Devastating Disappointment, and the Continuing Story
As I mentioned in ending Part One, it is inevitably true for roller coaster aficionados that thrill rides are at their best when they give you surprises. With God being both the designer of life’s roller coaster and the one at the controls, we should expect to encounter rides replete with surprises. Sometimes those surprises are initially delightful and sometimes they are initially disappointing, occasionally devastatingly so. You can guess which type I experienced when my cancer diagnosis was reversed, right? You will likely assume what the nature of my disappointment was as well, but you won’t get that part right until you read this article. But it was for me a devasting experience that put me back in the pits. God knows that we can never appreciate the exhilarations of life without visiting the pits occasionally at least. After such a visit recently in my cancer saga, I deleted both the article and the Facebook post of February 8. The article is now republished along with this second one, which means God has continued to work on my mind, heart and soul (successfully).
The Most Basic Principle
In Part One, I mentioned a principle that might have been passed over too briefly. The principle begins with the premise that life on planet earth is not only brief but highly significant – a preparation ground for eternity with God. This being true, God is constantly attempting to mold us into his own character so that heaven might be, well, heaven, with like-minded beings totally connected. This development process centers around building faith in a God who is good and only good, and whose love for us is unfathomable. But how does that faith come and then become a growing process through all the days of our lives? It must be tested over and over and over. The testing is the fundamental method of developing and strengthening our faith. Hence the roller coaster ride analogy. I know of none better, at least to me as a lover of roller coasters.
I keep making one fundamental mistake in how I view this most basic principle. It provides a life lesson with many applications. I keep putting periods when God is using commas. That’s what we do in the midst of struggles. We see the struggle as the final result, and it ain’t good! All the while God is saying, “Patience, patience – we aren’t done yet; the solution is coming, and you will get through it.” In my present situation, I get past one challenge, the scary part of the ride, sometimes absolutely terrifying, and want to put a period on it. End of ride. Challenge met and challenge over. I keep making that mistake. Don’t you? But when we do that, we forget the principle – God builds faith precisely by testing it. And that principle demands a constant series of commas, not periods. Let’s just be happy to see the occasional semicolon when the challenges are spaced out with some needed pauses inserted to allow us time to process the challenges and get ready for the next one. God knows exactly what he is doing in your life. Chill out and try to enjoy the ride. You are strapped in with him as your safety belt. You will be jerked halfway out of your seat at times, but the safety belt will never break.
An Ice Storm? Really?
I didn’t forget one scary part of my earlier ride, but I did leave it out of Part One, due to space and the length of the article already. But since it was to me a significant part of the adventure God was determined to provide, I will include it now. After the exhilarating revelation that my very important test series was amazingly moved up from February 14 to February 3, I was relieved and elated. Peace had arrived, so I put in a period. Challenge over in one regard at least. But God then said, “Oh yeah? Watch this!” As the new date of testing approached, something else also approached – the worst weather day of the year, an ice storm. “Lord, you have got to be kidding! How can this be happening?” It quickly became obvious that driving from my house in North Dallas to the hospital near downtown Dallas was going to be literally impossible. It was predicted to start raining the evening before my test day and by midnight, the temperature would start dropping into the 20’s. Good grief, Charlie Brown! I thought roller coasters had some lower heights and gentler curves somewhere. Maybe so, but obviously not yet.
Being determined to take those tests, my mind started racing in looking for solutions. I thought of finding a hotel near the hospital, near enough so that I could walk to it if necessary. In looking at a map of the area, I discovered the closest hotel about a mile away and booked it for two nights. Not only was it nearby, it was cheap. Great! After I booked it, I decided to take a look at the reviews by former guests. Uh Oh! It was in a bad area and most reviews mentioned drug dealers and fearful nights full of loud talking by numerous people doing drug deals. Great location for my purposes, but a scary location in a bad part of town. Oh well, you can’t have everything go your way, right? It was a scary place, obviously built originally as an apartment complex with lots of separate buildings containing four one-bedroom suites apiece. When I walked into the lobby to check in, I encountered a younger man, a black one for those of you with racial presuppositions, dressed in street clothes with a glock in a holster strapped to his side. That didn’t alarm me, actually. It’s the hidden pistols that concern me. I asked him if he were an officer, and as expected, he answered in the affirmative. He explained that this was a rough part of town, and he did some patrolling here regularly. Those reviews weren’t wrong.
The weather report was also regrettably accurate. Ice covered the roads by morning. Fortunately, some sleet had also fallen, making driving slightly more plausible. I left the hotel early, dressed warmly, determined to leave my car and walk if I couldn’t drive all the way to the hospital. Having lived in Boston for sixteen years, I wasn’t a novice at driving on slick roads and I managed to make it all the way to the hospital without incident. My worst fears were of other drivers who didn’t have the same experiences of driving on frozen roads that I had. But only a few brave (or not-too-bright) souls had ventured out, and I managed to dodge those few.
I would like to say that God finally put a period or at least a semicolon on my day once I arrived at the hospital. No chance of that. I won’t go into the details, but nothing worked quite the way it should have. At one point, I ended up in the middle of a difference of opinion between my oncologist and the doctor in charge of my MRI regarding necessary preparations for the procedure. I will mention that the written instructions from the MRI department itself failed to include instructions for those preparations, which I pulled up on my phone and showed to the nurse. Oh, well… The nurses of the two doctors went back and forth to their respective doctors and me for some time until the MRI specialist finally asked to talk to me on the phone. It was a weird process which shouldn’t have happened, but I finally decided to go with the MRI guy since I was in his house at the time, his department.
I stayed calm but registered my concern that a medical facility with their reputation should never have such an issue arise in the first place. No one disagreed with me, and they assured me that it would be addressed and corrected for the future. The delays involved resulted in a long day, just under seven hours, to take one blood test and two scans. But by then, I was pretty much expecting the unexpected. My thrill ride continued. Back to the hotel, I was thankful that the weather kept most people holed up inside rather than engaging in their usual activities in that place. The main roads were clear enough by the next afternoon to drive home on mostly clear roads, although the news stations were repeatedly urging people not to drive unless absolutely necessary. For me, it was absolutely necessary. I had had enough – time to go home, and I did.
The Nature of My Disappointment
The secondary title of this present article includes the term, “devastating disappointment.” If you assumed that the disappointment was finding out I still had cancer after three tests saying otherwise, you would assume wrongly. Oddly, the diagnosis of cancer was not that big a deal to me. Quite a number of other diagnoses would have hit me emotionally a lot harder than a cancer diagnosis. I’m not quite sure why that is the case, but it has been from the beginning to the present. Maybe it’s because I know a number of cancer survivors, although my father and many other relatives and friends have died from cancer. Maybe it’s because I have lived my fourscore years already, counting my time in my mother’s womb. I’m old enough to die at what most would consider a “ripe old age.” So grateful for that fact. Really grateful. Really blessed.
In this present situation, my biggest disappointment was informing hundreds or thousands of people who had prayed for me that the “no cancer” diagnosis had proved to be premature and inaccurate. As I stated somewhere along the way, my oncologist requested the pathology slides from my former surgeon just to make sure. Once those were reexamined, the cancer was present as expected, but no margins were found. That being the case, I was referred to a surgeon to take a closer look and have another tissue sample tested. Once again, the cancer showed up, although it was seemingly confined to a small space and had not spread. Their concern was not only what was discovered, but what might have been present and not discovered – microscopic cancer cells in the surrounding area. Thus, the next step recommended was to have the area treated with both radiation and chemotherapy. That was the original recommendation before I went to UT Southwestern, so we hadn’t lost any ground. We had actually gained ground by discovering more about the cancer, since the chemo treatment is now going to be milder than the other medical oncology practice had prescribed.
But here was what disturbed me the most, by a wide margin. By announcing the “no cancer” test results, many people who had prayed for me were using the term “miraculous” in answer to their prayers. Honestly, we need to believe in the power of prayer to move God to answer them, at times answering miraculously. I didn’t want the reversal in diagnosis to hurt the faith of those dear to me, to put it bluntly. I pray that this “partial” reversal doesn’t discourage any who have prayed and will continue to pray for me. Personally, I am holding on to the principle mentioned earlier: building faith demands testing faith. I can handle that truth. I’ve had lots of practice through nearly eight decades of life, most of those decades spent walking with God. I understand the principle and the process – most of the time, at least in looking back at it. My hindsight is better than my foresight, to be sure, but somewhere in the processes, the light bulb comes back on and I see clearly once again. I greatly appreciate all of the prayers offered for my health challenge, pre-diagnosis and post-diagnosis. I believe they made a difference. The tests could have shown a much more aggressive form of cancer and one that had spread throughout my body. Although I am dreading the upcoming treatments with their potential side effects, the prognosis is good. I have faith that the cancer will be stopped. Keep praying for that result, please.
Looking for the Big Picture View
No human being has all of the answers to life, and death. I can explain why bad things happen to good people, at least reasonably well on an intellectual basis. But when you are the one to whom bad things happen unexplainably, the emotional understanding and acceptance is the real challenge. No pat answers will do in those moments, nor will any answers totally satisfy. Much in life remains a mystery, which is why we must live by faith and not by sight (2 Corinthians 5:7). Although we are inclined to ask, “Why me?” when tragedy strikes, the Christian would do better asking, “Why not me?” We are prepared, and thus we trust by faith these statements of Paul.
For none of us lives for ourselves alone, and none of us dies for ourselves alone. 8 If we live, we live for the Lord; and if we die, we die for the Lord. So, whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord. 9 For this very reason, Christ died and returned to life so that he might be the Lord of both the dead and the living.
2 Corinthians 5:6-9
Therefore we are always confident and know that as long as we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord. 7 For we live by faith, not by sight. 8 We are confident, I say, and would prefer to be away from the body and at home with the Lord. 9 So we make it our goal to please him, whether we are at home in the body or away from it.
I eagerly expect and hope that I will in no way be ashamed, but will have sufficient courage so that now as always Christ will be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death. 21 For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.
Fairly recently, I watched a sad but very inspirational movie. One scene in the movie was especially helpful. The movie is “Greater,” and I would urge you strongly to see it. It is a spiritual movie based on a true story, quite inspiring. The scene to which I refer is when a mother and her oldest son are talking about the death of her youngest son and the kid brother of the older son. The son in the scene was struggling mightily with his faith in God and expressing his doubts angrily to his mother. She at one point simply said something to this effect: “Son, there are things we don’t understand and will never understand on this side because we cannot see the big picture that God sees.” That has helped me more than I would have imagined, including in my present health struggle. I don’t ask “Why?” much anymore, because I know I have but little slivers of the big picture. God has it all. But prior to playing the end game and reaching home, we as believers are equipped to handle whatever challenges come our way, simply because we see enough of God to know what life is about.
Understanding the Mystery of Miracles
In my Facebook post on February 8, giving a health update, here are a few comments from it (since it was later deleted as a result of the altered diagnosis). “Back to the call yesterday. None of the tests showed any cancer. The doctor is looking for answers, requesting the actual pathology slides to have her pathology department read them. She is also having me see a surgeon to examine me and make sure there is no suspicious tissue that could later develop into cancer. For them, it is understandably a mystery. Not for me. Your prayers moved God and he answered them. He doesn’t always answer with a yes and one day he will have to say no to other prayers to sustain my life, but not this time. I have been waiting to have more information before posting an update. I have it and now you have it. May God bless each of you in unexpected ways, as he has me.”
Since those conclusions turned out to not be entirely accurate, I removed both that FB post and the article (now called Part One and republished). I was perplexed and perturbed, but almost entirely about how to explain this unexpected phenomenon to my readers and friends who had prayed so much for me to be healed. I write and preach to build faith and encourage, not to do anything that might negatively affect those goals. My dilemma led to some wrestling with God, as such challenges usually do. It is a part of the faith tested, faith increased, process. I live on the roller coaster of life with its ups and downs. Sometimes the ride pauses long enough to allow for a wrestling match between me and God, to use mixed metaphors. He always wins but knowing that doesn’t stop the match. Thankfully, it usually shortens it. This one lasted for just under two weeks. I wish it had lasted less time, but I just couldn’t get there. I at times wished that the “no cancer” report had never come, setting up expectations that proved to be invalid. But God is always in the middle of the process. I just had to get okay with that once again and to trust him.
Miracles have more than one definition. Most think of them as instantaneous and otherwise impossible changes, like the healings we read about in the earthly ministry of Jesus. I call these direct miracles. Then we have what I call providential miracles. These can be identified as events that could not have occurred coincidentally but had to be orchestrated by God in his providential working together of the details. The old saying that the devil is in the details is an interesting concept, and can be true when humans make bad choices. But mark this down as an absolute certainty: God is in the details. I have always felt that providential miracles were the greatest type. Just doing a direct miracle instantaneously is impressive, and I do believe that God still does those at times. I have examples from personal observation and sometimes personal participation. But for me, I am more impressed with providential miracles, for they involve humans with freedom of choice and details too intricate to even grasp.
In my initial cancer free diagnosis, I wasn’t sure which category the apparent healing miracle fit. I had one possible explanation involving what would have been an inadvertent removal of the cancer by my first surgeon in collecting tissue for pathology. That would have fallen into the providential miracle category. And then, of course, the other possibility would have involved a direct miracle. I didn’t care which it was at the time. Hearing “no cancer” was enough for me. My first thought upon finding out that that diagnosis was replaced by “little cancer” was simply contemplating how others might be affected by hearing it after expectations had been raised through the initial diagnosis. For me, these back-and-forth diagnoses have been going on for months now. I’m used to them and probably will need to remain used to them. I just didn’t want others to be hurt or disappointed. That was my primary concern and still is. It accounted for my wrestling match and ultimately for this present article. I want us all to develop a bigger picture of life and death, mine and eventually yours.
The Bigger Picture…
Only God has the big picture, but we must strive to enlarge our own picture, combining what God said in the Bible and what we allow our experiences to teach us. On January 1, in keeping with what my home church was doing in making out lists of impossible prayers, miracle prayers, I wrote my list. The first thing on my list was that I not have cancer, but that if I did, it could be cured. A later item on that list involved my thinking processes, described thusly: “To eliminate negative thinking by looking at best case scenarios rather than worst case scenarios, and to see positive ways of viewing things that appear negative. If something ends up being negative, let it come as a surprise because I will be looking for best case scenarios.”
After my list of impossible prayers was another list with this subheading: “Miracle Sightings and Spiritual Insights.” Near the top of that list, on Sunday, January 2, as I was anxiously (too anxiously) awaiting the initial pathology reports, I wrote this: “I may need cancer to help me spiritually or to help others through my experience. I have seen both happen with friends and heard of both happening in the lives of others many times. If this is your will, Father, please increase my faith enough to help me handle it well.” This insight gave me the opportunity to put into practice the above concept of looking for best case scenarios rather than worst case ones. It took some work to get there, but by God’s grace, I have.
Many have prayed for my healing, and still are. They are asking for cancer to not have the final word in what ends my life. Good prayer. Thank you for it. I pray for that result too. But there are many more important aspects to the bigger picture. One may well be that I and others need spiritual healing far more than physical healing. My cancer journey thus far has taken me to places with God I have never been before. My prayer is that my example will affect others similarly in their journey with him too.
I don’t know all of what God has planned for this bigger picture. I know that some of it involves my relationship with him. I believe that some of it includes my preparation for my eventual death, whenever and however it may come. I’ll have more to say about that one in a moment. I believe that some of that bigger picture involves how my having cancer will affect others in various ways. Recently I received a call from a woman at the medical center to set up an appointment with my chemotherapy specialist. We talked for 30 minutes, not a normal conversation for her I am sure. I started a spiritual discussion that took on a life of its own. It ended up with me going to my appointment (of which she was a part) and my giving her two of my books, one of which she had requested. During the appointment about the technicalities of chemo treatment, she shared what she and I had talked about with the doctor, which pulled him into the discussion. Where will that all lead? I don’t know, but God knows.
Then a few days ago, I went in for my final scan, a mapping scan to help determine exactly where the radiation treatments will be aimed. This visit began with a nurse collecting my vitals. Then came the IV nurse to puncture my arm once more. Then another person to explain and have me sign permission documents. (Does anyone actually read those?) Then came the two scan specialists to put me in that big apparatus, explain the process and carry it out. Then came my oncologist’s PA and finally the oncologist herself. Maybe there were more. Starting spiritual conversations is second nature to me, and I did it repeatedly with everyone who had to deal with me, or nearly everyone. What will come of that? I don’t know, but God knows. How many people have I shared my faith with thus far as a result of developing cancer? How many will I yet share my faith with due to having this disease? Do you not think this is all a part of God’s bigger picture?
