During her four-year battle with cancer, my precious wife and soulmate, Nanci, immersed herself daily in God’s Word, read great books about His attributes, and wrote to Him in her journal. Together we turned to Jesus in prayer and worship as we drew close to God and each other and faced her death side by side. Nanci’s physical decline was heartbreaking, but her spiritual growth was stunning and profound.
Recently I read “9 Lessons from God Concerning Sickness” from J. C. Ryle, an Anglican bishop (1816–1900). Every lesson he shares applies to how Nanci lived out her last years before relocating to Heaven. In fact, I was surprised I’d never read this before. Nanci would’ve loved it, and she probably loves it now more than ever. Praise God for J. C. Ryle!
Affliction is a friendly letter from Heaven. It is a knock at the door of conscience. It is the voice of the Savior knocking at the heart’s door. Happy is he who opens the letter and reads it, who hears the knock and opens the door, who welcomes Christ to the sick room. Come now, and let me show you a few of the lessons which He by sickness would teach us.
1. To make us think, to remind us that we have a soul as well as a body—an immortal soul, a soul that will live forever in happiness or in misery—and that if this soul is not saved we had better never have been born.
2. To teach us that there is a world beyond the grave, and that the world we now live in is only a training place for another dwelling, where there will be no decay, no sorrow, no tears, no misery, and no sin.
3. To make us look at our past lives honestly, fairly, and conscientiously. Am I ready for my great change if I should not get better? Do I repent truly of my sins? Are my sins forgiven and washed away in Christ’s blood? Am I prepared to meet God?
4. To make us see the emptiness of the world and its utter inability to satisfy the highest and deepest needs of the soul.
5. To send us to our Bibles. That blessed Book, in the days of health, is too often left on the shelf, becomes the safest place in which to put a bank-note, and is never opened from January to December. But sickness often brings it down from the shelf and throws new light on its pages.
6. To make us pray. Too many, I fear, never pray at all, or they only rattle over a few hurried words morning and evening without thinking what they do. But prayer often becomes a reality when the valley of the shadow of death is in sight.
7. To make us repent and break off our sins. If we will not hear the voice of mercies, God sometimes makes us “hear the rod.”
8. To draw us to Christ. Naturally we do not see the full value of that blessed Savior. We secretly imagine that our prayers, good deeds, and sacrament-receiving will save our souls. But when flesh begins to fail, the absolute necessity of a Redeemer, a Mediator, and an Advocate with the Father, stands out before men’s eyes like fire, and makes them understand those words, “Simply to Your cross I cling,” as they never did before. Sickness has done this for many—they have found Christ in the sick room.
9. To make us feeling and sympathizing towards others. By nature we are all far below our blessed Master’s example, who had not only a hand to help all, but a heart to feel for all. None, I suspect, are so unable to sympathize as those who have never had trouble themselves—and none are so able to feel as those who have drunk most deeply the cup of pain and sorrow.
Summary: Beware of fretting, murmuring, complaining, and giving way to an impatient spirit. Regard your sickness as a blessing in disguise—a good and not an evil—a friend and not an enemy. No doubt we should all prefer to learn spiritual lessons in the school of ease and not under the rod. But rest assured that God knows better than we do how to teach us. The light of the last day will show you that there was a meaning and a “need be” in all your bodily ailments. The lessons that we learn on a sick-bed, when we are shut out from the world, are often lessons which we should never learn elsewhere.
Source: The J.C. Ryle Archive
I saw each of these points play out in Nanci’s life. She had always been a godly woman who loved Jesus, and no one knew that better than I did. But God’s supernatural work in her life as she faced death was breathtaking. Her relationship with Jesus reached new depths, and I had the privilege of witnessing and benefiting from her eternal perspective, a perspective we had each sought to cultivate and live by.
Yes, sometimes Nanci felt anxious, but she instructed herself by God’s Words, and the anxiety was replaced by peace and hope and rest in the great God she knew to be her Father, and the Jesus she knew not only as Savior and Lord, but friend. After reflecting on Psalm 119, which says in verse 93, “all things are your servants,” she wrote:
My cancer is God’s servant in my life. He is using it in ways He has revealed to me in these verses and in many more I have yet to understand. I can rest knowing that my cancer is under the control of a sovereign God who IS good and DOES good.
I never saw a hint of resentment in Nanci. The question was never Why Me, Lord? She had no sense of entitlement. God was God. Her job wasn’t to question Him, but to honor Him and embrace His plans and purposes. She was determined not to waste her life, including her cancer.
And because of that, Nanci finished well. She flourished in her time of sickness, and she leaned into the finish line. May we follow her example in our own times of suffering.
(See “My Cancer Is God’s Servant”: Reflections by Nanci Alcorn, Why the Year After Her Cancer Diagnosis Was the Best Year of Nanci’s Life, and Can Cancer Be God’s Servant? What I Saw in My Wife’s Last Four Years.)