If you’re a regular reader of Gentle Reformation, you may recall that a few months ago I posted an article entitled ‘Perfect Peace in the Face of a Loved One’s Cancer’ which I wrote shortly after hearing the news that my unbelieving father had been diagnosed with bile duct cancer. It seems fitting today to write a sequel to that article and reflect a little on some of the things I said then, since my Dad was hospitalised on 22 October and died one week later on 29 October.
Over the course of the months since Dad was diagnosed in March my mum, sister and I increased our exhortations to him to repent of his sins and trust Christ as his Saviour. We had honest conversations with him in which he shared some of his biggest hang-ups about Christianity. We gave him several books and tracts of varying size and detail to help him with his questions, but he said he didn’t have the energy to concentrate on reading.
Back in June it looked like he was on the brink of liver failure and I was told he may not have long before his lucidity began to fade. Since I was out of the country at the time, I sent him a long and heartfelt email explaining the gospel (again) and urging him to trust Christ. To no avail. He read it, but his only comment was that I seemed to be overreacting. When he continued to plead that he couldn’t focus on reading I started sending short (3 minute) video clips of able pastors and theologians speaking to the very issues he claimed were holding him back from believing the gospel. I didn’t bombard him with these (though he might have argued that one clip every other day did count as a bombardment!), but as far as I can tell he didn’t watch too many, if any, of these.
Throughout these months my congregation was faithfully praying along with us that God would change Dad’s heart, as were many many other friends across the world. And yet there seemed to be no sign that anything was changing and we lived with the constant feeling that time was running out. I continued to hold on to the truths I wrote about in my previous article: that my heavenly Father was sovereign and good and that he would do what was right—even if that didn’t mean my Dad’s salvation. God continued to give me that perfect peace of Isaiah 26.3 for those whose minds are stayed on him, even though I also lived with a sense of growing sadness that it looked like Dad would be lost.
On Sabbath 20 October I preached on Isaiah 29 (the next passage in my consecutive exposition of Isaiah). It is a remarkable chapter that I hadn’t been familiar with before. In it Isaiah makes one simple, thrilling point: nothing is too hard for the Lord. He applies it to two situations in Judah—the physical and the spiritual.
In verses 1-8, Isaiah shows that even when Jerusalem is completely surrounded by a ruthless enemy bent on the destruction of the city—even when the people of Jerusalem are at death’s door and their voice is just a hoarse, ghostly whisper from the dust—even when it looks like there is no hope whatsoever—at that very moment, the last possible moment, the Lord of hosts is able to transform the situation out of all recognition! ‘And in an instant, suddenly, you will be visited by the Lord of hosts… and the multitude of all the nations that fight against Ariel [Jerusalem]… shall be like a dream, a vision of the night.’ It seemed utterly impossible to imagine Jerusalem being saved from the Assyrian war machine—but that is exactly what God did (cf. Is 37.36-38)!
Then in the rest of the chapter Isaiah applies this truth to the spiritual situation in Judah. He shows just how hopeless it was to think of the people’s hearts being changed, because of the spiritual stupor of the people (vv9-10) who had wilfully blinded themselves so they couldn’t see the truth of God, and because of their spiritual apathy (vv11-12); they were like people who had a message from God in a book but just couldn’t be bothered to read it or even to get someone else to read it to them. As I preached this message I didn’t need to imagine the kind of person Isaiah was speaking about because it was a description of my Dad! Here was a man who had blinded himself to the truth and who wouldn’t even read a short tract or watch a three-minute video clip on his phone.
But even as these verses gave me an insight into the hardness of the human heart in general and my Dad’s heart in particular, they also gave me hope because Isaiah goes on to show that just as the Lord of hosts was able to transform the fate of Jerusalem from destruction to deliverance, so he is able to transform the hearts of human beings who think they know better than God (v16). This spiritual transformation is described in v14 as a ‘wonder upon wonder’. It’s pictured in v17 as the tangled wilderness of Lebanon being changed into a fruitful, fertile garden. As I preached these great truths my mind was full of my Dad, and I prayed that God would visit him and work wonder upon wonder in his hard heart to make it spiritually fruitful.
