Sweet Fruit Revisited
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Sweet Fruit Revisited

Selected Scriptures  (ID: 2766)

Many of us have experienced a life-changing diagnosis, either personally or in the life of a loved one. In this interview with Bob Lepine, Alistair Begg’s discusses how he dealt with his own cancer diagnosis in light of the truths of God’s Word. As his story reminds us, being confronted with the frailty of human life should push every believer to reliance on God for help amidst pain.

Sermon Transcript: Print

Bob Lepine: Well, Alistair, I know in listening to this message from 2 Corinthians chapter 1, a lot of listeners are aware that you have experienced a challenge over the last… I guess it’s been three years now since your diagnosis with prostate cancer, is that right?

Alistair Begg: That’s… Yeah, that’s right. It was February of 2007.

Bob: And I’m just wondering if you camped out in this passage in your own heart as you were going through what is a difficult and concerning diagnosis?

Alistair: Yes, I think so. The strange thing for me was to show up at the Cancer Institute at the Cleveland Clinic on the wrong side of the bed, as it were. You know, I’d been there so many times to offer comfort and assurance to members of the congregation and to read verses to them that I thought would be of immediate impact and encouragement. And then suddenly to find yourself on the other side, as I know you can understand, you start looking into your Bible not as a means of conveying help to others but as a means of finding help for oneself. And not in an exclusive way this passage ministered to me, but certainly the themes from it ran all the way through the whole experience.

Bob: And did you find yourself anxious with the diagnosis? I sometimes think people will think, “Well, somebody like Alistair Begg will take this in stride because he has great faith and confidence in God and his purposes.”

Alistair: Well, you know, let me be very honest. When my urologist called on the phone and I picked it up at my desk, he had assured me before he did the biopsy that the only reason he was doing it was to rule out cancer. And then within, you know, twenty-four hours he phoned up and ruled it in. And the initial telephone conversation was, you know, a real thump to the solar plexus. I felt that sort of intake of breath and just the wow of it all, and, you know, put the phone down and said, “Okay, here we go.”

And I think I have to say in all honesty that, completely against the run of play, against my personality, I was not anxious. I can’t attribute it to anything other than the grace of God, the prayers of his people. Because there was a fairly significant time delay between the diagnosis and the surgery. And for me, I don’t like delay. I don’t like waiting for anything at all. And so the idea of there being, you know, three and a half months between them telling me, “You have cancer,” and doing something about it, you know, prospectively is just scary for me.

But I remember saying to the congregation, “We’ve set the date for such and such a day. We’re not going to be concerned with this until the night before. So we’ll talk about it on the night before, but between now and then, we’re not going to talk about it at all. We’ll just commit it to God and keep going.” And I honestly, Bob, I never woke up in the night in sweat. I never woke up and worried. I’ve worried far more about my children or anything else than I ever worried about this.

Bob: You know, as I’ve listened to the message, what kept playing over and over in my mind was the words to Keith and Kristyn Getty’s song “When Trials Come”:

When trials come, no longer fear,
For in the pain our God draws near
To fire a faith worth more than gold,
And there his faithfulness is told.[1]

I just kept reflecting on that as I listened to you preach on this message and thought, “God is doing good things in our lives when he takes us down dark paths,” isn’t he?

Alistair: Yeah, and that’s the paradox, isn’t it? And I’m so glad that I was able to give them that lyric. [Laughs.] No, but, I mean, and that’s, you know, tangentially, that’s where, you know, good hymnody comes, isn’t it? Insofar as it reflects biblical truth, which intersects with everyday life.

You know, I’m not sure that I had really much of an inkling of what James was on about when he said, “Count it all joy when you face trials of various kinds,”[2] until at this level, you know, at least physically, this was potentially the most significant trial that I had faced. And having said that, one of the things I tried to keep forcibly in my mind was the fact that this is a blip on the landscape compared to what many of the congregation were facing and are facing and, you know, the extended listener audience of Truth For Life. And so I felt always I need to keep a sense of proportion about what was going on. It was significant, but it wasn’t really anything to compare with the ongoing illness that many face or the challenges that they have on a physical front.

