The Immeasurable Joy of Hope in Christ

The Immeasurable Joy of Hope in Christ

About five or six years into pastoral ministry, I ran headlong into a situation that totally dumbfounded me. A twenty-four year old, brimming with life, gave birth to a beautiful little girl. My wife had just welcomed our third child, so we felt linked with this young couple celebrating their first. Three weeks later, after settling into a mothering routine, the shock came. Her skin and eyes appeared discolored. It looked like someone had sprayed a yellow film over her body. Her physician immediately recognized the problem. A few tests confirmed his initial alarm. She had terminal liver cancer.
            I regularly visited her. Believing that God could heal her, that’s what I prayed. That’s pretty much all that I prayed, convinced that the Lord would show forth his mighty hand in our community by healing a young lady with terminal cancer.
At that stage of life and ministry, my theology of God’s sovereignty, providence, suffering, eternity, and hope in Christ had little definition. So my visits and prayers always aimed toward restoration of health and returning home to her infant daughter.
            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 just 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, other than, “I’m so sorry. I’ll be right there.”
The ten-minute drive to the hospital led to the composition of dozens of sentences to open my conversation with this grieving husband. But nothing sounded right. I’d visited and prayed with them so many times, trying to encourage them on each occasion. But I soon felt the complete inadequacy of my words and optimistic demeanor. While faithfully visiting and praying, I failed in my pastoral responsibility. I had not taught them of the hope in Christ that goes beyond temporal healing. I prepared her to continue living in this fallen world instead of helping her to live in the next, through hope in Christ, where there would be no more liver cancer or chemotherapy or yellowed skin. Far better would my time have been spent preparing her to gaze at the Lord Jesus that she demonstrably loved, and whom she would see face-to-face, than only praying for healing (1 John 3:2).
Thirty-five years have passed. While almost daily visiting this young lady and her husband, praying on each visit, often reading Scripture, and trying to cheer them, despite the bitterness of the circumstance, I unwittingly failed to cultivate hope in Christ.
But no wonder I failed: too fixed on the moment, I lacked the robust consciousness of hope in Christ that should typify his followers. I reacted to the common escapism theology that only talked about heaven without much thought for a passionate life in Christ now. I over-compensated for one bad theology by yielding to another. I lived too much with my eyes on the present moment. Hope needed cultivating in my heart.
Such need for living in hope spurred Paul to pray for the Ephesian church, “I pray 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; NASB). The Apostle spent ample time in his epistles encouraging this full-orbed hope in the congregations that he loved and prayed for (e.g., Rom 8; Col 1:21–27; 1 Thess 4:17–18).
Our calling in Christ through the gospel builds in us a hope that leans to the future (Rom 15:13; Phil 1:20–21). This hope expresses the fullness of Christ now and in eternity (Col 1:24–27; 1 Peter 1:20–21). Hope experienced now anticipates the full measure of hope’s promise in the future (1 Peter 1:13). Hope’s sight gazes ahead to when Christ comes in glory (Rom 8:18–25). Hope, as an anchor for the soul in the present, gives vision for the fullness of life in Christ for eternity (Heb 6:19–20). Hope spurs perseverance as we long to see Christ in all of his glory. The sight and experience of gazing upon glory, immersing in the beauty of his excellence, motivates believers filled with this hope to live holy lives (1 John 3:2–3).
Without hope we live aimlessly (Eph 2:12), lacking God’s provision for living in this world and the next. Without hope in sight we easily give way to sin and despair. But a living hope subdues the flesh, animates the desires for Christ, calms the heart, steadies the resolve, and strengthens in weakness and opposition (1 Pet 1:3–9). Hope reminds us that the present circumstances—however difficult, are not the end or the ultimate (Rom 8:18, 28). Life in Christ is.
That’s what I’ve been learning to do since that time of watching my prayers for temporal healing go unanswered. God did something far better. 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 do so) 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 the immediate, fretful circumstances—my regrettable tendency. I’m learning that my affections and thoughts on him need to stretch into eternity instead of being corralled by temporal satisfaction. When I approach each day with a consciousness of hope in Christ, it affects the way that I respond to demands, losses, and even accomplishments. Like the Seventy who felt incredible elation that the demons were subject to them through Christ’s name, I’m learning as they did, ‘That’s great,’ but “Nevertheless, do not rejoice in this, that the spirits are subject to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven” (Luke 10:20; ESV). What I accomplish, the successes I might have, the prayers answered, the victories achieved, wonderful as they are, pale in comparison to the hope set before me through Christ who was raised from the dead.
Much has changed with my understanding of biblical hope. Hope in Christ now underlies my pastoral visits and pastoral counseling. Instead of only a few choice texts, I see hope throughout the Scripture. I find great joy in pointing to hope in Christ with my congregation. This buoyant hope as a fountain of joy deeply affects my living, preaching, and teaching. Although I failed so miserably in that pastoral setting thirty-five years ago, the Lord has given immeasurable joy through the journey of seeing the hope that is ours in Christ.
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