he urgent call from the hospital was a request for me to see a new patient—“today, if possible.” The patient, Jack Mason,* had an abnormal spot on his chest X-ray and the medical resident was concerned. I agreed to stop by that afternoon.
When I met Mr. Mason, I was immediately struck by the contrast between this energetic, healthy-appearing, middle-aged man and the other patients sitting nearby in wheel chairs or shuffling slowly down the hall. Our discussion and my examination confirmed my initial impression. Except for a history of smoking, Jack Mason appeared to be in good health.
Jack was surprised that we were taking the little spot on his X-ray so seriously, but he agreed to a biopsy of his lung the next day. Studies of that tissue sample confirmed my worst fears. Jack had an aggressive type of lung cancer, a type that rapidly spreads throughout the body. Without treatment, his life expectancy was likely to be only months. However, with the early diagnosis and the cancer limited to just one site, it was very possible that he could be cured by surgical removal of the localized tumor.
As I prepared to tell Jack about the biopsy report, I was relieved to be able to offer the possibility of a cure. Jack’s usual smile faded as he listened carefully to his test results and then to my explanation of treatment options. He appeared thoughtful as I described the potentially curative surgery, and he was silent for a minute before responding softly, “I could never have surgery.”
Surprised I asked him to explain.
“Well,” he started, “the cancer grows faster when it is exposed to air. So surgery,” he slowly continued, “would just make it worse.”
I hadn’t anticipated this response. His assertion that cancer grows faster if exposed to air had no scientific basis, and even common sense would seem to argue against his point. After all, the tumor was in his lung, where it was continuously exposed to air moving in and out with each breath. I offered my best explanation for why surgery was much more likely to be helpful than harmful. Jack listened respectfully, but I could tell this information hadn’t changed his conviction that surgery would be detrimental.
Over the next several days we tried to encourage Jack to consider an attempt to cure his cancer. However, nothing we said altered his underlying belief that surgery would make him worse. Ultimately, we had to honor his decision and let him go home with the cancer still growing in his chest. It would be months before I saw him again.
Jack went home, but he didn’t leave my mind. I can still remember how sad I felt as I thought of Jack rejecting the only treatment with potential to save his life.
How About Our Own Response?
In the years since this encounter, I’ve come to wonder if the distress I felt about Jack reflects in some small way how God feels as He watches His children with the fatal disease of sin reject their only hope for a cure—the cure He offers.
Is it reasonable to compare sin to a disease?
We wouldn’t be the first to make this connection. For example, just before the Babylonian captivity, Jeremiah shared a message from God pleading with His people to “return, O faithless children, I will heal your faithlessness” (Jer. 3:22, NRSV).† When Isaiah offered the promise that “by [H]is bruises we are healed,” he also clearly was describing healing of a spiritual, not physical, disorder (Isa. 53:5, NRSV).
The word for salvation in the New Testament comes from the same root word as “salve,” something we use to promote healing of wounds. Thus, salvation really implies a healing process. Perhaps one of the reasons Jesus spent so much of His time healing the sick is that He wanted His people to recognize their own desperate need for healing of their spiritual disease, the process we call salvation.
We have been told that sin infects us all (Rom. 3:23; 5:12) and is inevitably fatal (Rom. 5:12; 6:23). We recognize, too, that there is nothing we can do to save ourselves from our own sin disease and its consequences. Unchecked, sin and the selfishness it generates will destroy us and all of our relationships. It will also leave us incompatible with a universe designed on principles of love and unselfishness.
My experience with Jack reminds me that God has gone to great lengths to provide a cure to the sin problem. But His lifesaving treatment is also often rejected. He offers to treat our fatal sin disease by “transplanting” us with a new heart and transforming our thinking (Eze. 36:26; Jer. 31:33). Though He gently pleads with us to accept His cure, how few people embrace God’s offer!
Some give up because they believe they must cure their own sinful tendencies—eventually realizing that it’s impossible. Others believe God’s treatment is worse than the disease. And some, like my patient Jack, base their decisions on inaccurate information and can’t believe it works.
It Cost Him His Life
I saw Jack one more time, months later, as he was sitting in a wheelchair waiting for a radiation treatment. He was so thin, so pale, so weak, I hardly recognized him at first. We spoke briefly, but it was difficult for him to talk and we both knew there was little more that could be done to help him at that point. I was told he died a few weeks later.
Among all the people I’ve cared for, Jack still stands out clearly in my memory many years later. It wasn’t his disease, his rapid decline, or his decision not to have treatment that made him unique; these aren’t uncommon. What made him memorable to me was his insistence on clinging to an erroneous idea, a belief based on inaccurate information, even if it cost him his life. I will never forget the sadness I experienced as I left him that last time, struggling with the consequences of his decision, consequences we had wanted so much to help him avoid.
Over time, I’ve become convinced that God suffers far more than I did with Jack, as He watches His children refuse the cure He offers, the cure that would enable them to live forever.
The reasons people give for declining God’s cure are often no more valid than Jack’s beliefs. Imagine how incredibly sad God must feel when people reject His offer of help, whatever the reason. Of course He respects their choices, but then He has to watch as they suffer the terrible consequences of their decisions. With all the evidence we have that God’s cure really works, and all the benefits we gain from accepting it, why would anyone refuse His treatment plan? In a world full of people who, just like us, have the terminal disease of sin, how could we resist God’s invitation to share the good news about His lifesaving cure?
*The name has been changed to protect the privacy of the patient and family.
†Bible texts credited to NRSV are from the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible, copyright ” 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A. Used by permission.
Connie J. Beehler is a hospice and palliative care physician in Lincoln, Nebraska.