Bob: I presume your PSA tests have been good since the surgery and everything is fine at this point?

Alistair: Yes, you know, I think a lot we probably share the same journey, and every six months they come back as untraceable. And so I never think about it in between the time, but in the two days before I have to go back again, I start to wonder. You know, it’s such a strange sensation that a lady you don’t know puts the needle in your arm and draws blood into a little vial, and the result of the analysis of that could actually just change your life significantly. And it’s another good little brush with mortality every time that happens. It’s a good gut check.

Bob: You know, as you say that, I’ve thought oftentimes, I wonder if God’s purpose in leaving sickness as a part of our experience postsalvation is just to remind us that we are not the masters of our own fate, that we are dependent on him for every breath and for our health, so that when we do get sick, it’s a reminder that we are dependent on God for life.

Alistair: Yeah, I think that’s good. You know, my father taught me to say, you know, when we said good night to one another, and we prayed together, I would say to him, “I’ll see you in the morning, all spared and well.” And that has become a phrase in our family as well, so that even, you know, my son, who’s thirty-one now, will sign off by saying, “Well, I’ll see you, all spared and well.” And just the very verb spared gives the place to God, who is providentially overruling all the events of our lives, as opposed to a very man-centered approach which says, you know, “Well, I’ll be there. I’ll take care of this. I’ll do that.” But in actual fact, you know, every breath we take and every step along the road is as a result of his providence.

Bob: You know, the word you used in the message was “nothingness.” Pain and sickness teaches us our nothingness. Some people read their Bible and say, “Well, I’m made in the image of God. I’m his child. What are you talking about, my nothingness?”

Alistair: Yeah, that’s right. Yeah, nothingness doesn’t play very well at this point in the twenty-first century. And I think that’s part of it, you know: “From dust you came and to dust you will return.”[3] It’s good to be confronted by the fact that we’re not irrelevant, but we really are less than special.

I had a wonderful illustration of it this week, actually, in that watching Manchester United, a football team, defeat Liverpool, the star player for Manchester United was a Bulgarian fellow called Berbatov who scored three goals. He’s the first person to score three goals against Liverpool in sixty-four years. And when they talked to him afterwards, he said, you know, that he thought that that was probably the best game that he’d ever played for Manchester United. But then this was his quote: “I am happy. I am going home with a smile on my face. But I am nothing special. I’m just going home to play with my kids.” And that is just such a striking statement that runs against the sort of preoccupation of “my everythingness.” And whether he recognizes it or not, you know, his footballing ability is as a result of God’s common grace.

Bob: You know, somebody will read 2 Corinthians 1, and they read that we’re to comfort others with the comfort we receive from God.[4] There may be part of them that says, “So, am I supposed to rejoice that I’ve gone through this trial so that I can be of comfort to others? You know, what’s in it for me? If it’s just so that I can be of comfort to others, that doesn’t seem like it’s the abundant life I was promised.” You know what I’m saying?

Alistair: Yeah. Yes, I do. Because, again, we tend to think of, you know, when we read the passage, we’re looking for ourselves in the passage rather than Jesus in the passage. [Temple] says, “Every day, in a thousand ways, I make myself the center of the universe.”[5]

And again, suffering first of all shows us just how transient our lives are, how fleeting they are. And what it ought to do for us—and I think it did in some measure for me, although I think this is dissipating. I hope the Lord doesn’t have something else to teach me the lesson again. But, you know, I suddenly realized when I was walking across the road in Chagrin Falls postsurgery, and I had that big incision, and the wound was sore, and I was walking slowly, I could tell the fellow at the crosswalk in the car was looking at me like “Would you speed it up? Are you just trying to be obnoxious?” And I was going as fast as I could! And then I suddenly saw myself as the person in the car, treating the person on the crosswalk that way, for all the times that I never, ever thought, “Well, maybe they’ve got a wound, or maybe they’ve got a heartache, or maybe they’ve, you know, maybe they’ve got something.” And to the extent that we need to go down that road in order to get at least a dimension of that, I think it is right. And it gives us some inkling of what it means when it says that Jesus is not a high priest who is removed from us but who is touched with the feelings of our infirmities,[6] so that the comfort that we have received, we really are… It’s a peculiar privilege. It’s a unique privilege to be able to share one’s experience of struggle and also the encouragements that come along the way.

