Receiving a diagnosis of a terminal illness, or finding out that a friend or family member has a terminal illness, can be quite shocking. Some may feel immobilized, others heartbroken, some relieved to have a diagnosis for what has been ailing them. Natural reactions to such news vary broadly, and our reactions may also vary within ourselves from day to day or even moment to moment. It is okay to allow all these emotions, but also recognize that in Jesus Christ, your footing can be sure. The news is not a shock to God. We can lean on Him and trust that He will be faithful to walk us through whatever the disease progression may hold.
Does the Bible say anything about dealing with a terminal illness?
Perhaps the first thing to recognize is that God not only knows the number of your days, but that He cares for you. Jesus displayed grief when His friend Lazarus died; He wept (John 11:35; cf John 11:1–44). Jesus shared in the family's sadness. Perhaps His mourning was even deeper as He would have seen in complete clarity the reality of our fallen world and all the heartache and hardships it includes. Trust that Jesus knows your struggle and that He cares. You can "[cast] all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you" (1 Peter 5:7).
Another thing to recognize is that the majority of terminal illnesses are not the fault of the sufferer. Illness and disease are a result of the Fall generally (Genesis 3). Because sin exists in our world, so do death and decay (Romans 5:12). But rarely is illness a punishment from God for a specific sin. Jesus makes this clear with the man born blind in John 9:1–7. That being said, sometimes an illness is the result of poor lifestyle choices that we've made. But in Christ there is complete forgiveness (2 Corinthians 5:21). Even if we did have some role in our own illness, Jesus still empathizes with us and will still be with us through it. So believe Him that you are forgiven and that He will walk with you in this.
Jesus cares and understands. If you are in Christ, you have the indwelling Holy Spirit who is ever-present and active (John 14:16). Rely on Him daily to carry you through. Remind yourself of the truth of God's Word. For example, Psalm 46:1–3 might be comforting: "God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear though the earth gives way, though the mountains be moved into the heart of the sea, though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble at its swelling."
Recognize, too, that it is appropriate to pray for healing. James 5:14–18 talks about having the elders pray over someone who is sick. Jesus taught us to pray for God's will to be done (Matthew 6:9–13) and modeled such prayer even on the eve of His execution. Matthew 26:42 records, "Again, for the second time, he went away and prayed, 'My Father, if this cannot pass unless I drink it, your will be done'" (Matthew 26:42). So ask God for healing, seek medical treatment, promote research about your specific ailment so that others won't have to endure it. But ultimately ask that His will be done, whatever that may be. We can trust that God is working everything for the good of those who love Him (Romans 8:28). Nothing can separate us from His love (Romans 8:31–19). He is also faithful to equip us in any circumstance (Philippians 4:13; 2 Peter 1:3). His will is truly what we desire, because His will is what is best.
Remember that while all of us will die one way or another, if you are in Christ, you are promised spiritual security for eternity (John 10:27–28). It is our very being that is secure, not our bodies. Our troubles here during this lifetime are nothing compared to our life with God throughout eternity (2 Corinthians 4:17–18). One day, we will receive a new body, completely free of disease and decay (1 Corinthians 15:20–23, 35–49; Revelation 21:4). A better future awaits. Jesus encouraged, "… in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world" (John 16:33).
Use this terminal illness to "Set your house in order" (Isaiah 38:1). If you are unsure of your relationship with God through Christ, that is the first thing to settle. Our articles "What is salvation?" and "How can I be saved?" can help you with that. If you do know Jesus as your Savior, then give your cares and concerns to Him and rest in Him (Matthew 11:28–30; Psalm 62). Use this reminder of human mortality to re-focus you on things of eternal value. Draw near to God (James 4:8). Stay active in reading His Word and coming to Him in prayer. Seek to love others well. If there is a relational difficulty with a family member or friend, do what you can to facilitate reconciliation. It is also wise to set practical things in order such as making sure you have a health care plan, will, power of attorney, and the like in place.
Throughout your illness, rely on God for your physical strength, your emotional well-being, and your ability to love your family, friends, medical healthcare providers, and neighbors with His love. People who interact with the terminally ill are often keenly aware of mortality. Many of them may already know Christ, but others may not. As you trust God through the progression of your illness, His light will shine through you. Know that even as you are ailing, your life and time on earth retains purpose. God can show you what that purpose is. One thing you can continue to do is give thanks to God in everything and pray continually (1 Thessalonians 5:16–18).
Terminal illnesses are a heart-wrenching reality of life in a fallen world. But in Christ we know that this world is not our final home. So we seek to live out all the days God has prepared for us with gratitude and righteousness as we look forward to one day being with Him. As we go about our lives, we can remember these words Jesus told His followers as He prepared for His death: "Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid" (John 14:27).
What is a biblical perspective on suffering? What does the Bible say about suffering?
What does the Bible teach about sadness?
How can I heal from a broken heart / heartbreak?
How does the Bible address fear?
Does the Bible say anything about cancer?