We will never know what life has in store for us in any given year, in any given month, in any given day. Severe trials may overtake us when we least expect them. When times of joy are circling around us, suddenly tragedy occurs. How many of us would be able to confess with the dear apostle the very same words: “I have fought the good fight. I have finished the race. I have kept the faith.”
How many of us will boldly bear this declaration of fulfillment in Christ? That no matter what sword or pain may come Thy banner will be raised ever high? Oh may it be so with you, dear reader. Let us testify together with the apostle: “But I do not account my life of any value nor as precious to myself, if only I may finish my course and the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God.” (Acts 20:24)
I will never forget the last words my father spoke to me. We were seated together on the living room sofa. His body had been ravaged by three strokes. One side of his face was distorted by paralysis. His left eye and left lip drooped uncontrollably. He spoke to me with a heavy slur. His words were difficult to understand, but their meaning was crystal clear. He uttered these words: “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race. I have kept the faith.”
These were the last words he ever spoke to me. Hours later he suffered his fourth and final cerebral hemorrhage. I found him collapsed on the floor, a trickle of blood oozing from the corner of his mouth. He was comatose. Mercifully, he died a day and a half later without regaining consciousness.
His last words to me were heroic. My last words to him were cowardly. I protested his words of premonition. I said rudely, “Don’t say that, Dad!”
There are many things that I have said in my life that I desperately wished I had not said. None of my words are more shameful to me now than those. But words can no more be recalled than a speeding arrow after the bow string has snapped in full release.
My words were a rebuke to him. I refused to allow him the dignity of a final testimony to me. He knew he was dying. I refused to accept what he had already accepted with grace.
I was seventeen. I knew nothing of the business of dying. It was not a very good year. I watched my father die an inch at a time over a period of three years. I never heard him complain. I never heard him protest. He sat in the same chair day after day, week after week, year after year. He read the Bible with a large magnifying glass. I was blind to the anxieties that must have plagued him. He could not work. There was no income. No disability insurance. He sat there, waiting to die, watching his life savings trickle away with his own life.
I was angry at God. My father was angry at no one. He lived out his last days faithful to his vocation. He fought the good fight. A good fight is a fight fought without hostility, without bitterness, without self-pity. I had never been in a fight like that.
My father finished the race. I was not even in the starting blocks. He ran the race for which God had called him. He ran until his legs crumbled. But somehow he kept going. When he couldn’t walk anymore he still was at the table each night for dinner. He asked me to help him. It was a daily ritual. Each evening I went to his room where he was seated in that same chair. I stooped backward, facing away from him so that he could drape his arms around my neck and shoulders. I clasped his wrists together and lifted my body, bringing him up from the chair. Then I dragged him, fireman style, to the dining room table. He finished the race. My only consolation is that I was able to help him. I was with him at the finish line.
I carried him one last time. When I found him unconscious on the floor, somehow I managed to get him into the bed where he died. On that trip he could not help me drag him. He could not put his arms around my neck. It took effort mixed with adrenalin to get him from the floor to the bed. But I had to get him there. It was unthinkable to me that he should die on the floor.
When my father died I was not a Christian. Faith was something beyond my experience and beyond my understanding. When he said, “I have kept the faith,” I missed the weight of his words. I shut them out. I had no idea that he was quoting the apostle Paul’s final message to his beloved disciple, Timothy. His eloquent testimony was wasted on me at the time. But not now. Now I understand. Now I want to persevere as he persevered. I want to run the race and finish the course as he did before me. I have no desire to suffer as he suffered. But I want to keep the faith as he kept it.
If my father taught me anything, he taught me how to die. The events I have just described have left an indelible mark upon me. For years after my father died I had the same recurring nightmare. I dreamed the same dream. The dream had a vivid intensity. I would see my father alive again. The beginning of the dream was thrilling. In my slumber the impossible became real. He was alive! But my joy would change quickly to despair as his appearance in my dream was always the same. He was crippled. He was paralyzed. He was hopelessly and helplessly dying. The scene was never of a healthy, vibrant father, but of a father caught in the throes of death.
I would wake up sweating with a sick empty feeling in the pit of my stomach. Only as I studied the Scriptures did I discover that death is not like that. Only when I discovered the content of the Christian faith did the nightmares finally cease.
—R.C. Sproul, (1996, c1988). Surprised by Suffering. Wheaton, Ill.: Tyndale House Publishers.
Read more of “Surprised by Suffering” here.