So how bad is it to still have cancer? Gee, I don’t know that it is bad at all. It has already accomplished some really good things in my life with God. I wouldn’t give them up to be rid of the cancer, that much I know for sure. I also know that many spiritual seeds are being sown with many different medical people. One of them may wake up one morning facing the biggest challenge of their life and think of the old crazy preacher guy that they just cared for recently and try to figure out how to get back in touch with me. With many of my books listed on Amazon and having two web sites, it wouldn’t take a lot of effort on their parts to find me. Plus, I give out cards with my web sites and phone numbers listed. God does work in mysterious ways, his wonders to perform. I love that old hymn with those words in it, and I love having seen God do it in my life time and time again. There is a much bigger picture than we now see, but I have no doubt that God will keep revealing more of it to us, especially if we are looking for it. There is a God who sees, wants to be seen and most certainly can be seen. And finally, we have one more part of the bigger picture to consider.
The Final Road Home
I am a teacher. God gifted me to be a teacher and called me to use that gift. I have used it all over the world for many, many years. As I watch the news and the reports about the current Ukraine conflict, I weep. Theresa and I made many trips to Kiev to teach the Bible to the ministry staff, the shepherding students from all over the old Soviet Union countries and to the average members in the church. We poured our hearts out doing so and loved it immensely. It was a rare privilege. But it was only one example of that rare privilege being enjoyed in teaching about God and his plan for our lives. In Acts 20:27, Paul said that he had “not hesitated to proclaim to you the whole will of God.” That is my calling as well.
I have spent the years trying to teach the whole counsel of God, focusing primarily on teaching others how to live. Before I pack it in, I have the responsibility and opportunity to also teach others how to die. Some might be thinking, “Gordon, that’s morbid!” The dictionary might agree, with this definition: “characterized by or appealing to an abnormal and unhealthy interest in disturbing and unpleasant subjects, especially death and disease.” But I most certainly do not agree that these subjects are morbid. They are a part of life. Something will stop our heart and we will leave this realm and journey into the next. None of us are exempt. God is trying to prepare us for life and for death. I am a teacher and I want to be used by God to do my best to help you with both parts. That’s not morbid; that’s life, life with God.
My fellow teacher and friend, Douglas Jacoby, recently set up a phone conversation with me just to catch up and see how I was doing. I think he knew by then that I had cancer. He told me about a book that a man wrote about his life which was in the process of winding to a close through a terminal disease. Doug suggested that if the cancer was going to take me down that road, I could contribute to helping people by following a similar course. I appreciated his suggestion and awoke the next morning with a title in mind, which I wrote into a document designed as a book cover. “Cancer – From Diagnosis to Death” Unless I die suddenly, I will write that book in some form or another, even if death comes from something besides cancer. You are going to die too, and I want to do it well in order to help you do it well. I have been blessed to see some do it admirably and inspiringly. I want to follow their example so that you can follow mine.
We must come to peace with our mortality. It most often is going to be a process. If we are fortunate enough to live to an old age, aging itself should usher in the process. One of my great friends during our Phoenix years was Jerry Jones. We served as elders for some years after the initial appointment of elders in the church there. Jerry was a classic disciple of Jesus, although he was converted later in life. He had such a soft heart, but such a courageous heart. We faced some tough times during several years when the church was going through a firestorm. Jerry was a rare bird as a leader. I taught repeatedly and insistently that as leaders, we couldn’t let concerns about reactions and responses determine the decisions we made and the paths we chose, but only what was right and what was righteous before God. Jerry in response was all in, like few leaders are capable of being, conflict avoidance and sentimentality being what they are. I couldn’t have made it through those tough years without him. I was blessed to speak at his memorial last year on the one-year anniversary of his death.
His view of death was beautiful. Once when I was with him and his wonderful wife, Karen, on a trip to serve in an orphanage just over the Arizona border in Mexico, he asked me a question. He said something to this effect, “Given our ages, you and Theresa do talk about what to do when one of you croaks, don’t you?” I burst out laughing and when I later shared his question with Theresa, she just cackled. After that, she bought him birthday cards with pictures of frogs on the front and the inside captions saying in some form, “Glad you haven’t croaked yet!” But he did croak. He was in the hospital on dialysis when he decided it was his time. He came home to die and did within a few days. The last time I called to speak to him, Karen said that he was asleep and had only brief periods of being lucid when awake, but that if he had another such period, she would call. He did and she did. Jerry and I had such a wonderful talk and he encouraged me greatly. He died the next day. I was his teacher, but he taught me that day about dying well, a lesson that I want to pass on to others.
In a wonderful book entitled, “An Aging Grace,” edited by and written in by Jeanie Shaw and many others, I wrote two chapters. Although that was only about seven years ago, I was not in the best place to write about aging and death. Yet, those were the topics Jeanie assigned me. God has such a sense of humor, as does Jeanie. You should read the book, and I think you will enjoy my two chapters. I am nothing if not candid in them. My title for chapter two of the book was, “Aging Grace, How Sweet the Sound?” and my title for chapter thirty-four, the final chapter, was, “The Best Is Yet to Be.” I needed to write those chapters, for they were a part of my preparation for playing my own end game. What I wrote then I fully believed intellectually but hadn’t fully reached the point of accepting it emotionally. I’m there now, thanks to cancer – a part of the bigger picture. I close with a quote from the last section of that final chapter.
As it is with aging, death is all a matter of perspective—seeing the material world or seeing the spiritual world. Both are real, but the former one just barely so by comparison. It’s a nice place to hang out for a few decades, but it’s merely a launching pad to the really real world. I’m thankful to have lived on planet earth, but I was here for only one main reason: to get prepared for blastoff to the next. A baby in the womb is comfortable and peaceful, and when they start to make their entrance into a big new world, it is probably very scary. Life in the womb of this earth is sometimes comfortable and peaceful, and the thought of leaving it might still be a bit scary. But let’s allow it to be scary in the same way that astronauts must feel as the flames of rocket fuel start pushing them into a world they have heretofore only imagined.
The God Who Sees and Wants to be Seen
After I was diagnosed with cancer January 5, 2022, I posted a request for prayers on my Facebook page to my 5,000 FB friends. For years, I have prayed through a long prayer list kept on my computer, asking God to bless specific people with all kinds of needs, some of whom I didn’t know personally, along with their families and all who were impacted by their situation. I believe that simply the mention of their names and problems to God makes a difference. On the days when doing this seems a bit laborious, after having finished my personal prayer times, I always had this thought: one day I am going to be in a serious situation in which I am going to want my name brought before God’s throne by as many as possible. With that motivation, I always get past my selfishness and respond to the Golden Rule of Jesus and pray through my list.
That “one day” became Wednesday, January 5th. The response to my request has been overwhelming. I can’t stop crying right now as I write this. God has been kind beyond comprehension in giving me so many friends. At my age, most of them are as my spiritual children. They care deeply and want to help, just like my physical son and his family. Bryan and Joy asked us to move close to them, for two reasons. One, to enjoy their three sons as kids more, since they had lived in Hawaii for 25 years and the boys were fast approaching adulthood. When we moved to Dallas at the end of 2014, a mile from where they now live, Bryce (Bryce Gordon, by the way) was in high school, Blayze was in middle school and Ronan was in elementary school. Watching them grow into men has been indeed special.
Two, they wanted to help take care of us as age takes its toll on us, which it inevitably does. Bryan has the heart of a natural caretaker, as does Joy, who is also a nurse. Although we haven’t yet needed much help from them yet, they still look for opportunities to give it. We are ever so thankful that our son and daughter by marriage (daughter-in-law doesn’t work for us) wanted us close by. It has been very special. Right now, God has seen fit to bless us with many who share that same heart for us, and it is very humbling and wonderful beyond words. The scope of our blessings far surpasses anything we deserve, especially me, which speaks volumes about God and the impact of Jesus upon the lives of those whom he has brought into our lives.
Into a Writer’s Mind
I do a lot of prayer journaling. As a writer, I can express my feelings better through typing than through speaking or writing with pen and paper. On most days, I don’t save what I write. It is very personal and not something I would want others to read, for a number of reasons. You understand that I imagine. Because of the wild emotional and spiritual roller coaster ride that started on January 5th, with its unexpected twists and turns, I knew instinctively that I needed to save what I wrote. In this case, I wanted to keep a record of the events and my prayers in response to those events. I thought of titles for two different books in the process, in which to include what I was writing as a framework for them at some future point.
Some of what I wrote in this present long account will probably end up a part of at least one book, but that isn’t why I wrote it. I wrote it because I felt compelled to record what God was doing in my life, the insights I was gaining and the spiritual growth I was experiencing. I was unburdening my heart and having my heart filled by God at the very same time. It has been a life-changing journey thus far. On February 7th, which happened to fall on the 19th birthday of our fourth grandson, Cody, who lives in Arizona, I received the results of two scans and a key blood test. No cancer. (As you will later see, this diagnosis was soon revised to “not much cancer,” not a welcome development, but one in which I must trust that God has his reasons. The continuing story is found in Part Two of this article.)
As I mentioned in a FB post a day later, that report put me in shock. I did have the faith as I prayed beforehand that it was not only possible that God might heal me, but probable. Prayers offered by so many people all over the world simply had to make a difference. That said, it was still a shock. After sharing the details with Theresa about it all, putting her in shock with me, I went on a long prayer walk. At one point along the way, and I remember exactly where I was at the time, a thought hit me that caused me to burst into tears. It was not produced by a sense of relief that I didn’t have cancer, although I was understandably very, very relieved. It wasn’t caused by a heightened feeling of gratitude, although I was filled with gratitude.
That overwhelming thought was the realization of how much the past month had changed me spiritually. I told God that I would not eliminate a single thing in that wild and scary ride or change it in any way. I told him that I would rather have the cancer back than lose what I had gained spiritually. And I meant every word of it. I still mean it. Being in my 80th year of life means that I am nearing my end anyway. When that comes, I won’t feel any differently than I do now about life and death. The real me, the part made in God’s image, doesn’t age. Only the body ages and passes away. Plus, time goes by fast. I will be on death’s door soon enough. Staying alive on planet earth isn’t the big issue or anywhere close to it. Staying close to God and falling more and more in love with him is the big issue. Actually, it’s about the only issue.
Enter the Big “C” Word
Cancer. That’s a really scary word to most people. I remember being with my dad when the doctor told him he had cancer. Hearing it almost took my breath away. Daddy and I were really close. He lived another six years, but that word always hung in the air when I was with him. It was a tough six years for him and for those who watched him endure treatments and surgeries. In June of last year, I had my third rectal surgery. The pathology reports began as indecisive but later progressed to a diagnosis of adenocarcinoma. At the initial indecisive stage, the surgeon said that she needed to go back in and get a deeper sample, and she would get the best margins she could in an attempt to get all of the cancer if it were cancer. Oddly perhaps, hearing that wasn’t scary to me at the time. I simply told the doctor that we all have a shelf life, and I was almost 79 at the time and had lived a very blessed life. I always think of the old version of Psalm 90:10, “The days of our years are threescore years and ten; and if by reason of strength they be fourscore years, yet is their strength labour and sorrow; for it is soon cut off, and we fly away.” After that surgery ten days later, the pathology report came back clear.
She wanted to see me again every few months to remove tissue in her office for continuing tests. It was after the second of those on December 29th that led to the call on January 5th saying that I did have adenocarcinoma and would need to start treatment by oncologists. She was pretty positive about radiation being able to cure it and was going to have an oncology service contact me for an appointment. At that point, I was amazingly calm and at peace. Surrendered. I slept like a baby that night. A part of that peace was my “impossible” prayer list those in my church were encouraged to write in conjunction with reading Kit Cummings’ book, “Forty Days of Prayer.” The first item on my list was to not have cancer, but that if I did, that it would be God’s way of exposing it early so it could be treated successfully. The second item on that prayer list started with the words, “More importantly,” followed by a request that no matter what happened with the cancer, up to and including a terminal stage of it, that I would trust God and his timing implicitly and unquestionably. So, in any case, my prayers were being answered and I was at peace, a truly wonderful feeling, that peace that surpasses human understanding described in Philippians 4:7.
That peace lasted just over twenty-four hours and was beautiful while it lasted. However, that was soon to change and change radically. I decided to call Mark Mancini, a fellow minister and longtime friend, the next afternoon just to find out how the radiation affects you. He did cover that, for his surgery had failed to remove all of the margins of his cancer, thus necessitating the radiation treatment. His situation reminded me of my father’s surgery that ultimately led to his death, a result of the surgeon not removing all of the margins, leaving cancer where it shouldn’t have been. I couldn’t help wondering if that might be true in my own case as well, an unsettling thought. But back to the unexpected direction in my conversation with Mark. His main emphasis was his absolute insistence that I contact the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center for a second opinion. To say that he was pushy would be to make an understatement. He wouldn’t let up on that one, which left me very disturbed at the end of the call. I felt like I got robbed of my surrendered sense of peace. I was very troubled and unsettled. I was actually ticked off at Mark, a dear friend.
The question that came to mind at this point is the one that has come up hundreds of times when circumstances seem difficult or impossible to interpret. Was this just another test of my surrender, since I was definitely surrendered prior to the call, or was this a circumstance designed by God to lead me in another direction? I believe God has sent both my way hundreds of times. I hate the feeling that my wisdom, human wisdom, is in the driver’s seat and it’s up to me to make the right choices in serious situations. I just despise the idea, a popular one with many people (especially the driven, successful types), that “If it is to be, it is up to me.” No, no, no – not that! I want it to be, “If it is to be, it must be up to Thee.” But there I was, caught between two choices in interpreting the talk with Mark – a test of surrender or a circumstance designed to lead me in another direction, a needed one. Oh no! Not again!
The Wrestling Match Continues
Like Jacob of old (Genesis 32), I was wrestling with God, but not fully realizing it yet. For the next several days, I was up and down and all around. Fortunately, those days were very busy ones, occupying my mind (mostly) with other things. Theresa had two doctor appointments the next day and I had to prepare to deliver a lesson on Zoom the next day, Saturday, for a conference in London. Thankfully, my lesson went well in spite of the disturbance in the force (a la Star Wars). Those events were helpful just as distractions if nothing else. I watched lots of football that weekend, an NFL playoff weekend, providing more distraction for which I was grateful. But underneath the surface, I remained filled with angst. On Tuesday morning, I had a virtual appointment with the oncology radiologist, which generally went well. The proposed treatment sounded about like I expected, and the doctor seemed nice enough and competent enough, answering all my questions well. There was just a hint of arrogance on his part that made me a bit nervous (God opposes the proud – James 4:6). Otherwise, it was good.
I think it may have been the next morning that I woke up with the memory of what a perky, petite redheaded doctor had said in reply to a question I asked her years ago after she had just performed a sigmoidoscopy on me. My curiosity about what would motivate a doctor to pursue a specialty in dealing with this part of the body led me to ask, “Why would a doctor go into this line of work?” A few years earlier, I had asked this same question to another doctor in a similar circumstance, also a female physician, and it flustered her. She just said, “That’s a good question” and left the room (and didn’t come back).
The little redhead, whose husband was the head of that department, wasn’t flustered in the least. “Easy answer,” said she. “If you catch this kind of cancer early, you get it every time!” Out of the clear blue that memory appeared. I thought of John 14:26 where Jesus promised the apostles that the Holy Spirit would bring things to their remembrance. I know that this was a promise to them of the Spirit doing it in a miraculous inspired sense, but I have long believed that for all of the miraculous gifts of the Spirit, there are non-miraculous counterparts. So, in my mind, I had such a blessing that early morning to ease my mind. It was a special beginning to the day, a needed one.
That Fateful Thursday
On Wednesday, one week after my talk with Mark, I called Mike Isenberg, my friend in church who is a PA (physician assistant). He listened carefully and said that continuity with my present doctors was important if I trusted them and that he thought either place could do the needed job. He did say that UT Southwestern was a great place, but that he didn’t think I could make a wrong decision either way. In other words, both would be competent to do the job well. That was reassuring, as Mike always is, and tilted me back toward feeling good about staying the original course. I even told my sister on the phone that I was almost certainly going to do that and quit being torn between the two. I felt much more settled out. The only question in the back of my mind was prompted by some underlying feelings about my surgeon. While I liked her and mostly trusted her, the confusion about the first pathology report and the failure to take out a little lump that I could feel myself and had told her about several times stayed in the back of my mind. However, I was pretty much settled out about my present fairly firm decision and still a little ticked off at Mark’s pushiness.
