Christian Hope in the Face of Death

During the first full week of June my family and I were enjoying a fun-filled week at a friend’s cabin that he had been gracious enough to loan to us for a week. We were doing all of the usual things that people do at a cabin: fishing, swimming, grilling, playing, and relaxing. But then, in the middle of the week, my wife received a phone call from the doctors at North Memorial hospital: “You should come to see your mother. She’s not doing well.” My wife left the cabin and drove to Minneapolis to see her mom (thankfully the cabin wasn’t too far from the Twin Cities). After she was there for a while she called me at the cabin and said that the doctors would like to meet with us the next day.

A month or so previous my mother-in-law, Nancy, had fallen and broken a bone in her leg. That injury exacerbated other pre-existing health conditions and sent them into overdrive. All of this was explained to us the following day at the meeting with the doctors. One doctor, a lung specialist, said that the fluid was continuing to build up in Nancy’s system and was putting pressure on her organs, particularly her lungs, and that breathing would become a more significant challenge for her as time went on. She said that they could treat the various illnesses in minor ways, but that it was a losing battle. She gave us the option of continuing treatment for the various illnesses that plagued Nancy’s body. If we chose this route, Nancy would most likely be in and out of the hospital for the rest of her life, taking one step forward and two steps back until ultimately her body wouldn’t be able to sustain itself anymore. The other option was hospice care, in which the end would come much sooner, but with considerably more physical comfort.

When the doctor left the room, Nancy asked us, “Did everyone hear what I heard?” To which I responded, “What did you hear?” Nancy said, “I heard that I’m dying.”

This, indeed, was what the doctors had said, although they didn’t use those exact words, and they did not give Nancy a time frame or life-expectancy. But it was clear that this present physical challenge would end in her death. It was a difficult meeting. My wife and her sister were devastated. Nancy expressed regret for the things in her life left undone, aspirations never attained, and the potential of never meeting her third grandchild, due in December.

The next three months played out almost exactly the way the lung specialist had predicted. Nancy had chosen to treat the illnesses in whatever ways possible to elongate her life, and the treatment had the exact affect that the doctor predicted: ups and downs, good days and bad days; but always one step forward and two steps back. This went on until August 12, when we went to visit Nancy at the hospital, where she had resided in one form or another since late April. She was having considerable difficulty breathing, despite the best efforts of oxygen masks and machines. As we sat with her and saw her difficulty, she looked at us and said, “I can’t do this anymore.” She died the next day.

Needless to say, the last few months have been difficult for our family.

But also through this process, we have been going back to the conversation we had when we were called away from the cabin to meet with doctors in that first week of June. After the doctor had delivered the grim diagnosis and we internalized the news that this illness would end in death, we immediately turned as a family to the truth of God’s word and our expectant hope in God’s faithfulness to his promises:

Although Nancy’s illness would end in death, death could not touch her standing in Christ.

Although her body was coming to its end, she would receive a redeemed and restored body at the resurrection.

Although friends and family would be missed by the separation of death, there will be a reunion one day.

Everything that we do not experience on this earth and in this life we will experience on the new earth in new bodies in the next life.

We have the promise of God to cover those who believe in the righteousness of Christ, making us pure before him.

Death has no victory, it has no sting.

Although her illness was terminal, nothing can separate her from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

God’s faithfulness to these promises has been our hope and comfort in this difficult time. And indeed, it is our only hope. “If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied. But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep. For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive” (1 Corinthians 15.19-22, emphasis added).

Death is a painful thing to go through, even in light of the hope we have as Christians. But that pain is tempered with expectant hope. We are not crushed by the pain of death; we are not debilitated by the physical separation it brings; we are a people who have hope.