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Seasons of suffering do not aways produce our clearest and most logical thoughts. The coming together of things like shock, sadness, anger, and confusion can sometimes lead to some wildly unhealthy and even irrational conclusions and decisions. And yet, I would argue that those difficult seasons of our lives can also end up being the moments when we see things with a surprising amount of clarity.

On February 4th, 2024, I went to the hospital to have a lump looked at. I expected to be home that evening with some medication to take care of a very mundane diagnosis. However, things do not always happen as we expect them to. That initial visit began for me a cascade of tests and appointments. The emergency room visit led to an ultrasound; the ultrasound led to another doctor’s appointment; that appointment led to a meeting with a specialist; the meeting with a specialist led to surgery; surgery led to more tests and scans; tests and scans led to lots of waiting, and all of which together led to the longest month of my life. Ill have you know that in my little part of North America, February is routinely the coldest month of the year, which seems to always make it the longest month of the year (even with only 28 or 29 days). As it would happen, February 2024 was the warmest February my town had experienced in ages, but the longest February I had ever lived.

Pretty early into the journey of tests and appointments, I became aware of the expected diagnosis, and it wasn’t great.

The effect of this knowledge was a flood of emotions and a spinning mind. I quickly called my elders team to request relief from preaching for the foreseeable future because I was finding myself unable to focus on anything except the situation before me. For days on end, I did nothing but walk. I would set out in the morning into the mountains and spend 8 hours of the work day walking in silence down dirt roads, petitioning the Lord and trying to come to grips with the likelihood of a shortened life. If you would have asked me in those days while I was walking those long dirt roads, if I was thinking clearly, I probably would have said “Unlikely.” Even while I was going through it, I could recognize in myself the list that I began with: shock, sadness, anger and confusion. This cocktail of emotions had me far too preoccupied to be imparting much wisdom or making any life-changing decisions. And yet, as I look back on my journal entries from that month, I realize that in some ways I was thinking about my life with a clarity that I’d never had before.

Death’s Reality

I won’t make a habit of sharing my journal on the internet, but for the sake of the topic let me share a brief exert. February 6th, while sitting on a flat rock on a mountain side with a Bible flipped open to Mark 8.34 and Philippians 1.21 on my mind, I wrote, “I have never been more sure that death is real. I have never been more sure that Jesus lives. This season of life has changed death for me. And it has changed life for me. To die is inevitably a gain. And to live must be Christ. Anything less makes no sense. If God died for me, if He lives, if I will be raised up with Him, if He is all satisfying, good and sufficient, how could He have half of me and the world have the rest? How could fear and worry have any place in me? How could my life not be surrendered completely in joy? Either I would I have missed who Jesus is and what He has done and promised, or I have would have failed to believe it.”

If you haven’t guessed yet, I was diagnosed with cancer. As I type here on the morning of March 11th, just over one month after the original diagnosis, I have been declared cancer free. I still have some hoops to jump through, but for the most part I have a clean bill of health, for which I am thankful beyond what words can even express. Maybe somewhat oddly though, I am also thankful for everything that has led up to this point. I wouldn’t trade February 2024 for anything. It was this trial and all the pain and uncertainty it entailed that led me to thinking about the gospel in ways that I pray I will never recover from.

You see, before this whole cancer thing, death to me was just other people’s reality. As a pastor I would go deal with it on their behalf, but it never felt too real for me personally. It was something abstract, even kind of theoretical. The result, I realize now looking back, was a very cavalier following of Jesus. No real urgency. No Psalm 42 like desperation. No comprehensive surrender. And it makes sense, because without a real sense of death and just how certain it is and deserving of it we are, how can we ever truly appreciate the life Jesus came to give?

So, there I was, just casually following Jesus, trusting more in myself then not. Following Jesus at a safe distance. And then cancer hit, and suddenly death felt like it was on my doorstep, or I on its. For the first time the end felt absolutely real; my life felt fragile and finite, and the gospel, and in particular the cost of following Jesus, made more sense than it ever had.

Taking Up the Cross

Let me try to explain. In Mark 8.34 Jesus lays out the requirements of anyone that would want to follow Him, and it is nothing short of everything. He calls them to deny themselves and take up their crosses, which is to essentially say, “You must throw your life away and recklessly abandon yourself to God.” That is a steep price to follow. It couldn’t be any steeper. Who on earth would pay that price? Well, only the one who understands the value of what they are receiving. Jesus goes on to say in the next verse, “For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it.” In other words, what is being received in the relinquishment of our lives is not just some added happiness, it is life itself. True life, eternal life, new life in Christ. A gift of infinite value!

Well if you are receiving something then is worth more than anything, what happens to the cost of that something? It disappears. And when the value of the life Jesus offers is understood, then the cost of following Him is no longer even worthy of being called a cost. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer so perfectly put it, “Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it costs a man his life and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life worth living.”

Here’s the thing, I had loved and followed Jesus for many years. I had contemplated and rested in the Gospel for many years. But I had always waivered in how much of my life I gave to Christ and how much I held back. Simply, because while never really comprehending the reality of the death I deserve, I had never understood the value of and felt the consequent gratitude for the life that Jesus gives. But when death became for me a real reality and an immediate possibility, then the abundant life that Jesus died to give me (already and not yet) finally appeared as the real, invaluable, undeserving, and infinite gift that it truly is. And when that happened, the incredible cost of following Him dissolved into worship. It became the only logical response. The cost, as Bonhoeffer explains, was transformed from cost into grace.

It is probably good that I wasn’t operating heavy machinery last month. But in terms of thinking about Jesus and about my living and dying, I don’t believe I have ever thought so clearly as when I sat on a mountainside and summarized for myself the apostle Paul, “To die is inevitably a gain. And to live must be Christ. Anything less makes no sense.”