My late father battled prostate cancer for about 12 years. He died at age 61. Lots of treatments. Several rounds of chemo; experimental therapies, etc. Had incontinence following his prostate removal. Had an artificial sphincter installed which helped a lot, but was still a challenge for these last years of his life. Lost the ability to be physically intimate. In and out of disability for side effects of treatment. Endless pressure to play his cards right financially with HR and stuff to keep his job and not get fired, not sacrifice end of life benefits for my mother, etc.
Through all of this, I witnessed my dad imperfectly, but genuinely cast himself upon Christ. I remember visiting my parents one time around year 7, and my dad was sitting in his recliner. He was considering Matthew 19:11-12, grappling with his physical predicament, leaning on the sovereignty of God. I don’t remember my dad ever complaining about any of this during those 12 years. He soldiered through it well, and with faith.
He had his “chemo brain” days, where he couldn’t think or speak well, and his temperament for conversation would be shorter than usual. But he was never angry with people – just frustrated at his inability to keep his mind focused. Sometimes he would abruptly leave a conversation in a way that was surely rude, but to those who knew him, there was lots of room to forebear.
Anyway, during those last 2 years, he was diagnosed with a brain tumor. This led to surgery about 8 months or so before he died. The surgery went well, and he came out of it thankful to God to be alive. But he was never quite the same. A few weeks later, a new brain tumor was discovered, not far from where the old one was. Evidently it was of a nature that it hid itself pretty well. Dad began doing some treatments, but ultimately it was decided not to operate on this one.
During those last weeks of his life, he became very critical and surly. He had kind of a short fuse, and didn’t have time for civil conversation. He was very lucid during these weeks. He was able to have conversations, and put thoughts together. It wasn’t like he was in the fog of pain medication or anything. He seemed to be willfully, deliberately, and thoughtfully nasty.
During his treatments, his system was (again) compromised, and by this time he was already very weak. He ended up in the ER with a breached bowel, and passed away a few days later of sepsis. While we did all share our good-byes and prayed with him before he descended into the oblivion of pain medication, my dad’s last words in this world were impatient and angry – toward me, toward nurses, etc.
I wrestled with the topic of physiology, moral culpability, and end-of-life behavior for awhile. Nothing that occurred during those last weeks caused me to doubt my father’s salvation, as though the faith he exhibited, and the work I saw God do in him those 12 years was all a farce. What I think I came to see in those last days was something more like the death throws of his flesh. My father still possessed indwelling sin, leftover from decades of sinful patterns of thought which had not been drawn out and scraped away by the Spirit of God. He died a work in progress, and that seems about the best any of us will be able to say. I believe my father was a man in Christ, and his old man was about to be dead for good. In a very short time, he would see Christ for who he is, and sanctification would be finished.
I don’t believe that my father’s physiology in any way removed him from the culpability for his sin. His sin was very real in those final days. But I couldn’t help but be caught up in a stunning reminder of the good news that is the Gospel – that the blood of Christ cleanses us from every sin; whether committed in ignorance, or in willful rebellion. The only hope I could have for my father was the power of Christ.
I came away concluding that we ought to be very cautious about judging someone’s salvation based on the sins they commit toward the end of their life. Let’s be honest, if any of us could see the sin in each other’s hearts at any given time, we would be very hesitant to voice confidence about anyone’s status before the Lord. But man, thanks be to God in Christ Jesus, whose righteousness is ours through faith! Yes, sanctification must be evident in our life, but it will never be complete in this life.
But when all was said and done with my father, and I was left here considering my own life, and my own inevitable death, my heart was stuck on Ecclesiastes 12:1-8.
“Remember also your Creator in the days of your youth, before the evil days come…”
May I be found putting sin to death so that if it should be my lot to suffer in my physical body toward the end of my life – when my powers of speech, and of reason begin to fail me – I may be found controlled by the Spirit, and not my flesh.