When I first heard that former President Jimmy Carter had a mass removed from his liver, I thought what I’m assuming most people thought: “That doesn’t sound good.” The recent news that his cancer has metastasized and spread to other parts of his body is clearly not hopeful.
Cancer has been described as being like something that enters your home without being invited. It’s a remarkably complex disease that scientists are still trying to better understand, although in recent years there has been great progress in what was once termed the ‘war on cancer.’ Some cancers are now very treatable. Whereas chronic myelogenous leukemia (CML) was once a virtual death sentence, CML patients today can generally expect to enjoy as long a life as those who have never had the disease. That’s an incredible advance.
But former President Carter is facing something different. Now 90 years old, his family has a history of cancer. Only an optimist would say that Jimmy Carter’s outlook is good.
So what do you do when you receive news like that? You worry, you pray, you realize how much you truly love your family and appreciate your friends, you receive expressions of sympathy with gratefulness, you receive the avalanche of miracle ‘cures’ from well-meaning people with a polite smile, you talk with the best doctors you can find. You look back over your life and ask yourself if you really did what you wanted to do, you regret your bad moments, are grateful for happy memories, you go for treatment, you hope for the best, you pray some more, you read the literature and you see what the statistics say, you determine to beat the odds, you keep your family near you, you realize how much you truly love them…
What does a person really have when what matters most in this world is slipping away? Well, you have what’s in the bank. But few people have ever come to the end of their life and said, “I’m satisfied, because I had money.” Your possessions mean little or nothing when your life might be slipping away.
You have your friends. True friends are actually somewhat rare. The best definition of a friend I have seen recently was in—of all places—a liquor advertisement. It said, “My friends will walk in when the rest of the world walks out.” You feel grateful for people like that.
You have your work, the contribution you’ve made to the world through your professional life. You might refer to your “achievements,” though for many of us they would be modest indeed. Someone who has made a positive difference in the lives of others or who has made a real contribution to society has that with which to comfort themselves. Former President Carter can definitely say, “I made a difference in this world.”
You have your family. Jimmy Carter is right now able to lean on his wife and children and grandchildren and look upon his family with pride. He and his wife Rosalyn have been married for 69 years. You can know that former President Carter is grateful for his family.
But let’s think about that list. Your stuff means nothing when life is slipping away. Your friends? Yes, that’s something. If you’re blessed, so too is your work. Far more important is family. When the sun is setting on your life, family matters. Big time.
A friend recently told me she was the only one in her family still living. Her parents and siblings are deceased, and she never had children. “There’s no one I can talk to about my life when I was a child,” she said, wrestling with the changes that have come into her life. “I feel very alone.”
So what does a person really have when the finish line is fast approaching? Because while all we’ve just discussed is good, there’s still something missing.
It will come as no surprise to you at all that I don’t know Jimmy Carter. I have met him and shaken his hand, but I can’t claim to know him and he certainly doesn’t remember our encounter. But what I can tell you for certain is that what matters most to him right now is his faith in God. While I don’t know much about the reality of former President Carter’s faith, he is known to be a committed, professed Christian. As President of the United States he was open about his faith in God, and he has always maintained that Jesus Christ is his Savior. It is highly unlikely that his faith in God has ever meant more to him than it does right now.
In these difficult moments, Jimmy Carter has Jesus Christ. He knows that whatever happens to him and whatever happens with his health, his future is assured. He’s not congratulating himself about his legacy, and while he loves his family, he is most grateful for the fact that faith in Jesus will enable him to see them again.
Elderly, frail, and in failing health, Jimmy Carter has everything to look forward to. One day soon, “the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed” (1 Corinthians 15:52). He knows that although “weeping may endure for a night…
joy comes in the morning” (Psalm 30:5).
If Jesus doesn’t return first, every last one of us on this planet will die. Some will die hopeless. Others—like Jimmy Carter—will die in the hope of the return of Jesus and in the confidence of everlasting life. It seems a strange thing to me that more people don’t want to have their lives end in the same hope.
Just days ago I spoke at a dear friend’s memorial service. She was 92 and her 92-year-old husband is now enduring an unimaginably difficult time. But it was impossible to find the service a truly sad occasion. Yes, there were tears and yes, there was grieving. But in addition to the tears and the grieving was the hope—the knowledge!—that we’ll see Virginia again. And it won’t be long.
We don’t know how much time former President Carter has left. For his sake and the sake of his loved ones, I hope he has many years ahead. But if not, he will leave this world with his heart filled with hope. Hope in His Savior. His will not be an uncertain end. Jesus Himself said, “I am the resurrection and the life” (John 11:25).
Even in the most challenging times, that is still good news!