Since the next day was nice day outside and I hadn’t walked for a while due to the residual pain after my last tissue removal for pathology, I decided to take a walk. My wound was mostly healed by then, thankfully. As I walked out of the house, I saw my neighbors pull up and start getting out of their car. We have a little cottage in East Texas across the street from a lake and they live on the lake. Robin isn’t out in the front yard nearly as often as Harry and knowing that she had been through cancer treatment recently, I wanted to show her a calm, faithful reaction to having cancer to encourage her. So, we talked. I found out that she had radiation for her breast cancer that put it in remission or eliminated it. Then I had to ask, “Where did you get your treatment?” Of course it was UT Southwestern – of course it was! And like Mark, she gushed about doing research and UT SW being the cat’s meow. She wasn’t as pushy as Mark, but just as gushy. Okay, unsettledness again. Ugh! The big question popped into my mind once more: test of surrender or circumstantial guidance of the Holy Spirit? Aaaggghhh!!!
Then I continued my walk. Danny and Jynae, neighbors opposite our garage, were out in their yard talking over some construction plans they had for their house. I’ve probably not said ten words to Jynae before, and her being out in the front yard was rare. Those on the lake usually hang out in their back yards for obvious reasons, but there they both were. They asked how I was doing, and in my reply, I included the cancer diagnosis and upcoming radiation treatment. Danny said that they had a good friend who just finished with that type of treatment. Keep in mind that I’m talking to people out in the countryside nearly 100 miles from that medical center.
Where their friend lived, I had no idea. They could have lived anywhere in the world. But of course I had to ask the question, right? Of course. When I did, Jynae answered, since it was her female friend who had been treated. By now you can easily guess the answer. UT Southwestern, followed by more glowing reports of this place being the best of the best, with people coming from all over to go there for cancer treatment. Amazing, simply amazing! Where were the odds of this being mere circumstance – both women being out in their front yards on the same day at the same time – in the winter at that? I’d never seen it before. With both women having the same story about UT Southwestern too?
I See You Now, God
Okay, give-up time, God. I’ll seriously start looking into the option of getting a second opinion. I began calling that afternoon, but that wasn’t a good initial experience. I pushed my phone key #1 two different times, the option for new patients, and the woman who answered sounded muffled and not nearly on top of her game. Disappointing. Nothing like Mark and Robin had described. I was in a bad place emotionally, to put it mildly, although I didn’t show it to avoid unsettling my dear wife. I didn’t sleep well that night and felt drained when I woke up the next morning. Otherwise, the morning went okay. I had the virtual appointment with the medical oncologist, the chemo doctor. She was very pleasant and explained things well and answered my questions thoroughly. But the amount of chemo she described was disturbing. The one positive thing that the call did accomplish was that I was even more motivated to get a second opinion. I did not like the sound of the treatment described and wanted that second opinion.
That same morning as we started heading back to Dallas and Theresa’s two medical appointments, I called UT Southwestern once more, pushing the #1 button for new patients. The same woman answered and still sounded muffled, so I pulled off the road in an effort to try understanding what she was saying. It was frustrating and I got nowhere. Not good. I dropped Theresa off at the medical facility for her appointment and tried to take a nap in the car. I was too geared up to sleep. I called UT Southwestern again, either in the parking lot or right after arriving home, intending to apologize for being a pest but just wanting to see if I had done all I could to push the process forward. I simply could not get through. The woman or the system finally just hung up on me. Aaaggghhh! Again! But by then I was determined to try once more, and this time I pushed the button for “existing patients.” When a woman answered, whose name I found out to be Rosie, I explained that I wasn’t an existing patient but was trying hard to become one and was hitting roadblocks. She was the type person Mark and Robin described – precisely. She was super nice and super helpful. I had the thought that she might be an angel. Seriously. She was that good. From there we got the balls rolling in several directions.
She fairy quickly said that she knew exactly which doctor I should see and if everything fell into place, she might be able to schedule me on Wednesday (five days later). Timing meant a lot to me. If cancer metastasizes, it has to begin at a certain point in time, right? That seems logical. Ahh! Good news, finally. After finding out the referrals and reports they required, I started doing my part. It was Friday afternoon and their admitting department was about to close for a long weekend, since MLK Day was on Monday. But Rosie assured me that if I could get everything in by early Tuesday morning, she would make it happen for that Wednesday appointment. Getting in to see specialists just doesn’t happen that way, and I speak from experience. It was almost too good to be true and thus difficult to trust what I had been told.
However, I was set on doing my part as best I could. They wanted reports and referrals from both my surgeon and my primary care physician. I sent written messages through the internet portals of both. I made phone calls and left voicemails, including one to the nurse of my primary care doctor and another to their remote emergency nurse. Then I thought of pushing the button for contacts from doctors or hospitals. When a live person answered that line, I told her that I was calling on behalf of the Simmons Cancer Center at UT Southwestern (sorta true). I explained what was going on and she said she would send it over, hopefully that same afternoon (late Friday afternoon).
The pieces all seem to be falling into place, good places. So far so good, although gut-wrenching at times. Just about then, it hit me that the answer to the question of whether the situation was surrender being tested or the Spirit leading me in another direction was both/and, not either/or. I looked up and said, “Good one, Lord. I hope you are enjoying this. I’m starting to. You are doing your thing again, jumping out from behind bushes to scare the liver out of me. Okay. I’ve still got a sense of humor and an appreciation of yours. We’re good for now. More to come, I’m sure.” I often talk to God, not just pray to him. Friends do that, right? (John 15:15)
Where is the Peace?
I was at that point thinking about what was keeping me from being surrendered and at peace again. God knows how much I love being there when I do get there. It is the greatest feeling on his green earth – an at-oneness with him that has no superiors. But I hadn’t had it recently, although by that Saturday, I got back close to it. I think my problem was that until I got the UT SW appointment nailed down completely, I couldn’t relax enough to be totally at peace. That realization disturbed me. Complete trust in a God who works everything together for good (Romans 8:28) should have produced peace in me. I’m slow to learn, no questioning that, thus slow to trust.
When will I ever learn that God will take care of the details if I will simply just let go and let God? Ferguson, you wrote a book on this. Why in the name of common sense don’t you listen to your better self? Goodness gracious! Trust is the issue. The call to Mark set me on my ear. But then the sequence afterwards should have put me in a good place, right? I made out a list of what God had done since that fateful call to Mark, a list of what should have stopped me from being untrusting and stupid. What’s the matter with you anyway, Gordon? Why don’t you stop this faithless stuff and quit going down rabbit holes? (Do you talk to yourself too?)
Without the absolutely pushiness of Mark, I wouldn’t have followed through. I needed to hear from Robin and Jynae too, but I wouldn’t have reached out to them without Mark’s getting under my skin. To top it off, Joy informed me that our mutual friend, Bethany Smith, got her treatment at UT SW too, which was confirmed by her husband Adam. He said a cancer specialist friend in another city advised them to always go to a place connected with a medical school – there you will find the latest and greatest doctors and procedures. I didn’t know that Joy even knew Bethany, much less about her cancer treatment. I didn’t beforehand. That was just one more layer on the cake God was baking.
What else could God possibly have done? Was it easy to get to a surrendered faith? No, but when is it ever with matters that really count? It shouldn’t be. It should be a journey of faith, and at times a challenging journey. God is a tester of faith because he is a builder of faith. Those two go together. They are actually inseparable. Thanks for persevering with me and revealing yourself to me, Lord. I wish I could see your hand faster with the eye of faith, but just so I end up seeing it, I’m good. And most appreciative. Hold on to me, Father. I’m a mess. But you are the God of unlimited patience who understands messes and loves us anyway. Thank you!
On Monday morning, I awoke on pins and needles once again. On my knees, I asked God’s forgiveness and strength to surrender again. After all that had fallen into place by God’s providence, why was I not at peace? I determined to call UT Southwestern at 9:30 just to make sure they hadn’t forgotten me and that the process hadn’t been somehow sidetracked. Rosie had promised to call me Tuesday morning. I at least decided to show minimal patience by waiting until 9:30 to call and tried to carry on with my normal morning routine. But I was not at peace. At 9:27, I needed to relieve my bladder, and as I was doing so to help three more minutes pass, the phone rang. The caller ID told the story. It was Rosie – my personal angel assigned me by God. She said she had been working on my case since 8 am and I was scheduled for the very next day.
That was an amazing morning. Surely it would all be downhill from there, right? Wrong! My roller coaster rides with God are never short and are always a combination or sheer terror and absolute exhilaration, as roller coaster rides should be. That’s why we buy the tickets in the first place, and whether we realized it or not at the time, confessing Jesus as Lord was our request for a ticket to ride and a guarantee that we would receive it. That being true, I (and you) need to stop complaining when it feels like we are coming off the tracks of this thing called life with God and just keep holding on for dear life. Periodic wild rides are part and parcel of what we signed up for in the first place.
A Surreal Doctor Visit (January 19th)
When I entered the examination room on that Wednesday, five days from my first contact with Rosie, the nurse came in first and did her thing. Then a resident doctor being trained in this specialty came in and we started talking. He was from Phoenix, where we had lived for nine years, and it turned out we had much in common. We had played many of the same golf courses in Phoenix, for one thing. I mentioned in our conversation that we had lived for sixteen years in Boston prior to moving to Phoenix. As he left the room, I told him it was really good to meet someone from where I had once lived, and he replied, “You will like the doctor then; she is from Boston.” Then entered that very impressive specialist from Boston, a Harvard Medical School graduate and a professor at the UT Southwestern Medical School, the largest medical school in Texas.
Her introductory question still gives me chills thinking back on it. How did you get here? I deduced from the question that new patients didn’t normally start with her. The right answer was God, of course, but working through lots of people and situations, not the least of which was Rosie. When I mentioned Rosie, the doctor laughed, realizing how I got there (from a human perspective). She knew Rosie well it seems. Just amazing, the whole sequence. God didn’t violate my free will – but almost. To say he influenced it or even strongly influenced it doesn’t do justice to what he actually did. Simply mind-boggling amazing!!! Wow, just wow! I knew it might not work out as well as I hoped. I also know that one day the other shoe must fall. It is appointed unto man once to die (Hebrews 9:27), and I wouldn’t have it any other way, because that fact of life (and death) is all wrapped up the greatest story ever told, the greatest story ever conceived, a story that man could not possibly invent nor even believe at the deepest level. It is too good to be true; too spectacular to be true. But by the eye of faith, we can know it is true anyway. The Creator dying for the created – (likely the most profound sentence you have ever read.)
So when the end does come, it will be okay. But as another good doctor said (my old friend, Mark Ottenweller), “I’m going to die – just not today!” Yea! Today I am alive and well and relieved and most grateful to the only One in the universe who deserves all the gratitude received and a googol more. Thank you, Abba! You outdid yourself on this one. Spectacular, and all of the other words that can try and fail to describe you and what you did that day. Praise your holy Name, the Name that is above every name, in heaven and on earth and under the earth. AMEN!
Prayer of January 20 – Wonderful Insights!
The thought hit me last night when Theresa came by my office door that she was the greatest miracle of all, that little angel God made especially for me and then made sure I got her. I began thinking about the millions upon millions of miracles that had to occur to make this most important of all human miracles occur, and it is totally mind-boggling. For God just to have put my mother and father together seems impossible – a church girl and a party boy and barroom brawler when they married. I hope to one day find out how they actually got together. I’m sure the details must be quite interesting. But anyway, the miracle of my little angel with whom I recently celebrated our 57th wedding anniversary is the greatest miracle of all on the human side of life. Thank you, thank you, thank you – beyond words again.
Another insight was about God me, and our relationship. 2021 was a tough year in some ways, but it was a great year for spiritual growth, needed growth, much needed growth, essential growth. God has given me so much evidence that he was guiding my life in all of its paths that it seems criminal to keep questioning whether he was going to do it “this” time (the current time at any point along life’s pathways). Then the thought that hit me is that my definition of surrender focuses on his Lordship in a way somewhat different from a Father/son relationship, a love relationship. My early religious background seriously damaged my view of God and it has taken a long time, too long, to dismantle it and replace it with a more biblical view. I just want to keep falling in love with my Abba more and more deeply. That is why I am on earth. Yes, I have other purposes to accomplish, serious ones, but those purposes are because he loves me and wants the best for me. He knows that when I am aligned the most closely with his purposes, the happier and more fulfilled I am, the more I feel loved and cared for by him and special to him.
A Meltdown – Off the Edge
I suppose everyone has to find their edge and go off it. I went off mine on Tuesday, January 25th after beginning to slide the night before. In checking on the MyChart portal, I saw a message from the doctor’s nurse that my scans were set on February 14, three more weeks away. That was four weeks after my first visit to UT SW and almost a month and a half from receiving my diagnosis. That left me with a scary, sickening feeling. The two biggest things in dealing with cancer are timing and expertise. I felt like I traded the former for the latter. I just didn’t know how to weigh all of this out. I hated the intrusion of Mark to begin with but ended up feeling certain that it was God’s doing to move me in the direction of the second opinion at UT Southwestern. I also ended up feeling that my lifelong dilemma of trying to discern between God testing my surrender level and taking necessary steps to move me in a different direction to a different decision or action was a both/and this time.
I felt a crisis that I thought was easy to discern – it was only a surrender test, and one that I failed and wept about in disappointment and fear. I decided to shut down my emotions and just resign myself to the inevitable, whatever that turned out to be. I know intellectually that I cannot see the big picture of what God is doing, but spiritual surrender was not in my deck of cards at that moment. Resignation was. I can do that one. That is how most human beings survive life anyway, especially in the challenging times. We just resign ourselves to the realities no matter how bleak or painful they are. I did have enough sense left to realize that I should not share my faithlessness with others for fear of hurting their faith.
I hoped to get to a better place and always do, but this time felt different. Although I wasn’t angry at God exactly, I was for sure very disappointed and hurt. But no matter what, I determined to do my best not to hurt the faith of others. That meant, like many, many other times, I would basically be faking it. I don’t feel hypocritical about doing that. I felt like the Psalm 73 guy.
Surely in vain I have kept my heart pure and have washed my hands in innocence. 14 All day long I have been afflicted, and every morning brings new punishments. 15 If I had spoken out like that, I would have betrayed your children. 16 When I tried to understand all this, it troubled me deeply…
Unlike him, I did not keep my heart pure nor my hands innocent. I did feel like he did in verse 14 since receiving the news of the three week’s delayed scans. But my point from the Psalm was in verses 15-16. I couldn’t understand the three weeks delay, and like the Psalmist, it indeed troubled me deeply, very deeply – to the edge and off with no hope of surrender, only a grit-my-teeth-grin-and-bear-it resignation. But it was resignation to the point of trying to say what Jesus said in the Garden, “Nevertheless,” and like Daniel’s three friends said as they faced the fiery furnace, “Even if…” I wanted aloneness from everyone, whether they loved me or hated me. The day starting at Jewish time the prior evening and continuing to and through the next day was for me like a French movie. The French say that their movies start bad, get worse, and end! Viva la France!
On the evening of my very-bad-no-good-meltdown-day, I shared many of my thoughts with Theresa and was at least resigned to whatever was to come of the delayed scans and what they would eventually show. I wasn’t in a good place, but I didn’t think I was still in verses 21-22 of Psalm 73: “When my heart was grieved and my spirit embittered, 22 I was senseless and ignorant; I was a brute beast before you.” Once again, as God often does, he exposed and embarrassed me that same evening. The protocol is for a medical person to call and inform you of any scheduled scans or changes in their schedule. I had received no such calls. But for some reason, I happened to look at the portal before going to bed. The tests had been moved up in spite of the fact that I had been told it was impossible unless a cancellation occurred. But two tests of different types cancelled, opening up two spots on the same day at just the right intervals? How many “coincidences” could come my way in such a short span of time?
Huge Benefits of a Meltdown
After seeing the change in the schedule, I was indeed exposed and embarrassed at my lack of faith, and convicted of my mistrust and accompanying sins. I stayed up for a long time, praying and journaling and reading Scripture and writing. It was a time of pain and joy uniquely mixed together in bringing my heart back to God. My lack of trust in that one twenty-four-hour period was deeply convicting and deeply saddening. Honestly, it still is as I write this. God had done nothing but bless me and show himself to me. I felt like Hagar in Genesis 16:13, “She gave this name to the LORD who spoke to her: ‘You are the God who sees me,’ for she said, ‘I have now seen the One who sees me.’” People complain that it is difficult to believe in a God that they cannot see, much less trust him. But you can see him. He wants to be seen. He has shown himself to me over and over, but I am too often blind or just not paying attention. You see that in this story thus far, don’t you? But in my meltdown, I didn’t. And that is not all that I had experienced during that time, just the main points.
