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.
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.