Friday, October 15, 2010

Receiving Bad News

Written by: Conrade Yap
Date: 15 Oct 2010
“In those days Hezekiah became ill and was at the point of death. The prophet Isaiah son of Amoz went to him and said, ‘This is what the LORD says: Put your house in order, because you are going to die; you will not recover.’” (Isa 38:1)
MAIN POINT: There is a famous saying that no news is good news. This is not true when it comes to the gospel. In fact, the Greek word for gospel is ‘good news.’ Yet, how can Christians make sense of ‘bad news’ when it comes upon them? This week, I shall attempt to deal with the emotions that afflict us when we receive ‘bad news.’
Doctor: “Hi, I am sorry to tell you that you have cancer.”
Patient: “I’m sorry. Can you repeat that?” 
Doctor: “Mr P, you have an advanced stage of pancreatic cancer. There is no known cure.”
Patient: “.......” (his lower jaw drops.)
Doctor: “According to statistics, people with your condition live between 9 months to 2 years.”
For the next few moments, Mr P goes silent. He struggles to maintain a bold smile. Bad news about other people hits a person hard. Bad news about oneself is not only hard. It is vicious. It is inexplicable. It is purely and simply cruel.
All Mr P sees is his doctor mumbling away some things as his mind wanders off toward all kinds of possible future scenarios. None of his scenarios appear positive. All his scheduled appointments for the day suddenly vanish into the bucket of insignificance. No amount of sun outside can brighten up the gloomy dark clouds gathering inside. Mr P cannot expunge the words, ‘terminal,’ ‘advanced stage,’ ‘illness,’ ‘chemotherapy,’ and ‘death’ from his increasingly disoriented mind. Life is so unfair, so cruel. Can it really be true? Why me?
What happens when we receive bad news? 
A) Hezekiah’s Illness
Isaiah’s ministry happens during the reigns of 4 kings of Judah. He sees the LORD in a powerful vision in the year that King Uzziah died (Isa 6:1). The story of Hezekiah is an interesting insertion in the book of Isaiah (Isa 38). It tells of another king, not dead but dying. Like Mr P who is given the prognosis of terminal cancer, King Hezekiah is told that he will die from a non-recoverable unknown form of illness. Mr P’s personal doctor relays the bad news; The prophet Isaiah communicates Hezekiah’s sad news. Mr P worries helplessly; Hezekiah weeps bitterly (Isa 38:3b). Mr P turns inward to address his  emotional turmoil; Hezekiah turns to a wall and pleads with God (Isa 38:2).
For all the approximate parallels between Mr P and Hezekiah, there is at least one marked difference. The doctor can only estimate a less than 2 years survival schedule. The LORD gives a firm extension of 15 years more for Hezekiah (Isa 38:5b)
B) Bargaining With the LORD
Perhaps, people like Mr P may interpret King Hezekiah’s prayer as a way in which to extend his own life. Maybe, if he believes in miracles, God may even grant him more than 15 years of additional time on this earth. 
  • "Give me more years and I will serve you more passionately."
  • "Grant me longer life and I will give more to charity."
  • "Get rid of the disease for me, and I will share the gospel more."
The trouble is, why should we wait for a disease to strike before we do what we are called to do? Like procuring products, we humans have a tendency to bargain down to a price that we are willing to accept. However, when we are desperate, we become the bargain that we are seeking for. When we are helpless, we become sitting ducks. This hits high achievers especially hard. For all their worldly successes, they are no match for physical ailments. Cancer has that insidious capacity to paralyze a person’s emotions even before the cells can inflict serious physical damage. 
I have seen many people whose lives have been changed due to cancer. Nearly all of them at some point have bargained with the LORD. Questions of ‘why me?‘ get  meshed up with bargaining chips that offers: “What about this?” and “How about that?”
C) God’s Requirements to Hezekiah
If we are to read carefully, God did not simply pronounce a death sentence. He gives a specific instruction: “Put your house in order” (Isa 38:1b). Other translations render it quite succinctly:
“...Set your affairs in order...” (New Living Translation)
“...Prepare your affairs and your family...” (Message)
How should we put our house in order? What are we to do to set our affairs in place? How do we prepare our family? These are instructions that should not be restricted to Hezekiah or Mr P. More importantly, why should we depend on ‘bad news’ in order to take our lives more seriously? 
  • Why wait for a negative medical prognosis before we start to live more meaningfully? 
  • Why wait for a death sentence before we embark upon our dreams?
  • Why wait for things like ‘cancer’ to tell us to manage our affairs more diligently?
As I ponder on Mr P and Hezekiah’s situation, isn’t it true that the entire human race is suffering from a spiritual cancer, the cancer of sin? 
“but you must not eat from the tree of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat of it, you will surely die.” (Gen 2:17)
“For the wages of sin is death...” (Rom 6:23a)
How then should we live our lives? Do we live as dying people because of sin? Are we marked by spiritual cancer that inhibits our capacity toward meaningful living? I suppose those of us in Christ will proclaim that it is no longer the ‘I’ that lives but Christ that lives in us (Gal 2:20). 