I continued to pursue my repentance late into the night and early the next morning. It was a rich experience. I looked up familiar passages and saw lessons I had missed before. That is a part of seeing God. He shows up in his love letter revelation to us in ways we haven’t seen him previously. He keeps giving us new insights through both experiences and Scriptures. Romans 2:4 was one of the first verses I looked at. “Or do you show contempt for the riches of his kindness, forbearance and patience, not realizing that God’s kindness is intended to lead you to repentance?” The context of this verse is showing the sins of the Jews in judging the Gentiles. They thought they had been blessed because they deserved it, that they were better than all those outside the Israelite nation. But God had been good to them to induce repentance and appreciation in them, not to exalt them. Their own judgmental attitudes condemned them.
As I thought about that context, I suddenly realized that I took it to a much higher (actually far, far lower) place and judged God himself! Perfectly horrific. Through his word, the sword of the Spirit (Ephesians 6:17), he cut into my messed-up heart and in the process, started his beautiful heart surgery on me. He is the Great Physician, after all. I know that God allows us to question him, just as any good parent does their children. The Psalmists prove that over and over. But the questioning can go too far, as did Job’s. I didn’t want to cross that line, but even if I had, God would still be right there. I realized that when I began looking at the ending of Psalm 73.
When my heart was grieved and my spirit embittered, 22 I was senseless and ignorant; I was a brute beast before you. 23 Yet I am always with you; you hold me by my right hand. 24 You guide me with your counsel, and afterward you will take me into glory. 25 Whom have I in heaven but you? And earth has nothing I desire besides you. 26 My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever. 27 Those who are far from you will perish; you destroy all who are unfaithful to you. 28 But as for me, it is good to be near God. I have made the Sovereign LORD my refuge; I will tell of all your deeds.
What a beautiful ending to the Psalm! That’s God in plain view. He always holds us close and holds us tight – even at our worst when we are brute beasts. God is good and always good and cannot be otherwise. In addressing the Jews Romans 2, in spite of their sins of which they were totally unaware yet proud of and justifying, God was trying to lead them by their right hand out of the mess they were in. When we are out of our senses, God is still with us, holding us by our hands, leading us back into spiritual reality. I picture a parent with a three-year-old child who wants to go the opposite way than they are being led. They are kicking and screaming and throwing a tantrum. What does the parent do? They just keep gently pulling the child along with them in the direction they know they should go, knowing that the child will eventually give up the fight and follow, and either apologize or be taught by the parent to apologize after throwing a hissy fit. That’s what good parents do and that’s how children learn to trust parents. Where do parents learn how to do that? The writer of this Psalm would say, correctly, from God.
Satan’s work with us is the exact same as it was with Eve in the Garden, namely to cause us to mistrust God by believing that he is withholding something good from us; to believe that he really doesn’t want the very best for us. One of his tools is to convince us that God only loves us when we are doing well. When we are a mess in a mess, he turns aside and with arms crossed in frustration or anger, he waits until we straighten up and then he turns back toward us and if we have repented with enough guilt and sorrow, he is then willing to give us a hug. That is exactly the opposite of how God really works. Using the analogy of the parent holding on to their three-year-old child in rebellion, what does the parent do in this case? They hold on tighter to keep the child from hurting themselves. Now the child may step in mud puddles and skin their knees on the sidewalk in their self-inflicted escapades, but the parent holds on tighter. Were the child not fighting, the parent could pick them up and carry them over the mud puddles and the rough patches, but no matter what, the parent holds on – especially when the child insists on going the wrong way. That is like God, isn’t it? He doesn’t just hold on to us when we are gleefully following his lead. It is precisely when we are at our worst that he reaches for us. Read it.
You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. 7 Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. 8 But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.
Psalm 73 goes on to say that God keeps guiding us, teaching us and maturing us until such time as he takes us home with him to glory. Thus, as we do mature spiritually, what happens? Heaven becomes all about God and our relationship eternally with him. It’s not about streets of gold or anything we humans imagine as being heaven. It’s not about making 1000-yard drives on golf courses constructed from our wildest imaginations or catching ten-pound largemouth bass on every cast on the most beautiful lake imaginable. It is about being with our Abba, forever and ever, loving and being loved in unimaginable ways. More importantly in the here-and-now, life on earth becomes all about God and developing a relationship with him into deeper and deeper levels. Everything else in this life pales into insignificance when we get the lesson that our writer friend learned. I’m just using his words with a bit of editing. It’s all right there.
He ended this marvelous chapter in this longest book in the Bible with complete satisfaction in being near God and in making him his refuge. That is all about relationship, simply and beautifully. This is why God made us and he works with us from the day of our birth until the day of our death, helping us see that and once we see it, helping us grow continually until we are at home with him. No wonder our dear writer says that he would tell the story of all of God’s deeds. How could he not? He had just been led out of a dark place to the brightest realizations known to mankind. He foreshadowed the words of my favorite Bible character, “We also believe and therefore speak” (2 Corinthians 4:13).
Seeing God Everywhere
Seeing God is a learned art. It is a matter of looking and focusing. Many years ago, I was staying in the home of a good minister friend and his wife whom I had helped train. His church was conducting an evangelistic campaign and I was the guest speaker. One afternoon, the brother and I were walking through a small grove of trees behind their house, and he commented about how the trees were just full of plums that season. I thought he was kidding me, because when I looked up into the trees I didn’t see one plum. But he insisted that he wasn’t joking and was surprised that I thought he was, since he assured me that the trees were indeed full of plums. I kept looking up for a while in search of plums and at a certain point, I suddenly saw them – tons of them. They were the same color as the leaves of the tree, not yet being in the ripened stage. I was shocked, pleasantly so. I just wasn’t focused and prepared to see what was abundantly obvious all the time. You get the point, I’m sure. Start looking. God is everywhere, omnipresent we say, and all loving, which means that he is in your life too – and observably so if you are prepared to see him.
One of my “impossible” prayers for this year is to eliminate negative thinking by looking at best case scenarios rather than worst case scenarios, and to see positive ways of viewing things that appear negative. In other words, trust that every dark cloud has a silver lining if we will but look for it and be patient as we look. It often takes time to see it. Hindsight is much clearer than foresight. I think back to an unusual episode last November. I had just returned from attending and speaking on a beautiful memorial service for one of my heroes, Ron Brumley, in San Diego. On the following Saturday, I was spending time with Theresa and all was well with my world – until it wasn’t. I started having some odd little hallucinations, like I was dropping off to sleep and having a series of quick dreams. Yet I was wide awake and walking around inside the house and even outside once to check the mail. I talked to Theresa about it and we decided it was probably wise to visit the ER, although the episode only lasted five or ten minutes. Once there, they started doing tests of several types, primarily checking to see if I had suffered a stroke. I hadn’t. But the blood test showed a kidney problem, enough to be called an “acute kidney injury.”
They checked me into the hospital for the night and hooked me up to an IV. By morning, my kidney function was back in the normal range. I described every part of my activities for the past week to the doctors and nurses, including the trip to San Diego. Dehydration was a part of the issue, I’m sure, and I had a theory about what else might have contributed to the odd and scary episode. None of the medical folks had any better theories than I did, and the hospitalist discharged me just after noon the next day. That experience bothered me until I had my scans of last week explained. They injected me with Iodine-containing contrast medium in both types of scans. My specialist had my kidney function tested again before the scans, because the scan processes put a strain on the kidneys. Mine checked out fine. So what is the silver lining in that November cloud experience? I had done something that temporarily affected my kidney function and without the strange episode, what was called an injury might have progressed to damage. That was a heck of a way to find it out, but a part of an ongoing roller coaster ride with an adventuresome God. At least, that is the best I can make of it, and that is good enough for me.
A Final Story (just came to mind)
I could go on and on about my recent experiences and seeing God in them, but I will just include one more that I just thought of while writing this. It’s worth the read, trust me. Years ago, while living in Boston, we had a very close relationship with a couple originally from Australia, Graham and Suzanne Gumley. Graham was (and is) one of the foremost microsurgeons in the world. When they were in Boston, Graham was a professor in the medical schools of Harvard and Northeastern. They are back in Australia now, and prior to going back, Graham served as the chief surgeon in a hospital in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, a project of HOPE Worldwide. With all of the injuries still occurring from Pol Pot’s buried land mines, it would be interesting to hear Graham’s surgical stories from that decade of his life. He is still a professor in medical schools in his home country and at age 70, still conducting surgeries to reattach body parts severed through accidents. I know some of those stories but won’t take the time here to tell them, though they are beyond fascinating.
After years of not connecting with the Gumleys, I just “happened” to receive an email from Graham on December 30th of 2021, the day after the sample tissue was taken by my doctor that led to the cancer diagnosis. When I communicated back via email the next day, I described in some detail my health issues, including the fact that I was awaiting the results of that test from the day prior to his first email. His reply to mine arrived January 6th, the day after I got the cancer diagnosis. In it, he asked if we could share a Zoom call to catch up, which we did a few days later, and had a wonderful talk. Graham isn’t just a great surgeon; he is a great person and great disciple of Jesus. His wife is quite special as well.
Here’s the kicker. Graham was in his office when we were talking on Zoom. He said that literally right next door to where he was sitting was the best colorectal department in all of Australia and he could ask his friends there any question that I might have or get any advice I might want. As I said, I just thought of this story as I was trying to finish up this already too long article. It’s just one more of the incredible adventures in my recent spiritual roller coaster ride with God, who himself obviously loves adventures. He created us, didn’t he? After hearing about one 33-day adventure in my recent life experience, isn’t it pretty clear that God not only wants to be seen but can be seen – clearly? Of course, I could continue by mentioning that 33 is my all-time favorite number. My email addresses both start with gordonferguson33. Coincidence? Think what you want, but I knew before I started counting the days between January 5 and February 7 what the number was going to be. I’m not always blind or not looking. As my good friend, Steve Hiddleson, would say just about now (approvingly), I’m just getting plumb “wiggley.”
Join me, and start looking everywhere for God. He is there, anxious to be seen and be with you. The old spiritual song, “My God and I,” describes it well. And with it, I close.
My God and I go in the fields together
we walk and talk as good friends should and do
we clasp our hands our voices ring with laughter
my God and I walk through the meadow’s hew
He tells me of the years that went before me
when heavenly plans were laid for me to be
when all was but a dream of deep reflections
to come to life earth’s verdant glory see
My God and I would go for aye together
we’ll walk and talk as good friends always do
this earth will pass and with it common trifles
but God and I will go unendingly
Roller coaster rides are at their best when they give you surprises. Thus, being on life’s roller coaster with God as both designer and the one at the controls is destined to be chock full of surprises. Sometimes those surprises are initially delightful and sometimes they are initially disappointing, even devastatingly so. You might guess that I had such a shocking disappointment soon after I wrote the first part of the story, right? After experiencing it, I deleted both the Facebook post of February 8 and this article. I forgot to delete the FB post seven days later which introduced the article. Odd I didn’t think of that, but I didn’t until now. Roller coaster rides which expose you to a lot of G forces must affect your memory, at least temporarily! You will want to read Part Two of the article, “Devastating Disappointment and the Continuing Story.” You should also guess, God being God, that the continuing story finds me back at the top of the rails once again – howbeit not easily nor quickly!
How great is the love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are! (1 John 3:1)
God is our Father and those of us in Christ are his specially adopted children – no truth in the Bible is more exciting! The cost of this adoption is the blood of Christ, which should humble us and fill us with a depth of gratitude that becomes our greatest motivation to serve. In fact, the fatherly love of God is what we are to imitate as we serve others in his name. Paul said it this way in Ephesians 5:1-2: “Be imitators of God, therefore, as dearly loved children and live a life of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.” As we imitate him and live a life of love, we surely must develop his heart for his children.
How does the love of God show up in his treatment of us? Keep in mind that this is the kind of love that we are to imitate as disciples and show to the world.
From his first contact with man until the present, God has shown himself to be a giver, not a taker. His concern is never what we can do for him, but only what he can do for us. He is absolutely selfless in his relationship to mankind. He gives and gives and gives some more. He is a Servant of servants, which explains how he can keep blessing us when we are unlovely, undeserving and unappreciative.
God does not take our sins against him personally, get his feelings hurt and pull his heart back. He keeps on giving in the hope that his kindness will once again lead us to repentance (Romans 2:4). When Jesus said that the first prerequisite for following him was sacrificial self-denial (Luke 9:23), he was only calling us to do what God has always done. Sacrifice is what God’s heart is all about – it is not something that he does, but something that he is. As you serve others, we must imitate that.
God shows us respect by treating us as individuals and by expecting us to be the individuals we have been designed to be. He does not expect us to be like everyone else, but to be the best that we can be. The command to “train a child in the way he should go” (Proverbs 22:6) implies the need to understand who each person is and then help them to blossom into the plan of God for their life. Similarly, God does not try to force us into any mold that we were not made for, but patiently develops us into the mold for which we were originally designed – to be like Christ.
In essence, God shows us respect in order to help us become respectable. His approach is never to make us earn his favor by our performance, but rather, he treats us with love in order to help us grow and mature. As we work with others, we must give them what they need as an impetus to move them in the direction God has planned for them.
God uses any and every means available to help us grow into becoming like him. He has a multiplicity of circumstances and people he can call into play for our guidance, and he works everything out for our good. And our ultimate good is “to be conformed to the likeness of his Son” (Romans 8:28–29).
The greatest miracles, in my mind, are not the obvious ones in the Bible, but rather the everyday variety that are produced by God’s orchestration of so many behind-the-scenes details. To make the application to us as people helpers, we need to be getting as much (behind-the-scenes) input and help from others as possible. As Proverbs 15:22 puts it, “Plans fail for lack of counsel, but with many advisers they succeed.” We must continually be learners if we are to be effective teachers. Don’t be lazy and don’t be prideful; get help to be your best, and get the help from all available sources.
God’s love is positive in its expression to us. Positive reinforcement is one obvious demonstration of his kindness and gentleness. He knows exactly how to call us higher by encouraging us. It is easy to think that we help others improve by focusing on their weak points, believing that if they can just eliminate them, then they will really be great. The problem is that the other person’s self-esteem can take a beating in the process. God is full of encouragement as he generously expresses his love and commitment to us. With this approach, we can face critiques with confidence.
God is protective of us, choosing to expose our weaknesses in embarrassing ways only when we are stubborn and prideful. He works gently as he leads us to see ourselves and to resolve to change. Many of us can remember times in our childhood when we were embarrassed by teachers or parents in front of our peers. Such deep hurts are not easily forgotten. Thankfully, God is not that kind of parent. He deals with us gently and sensitively (Isaiah 42:3).
God never gives up trying to mold our characters and hearts into his own image. Gentle he may be, but sentimental he is not! The definition of discipling as “gentle pressure, relentlessly applied” finds its highest application in God’s approach with us. He never gives up and he never gives in. His attention to discipling is constant, for he always wants the best for his children. He perseveres with us far beyond what we can imagine. Just think of the story of the runaway son in Luke 15. No matter how long the rebellious son had been gone, the father in the story (representing God) never ceased to gaze at the horizon for any sign of his son’s return. When he caught a glimpse of him at a great distance, he literally ran to his son, eagerly accepted his repentance, and then quickly arranged a celebration party of grand proportions. God is determined to save us and determined to help us become the best we can be. How quickly and easily we can be tempted to give up on others. How unlike God we are when we do.
As we look at these amazing qualities of God as our Father, let’s determine to imitate them as fully as possible. He wants to express his love to others through us. Pray that others will feel his love through your love for them. Love like God loves, and both you and those around you will be filled with inexpressible joy. The love of God is the love of a perfect Parent. Embrace it for yourself, and then share it with others.
NOTE: This is the announcement I made on my Facebook page just after posting this article. I think it is important to read before reading the article itself. Here it is: “For the past two weeks, I have been working on an article that I believe God put on my heart. It delves deeply into the question of where God is in the midst of our current, ever-increasing health plague. The article is not a short and easy read, but rather a somewhat lengthy and complex one. It could not be otherwise, given the gravity and complexity of the topic. Therefore, unless you are willing to pay the price of reading it carefully and prayerfully, please don’t even start. I don’t want to be misunderstood and/or misquoted. But I do urge you to read it with those parameters in mind. Thank you.”
