About five or six years into pastoral ministry, I encountered a situation that dumbfounded me. A 24-year-old woman, brimming with life, gave birth to a beautiful little girl. Three weeks later, after settling into a mothering routine, the shock came. The new mom’s skin and eyes became discolored. It looked like someone had sprayed a yellow film over her body. Her physician immediately recognized the problem. A few tests confirmed his alarm. She had terminal liver cancer.
I visited her regularly. I prayed God would heal her, believing he could. I only prayed for healing, convinced the Lord would showcase his mighty hand in our community by healing a young lady with terminal cancer.
At that stage of life and ministry, much of my theology—particularly concerning suffering, God’s sovereignty, and eternal hope—had little definition. So my visits and prayers always aimed toward immediate physical restoration.
But it didn’t happen.
Two months after her diagnosis, her husband called in the middle of the night. Shaking off drowsiness, I listened to a somber voice say, “She’s gone.” Maybe my eardrums had not yet started humming, and I didn’t get the message clearly. “Is she still making it?” I asked tentatively. “She’s dead,” he bluntly replied. Having been so fixated on healing, words escaped me. “I’m so sorry,” I said. “I’ll be right there.”
On the 10-minute drive to the hospital, I composed dozens of sentences to open my conversation with this grieving husband. None sounded right. I’d visited and prayed with them numerous times. But I soon felt the complete inadequacy of my words and optimistic demeanor.
I Failed Miserably
While faithfully visiting and praying, I had failed in my pastoral responsibility. I hadn’t taught this dear couple any hope beyond temporal healing. I prepared her to continue living in this fallen world instead of helping her live in the next, where there would be no liver cancer or chemotherapy or yellowed skin. My time would have been far better spent preparing her to gaze on the Lord Jesus she demonstrably loved, and whom she would see face-to-face (1 John 3:2). But I merely prayed for healing.
Thirty-five years have passed and my judgment of that situation remains unchanged: I unwittingly failed to cultivate hope in Christ.
No wonder I failed—I lacked the robust consciousness of hope in Christ that should typify his followers. I overcompensated for one bad theology by yielding to another. I lived with my eyes on the present moment.
We Need Eternity-Envisioning Hope
Such need for living in hope spurred Paul to pray this for the Ephesian church:
That the eyes of your heart may be enlightened, so that you will know what is the hope of his calling, what are the riches of the glory of his inheritance in the saints, and what is the surpassing greatness of his power toward us who believe. (Eph. 1:18–19a)
In other epistles, the apostle spends ample time encouraging this full-orbed hope in the congregations he loved and prayed for (e.g., Rom. 8; Col. 1:21–27; 1 Thess. 4:17–18). Without hope we live aimlessly (Eph. 2:12), lacking God’s provision for living in this world and the next. Without hope, we give way to sin and despair. But a living hope subdues the flesh, animates desire for Christ, calms the heart, steadies the resolve, and gives strengthen amid weakness and opposition (1 Pet. 1:3–9). Hope reminds us that present circumstances—however difficult—are not the end (Rom. 8:18, 28). Life in Christ is.
I Learned Joy in Christ-Centered Hope
That’s what I’ve learned to do since watching those prayers for temporal healing go unanswered. Neglecting to cultivate hope in a family with desperate need changed me—not immediately, but progressively. As difficult as it was, the Lord used that disappointing time to bring me face-to-face with my temporal existence. I repented (and continue to repent) of living for the moment instead of living in light of eternity with hope set firmly in Christ (Phil. 3:12–14).
The Lord has patiently shown me time and again that he is ultimate, so I need not be trapped by immediate, fretful circumstances—my regrettable tendency. I’m learning that my affections and thoughts need to stretch into eternity instead of being corralled by temporal satisfaction.
When I approach each day with a conscious hope in Christ, it affects the way I respond to demands, losses, even accomplishments. Like the 70 who felt incredible elation that the demons were subject to them in Christ’s name, I’m learning, as they did: “Do not rejoice in this, that the spirits are subject to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven” (Luke 10:20).
Much has changed in my understanding of biblical hope. It now underlies pastoral visits and counseling. Instead of only a few choice texts, I see hope throughout the Scriptures. This buoyant hope as a fountain of joy deeply affects my living, preaching, and teaching. Although I failed in that pastoral setting 35 years ago, the Lord has given immeasurable joy through the journey of tasting the hope that is ours in Christ.