D) Not I But Christ
How should we receive ‘bad news?’ Some Christians will be ready to pronounce judgment on the ‘cancer’ itself by declaring them away in the Name of the LORD. While some will pray for healing, others will go to miracle healing sessions, especially those big healing sessions by famed miracle healers. While Scriptures proclaim ‘Believe in the LORD Jesus and you will be saved,’ (acts 16:31) some of these faith-healers showcase a form of  ‘Believe in the LORD Jesus and you will be healed.’ 
Do we attack ‘bad news’ with ‘good news?’ Should we approach them with apprehension about ‘what-if-this-does-not-work?’ Should we then let our faith ride the roller coaster of uncertainty, by linking them to healing itself? If the person is not healed, does that mean we have lack of faith? Maybe, if the person is not healed during the miracle session, it is a lack of faith in these ‘miracle-healers’ rather than God Himself.
E) Some Recommendations
Here are three things that I find particularly helpful when we face bad news pertaining to a medical ailment such as cancer. Arlene Cotter, a cancer survivor shares a 3-stage challenge to cancer patients. She urges those afflicted with cancer to STOP making things worse. Secondly, to YIELD to a journey of seeking meaning in life and death. Thirdly, she encourages them to GO and live their lives well.
#1 - STOP-CHECK: Let It NOT Possess You
Cotter, writes:
“While it may seem obvious, sometimes you may need to remind yourself that: You have the disease - the disease does not have you.” (Arlene Cotter, From This Moment On, NY: Random House, 1999, p21)
Get our own affairs in order. Do not let the threat of cancer derail our goals of living a good meaningful life for others.
#2 - YIELD to a journey of seeking some sense out of it
In Aesop’s fable, one memorable story is about a quarrelling Oak and Reed. Both argue about each being stronger than the other. When a strong wind comes, the reed, being more flexible bends itself and leans with the direction of the wind, to avoid being uprooted. The Oak tree on the other hand tries to defy the wind as a way to boast of its strength.  
When we receive bad news, do we approach it like an Oak Tree to stubbornly defy it? We may find ourselves getting bashed up and humiliated. What about approaching bad news like a reed. We do not have to compromise our own principles or belief. We can be humble to adjust and re-orientate according to our new conditions. Faith in God helps us navigate through the valley of the shadow of death. Faith in God enables us to trust in the Joy of the LORD who gives us strength. Faith in God makes us more aware that we may be suffering from spiritual cancer, but we are not going to live defeated lives.
For all his anti-Christian stance, the German philosopher Frederick Nietzsche still has some good things to say about life.
He who has a why to live for can bear with almost any how.” (Frederick Nietzsche)
Get our own house and our matters in order. This is the ‘why’ that will enable us to tackle any ‘how.’
#3 - GO and live life well
Terry Fox is a Canadian icon. Recently, there has been talks about renaming the Vancouver International Airport in remembrance of Terry Fox. In 1978, Terry Fox was diagnosed with a rare form of bone cancer. Two years later, he had his right leg  amputated.  Eventually, the cancer spreads to his lungs. Instead of lying down and complaining about unfairness of life, he embarked upon a project that defies even the fittest man alive. He wanted to run more than 5300 miles across Canada to raise a million dollars for cancer research. He ran a marathon (26 miles) per day on an artificial limb on his right. After covering more than 3300 miles, he was forced to abandon the project due to lung complications. Cancer took his life but not his spirit.
Canadians all over the country look to Terry Fox for inspiration. Fox turns a private ‘bad news’ to a public inspiration for all. My children regularly bring back materials inspired by Terry Fox and his courageous life.
If you are Mr P, will you worry more about your own possessions, and your own death? Or will you possess the courage of Terry Fox? Maybe, for those of us believers in Christ, when we receive bad news, do not restrict ourselves to a tunnel-vision of self-interests and personal worries. Instead, see through a wide-angle lens of life with boldness and faith in God. We may possess a disease, but we can choose NOT to let the disease possess us. We may feel down but we have a choice to live out the rest of our lives in hope. We may be limited in our normal capacities, but our spirits are free to reach the highest possible level. This is something Terry Fox has shown us. This is something Jesus has promised us with the Holy Spirit (John 14:26).
Regardless of your conditions, GO and get your own house in order. May the Lord’s strength and grace be with you, as you deal with news both ‘good’ and ‘bad.’
Thought: “Even if you feel that you never did much with your life, it is MORE THAN ENOUGH if those around you have benefited from having known you, from having been touched by you.” (Arlene Cotter, From This Moment On, NY: Random House, 1999, p403)


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