No doubt this question is being asked by millions of people in our world at this very moment. When calamity strikes, we humans want answers. Some aim their pained questions toward their governmental authorities. “Why hasn’t the government done more?” Why didn’t the government act more decisively much sooner?” “Why isn’t the government doing more right now?” These are common questions and probably relevant questions, but I can’t answer any of them. I am addressing a much bigger and more important question in this article.
Is the Coronavirus COVID-19 a judgment of God or not? Many similar questions are being directed toward him, in the hearts if not outwardly, and most of us with a Christian orientation are definitely asking them. Some of our questions are asked in a way that calls God into question. “Why doesn’t God stop this awful pandemic when we pray?” “Why would God allow this kind of suffering to go on when he could stop it?” “Where is God in this pandemic?”
God’s Nature and Human Nature
None of these questions have simple answers. God is in this plague with us in more ways than we imagine. Those who belong to his family in Christ can rest assured that we have not been forgotten and God wants us to cast our burdens on him (1 Peter 5:7). Those who are not yet in his spiritual family are still loved by him deeply and he wants them to seek a relationship with him through Christ. At times like these, a good starting place is to consider the nature of God and the nature of human beings. God is good, loving, merciful, forgiving, just, powerful and many other things. Does he gain any pleasure in the suffering of his creation? No, none at all. Then why does he allow it? That is the age-old question, is it not?
After the calamity of September 11, 2001, commonly referred to as 9/11, a Boston church college student at Suffolk University reported that one of his professors made this statement: “This proves that God doesn’t exist.” The professor called attention to an age-old dilemma, which is stated in some way similar to this by atheists: “If there is a loving, all powerful God, he wouldn’t allow such things to happen. So, if he exists, he is either not loving or not all powerful. Therefore, the best case is that he simply does not exist.”
Well, God does exist, a topic we will deal with later in the article when examining a biblical text in some detail. And yes, he is all powerful and all loving at the same time. In his power, he created the universe and all that is in it, with mankind being the highest order of that creation. When he created humans, he gave them a gift having extraordinary potential – potential for good and potential for bad. That gift, of course, was the freedom of choice. The choices we can make may be good or bad. The choices made by terrorists on 9/11 were obviously horrendously bad ones. But for God to block choices like those would be to reduce us to robots and that he will not do. He created us to have fellowship with him in both time and eternity, and such fellowship must be based on choice. Otherwise it is not love.
Thus, we see that although God’s nature is righteous in every way, man’s nature includes the ability to choose to be like God or like Satan. Sadly, human nature is always going to tend strongly toward the negative unless we choose to seek God and imitate him. Those who make that choice will be blessed and those who don’t will fail to be blessed. Those are the basic ground rules involved in what it means to be human. God loves us and wants us to be blessed, but we cast the deciding vote in the matter.
Wait a Minute!
You may be saying “Wait a minute!” about now. What does our human freedom of choice have to do with a pandemic that is infecting hundreds of thousands of people and killing thousands as of today (March 29, 2020) – and spreading exponentially at this very moment? Perhaps not much, although refusals to make good choices like obeying “shelter in place” directives could be noted. The bigger picture of how natural calamity and human choice may be related is a complex topic, but the foundation must be laid regarding the nature of God and the nature of humans.
God created the world as a preparation for an eternity with him, and cause and effect are a part of our world. If there were no cause and effect operating in the physical world, it would be difficult to understand its operation in the spiritual world. At this point, we could address how we have damaged our environment to the extent that natural calamities are much more likely, but we will save that discussion for another day.
Where is God in All This?
Let’s return to our question about where God is in all that we are experiencing right now. It is vital that we understand God’s place in this world and what occurs in it. In the broad sense, everything that happens does so with God’s knowledge and involvement. That involvement may take one of two forms: the direct or the indirect. Stated another way, he either causes something to happen or he allows it to happen. Nothing occurs without his permission, even the death of a little bird (Matthew 10:29). Further, God has both an ideal will and an allowed will. His ideal will is for us to seek him but his allowed will gives us the option of doing the very opposite.
Two passages in the Old Testament give us some insight into these two “wills” of God and how they work together. King David had a desire to number his fighting men, which was directly against the (ideal) will of God. In fact, David’s sin resulted in a plague that killed 70,000 Israelites. The motivation for his decision was attributed to both God and Satan. Read the following passages:
2 Samuel 24:1
Again the anger of the LORD burned against Israel, and he incited David against them, saying, “Go and take a census of Israel and Judah.”
1 Chronicles 21:1
Satan rose up against Israel and incited David to take a census of Israel.
Of course, those who reject the inspiration of the Bible try to discredit it in any way possible. Pointing out assumed contradictions is one of their favorite approaches, and this example is understandably a primary one they use. What do we Bible believers do with these two verses? Easy answer (at least for me) – Satan was the primary promoter of the decision and God allowed him to do it. In that sense, God is said to have done it because he is in control of the universe through both his direct agency and indirect agency. This particular example is one of the best showing the difference between ideal will and allowed will. His ideal will was that David not number the people; his allowed will was that he number them.
Here are another couple of passages from the Old Testament that make the same point.
I form the light and create darkness, I bring prosperity and create disaster; I, the LORD, do all these things.
Who can speak and have it happen if the Lord has not decreed it? 38 Is it not from the mouth of the Most High that both calamities and good things come?
We may find this concept confusing and maybe even distasteful, but we actually shouldn’t. The fact that God is ultimately in control of everything helps us to understand and accept passages like this one: “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28). Reading the remainder of Romans 8 adds a great deal to the concept expressed in verse 28. God can not only use the bad things in his overall plan for humanity but can use them to bless his people spiritually.
Naturalistic Explanations Available
Whether God is directly causing the present health challenge or simply allowing it is honestly a matter of conjecture. I don’t pretend to know the answer. God gives us evidence, but not in an overwhelming way that all but forces us to a conclusion. He insists that our positive responses to him remain in the faith realm. For example, the creation itself can be explained in a totally naturalistic way (without a Creator). As ludicrous as that actually is, many very intelligent people, including some scientists, accept it as fact.
However, human reason alone, in looking at the creation, should come to another conclusion – one that has God in the center of it. That is the precise argument found in Romans 1, which we will examine further later. The Psalmist had it right when he wrote: “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands.” In Psalm 19, the first six verses describe God’s general revelation through creation and the last eight verses describe his special revelation, Scripture. Thus, while God reveals himself and his spiritual truths, he does not do it in a way that overwhelms and forces conclusions.
And why is that important? It helps us weigh more carefully explanations that are simply naturalistic. They may be absolutely valid; possibly valid; or absolutely invalid. Sometimes the available evidence could be interpreted one way or the other, or possibly both ways in combination. As it relates to pandemics, human history is replete with them. I have a web page open as I write this, showing thirteen such pandemics that killed at least a million people, dating back to the Second Century AD. The greatest killer was the Black Death Bubonic Plague, dating between 1347 and 1351, which killed 200 million people (nearly half of Europe’s population). In the last century (the 1900’s), five pandemics are listed, with two of them being in the top five of the most deadly on record: the Spanish Flu of 1918-1919, killing 40-50 million, and the HIV/AIDS epidemic, which began around 1981 and continues, killing 25-35 million thus far. In our present century, this current Coronavirus outbreak is one of five pandemics listed.
So what is the bottom line of these facts and figures? Only that such health plagues infecting most of the world geographically have occurred throughout recorded history and may or may not be linked to a direct judgment of God. Only he knows. Even if they are not, surely God wants us to use all such calamities to motivate us to examine ourselves spiritually and to serve our fellow humans in their suffering. Don’t you expect that he wants us to take a much closer look at our morality and our materialism right now? Our early brothers and sisters in the third century were known for loving each other and serving those affected by a destructive plague in their day. Non-believers did the exact opposite. We currently need to heed the example of those early disciples. It is the way of Jesus.
Not Done Yet
This article could have ended with that last sentence. But we are not done with this serious subject just yet. How this present virus may relate to a direct judgment of God needs more examination. Here is what we can know for sure. God hates sin and God punishes sin. As Peter put it, God is very patient in his desire that people come to repentance (2 Peter 3:9). Thus, we cannot know exactly when that patience is going to reach its limit and bring about Divine judgment. That being said, one particular passage in the New Testament gives us very strong markers about when a nation is going to be severely punished by God. That passage invites a very close look and a very serious examination. Here is the opening verse of it:
The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness,
The wrath of God – what a beginning! Most people disdain any consideration of God’s wrath, including many professed Christians. However, the Bible is full of it, from Genesis to Revelation. God’s love is perfect, but so is his justice. At least five types of his wrath can be identified in Scripture.
Wrath in Five Forms
First, we have eternal wrath, the consequences of ending up in hell. The scariest part of this type is that most people on planet earth are going to experience it after they die. Matthew 7:13-14 could not be clearer in describing the “few” who find the narrow road leading to life and the “many” who follow the broad road leading to destruction. I’m sure Jesus must have spoken these words with a very heavy heart, but he said more about hell than the rest of the Bible combined.
Second, we have eschatological (end-time) wrath, that associated with the second coming of Jesus and the end of the world as we now know it. The Book of Revelation provides the most detail about this wrath, and although I thoroughly reject most popular interpretations of Revelation, we can all agree that God’s wrath is in the middle of whatever transpires. In any case, severe judgments come against the earth’s inhabitants in the end-time.
Third, we have consequential wrath, the cause and effect nature of life itself. We reap what we sow in the spiritual and behavioral realms. As creatures of choice, good choices bring good results and bad choices bring bad results. The plan of Satan is to keep us looking at short-term benefits rather than long-term ones. He works very much like our modern credit system – buy now and pay later. His vote is for us to sin now and pay later. God’s vote is for us to live in a way that ensures long-term benefits, so it is pay upfront and reap the rewards later.
Fourth, we have cataclysmic wrath, which includes both natural disasters and man-made ones. The calamitous events of 9/11 fall into this category as does COVID-19. Sin most likely has some relationship to all of it but figuring out exactly how is to entertain a question with an uncertain answer. After looking deeper into Romans 1, you may well end up believing that there is a connection. I’m inclined to think so myself, but as I said, the answer to how cataclysms relate to God’s direct judgment is uncertain.
Fifth, we have the wrath of abandonment, a wrath described in the remainder of Romans 1 following verse 18. God will abandon an individual, a group of individuals or a nation. The Old Testament warns those in living then that such will be the case unless repentance occurs and then describes multiple times when the warning is not heeded and judgment comes. Both the Northern Kingdom of Israel and the Southern Kingdom of Judah were eventually taken into captivity. The level of pain and suffering accompanying both events was almost unbelievable.
God’s Promise of Abandonment
Many examples of abandonment can be found in the Bible. If you want to study those examples further, look at Judges 10:11-14, Judges 16:18-21; Hosea 4:17-19 and Matthew 15:14. Without question, the most detailed treatment of this topic in the entire Bible is likely Proverbs 1:23-33. Read it carefully.
Repent at my rebuke! Then I will pour out my thoughts to you, I will make known to you my teachings. 24 But since you refuse to listen when I call and no one pays attention when I stretch out my hand, 25 since you disregard all my advice and do not accept my rebuke, 26 I in turn will laugh when disaster strikes you; I will mock when calamity overtakes you – 27 when calamity overtakes you like a storm, when disaster sweeps over you like a whirlwind, when distress and trouble overwhelm you. 28 Then they will call to me but I will not answer; they will look for me but will not find me, 29 since they hated knowledge and did not choose to fear the LORD. 30 Since they would not accept my advice and spurned my rebuke, 31 they will eat the fruit of their ways and be filled with the fruit of their schemes. 32 For the waywardness of the simple will kill them, and the complacency of fools will destroy them; 33 but whoever listens to me will live in safety and be at ease, without fear of harm.
When I read this passage and others like it, I think back to the time of the great flood and Noah’s ark. I can imagine people screaming and begging to be let into the ark as the flood waters rose. I can picture mothers holding up their babies and small children, pleading with Noah to at least save the little ones. But it was all to no avail, for they had sinned away the day of grace. God had abandoned them to the consequences of their own sinful choices.
The Causes of Abandonment
Romans 1 describes the sad condition of the Gentile nations in the first century and says three times that he had given them over, or abandoned them. They had passed the point of no return and without genuine repentance, they would fall without remedy as individuals and as nations. None of the nations from that era remain. All have fallen and lie dead in the pages of history. The same is going to be true of every nation in existence today, including America. The question is not “if” – it is only “when.” We are clearly at or very near the point at which God abandons a nation, which will become obvious as we look at the text more closely. As a young preacher many years ago, I recall older preachers saying that if God didn’t punish America, he would owe an apology to Sodom and Gomorrah. They could not have imagined those decades ago how far our society has fallen, along with the multiplicity of nations we have influenced to do the same.
Romans 1:19-20 make it clear that the existence of God is unmistakably shown through his creation. Only an idiot could believe that all that we see and are came about without a Creator. One of the most famous atheists of the last century, Anthony G.N. Flew (whom I once heard in debate with one of my graduate school professors), finally renounced his atheism after studying DNA structure in all of its intricacies. As multitudes have realized, something this complex could never have appeared without due cause and that Cause was God. The mathematical probabilities rule out any other possibilities.
Let’s look at the progression of sin into its final stages. Paul said three times that God gave the Gentiles over. Read carefully what the final stages were that brought about this abandonment.
Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another. 25 They exchanged the truth about God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator—who is forever praised. Amen. 26 Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural sexual relations for unnatural ones. 27 In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed shameful acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their error. 28 Furthermore, just as they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, so God gave them over to a depraved mind, so that they do what ought not to be done. 29 They have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice. They are gossips, 30 slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents; 31 they have no understanding, no fidelity, no love, no mercy. 32 Although they know God’s righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death, they not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practice them.
Sinful desires led to sexual impurity (moral uncleanness) and to the degrading of their bodies with one another. The word for impurity is often used to denote lust and unchecked lust leads to physical actions. The Bible is clear about how sex is to be viewed and practiced. It is to be enjoyed only in a marriage relationship between a man and a woman. Premarital sex or extramarital sex is taught against in both the Old Testament and the New. But that is not what Paul witnessed in the first century.
Here is a further description of what he saw, in Ephesians 4:19: “Having lost all sensitivity, they have given themselves over to sensuality so as to indulge in every kind of impurity, and they are full of greed.” Peter wrote something quite similar in 2 Peter 2:14: “With eyes full of adultery, they never stop sinning; they seduce the unstable; they are experts in greed – an accursed brood!” Note in both passages the connection between the lack of morality and the presence of materialism. More must be said about this oft-mentioned connection as we proceed.
Can anyone doubt that we live in a pornographic age? Adult film stars are treated with the same respect by entertainment media as are other entertainers. The statistics of the pornographic world are almost unbelievable. The age at which boys and girls first start looking at porn, the percentages of those in all age groups who indulge in it, and most shockingly, the percentages of professed Christians who frequent pornographic sites – all nearly unbelievable. I started looking up stats and just shut down the search engine. They are sickening. In addition, advertisements are filled with suggestive photos of women. If you use the internet, you cannot escape them. The only alternative is to avoid looking at those sidebars and popups, a near impossibility. Pornography alone should be enough to bring about the judgment of Almighty God!
And then we have the sexual revolution in its mature stages. That revolution began in the 1960s and has blossomed in almost every conceivable way. I remember the first time a couple came to me who were living together and asked me to perform their wedding. They were not in our church, in case you were wondering. They just saw our church building and came in with their request. I agreed to do the wedding on the condition that they would study the Bible with me. They did, but to no avail. In the course of the study, I asked what their parents thought about them living together without being married. They said that both sets of parents were fine with it, but were also happy to see them get married.
I remember watching a talk show in the airport while I was waiting for a flight some decades ago. The show had a live audience, as most such shows do. One of the persons being interviewed said that they believed that sex outside marriage was wrong, prompting the audience to hoot and holler for a long time. Since I didn’t then or now make a practice of watching such shows, that reaction was shocking to me. A person today will be mocked by most if they say they plan to wait for sex until married (think Tim Tebow). But dare they express a belief that premarital sex is actually sinful, they can count on getting an earful.
