Lord in my life, and it’s good. Cancer, disease, suffering, physical ailments, they’re very humbling and it forces me to become dependent on them. It gives me an opportunity to see God demonstrating His kindness towards me through others.

Romans 8:28-29, which teaches us that God causes all things to conform us to the image of our Savior, applies to Grace Community Church as it does to me. Through my suffering, my dear church was being sanctified through my cancer, and that’s important. It was good for my church family to sacrifice. To tell you the truth, what ministered the most to me was the things that I saw them doing for my wife and children. The letters, the extra attention they gave them. I think that was the most tender part of it.

We can’t forget, either, the evangelistic witness that the Lord shaped. So many people at my work and in our community were watching to see our church pouring out in love for us. Some of my neighbors even got really frustrated because every time they tried to bring a meal over it was already taken care of. The Lord says, “They will know you’re my disciples if you have love for one another,” and my church did that.

One more major part of this is keeping an eternal perspective. That’s the most important dimension of life. I think I heard Ted Tripp say one time, because the Bible calls even a lifelong trial, “a little while.” I can praise God that my greatest breakthrough is behind me. That happened when He saved me, knowing therefore that I’ll never suffer alone and I’ll never suffer indefinitely. One day we will worship together in a vast sea of worshippers singing with one voice and praising the Lord. We will ultimately agree with Him for everything that He has brought about in our lives to bring us to that point.

Dale Johnson: Those temporal moments, they don’t seem temporal when you’re in them. But when we have that future perspective of what God promises, we can understand what Paul was saying in 2 Corinthians 4, that we’re enduring light momentary affliction. We have to remember that’s in comparison to the eternal weight of the beauty of the glory of God when we walk with Him and see Him face-to-face. As we talk about all that, it’s sometimes hard to walk through and to reminisce about that. We glory in what God has done. What about your health today? I’m sure all of us are wondering, how’s Tim today? What is the Lord doing in you today?

Tim Keeter: Speaking of the cancer diagnosis, it was the fall of 2014 right when I turned 45 years of age. This December, December 2019, will be 5 years. That’s an important statistical mark, anyway, when they measure these things. I’m grateful that the Lord has provided excellent medical care for me through UAB down in Birmingham. So far, we’ve not seen any recurrence. We go every six months, Carmen and I go together and we have a lunch that we don’t enjoy a lot, and we go see the doctor and we get our test made. The good thing about that is it just reminds me, every six months, that I’m in His hands.

Recommended Resources
2019 Pre-Conference, Human Suffering and Heaven’s Hope
Trusting God, Jerry Bridges