by Cindy Bleuler Tucker
I have had the privilege of knowing Ralph and Sylvia Hill for several years. Ralph is an amazing testimony of God’s grace in suffering and painful circumstances. Ralph’s prayer is that his story might be an encouragement “to other pilgrims on their journey.” Ralph and Sylvia attend Lookout Mountain Presbyterian Church in Lookout Mountain, TN.
Judge Hill served as Judge of the Lookout Mountain Judicial Circuit Court for 14 years, initially appointed then elected 3 times. It’s not surprising…
Ralph Hill graduated from Furman University and received his law degree from the University of Georgia. After getting his education, he served for the army in Vietnam. He was hired as assistant district attorney for two years. In 1973 he set up a law practice in LaFayette, GA. After working there for 15 years, he was appointed Circuit Court judge. He has been married to Sylvia for almost 40 years.
Although quite successful, something was missing in Ralph’s life. In such a pressure cooker job of defending clients and knowing one overrule from a judge can lose your case, the stress can be overwhelming. Ralph found himself increasingly turning to alcohol to try to bring peace to restless heart. Describing his alcoholism, Ralph stated, “I drank enough Scotch to sink a battleship.”
Then in 1987, everything changed. After his mother’s sudden heart attack, Ralph began to face his own mortality. Then Jesus came knocking at the door of his heart and Ralph has never looked back at his old life.
Ralph’s passion is evangelism. After his conversion, he went to see all his clients and lawyer friends, praising Jesus and inviting them with love and conviction to join him as a Jesus follower. This deep desire to share the good news of the gospel led Ralph to missions. First he visited Cuba and Moscow. Ralph believed more and more that he had been called to the mission field.
His wife Sylvia stayed home with their children and was content to pray for Ralph and hear the reports of his visits, but Jesus worked in her heart and also gave her a heart for the mission field. Ralph and Sylvia attended the Mission to the World Conference and decided on a life change.
At a time when most couples are looking forward to retirement, Ralph and Sylvia chose a second career-missions. In 2009, Ralph retired and he and Sylvia trained and were commissioned through MTW. They were advised to choose a country where English was spoken because it is the only language in which they are fluent and as people grow older it is harder to pick up new languages. They planned to go to Scotland to help local churches. By God’s providence, plans were changed and they served in London for two years. After two years of service, they had to return to the United States-Ralph had been diagnosed with bladder cancer. After treatment Ralph’s health improved for a while.
Ralph began experiencing pain in his right hip and running fevers. After returning again to the United States, he received some very somber news. His bladder cancer moved into his bones and he had 3-4 months to live. In Ralph’s words, “being told this news is the most defining moment of your life, probably next to your salvation. The most defining moment.”
In 1987, Jesus met Ralph’s deepest need, the forgiveness of his sins, deliverance from alcoholism, and the gift of infinite grace. Would this same Jesus, who meets with Ralph daily, meet him at the point of his greatest suffering?
The answer is yes, and abundantly. Ralph continues to speak of the Lord and his goodness throughout the journey of cancer. He daily trusts in Jesus and gives himself wholeheartedly to the Lord. He has encouraged me and many others by his courage and endurance.
I interviewed Judge Ralph Hill to learn how Jesus has worked in his life and what he has learned through his suffering.
In your testimony (given at Lookout Mountain Presbyterian Church, 2010) speaking about the moment when Dr. Ellis told you that you had 3-4 months to live, you said, “being told this is the most defining moment of your life, probably next to your salvation, the most defining moment.” How did Jesus meet you at these defining moments?
The diagnosis that I had 3-4 months to live was indeed a defining moment in my life as when I was saved in 1987, after my Mother’s sudden heart attack. Ecclesiastes 3:11 declares that God “has put eternity into man’s heart”…Hebrews 9:27 states that it is appointed for all of us to die once and after that the judgment. I was confronted with my mortality both times and with the diagnosis was and have continued to cling to the Gospel and live in hope of Glory! The resurrected Lord met me there both times and always meets us in our struggles when we cry out to God through faith in His finished work. Our continuing problem is we do not recognize our desperate need of Him and the Gospel moment by moment!
You served for 14 years as a judge for the Lookout Mountain Judicial Circuit. How do you believe God used you in this position?
I tried to follow the Biblical mandate of Micah 6:8:”He has told you, oh man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” although sometimes it was a struggle. That is why we need to pray for our government leaders and judges!
After your retirement, you and Sylvia were called into the mission field. From your experience, how can someone know that they have been called to a specific ministry?
I really believe we are all called wherever God has planted us. “Enjoy His grace and extend His glory,” as David Platt wrote in his book “Radical.” God has gifted us all by His grace to love and serve Him and others. I love Proverbs 16:9 “The heart of a man plans his way, but the Lord establishes his steps.” Elizabeth Elliott says it best- God’s will is 6 inches from our fingertips.
What spiritual disciplines have been essential to your walk with the Lord?
I do daily devotionals with the Lord before things get rolling and prayers and to try to keep praying.
You have summed up the gospel as “you are a bigger sinner than you think you are, but God loves you more than you can ever imagine” and “you just come, fall in his arms, and rest.” Why is this so hard to do, especially the resting?
It is hard to rest in the gospel because as Tim Keller says the default mode of the human heart is works-righteousness, and trying to justify ourselves apart from faith in God’s faith and promises.
At one time you struggled with alcoholism. What words do you have for someone struggling with an addiction?
The human heart is an idol factory. Addictions are only one of our idols where we seek to run to instead of to our Father in heaven. As Paul said in Ephesians 5:18, “And do not get drunk with wine because that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit.” Repent and believe the Gospel and receive the Holy Spirit’s filling.
As you deal with cancer and imminent death, it seems that you would be tempted to focus only on your illness and go into survival mode, in which your thoughts and prayers include only you and your family. How do you look beyond yourself and your personal trials? How do Christians get beyond their selfishness and pray for those we are not personally involved with?
I keep a copy of John Piper’s “Don’t Waste Your Cancer” and refer to it often. It reminds me that God has a purpose in what is happening, hard as it seems sometimes. My suffering has helped me to understand the power of prayer and the other needs lost and physically sick people have.
What are some Bible verses that are go-to verses when you are at your lowest point?
I go to Romans 8, the Psalms, and all the verses in the Bible that promise peace and that God will never leave or forsake us.
What books, other than the Bible, have been influential in your life?
Paul David Tripp’s “Broken House” and Tullian Tchvidjian’s “Glorious Ruin.” In God’s providence, I found the book “Letters from the Land of Cancer” by Walter Wangeren, Jr. in the church library. Ann Voskamp’s “One Thousand Gifts” demonstrates how God can change us even though tragic things are happening to us. Right after my diagnosis I began studying the book of Job and still find strength in it.
What have you learned about suffering since your diagnosis?
Suffering is a great mystery with no pat answers. Job’s three friends tried to moralize it. We will never understand our own or anyone else’s. We live in a fallen world but God’s Word teaches us that He is sovereign over all our suffering and it is meant somehow for our good as His children either to discipline or refine us. The Lord reigns! I have also been drawn deeper into the mystery of how God used suffering to redeem us by the suffering of Jesus and see that his grace is sufficient.
What do you consider to be your greatest accomplishment, and what is the legacy you hope to leave?
I really do not feel that I could say there is any accomplishment because I recognize that everything is a gift of God’s grace and meant to point to Him and His glory, not me. I would hope my legacy is that I have lived for Him and shared His love and grace with others for His glory.