I know that I am entering politically incorrect territory here. I also know that I am entering very sensitive territory for some of my brothers and sisters in Christ, for two reasons. One, we heterosexual folks have friends inside and outside the church who are homosexually oriented and we don’t want to be offensive. I understand. I’m in that same boat with you. To make it perfectly clear, I am not addressing same sex attraction, but same sex actions. I have the utmost respect, love and appreciation for those like Guy Hammond (Strength in Weakness Ministries) who live righteously with same sex attraction. They don’t know how they got that attraction and wish they didn’t have it. I feel for them as they battle in a way that I can’t fully understand. I know about my temptations to lust, but the stigmas and shame attached to their desires are in another category altogether.
What I do know is that the Bible condemns same sex actions. Homosexuality is sin and in the Romans text, seems to be a step deeper into the sin pit. This sin is called shameful and unnatural, ushering in what Paul called the “due penalty for their error.” Is that talking about HIV/AIDS, many people wonder? In spite of the fact that it began forty years ago and is still growing, it is already the fifth largest pandemic in history, having claimed upwards of 35 million lives. The homosexual roots and spread of this awful disease are well documented, although it can be contracted in other ways.
Those with same sex attraction have to control their actions if they want to please God, and many such as Guy are able to redirect their desires enough to enjoy successful marriages. They are my heroes. As I said earlier, they didn’t ask to be “gay,” as popular terminology styles it. But think about this: those who have sexual attractions toward children didn’t ask for their orientation either. Some with that malady are also avoiding ungodly sexual actions, although most perhaps aren’t. It just seems odd to me that we can show disgust and disdain toward those battling these desires and feel justified in doing so, and yet show compassion toward those with homosexual attractions.
In either case, the actions are sinful and pedophilia is also unlawful. Homosexual practices were for many years also unlawful in America, and still are in some countries. My point is that while unnatural desires put into practice are unquestionably sinful, the ones who are abstaining from actions because of their spiritual convictions need love too. The homosexual community appealed for toleration for decades and once they received it, they appeal for acceptance and finally, for approval and agreement. Those are different things. Christians should offer both toleration and love, toleration because we live in a country that grants the right of homosexual activity, and love because we are Christians. I cannot offer approval or agreement because God doesn’t, although he loves and longs for repentance on their parts. So do I and surely, so do you.
Every Kind of Wickedness
Sin is spiritual cancer. It does not lie dormant but rather grows and picks up speed as depravity increases. Let me drop in those last five verses again here:
Furthermore, just as they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, so God gave them over to a depraved mind, so that they do what ought not to be done. 29 They have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice. They are gossips, 30 slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents; 31 they have no understanding, no fidelity, no love, no mercy. 32 Although they know God’s righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death, they not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practice them.
Most of these sins prompted by depraved minds (where logical thinking no longer functions) are self-explanatory. The Greek term translated in verse 31 as “no love” is a word meaning without family love, one of the most natural types of love imaginable. The nature of this sin provides some understanding of how millions and millions of abortions have been performed in recent years, a practice approved by a majority and viewed as murder by a minority (which includes me).
Another term is mentioned that we understand as far as its basic definition is concerned, but we have little understanding of the magnitude of this sin in God’s sight. That term is greed. We have already noted its inclusion along with sexual sins in Ephesians 4:19 and 2 Peter 2:14. One of the most striking usages of the word is found in 1 Corinthians 5 where Paul is commanding the church to withdraw fellowship from an immoral person. Note what he includes in the sin list requiring church discipline. “But now I am writing to you that you must not associate with anyone who claims to be a brother or sister but is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or slanderer, a drunkard or swindler. Do not even eat with such people” (1 Corinthians 5:11).
In our materialistic culture, we have become all but blind to this sin. We have ignored it, rationalized it and excused it, but rest assured that God has not. I have no doubts that our present health crisis has as one of its primary Divine purposes to force us to examine our materialistic greed. If you think I am overstating the magnitude of this sin, along with sexual immorality of all types, just listen to Jesus on the topic in a passage specifically dealing with our view and use of money. His words were directed toward respected religious leaders of that day.
“No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.” 14 The Pharisees, who loved money, heard all this and were sneering at Jesus. 15 He said to them, “You are the ones who justify yourselves in the eyes of others, but God knows your hearts. What people value highly is detestable in God’s sight.
Hello America! What are our two greatest concerns right now in our crisis? Health to the point of potential loss of life, and loss of money – the economy. I promise to write a separate article soon and post it on my website. Its title will be, “Greed and Its Root of Materialism.” Watch for it!
Verse 32 sheds some light on several important points. One, people know inherently the basic morality expected by God. Romans 2 describes this knowledge as a law of conscience. Yes, one’s conscience can be hardened by repeatedly refusing to heed it, but unless you are a psychopath, it is never disengaged entirely. In the deepest recesses of our hearts, we know something of our Creator’s expectations in the realm of basic morality.
Two, these sins deserve spiritual death. We sense that reality at a deep level. The fear of death is linked to this sense more than to simply a fear of the unknown. We somehow feel the realness of a Reckoning Day when we will meet God as the Judge of all mankind. This explains why Paul could in only a single sermon, speaking to idolaters who had no recognizable knowledge of the true God, yet speak of the Judgment Day (Acts 17:31). Humans instinctively know somewhere in the recesses of their soul that they will face their Creator. They were created in his likeness and that instinctiveness is evidently built-in to their very nature.
Three, since in their depravity they continue to violate their consciences, they cheer on others doing the same. They want to believe that there will be safety in numbers. If “everyone is doing it,” surely they won’t be held accountable. The people of Noah’s day might well shed some light on that one. The majority is always wrong when it comes to following God’s righteousness and might (numbers) doesn’t make right. So, in looking at this principle, is America fully here? One example should suffice to provide the answer.
Bill Clinton was impeached while serving as our president back in December of 1998. Despite the fact that he was only the second President in U.S. history to be impeached by the House of Representatives, President Bill Clinton received a 73% job approval rating from the American public after his impeachment. This was the highest rating of his administration, and one of the higher job approval ratings given any president since the mid-1960s. He was clearly guilty of sexual immorality in the White House itself, using what the MeToo Movement would now call his power of position and authority to take advantage of a young woman. While sincere Christians were shocked and outraged, most Americans were anything but. Why? The answer is in Romans 1:32.
Scientific Evidence for the Fall of Nations
When I was a young minister, I heard two striking statements a number of times that stayed in my memory banks. One I’ve already mentioned, that if God doesn’t punish America, he will owe an apology to Sodom and Gomorrah. We will classify that one under the heading of preacher talk for now. The second statement was about a very in-depth study done by a scientist who studied ancient civilizations. I remembered his name and his bottom-line conclusions as they related to sexual immorality. Through the years, I tried to research that study but for whatever reason, couldn’t locate it. Recently, a post on Facebook helped me to find it. Essentially, the findings tracked almost exactly what a Bible student would expect.
The study was entitled “Sex and Culture,” written after a lifetime of research by Oxford social anthropologist J.D. Unwin. The 600+ page book is, in Unwin’s words, only a “summary” of his research. He stated that seven volumes would be required to lay it all out. His writings suggest he was a rationalist and not a religious person, believing that science is our ultimate tool of inquiry. Unwin published his findings in 1936, long before the sexual revolution occurred in the West.
The article I read which summarized his findings was entitled, “Why Sexual Morality May be Far More Important than You Ever Thought,” written by Kirk Durston and posted on his blogsite. I will be using significant quotes from that article, which is based on Unwin’s research conclusions. Basically, Unwin’s findings showed that when strict prenuptial chastity was abandoned, absolute monogamy, deism, and rational thinking disappeared within three generations of the change in sexual freedom.
Let’s unpack each of these concepts. The abandonment of prenuptial chastity would include premarital sex and living together without being married at all. Absolute monogamy gave way to what is termed modified monogamy. Durston’s comments about that are as follows:
Common-law relationships are becoming the norm. Although divorce occurred prior to the 1970’s, the mainstream of our culture still maintained the view that marriage should be for life, and common-law relationships were regarded with some distaste. That has clearly changed. Those who actually practice life-long commitments in marriage have become the minority, with couples born prior to the sexual revolution much more likely to maintain a life-long commitment in marriage.
In describing the loss of deism, or belief in God, he had this to say:
Prior to the 1960’s, a combination of rationalism and a belief in God was the norm for mainstream culture. Not only has belief in God greatly decreased since the 1960’s, but there has been a trend to remove the concept of God from government, the educational system, and the public forum. Those who still believe in God sense a strong societal pressure to keep deistic beliefs private.
Finally, his comments about the disappearance of rational thinking describe what we call Postmodern thinking, clearly the prevailing type of thinking in our younger generations.
The swiftness with which rational thinking declined after the 1970’s is astounding. In its place arose post-modernism, characterized by “skepticism, subjectivism, or relativism” and “a general suspicion of reason.” But it gets worse … post-modernism is giving way to “post-truth”. In direct contrast to rational thinking, a post-truth culture abandons “shared objective standards for truth” and instead, stands on appeals to feelings and emotions, and what one wants to believe. People can now “identify” themselves as something which flat-out contradicts science and rational thinking and, in many cases, receive the full support and backing of governments and educational systems. Not only do people feel they have a right to believe what they want, but any challenge to that belief, even if supported by truth and logic, is unacceptable and offensive.
The statements I recall hearing as a young man about Unwin’s conclusions often included a comment about homosexuality. It went something like this: “When any nation accepts homosexuality as behavior approved as normal, that nation is in its last stage before collapse.” One writer who had studied Unwin in far more detail than I have said that Unwin lumped this behavior in with all aspects of unbridled sexual immorality. Either way, I don’t have to tell you where America and other Western nations are in this regard.
In studying Romans 1, these current nations are right in the middle of the same sins as were the Gentiles of Paul’s day. How long it took for their nations to fall we leave for Unwin’s research to document, but combining his conclusions with Paul’s inspired ones sends chills up my spine.
My own conclusions about the question posed in the title of my article, “Is the Coronavirus COVID-19 a Judgment of God?” are as follows:
- I think the answer is “yes,” with explanation.
- The explanation includes the futility of trying to ascertain whether this judgment is a direct one or an indirect one. It doesn’t ultimately matter. God either caused it or allowed it.
- My study of the Old Testament shows clearly that any plague or natural calamity, whether locusts or sustained drought or any other calamity, was seen by the people of God as God’s discipline for their sins.
- Further, in those repeated occurrences, the call by the prophets was for repentance on the part of the people with the promise of God’s removal of the discipline upon their repentance.
- In my day of prayer and fasting last Thursday, I prayed multiple times on my knees for many needs I see in this current ordeal. The one final conclusion I ended up with time and time again was for enough repentance to occur to move God to intervene.
- Certainly I prayed for protection from the virus for myself, family, fellow disciples and other friends. But I must accept the fact that illness and suffering will likely affect us all randomly. I can get the virus just like anyone else, as can you. If suffering only happened to the unrighteous, the temptation to seek God for wrong reasons would be tremendously strong.
- At the end of each prayer, after expressing my sincere and strongly felt desires, I prayed what Jesus did in the Garden: “Nevertheless, not my will but yours be done.”
- Many of my friends have expressed what I have been thinking for the past several weeks. We have been surprised, even shocked, that something like COVID-19 hasn’t happened sooner. Looking at the depravity of our world through the lens of Romans 1 and many other similar passages, it should have been expected.
- As for me and my house, we are praying and repenting and begging all others to do the same. God is still in control and still responds to prayer and repentance. Let’s get on with it!
A Parting Thought
A few days ago (March 26, 2020), Robert Nicholson wrote an article entitled, “A Coronavirus Great Awakening?” I found the article on the Opinion page of the March 28 online edition of the Wall Street Journal. In it, he used illustrations from the Old Testament and World War II as examples of how cataclysms can move us to repent and return to God. I close with a rather lengthy, but exceedingly profound, section from that article.
Today the world faces another moment of cataclysm. Though less devastating than World War II, the pandemic has remade everyday life and wrecked the global economy in a way that feels apocalyptic.
The experience is new and disorienting. Life had been deceptively easy until now. Our ancestors’ lives, by contrast, were guaranteed to be short and painful. The lucky ones survived birth. The luckier ones made it past childhood. Only in the past 200 years has humanity truly taken off. We now float through an anomalous world of air conditioning, 911 call centers, acetaminophen and pocket-size computers containing nearly the sum of human knowledge. We reduced nature to “the shackled form of a conquered monster,” as Joseph Conrad once put it, and took control of our fate. God became irrelevant.
Who will save us now that the monster has broken free?
“Men may live to a great age in days of comparative quietness and peaceful progress, without ever having come to grips with the universe, without ever vividly realising the problems and the paradoxes with which human history so often confronts us,” Butterfield wrote. “We of the twentieth century have been particularly spoiled; for the men of the Old Testament, the ancient Greeks and all our ancestors down to the seventeenth century betray in their philosophy and their outlook a terrible awareness of the chanciness of human life, and the precarious nature of man’s existence in this risky universe.”
The past four years have been some of the most contentious and embarrassing in American history. Squabbling over trivialities has left the public frantic and divided, oblivious to the transcendent. But the pandemic has humbled the country and opened millions of eyes to this risky universe once more.
“Sheer grimness of suffering brings men sometimes into a profounder understanding of human destiny,” Butterfield wrote. Sometimes “it is only by a cataclysm,” he continued, “that man can make his escape from the net which he has taken so much trouble to weave around himself.”
For societies founded on the biblical tradition, cataclysms need not mark the end. They are a call for repentance and revival. As the coronavirus pandemic subjects U.S. hospitals to a fearsome test, Americans can find solace in the same place that Butterfield did. Great struggle can produce great clarity.
“The ancient Hebrews, by virtue of inner resources and unparalleled leadership, turned their tragedy, turned their very helplessness, into one of the half-dozen creative moments in world history,” Butterfield wrote. “It would seem that one of the clearest and most concrete of the facts of history is the fact that men of spiritual resources may not only redeem catastrophe, but turn it into a grand creative moment.”
Could a rogue virus lead to a grand creative moment in America’s history? Will Americans, shaken by the reality of a risky universe, rediscover the God who proclaimed himself sovereign over every catastrophe?
An old hymn has a stanza that asks the question posed in the title of this article. That’s a very good question, with many answers, but at least four of them are of ultimate importance in truly understanding the gospel of Christ. I recently preached a series of two sermons answering these questions, and since the lessons seemed to be received well, I was motivated to put them into article form and post them on this teaching website. Each of the parts is placed in a sequence that I believe is logical, and you will hopefully understand the reason for the sequence as the answers unfold.
Answer #1 – His Death Makes Possible the Impossible
First, Jesus came to die for our sins. The verses that say this could be multiplied, because this is the foundation of the gospel. “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” He didn’t just die for the sins of the world; he died for the specific sins that each of us has committed (and will yet commit).
The Astounding Nature of Forgiveness
Astounding is the right word when thinking of the magnitude of our individual sins, to say nothing of the combined sins of the entire human race from its beginning. The ways to sin are many, the Bible tells us.
- Wrong actions – 2 Corinthians 5:10: “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive what is due him for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad.”
- Wrong words – Matthew 12:36-37: “But I tell you that men will have to give account on the day of judgment for every careless word they have spoken. 37 For by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned.”
- Wrong thoughts – Mark 7:21-23: “For from within, out of men’s hearts, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, 22 greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. 23 All these evils come from inside and make a man ‘unclean.'”
- Wrong motivations – 1 Corinthians 4:5: “Therefore judge nothing before the appointed time; wait till the Lord comes. He will bring to light what is hidden in darkness and will expose the motives of men’s hearts.”
- Failure to do right – James 4:17: “Anyone, then, who knows the good he ought to do and doesn’t do it, sins.”
In light of these passages, and many more like them, the sin problem of mankind is enormous. How many sins have you committed? How many sins has humanity as a whole committed? I remember reading an old restoration preacher’s writing who made a comment back in the 19th century about the number of our personal sins. Since he was a part of a very doctrinally focused group, his answer was surprising. I supposed that he thought of sin mainly as doctrinal errors, but he said that a mature sinner had surely committed at least a couple of million sins. He was far more in touch with reality than most today, I would have to say.
To even start approaching the number of sins that mankind as a whole has committed and will yet commit, I had to Google the terms by which large numbers are called. Starting with millions, it goes in this ascending order: billions, trillions, quadrillions, quintillions, nonillions, decillions, googols, centillions, googolplexes – and beyond. Astounding! Unfathomable! Overwhelming!
How is Forgiveness Even Possible?
