For almost 20 years, I’ve been working as a hospital doctor. While being a doctor isn’t nearly as glamorous as what you see on TV, it can still be intense. I care for people in the best and worst moments of their lives. Of all the different situations I’ve faced, the most memorable professional encounters have been caring for terminally ill patients.
I have been at many bedsides with patients near the end of life—a few times even as they took their last breath. I’ve lost track of the number of death certificates I’ve filled over the years. But my experience isn’t unique among those in my profession, except perhaps for the fact that I’m a Christian working in a major hospital in the heart of San Francisco, a city known as the “least Christian metropolis” in America. Most people who have died on my watch weren’t believers. With very few exceptions, I’ve been the only Christian doctor in my group for most of my career. This vantage point has put me in a unique position to see how the gospel provides far better resources than any man-made way of coping with the existential angst of death.
The gospel provides far better resources than any man-made way of coping with the existential angst of death.
Bewildered by Death
When I care for terminally ill patients, I ask if they’d like to see a chaplain or if they attend a church. That’s my go-to line to gauge whether they have spiritual interests. At this point in my career, I must’ve asked that question several hundred times. Only a handful of patients have said “yes.”
“Death” is initially a confusing concept for most terminally ill patients. I haven’t seen too many tears as I break the unfortunate news that a patient has a fatal disease. Instead, what’s much more common is a look of bewilderment. Though everyone knows death is inevitable, most don’t know what to do with the news of a terminal diagnosis. They do not see impending death as a call to evaluate their lives and change. After the initial shock, most patients keep on living the remainder of their days as they always had; I’ve never seen a patient reverse their philosophy of life because the end is finally here.
I’ve heard some people say, “I’ll live however I want when I’m young, and when I have room in my life, I may take my spiritual life seriously.” I’m sure this must happen—but I’ve never seen it with my patients. Solomon said, “Remember also your Creator in the days of your youth, before the evil days come and the years draw near of which you will say, ‘I have no pleasure in them.’” (Eccles. 12:1). Solomon’s words have proven true with nearly all the patients to whom I’ve broken the sad news of a terminal diagnosis. Unless they’d sought their Creator before the diagnosis came, they were unlikely to seek him after it came.
Marked by Faithfulness
The opposite is true for those who know intimacy with and obedience to God; if a person’s life is characterized by faithfulness, his death is as well. On occasion, I’ve had the privilege of witnessing a life marked by what Eugene Peterson described as a “long obedience in the same direction.” Such a life pays its dividends when the end comes.
One morning I came to work and, as usual, was assigned a new list of hospitalized patients to take care of that week, which included a middle-aged man with incurable cancer. My job was to make sure his pain was under reasonable control and then discharge him from the hospital so that he could fly to his hometown and spend his last days there.
If a person’s life is characterized by faithfulness, his death is as well.
When I walked into this man’s dimly lit room, I saw him—quiet, cachectic, and with no hair. Yet he was surprisingly calm and pleasant. I could tell he was in quite a bit of pain, but there was an ambience of peace that filled the room.
After discussing his pain regimen and related medical issues, I asked my usual question, “Would you like to see a chaplain?” I got the usual “no.” But this time for a different reason. With a big smile on his face he answered, “Dr. Cho, I’m a Christian. I know God is with me. I am okay.”
Ah, no wonder.
What followed was a short, delightful conversation with a brother about the joy and hope we have in Christ. The man told me he’d been walking faithfully with God for quite some time: “And I’m not about to change because I’m dying!” Though his physical body was failing rapidly, and everything he’d known in this life was being taken from him, the hope of resurrection remained (2 Cor. 4:16). In fact, this man’s Christian hope was now more real to him than ever before.
With his permission, I laid my hands on the man and prayed for him. Then I discharged him from the hospital with enough pain medication to control his symptoms on his way back home. That was many years ago. When I see him the next time, I’m glad he won’t need a doctor.
There may be no way to be completely ready for death when it comes. I have also seen believers gripped by fear, despair, doubt, and anger at the end; the enemy is not passive even in our fading hours. But though the manner in which Christians face death varies, I’m so thankful that Christ’s grip on his people’s souls never changes (John 10:28–29).
The best way you can prepare for death is by walking faithfully with Christ one day at a time. Trust him today as you want to trust him at the end. Then, someday—just like my patient—you’ll walk into eternity with the faithful God who has led you all your life.