Bob: Alistair, the person who is today facing a trial—they’re in the midst of it, they’re feeling overwhelmed by what they’re facing, and they’ve heard you speak on this, and they go, “I understand I’m at a crossroads where I can either have my heart moved to hardness and bitterness or I can experience the peace of God in the midst of this”—what do they do to make sure that they are on the right path and that the experience they’re facing does not take them down spiritually?

Alistair: Well, I was going to say that it would be a given, but perhaps not, to be reading their Bible. You know, because the Scriptures set us to rights, don’t they? The Scriptures both prick the bubble of our pride, and also they come to reestablish the truths that we perhaps are in danger of forgetting. The importance of the Bible, the importance of Christian fellowship, the importance of at least one good friend with whom we’re able to be honest and say either, “I feel the temptation to despondency,” or to bitterness, or whatever else it is—a sort of core-level integrity before God is vital.

And then, you know, to adopt the position of the psalmist at the volitional level I think is very important, so as to allow in time our feelings to catch up with the facts—which is really the way the psalmist operates almost consistently. You know: “I feel this way, and I’m experiencing this, but I know that this is true of you.” And so I always say to people, you know, we can either say, “I don’t understand why this has taken place, and I’m very angry about it, and I’m going to grow resentful,” or we can say the same thing: “I don’t understand why this has taken place, but I refuse to grow resentful, and I want to bow down before a Father who is too wise ever to make a mistake and too kind ever to be cruel,” and then to hold ourselves to that.

The Scriptures both prick the bubble of our pride and come to reestablish the truths that we perhaps are in danger of forgetting.

If you like, there are certain experiences in life… And I’m not a sailor, but I’ve watched these people sail, and especially when they do these transatlantic voyages, and I say, “How did they ever ride out that storm?” And it wasn’t because they were playing Christian music on the radio. It was because they actually lashed themselves, they tied themselves, to the mast. And I think that there are experiences in our Christian life where we tie ourselves to the mast, as it were—the masthead of God, his truthfulness and his word. And sometimes, we just gotta flat-out ride it out.

Bob: Let me ask you to put into practice 2 Corinthians chapter 1 and comfort those who are listening with the comfort you’ve received with a word of prayer for those who may be going through a difficult time and a trial, and just call them to faith. Would you do that?

Alistair: Gladly.

Father, we thank you so much that we can address you in such an intimate way—that through the person and work of the Lord Jesus Christ, who has entered into our sufferings and into the pain of humanity, we have access to you because of his taking all of our penalty and all of our sin upon himself so that we can rest assured of our standing before you.

We thank you that in the experience of suffering we get a lot of things sorted out. It gives us a reminder of how fleeting our lives are. And I pray for those who have just in the last few days received a diagnosis or the diagnosis of a loved one and who are recoiling from it, reeling from the impact of it. I pray that the grace of the Lord Jesus, and the peace which passes human understanding, and an abiding sense of his love may be their portion, and that you will bring into their lives both the choice words from your Word and choice servants who will stand side by side with them and seek to build them up and encourage them. We pray for them humbly in Jesus’ name. Amen.

Bob: Amen.

[1] Keith and Kristyn Getty, “When Trials Come” (2009).

[2] James 1:2 (paraphrased).

[3] Genesis 3:19 (paraphrased).

[4] See 2 Corinthians 1:4.

[5] William Temple, Christianity and Social Order (London: SPCK, 1976), 60. Paraphrased.

[6] See Hebrews 4:15.

Copyright © 2024, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

Alistair Begg
Alistair Begg is Senior Pastor at Parkside Church in Cleveland, Ohio, and the Bible teacher on Truth For Life, which is heard on the radio and online around the world.