Then we must come to a consideration of how all of those sins could be forgiven. Hebrews 10:4 assures us that “It is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.” In the Old Testament, there were many types of animal sacrifices prescribed by God, the main ones being the burnt offerings, grain offerings, peace offerings, sin offerings, guilt offerings and a number of others. The burnt offerings were sacrificed each morning and each evening, plus additional ones on the Sabbath and other special days. This means that well over 1 million animals were killed from the time of Moses to the time of Christ just in this one category of sacrifices. I recall reading of an official Roman report sent to Rome from Jerusalem during the first century, noting that 256,000 lambs had been sacrificed in Jerusalem during one Passover Feast.
All told, no doubt billions of animals were slaughtered during the Mosaic period. Keep in mind that these animals were totally innocent, they were painfully slaughtered (often by the one who brought them to be offered), and in spite of these sacrifices numbering in the billions, all of them combined simply could not take away one sin! With this realization comes the realization that our sins are far more heinous before our God that we can possibly imagine.
Our problem in grasping the awfulness of sin is that we have allowed Satan to do what he does best – deceive us into thinking that we are basically good people. Perhaps many of us are, when compared to our fellow man (the bad ones for sure). But compared to the sinless Jesus, we are anything but good. What we deserve is death and hell; by God’s grace we can escape the latter if we truly live as Jesus calls us to. When I teach the first three chapters of Romans, I give it the heading of “The best of us is a mess!” Chapter 1 shows the horrific sins of the Gentiles; chapter 2 shows the self-righteous sins of the Jews; chapter 3 sums up the problem of all mankind with these words: “As it is written: ‘There is no one righteous, not even one’” (Romans 3:10). “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23).” Isaiah described it in even more shocking terms when he said in 64:6 that “all of our righteous acts are like filthy rags.”
Are you overwhelmed yet? I am. Forgiveness of the magnitude of sins we have all committed is a concept that our mortal minds simply cannot begin to grasp. Then how can God possibly forgive as freely as the Bible says he does? God had to become a man – there is no other possible answer. The Deity of Christ cannot be glossed over in any way. It is a salvation issue.
The Nature of Christ Jesus
The Jehovah’s Witnesses teach that Jesus was God’s first creation and then Jesus created everything else. They believe that Jesus is an archangel, nothing more and nothing less, and specifically they view him as being Michael the archangel.
This is nothing short of heretical teaching. Mathew 4:10 says that only God can be worshipped. Revelation 19:10 shows clearly that angels cannot be worshipped by humans. Jesus accepted worship from humans during his personal ministry, and Hebrews 1:6 states clearly that Jesus was worshipped by angels. “And again, when God brings his firstborn into the world, he says, ‘Let all God’s angels worship him.’” The term “firstborn” is obviously used symbolically to mean “highest honored,” as it is used of David in Psalm 89:27. Two verses later in Hebrews 1 (verse 8), the Father says of Jesus, “But about the Son he says, ‘Your throne, O God, will last for ever and ever, and righteousness will be the scepter of your kingdom.’”
Regarding Michael the archangel, Jude 1:9 had this to say: “But even the archangel Michael, when he was disputing with the devil about the body of Moses, did not dare to bring a slanderous accusation against him, but said, ‘The Lord rebuke you!’” Jesus certainly had no hesitation in rebuking Satan personally and strongly (Matthew 4:10).
But back to the biggest issue of how forgiveness of sins is possible when considering the just nature of God! I mentioned the first three chapters of Romans in how they describe sin and the penalty due for it. A careful study of these chapters doesn’t leave you with the question of how a loving God can send people to hell; it leaves you with the question of how a just God can do anything else! Sin is deadly and a deadly serious matter. By the grace of God, Jesus came to earth and died for a magnitude of sins that our finite minds cannot begin to grasp. Hence, living as Jesus demands is no small matter, and self-denial is the only possible starting place in imitating him.
Forgiveness in the Old Testament
Some of you may be wondering about those who lived before the sacrifice of Christ – were they saved and if so, how were they saved? If the blood of bulls and goats could not take away sin, what happened to those who died before the cross? The general answer is that they were saved just like we are, by grace through faith. Their faith was a seriously committed faith as ours must be, and the grace came by the cross of Christ just as ours has. The effects of the shed blood of Christ went backwards as well of forwards.
Hebrews 9:15b – “… he has died as a ransom to set them free from the sins committed under the first covenant.”
Romans 3:25-26 – “God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood. He did this to demonstrate his justice, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished – 26 he did it to demonstrate his justice at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus.”
We tend to get confused by the time factor of when Christ’s crucifixion took place, but that is because we are time-bound creatures. Time means nothing to God. As Peter put it in 2 Peter 3:8: “But do not forget this one thing, dear friends: With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day.” Revelation 13:8 ties it all together beautifully as it states that Jesus was “the Lamb that was slain from the creation of the world.” Before God created humankind, he knew that he would ultimately be nailed to the cross for the redemption of his creatures. And that is the story that mortal mind could never have invented nor comprehended without the revelation of God.
Answer #2 – His Life Makes Known the Unknowable
A second fundamental answer to our question is that Jesus came to reveal God to us. If you try to fully understand God from just the Old Testament, you are going to find it very challenging. I sometimes feel a bit schizophrenic from my study of the OT. On the one hand, I see much about God’s grace, but even more about his judgment – a judgment that at times seems quite harsh.
On the other hand, studying the life of Jesus helps us understand God in a much better way. He made it clear that one of his primary purposes was in fact to reveal God to us. Here are some good passages addressing that purpose.
John 1:18 – “No one has ever seen God, but God the One and Only, who is at the Father’s side, has made him known.”
John 14:6-9 – “Jesus answered, ‘I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. 7 If you really knew me, you would know my Father as well. From now on, you do know him and have seen him.’ 8 Philip said, ‘Lord, show us the Father and that will be enough for us.’ 9 Jesus answered: ‘Don’t you know me, Philip, even after I have been among you such a long time? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’?”
One of the most thrilling descriptions of this purpose of Jesus is found in Colossians 2:9, which reads: “For in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form.” This means that Jesus was God in the flesh, both fully God and fully man, a truth that is still beyond our comprehension in many ways, but the revelation of this truth in the Bible is unmistakable. Jesus shows us God in a way that he could never have been known otherwise, and that was surely one of his key purposes in coming to earth.
God’s Nature Revealed
Certainly Jesus came to reveal God, and to reveal much about God. In our efforts to grasp the nature of Deity, what is one thing that we cannot afford to miss? The Apostle John expressed it quite clearly in 1 John 4:8: “God is love.” Love is the normal English translation of more than one Greek word. Phileo is the word for friendship type of love. Thus we call Philadelphia the “City of Brotherly Love.” Although it doesn’t live up to its billing too well, that is its meaning.
The greater word for love in the original language is agape. This type of love goes far beyond friendship love, for it is a love that describes much more than simply a feeling, but rather a serious commitment to the good of the object of that agape love. It is this word that is used in John’s description of God. Paul uses this same term in what is likely the most famous love passage in the Bible, 1 Corinthians 13:4-8. If we substitute the name of Jesus in this passage, it would look like this:
Jesus is patient, Jesus is kind. Jesus does not envy, Jesus does not boast, Jesus is not proud. 5 Jesus does not dishonor others, Jesus is not self-seeking, Jesus is not easily angered, Jesus keeps no record of wrongs. 6 Jesus does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. 7 Jesus always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. 8 Jesus never fails.
How does this passage read to you if you substitute your name in each of these descriptions of what love is and is not? Doing that will give us a very good idea of the areas in which we need to grow if we are to imitate Jesus and represent him to the world. That would be a good exercise for all of us on a regular basis at some interval – perhaps once a month, and then spend the rest of the month working on the areas in which we are not like Jesus.
Paul Harvey, a radio commentator of yesteryear, used to tell a fictional story every year around Christmas. As the story went, a couple lived in a part of the US where the winters were pretty brutal. The wife was a believer and the husband was not. He wasn’t opposed to her involvement in church, but he just didn’t want any part of religion himself. One particularly cold and snowy day, she left him at home in front of the fireplace while she went to a church service. As he was enjoying the cozy fire, he heard an unusual sound at his front door. Out of curiosity he went to see what was making the sound. He discovered a little flock of birds huddling in his doorway, trying to escape the cold. It appeared that they were freezing in the weather.
At first, he just shooed them away and went back to his rocking chair. In a few minutes, they were back at the doorway once again trying to find some escape from the snow. His sympathy kicked into gear at least a little, and he decided to try to move the birds along the ground and into his tool shed in order to protect them. The birds, of course, had no idea of what he was trying to do, and they scattered in all different directions.
Once again, he found his way to his warm, comfortable rocking chair, consoling himself with the fact that he had at least tried to help. A few minutes later, the birds were back and he repeated the process of trying to help them – with the same results. Finally, the thought popped into his mind that if he could have just become a bird for a short time, he could have led them into the shed. He then had a much more profound thought. He realized that this imagined process was exactly what his wife had been telling him about why Jesus became a man – to lead us otherwise lost beings into a safe place. Thus, Jesus not only leads us to safety, but became one of us in order to make it possible. The true story is much more amazing than the imagined one, is it not?
Answer #3 – His Priority Exposes Our Misunderstood Priorities
A third primary answer about why Jesus came is found in 1 John 2:4-6. “The man who says, ‘I know him,’ but does not do what he commands is a liar, and the truth is not in him. 5 But if anyone obeys his word, God’s love is truly made complete in him. This is how we know we are in him: 6 Whoever claims to live in him must walk as Jesus did (1 John 2:4-6).” He came to show us the path, how to live our lives on this earth.
This passage introduces at least two other questions. What does it mean to walk as Jesus did? Why is this important enough to be given to us as an absolute command? To walk as he did obviously goes far beyond simply believing in him. Because the word “faith” or “believe” is used in a number of different ways in the Bible, we can misunderstand passages like John 3:16 and think that simply believing the basics about Jesus will get us to heaven. Quite a number of passages show that this very popular view of salvation being a matter of merely believing those basics (such as the virgin birth, Jesus’ death for our sins and his resurrection from the dead) simply cannot be accurate. Read the following passages carefully and you will see what I mean.
John 12:42 – “Yet at the same time many even among the leaders believed in him. But because of the Pharisees they would not confess their faith for fear they would be put out of the synagogue.”
Luke 9:23-24 – “Then he said to them all: ‘If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. 24 For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will save it.’”
Luke 14:26-27, 33
“If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters – yes, even his own life – he cannot be my disciple. 27 And anyone who does not carry his cross and follow me cannot be my disciple. 33 In the same way, any of you who does not give up everything he has cannot be my disciple.
Matthew 7:13-14, 21 – “Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. 14 But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it… 21 Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.”
From the Gospel accounts, we know how Jesus lived in a physical body. From Paul’s inspired writing, we can also know how Jesus intends to live through us in his spiritual body, the church. Just as Jesus was the fullness of God in the flesh, demonstrating to the world what God was truly like, we as Christ’s family are to demonstrate what he is truly like. “And God placed all things under his feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church, 23 which is his body, the fullness of him who fills everything in every way (Ephesians 1:22-23).” What God is asking of us is that we represent Jesus to the world, to do what he would do if he were here in a physical body again. This truth helps us understand why the religious world’s watered-down version of what it means to be a Christian cannot possibly be acceptable. As the old saying goes, Jesus is either Lord of all in our lives, or Lord not at all.
Imitating Jesus’ Priority
If the nature of God can be defined simply as love (1 John 4:8), then we know that Jesus lived a life of love – which we are specifically called to imitate. “Be imitators of God, therefore, as dearly loved children 2 and live a life of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.” How was Jesus’ life of love demonstrated in his ministry? He loved every person, and he loved the whole person – physically, emotionally and spiritually. Spiritually, we’ve already considered somewhat in depth his death for the sins of the world. It is only logical that his life on earth was focused on helping prepare people to accept his offering and receive salvation. We are not surprised to read in Luke 19:10 that he came to seek and save the lost. If that is what he did, that is what he expects his followers to do also.
Physically, we see him healing all types of illnesses and maladies, including raising the dead on several occasions. Emotionally, he wept when others wept, he was carried away with compassion for those who were hurting in any way. A great passage to sum up his love for people is Matthew 9:35-36: “Jesus went through all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and healing every disease and sickness. 36 When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.”
The word found here for compassion is a long Greek word (splagchnizomai). It is never used of a human in the Bible, but only of God and Christ. We use the phrase about having our hearts go out to someone, and if you multiply this by 100, you come pretty close to the literal meaning of the word. Jesus felt deeply for people, more deeply than we have ever felt. But he is calling us to develop more and more of this divine compassion for those who are hurting, spiritually, physically or emotionally. The passage in Matthew 9 is also found in Matthew 4:23, and both passages describe what I call the gospel triad – teaching, preaching and healing.
What Was His Priority?
Which do you think was the most important – loving people emotionally, physically or spiritually? In order to answer that question, we must understand the top priority of Jesus’ ministry. It is easy to say all three areas are equally important, which would seem to allow us to choose which we find most appealing to us and focus on that one area. However, is that really what Jesus did and now calls us to do?
Seeing the physical and emotional needs of others is far easier than grasping their spiritual needs. The latter is not simply a matter of observation, but a matter of revelation – believing what we have already read about the lostness of people. We have more ways to minister to people emotionally and physically than ever before. HOPE Worldwide has been a great channel through which to serve the poor and needy, both locally and globally. We have more Christian-oriented counselors among us than ever before, and that number continues to grow substantially. I’m grateful for all that we are doing collectively in these areas, and I’m trying to do my part individually. It is important to love the whole person.
Having said that, let’s reason together a bit. In Jesus’ ministry, what happened to those whom he healed and raised from the dead? They died or died again. I find it immensely interesting that in our current society that we are obsessed with health issues, while Jesus never said anything about how to be physically healthy and live as long as possible. Most of us moderns want to live to reach our 100th birthday. The life spans in most developed countries has continued to lengthen. At what price? More and more developing all sorts of dementia, and more and more spending their latter years drooling and in diapers. Why are we so obsessed with life on this earth if we believe in heaven? Something is surely amiss here in our value system and in our view of time and eternity. I suggest you read and meditate on passages like the following:
13 All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance. And they admitted that they were aliens and strangers on earth. 14 People who say such things show that they are looking for a country of their own. 15 If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return. 16 Instead, they were longing for a better country–a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them.
Evangelism Must Be Our Bottom Line Focus
I’ve recently been speaking a lot about what drew me into the churches of which I am now a part, and the main drawing card was what could be called the practice of “One Another” Christianity. The New Testament has over 60 passages which use the phrases “one another” or “each other,” and many more that describe how God’s family should be loving each other through genuine spiritual relationships. God’s religion is decidedly not a private matter! To put it gently, we are not nearly as committed to helping each other grow spiritually after conversion as we once were.
The same can be said of us regarding our evangelistic zeal to seek and save the lost – why are we not as motivated to help people spiritually as we are physically and emotionally? When I first became a part of my present church movement, it was a fast-growing movement. That was also a strong drawing card for me, because in combination with the one another relationships, both parts of the Great Commission (Matthew 28:19-20) were being obeyed in earnestness. Prior to joining the movement, others asked me how these churches were converting so many. My answer was that pretty much all of the members had a constant focus on seeking and saving the lost, and their relationships helped them stay accountable to keep imitating Jesus by so doing.
Sadly, I see a serious deceleration in carrying out both parts of that Great Commission among us. It is commendable that we have planted churches in at least 150 different nations. But 70% of our churches have under 100 members. It now takes 85 members to baptize 1 person in a year’s time, something unthinkable back when I first became a part of things. Over half of our churches baptized 10 or less people in 2016. 111 of our churches had ZERO baptisms in 2016. Our growth rate as a movement continues to decrease – from 1.9% in 2015 to 1.2% in 2016 (about a 60% decrease if my math is correct). The number of baptisms and restorations has declined for the last four years. We cannot spin those facts in a way that makes them sound encouraging. Something is obviously missing!
What are we missing? Obviously, we are missing an understanding of the priority in Jesus’ ministry and our imitation of it. True enough, he helped people emotionally and physically, but it had as its ultimate aim the helping of them spiritually to get right with God. The help they received emotionally and physically was temporal in nature. But people were lost – and people are lost now – and this is an eternal issue.
It is Time to Get Real – and Get Serious!
All spiritual roads don’t lead to heaven – and we can include every religion in the world outside Christianity. All approaches to Christianity don’t lead to heaven – we have the spiritual partner of the American Dream, called the American Church Dream, which means that we pursue this world’s values with a dab of religion thrown in as fire insurance! But as popular as this viewpoint is, we cannot be saved simply by claiming to be Christians! The very first step of Christianity is to deny self, take up our crosses and follow Jesus! That is the essence of imitating him. Read these passages and let them cut your heart. If Jesus and his apostles cannot be believed on these sobering points, how can we believe anything else that they said?