Less than a week later I was sitting at his bedside in hospital, taking my turn at keeping watch over him through the night. What he wanted more than anything was relief from pain and a few sips of water, and whenever he asked for either I was able to get it for him. I didn’t try to preach to him, but at one point in the middle of the night I did tell him how much we all loved him and that more than anything we longed for him to be freed from his suffering and go to a world of peace and joy and happiness. I told him that every time he asked for pain relief it reminded me that there are no painkillers in hell. I told him that every time he asked me for a sip of water it made me think of a story in the Bible where a man in hell begs for someone to dip his finger in water and put it on his tongue to give him some relief from his agony. Dad didn’t say anything, but he was clearly listening.
The next morning the nurse who had looked after Dad through the night took me aside and told me that she had noticed a significant deterioration in him, and that I should call my mum and sister and brother to come in, since he might not have much longer to live. After doing that, I went back in to talk to Dad. He was remarkably—miraculously—alert. With a breaking heart and voice I told him what the nurse had said. Then I said, pleadingly, ‘This is your last chance Dad.’ Can you imagine the joy of hearing his reply, loudly, clearly, decisively, wonderfully—‘I’ll take it!’
I wept. I read John 3.16-18 and explained the gospel once again. I prayed and urged Dad to add his ‘Amen’ at the end if he agreed with my words. For the first time in my life I heard my Dad say ‘Amen’. We then read Psalm 23 and I told him how the Lord promised to be with him through the valley of the shadow of death, to give him all the strength and resources he would need for this last part of his journey. I prayed again, this time with the hope that Dad was a believer, asking for that strength. Afterwards Dad said ‘Amen’ again, about four or five times.
Now I’m not naïve. I know that it’s quite possible for someone to make a spurious profession of faith as death approaches, as a kind of last minute spiritual insurance policy. But I know some other things too. I know that our God is ‘merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.’ (Ps 103.8). I know that he has promised that everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved (Ac 2.21). I know that he saved a terrorist actually hanging on a cross with just a few hours left to live and gave him the strongest assurance of salvation ever granted to a human being (Lk 23.43). I know that hundreds of people were praying for my Dad’s salvation. And thanks to Isaiah 29 I know that it’s possible for someone who is sunk in the depths of spiritual stupor and apathy to be changed ‘in an instant, suddenly’ as God works wonder upon wonder in their soul! I know that nothing is too hard for the Lord. I know that God is able and willing to save even a wretched sinner who has rejected him for 70 years and squandered countless opportunities to repent and believe—I know God can save such a man even in the last days of his life. And now I know what that looks like, because I believe I witnessed it in my father.
As it happened, God gave Dad another three days before he passed away. He was too weak to say very much at all, but we noticed that he seemed to be at peace in the face of the breaking down of his body. When our elders came to read and pray with us in Dad’s hospital room, Dad made the (agonizing) effort of trying to sit up and listen. He endorsed every prayer with his own ‘Amen’. Just little sparks of light, yes—but real sparks of real light.
I’ve talked a lot in this post about personal things, but my reason for doing so is to give glory to God for his mercy and grace, wisdom and power. Many of you who read this blog regularly have, I know, been praying for my Dad since I wrote about his illness back in May. Thank-you for your prayers—I wanted you to know how the Lord has heard and answered them. And how many of the Lord’s people need to hear this great truth—‘Nothing is too hard for the Lord’—and to know that even the salvation of a hard-hearted, gospel-rejecting unbeliever is not too hard for Him. I hope my Dad’s story will encourage others who are persevering faithfully in praying for loved ones and witnessing to them. May the Lord visit them too and work wonder upon wonder in their souls.