by Susan Booth
Palliative. Nursing home. Stage 4 cancer. Assisted living. Extended hospital stay. These phrases are just words, but the physical effort in speaking them hints at the raw emotions lying just beneath the surface: tense lips, constricted throat, lead stomach, pounding heart, eyes brimming with tears.
In several different conversations over the past month, I’ve heard people share these soul-shaking words about themselves or a loved one. Oddly enough, most of those speaking have been acquaintances whom I’ve met while out walking my dog. One was even a random stranger. Sometimes, I think it’s easier for people to pour out their hearts to someone who’s a bit removed from the immediate upheaval that accompanies such words.
When we daily offer ourselves to the Lord and ask Him to use us, He brings opportunities like these across our paths—literally. He opens the door for us to walk alongside people in their greatest need. We share His love by listening, expressing compassion, bearing emotional burdens, and lifting up needs to the Father in prayer.
These difficult circumstances are also opportunities to share His love by serving. As we listen for the Spirit’s leading, we demonstrate tangible expressions of God’s love. We visit, bring flowers, write a card, cook a meal, offer to dog-sit, or give a ride to the cancer clinic.
While it’s important to share the emotional load and serve in practical ways, we can’t stop there. These crises carry an inherent sense of urgency that demands that we not only live out the gospel, but also speak the gospel.
According to research sociologist Reginald Bibby, people are clearly intrigued by the question of life after death. More than nine out of every ten surveyed—regardless of age—say they have wondered about life after death. And what is their primary response to the reality of death? Those who attend church weekly were five times more likely to face death with hope as compared to those who never attend (45% vs. 9%).
Clearly, believers have something unique to offer in answering this ultimate question. We are able to face death with a confidence that the world does not have.
Interestingly, the world often attempts to alleviate life-after-death worries with vague imagery borrowed from Christianity—a “better” place, reunion with loved ones, no more suffering—in a word, “heaven”.
As believers, we have an obligation to go beyond vague platitudes and share the concrete hope of heaven and the incredible love that God has demonstrated in Jesus: Christ, who never sinned, suffered for our sins in order to bring us safely home to God (1 Peter 3:18). “And this is the testimony: God has given us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life” (1 John 5:11–12).
We must extend this bedrock hope of the gospel—even when well-meaning family members might wish to shield their loved ones from such conversations.
I recently went to the hospital to visit an acquaintance whom I had been told would not be waking up again. To my surprise—and in answer to prayer—I found her awake and alert, sitting up in bed. She listened intently as I shared the gospel. In response, she asked for a sponge swab soaked with water in order to proclaim with her own lips, “Jesus is Lord.” She closed her eyes and rested contentedly as I held her hand and sang “Amazing Grace.”
A family member later texted me: “We appreciate your coming and want you to visit often. She loves conversation about dogs, birds, gardening, and news. But she’s not a religious person.” I was concerned that maybe I’d misunderstood my friend’s desires.
When I visited again, we talked briefly about our dogs and the birds outside the window. But then I asked if she would mind if I talked more about Jesus and read from the Bible and prayed. Not only did she reassure me that she didn’t mind, but she also stated that she didn’t know how people could face situations like this without God. In the middle of the night, when she lay awake in discomfort and unable to sleep, she would pray in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Even in suffering, my friend found peace and comfort and hope—in Jesus.
First John 3:18 encourages believers to move beyond mere lip service to love: “Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth.” Truly loving others means that we walk alongside them through life’s most difficult crises. We hear the cry of their hearts and help shoulder their anguish. We not only pray for them, but we also demonstrate the love of Christ in practical ways. But we dare not stop there.
True love in action calls for us to proclaim the gospel boldly. In order to give real, solid, sustaining hope for the future—both for this life and the life to come—we must share words. But they aren’t just words. They’re words that lead to eternal life.
 Reginald Bibby, Beyond the Gods & Back (Lethbridge, Alberta: Project Canada Books, 2011), 175.
Susan Booth is professor of evangelism and missions at the Canadian Southern Baptist Seminary and College in Cochrane, Alberta. She and her husband, Steve, served for seven years as missionaries in Budapest, Hungary, before moving to Canada in 2000. She is the author of The Tabernacling Presence of God: Mission and Gospel Witness. Susan enjoys equipping people to share the gospel.