Matthew 7:13-14, 21 – “Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. 14 But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it… 21 Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.”
John 14:6 – “Jesus answered, ‘I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.’”
Acts 4:12 – “Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved.”
I want to love people as Jesus loved people – physically, emotionally and spiritually.
But I cannot love as he did without having the same priority that he had, and that was clearly helping people to get right with God – above all else. And we will not do that unless we believe what he did about heaven and hell and salvation! This life goes by fast, faster than we could have imagined as young people. My 75 years have been just what the Bible said that they would be: a breath, a shadow, a flower that withers away, a passing breeze, fleeting, a vapor. Death is real; the Judgement Day is real; Heaven and Hell are real! And God is serious! It is indeed time for us to get real and get serious!
Answer #4 – His Power Overcomes Our Weakness
Yes, Jesus came to die for our sins; to reveal God’s nature and heart to us; and to leave us an example that we should follow in his steps (1 Peter 2:21). These three reasons give us a greater understanding of God, an example to follow and a solution to our sin problem. Yet, we still have one great need remaining, that of finding the power to do what we have just read that we must do – live as Jesus did.
For starters, it should be obvious that while our hearts must be set on imitating him, we will not do it perfectly. In spite of having the dedication demanded in passages like Luke 14, our performance will always be flawed. Our theme verse is translated in other versions as “walk,” thus to walk as did. Actually, the Greek term is more accurately translated as walk, although the meaning in context is live. Looking at the idea of walking with Jesus, a very important passage occurs only a few verses prior to our theme verse and uses the same Greek term.
1 John 1:5-7
This is the message we have heard from him and declare to you: God is light; in him there is no darkness at all. 6 If we claim to have fellowship with him yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not live by the truth. 7 But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin.”
Two walks, or ways of life, are herein described: walking in darkness and walking in the light. John is clearly describing one’s direction in life, the characteristic way in which one lives. A person living in darkness will likely turn aside from that path occasionally and do some good, but they are characterized by walking in the darkness and they will always return to it. Satan’s world is their chosen path. A person living in the light will also likely turn aside, in this case doing something not good, but then they turn back to the light, for that is the focus and intent of their heart. Christ’s world is their chosen path.
Walking (living) in the light cannot mean sinlessness, for then there would be no sins from which to be purified. It does mean serious commitment and consistency in following Jesus. Interestingly, the Greek verb translated “purifies” is a continual action word. It means that Jesus’ blood continues to cleanse our sins, as long as we are walking with him. Just as the blood in our physical bodies continually circulates and takes away the impurities in our body, Jesus’ blood does the same in his spiritual body, the family of God. Here is a related passage that should thrill our hearts:
Blessed are they whose transgressions are forgiven, whose sins are covered. 8 Blessed is the man whose sin the Lord will never count against him.
Certainly we are blessed with forgiveness, but this passage goes far beyond forgiveness when we become Christians – it describes someone whose sin the Lord never counts against them. A person who is not in a saved relationship with Christ has every sin counted against them. A person who is in a saved relationship with Christ has no sins counted against them. I want to be that second person, don’t you? Grace is not a hopscotch game, in which we sin, repent and then are restored to grace. If we are in Christ, we live in grace – in our good days and our bad days.
A marriage analogy provides a great way of looking at those good and bad days. I am a good husband most of the time, if my wife’s viewpoint can be trusted. But I’m not always a good husband and there are times when I sin and hurt my wife. I should feel badly about those times and I most certainly do. Yet I don’t ever feel unmarried. On my bad days spiritually, I should feel badly about my sins and turn from them, but I don’t feel separated from my relationship with Jesus. (Or at least I shouldn’t!)
Continuing with another marriage analogy, living in the light is interchangeable with the idea of being faithful to our vows to make Jesus the Lord of our lives. Just ask my wife of 53 years if I am a perfect husband, and you already know the answer. Ask her if I am a faithful husband, and the answer will be just as quick and as certain – except it will be a yes this time! I am not a perfect follower of Christ, but I am a faithful one – faithful according to the Bible’s definition of faithful. That that is what Jesus is asking of us as we live for him and imitate him.
The Ongoing Investment Jesus Makes
We know the investment Jesus made – on the cross. But he makes continual investments as our High Priest. Listen to the writer of Hebrews:
Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has gone through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess. 15 For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are–yet was without sin. 16 Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.
Therefore he is able to save completely those who come to God through him, because he always lives to intercede for them.
Jesus promised his apostles that he would send the Holy Spirit to them, and ultimately to all who would follow Jesus. We close with a passage about how Jesus blesses us through the Spirit. It is filled with God’s multiple promises to bless us as we live with him, for him and through him. It is arguably Paul’s high-water mark of promising victory in Christ.
For this reason I kneel before the Father, 15 from whom his whole family in heaven and on earth derives its name. 16 I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, 17 so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, 18 may have power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, 19 and to know this love that surpasses knowledge–that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God. 20 Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, 21 to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen.
One of the most popular Christian writers of last century was C.S. Lewis. He wrote a book with the title that I’m using for this article. Pain is a problem. It is a problem physically to be sure, but it is a bigger problem emotionally and spiritually. It can fill up our hearts and lives. Viktor Frankl, an Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist, was a survivor of the Holocaust. Once, after he had told his life story to a group, particularly regarding the Holocaust and the pain he endured, a woman in the audience came up to him with an understandable response. Emotionally distraught, she shared that after hearing about his suffering, she felt guilty for feeling her own pain so deeply, because it was so much less than what he had gone through.
His reply is an oft-quoted one. “To draw an analogy: a man’s suffering is similar to the behavior of a gas. If a certain quantity of gas is pumped into an empty chamber, it will fill the chamber completely and evenly, no matter how big the chamber. Thus suffering completely fills the human soul and conscious mind, no matter whether the suffering is great or little. Therefore the “size” of human suffering is absolutely relative.”
If one were to know the precise number of times they had been hurt by someone else, the number would be staggering. If that same person knew the precise number of times they had hurt others, that number would also be staggering. The human race is a fallen race, and but for the grace of God, the whole lot of us would have been annihilated long ago. The real issue is which side of that equation we focus on the most – the “victim of hurts” side, or the “perpetrator of hurts” side. By focus on, I refer to that side which occupies our minds most. It is easy enough to feel that we have been hurt by others more than we have inflicted hurt on others. So what – even if true? Do you think that erases your sins, or somehow makes you better than someone who may have sinned more than you?
Many years ago, I was involved in the cleanup phase of the aftermath left by a harsh leader in the church. As I worked with other leaders under his influence, all but one had a similar reaction. They immediately thought about how this leader had hurt them. The one exception listened to me describing the negative impact of this leader, and then he broke into tears and just wept. I asked him what he was feeling, to which he replied, “I’m afraid I’ve used the same leadership style and hurt those under my leadership.” He was a rare bird. Most folks think first of how they have been hurt rather than how they may have hurt others. Not good.
What is God’s Perspective?
The only real issue is God’s perspective on the matter, not yours or mine. Everything that comes into any of our lives comes because God either directly causes it or indirectly allows it. Nothing has happened to you that God has not at least allowed. But why does God allow pain in our lives, especially devastating pain? That’s a question that we are prone to ask very quickly, at least in our minds, when hard times strike.
I think God must feel his own pain when we ask that one so quickly and yet do not ask nearly as quickly why he allows us to hurt others. We are very aware of our pain but not nearly so aware of the pain we cause. That is why Jesus said that the first requisite of following him is to deny self. There are scores of hyphenated words in the dictionary that begin with “self” for a good reason. We humans are selfish to the core. But if the Bible is true, then the only two options available regarding our suffering are that he causes or allows it, both our pain and the pain of others.
Is God in Control or Not?
Any number of verses could be quoted to prove that point, but it is so obvious that we will only include a couple here before going further.
Isaiah 45:7 — I form the light and create darkness, I bring prosperity and create disaster; I, the Lord, do all these things.
Lamentations 3:37-38 — Who can speak and have it happen if the Lord has not decreed it? 38 Is it not from the mouth of the Most High that both calamities and good things come?”
The most important question is why God allows pain and suffering. Agnostics and atheists often rest their case on this very question, believing that there is no logical answer. The agnostics would frame their concerns more in this manner: “If God wills evil, he is not good. If God does not will evil, but it occurs anyway, then he is not all-powerful. Therefore, since evil exists, God must be deficient either in goodness or in power.” The atheists would state their case even more strongly: “A good, all-powerful Being would eliminate evil completely. But, evil exists. Therefore, God does not exist!” Sadly, many believers struggle mightily with faith in God to the point that they never comprehend the God described in Scripture. That is indeed sad, but oh so true.
Do We Believe the Bible?
Our problem starts with a failure to accept the fact that God is in control of everything in the universe, including each of our lives. We may never figure out in this life why something we deem as bad has happened, why he has caused or allowed it, but he has nonetheless. Our problem continues with a failure to accept the very clear statements about how God wants to use suffering in our lives. We are so quick to blame other humans for our pain, not being willing to accept what God says about that pain. If we can’t get enough satisfaction blaming others, then we likely will turn to blaming God and questioning his direction in our lives. Do we really believe what the New Testament says about the purposes of God in allowing or causing our suffering? Do you believe it? Not unless you are able to work through it and surrender your heart and attitudes to him. Look at the key verses that should be determining your thoughts and attitudes when suffering:
Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, 2 through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And we rejoice in the hope of the glory of God. 3 Not only so, but we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; 4 perseverance, character; and character, hope. 5 And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us.
Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as sons. For what son is not disciplined by his father? 8 If you are not disciplined (and everyone undergoes discipline), then you are illegitimate children and not true sons. 9 Moreover, we have all had human fathers who disciplined us and we respected them for it. How much more should we submit to the Father of our spirits and live! 10 Our fathers disciplined us for a little while as they thought best; but God disciplines us for our good, that we may share in his holiness. 11 No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it. 12 Therefore, strengthen your feeble arms and weak knees. 13 “Make level paths for your feet,” so that the lame may not be disabled, but rather healed.
Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, 3 because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. 4 Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.
Again, Do We Believe the Bible?
Do we believe the Bible regarding the purposes of suffering? A more sobering question is whether we believe what it says about being forgiven? Those who feel justified in nursing their hurts on a long term basis, rather than working through them and surrendering them to God in a reasonable time frame, may be in for a very big surprise when they meet God. Look at the following passages very, very carefully and prayerfully.
And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. 13 And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one.’ 14 For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. 15 But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.
Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?” 22 Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times. 23 “Therefore, the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. 24 As he began the settlement, a man who owed him ten thousand bags of gold was brought to him. 25 Since he was not able to pay, the master ordered that he and his wife and his children and all that he had be sold to repay the debt. 26 “At this the servant fell on his knees before him. ‘Be patient with me,’ he begged, ‘and I will pay back everything.’ 27 The servant’s master took pity on him, canceled the debt and let him go. 28 “But when that servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred silver coins. He grabbed him and began to choke him. ‘Pay back what you owe me!’ he demanded. 29 “His fellow servant fell to his knees and begged him, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay it back.’ 30 “But he refused. Instead, he went off and had the man thrown into prison until he could pay the debt. 31 When the other servants saw what had happened, they were outraged and went and told their master everything that had happened. 32 “Then the master called the servant in. ‘You wicked servant,’ he said, ‘I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. 33 Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?’ 34 In anger his master handed him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed. 35 “This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”
When I was just a young minister, I heard an older minister preach a sermon based on the above passages. He essentially said that even though we may not be able to completely forgive, that God was well beyond us in his ability to forgive and would still forgive us even if we didn’t forgive others. I related that puzzling sermon to my mentor, who was older than the one who delivered that sermon, and he simply replied, “So, his God is a liar then!” Well said – you either believe all that the Bible says, or you might as well throw it out the window. At least that would be an honest response.
Have You Forgiven? Really Forgiven?
How do you know if you have forgiven or not? If you want to keep hashing and rehashing your hurts over an extended period of time, you have not forgiven. A decade ago, I went through one of the most painful times of my ministry career (which is saying quite a lot, by the way). I knew myself well enough to know that I hadn’t forgiven some of those who had dished out the most pain. I also knew that God did not want me to waste the pain, based on the Scriptures quoted above. I went to a friend’s remote lake house and spent three or four days alone, praying, reading, listening to spiritual music, and crying. I re-read the book “Exquisite Agony” by Gene Edwards. I believe the current title is “Crucified by Christians.”
Thankfully, I had forgotten the punch line of the book (and is it a powerhouse!). It had been some years prior since I had read it. When it hit me afresh, I was staggered. It took my breath away. I nearly fainted. When I then went out into the woods and cried out to God, I ended up thanking him for the intense pain he had allowed in my life and for the privilege of being crucified in pain as was my Savior. As Edwards pointed out, our “Gethsemanes” usually come after our crucifixion instead of before it like Jesus. I felt so one with Jesus and so one with the Father. Words cannot describe the joyful exultation in my heart as it soared beyond my imagination. It was truly an out-of-body experience, and it left me at peace with God and with the world, including those who had in my mind crucified me.
Am I motivated to tell the stories of those painful days before my surrender? Of course not. They are long past and God used them to bless my life, just like Romans 5, Hebrews 12 and James 1 promised. But they only work if we surrender and trust God. Of course, I retained some of the lessons learned through that time of suffering, but I don’t have any inclination to dig up the details of the experience and I don’t have any emotions connected with them now. Having our emotions aroused when thinking about past painful experiences is a dead giveaway. It shouts out, “Unfinished Business!” I surrendered and God blessed me through the whole process. Isn’t that what he calls us to do in his Word?
Do Our Attitudes Demonstrate Faith?
The proper attitudes to maintain as we face human suffering are based on the possible purposes behind the suffering. As we consider the several alternatives which God may be trying to accomplish in our lives, we learn the appropriate responses of faith. One, God may chasten his children in order to mold them, in which case we humbly submit. Two, we may suffer persecution because we are sons and daughters of God, in which case we rejoice. Three, we may not be able to understand just why we are suffering, in which case we trust. In all things, we look to the cross of Christ and see that God shared in our suffering, experienced it to the full degree and in so doing, showed us the greatest love possible. Now he calls us to follow him, trusting that our eternal rewards will far outweigh the temporary struggles. Once we are able to remove the obstacles to faith produced by the problem of pain and suffering, we are in a much better position to see God more clearly.
Two Books Worth Reading
Some of the thoughts expressed in the preceding material came from other materials I have written, whether articles, books or outlines for oral teaching and preaching. The following material comes from the last section of a chapter in one of my books – chapter 4 in Dynamic Leadership. I’ve written 15 books, starting in 1995. Many of the older ones are in the second or third editions by now, and a number of them have been translated into other languages. Dynamic Leadership is one of the newer ones, being published in 2012.
People sometimes ask which of my books is the most popular or which one I like best. The crowd favorite has been The Victory of Surrender, and it is probably my favorite as well. I would put Dynamic Leadership right up there with the book on surrender, believing these two to be the most important I have ever written in terms of the impact they have had or could have. When Wyndham Shaw was writing the Foreword to Dynamic Leadership, (a Foreword well worth reading), he told me that he thought it was the most important book I had ever written. Given the fact the he and I co-authored Golden Rule Leadership, his comments were striking.
As I close out this article, please read the following paragraphs very carefully, prayerfully and personally. Look at your own heart. Don’t think about others whom you think need the lessons contained therein. Fittingly, the following material comes in a chapter entitled “Leadership Styles.” Please continue…
Bitterness Destroys; Grace Heals and Strengthens
No matter what you’ve been through, maintaining a victim mentality will indeed destroy your righteousness. The first Bible Talk I ever attended (as an observer) was on a university campus, led by a single college student whose spirituality was most impressive to me as an older minister. He had a sincere, gentle spirit about him, but courageously laid out the biblical message in an admirable way. Experiences like that one drew me like a magnet into the discipling movement (as I called it then), although it took me a few years. After his graduation, he married a wonderful young disciple, whose spirit was just as refreshing as his. They had what seemed to be the ideal marriage. On a recent trip to their home state, I was told that they are now divorced. Hearing that news shocked and depressed me. We had started a friendship back in that campus Bible Talk that meant something special to me. His influence on me was profound, even though our times together were few and far between over the years. What happened? I don’t really know, but what I do know is that he was a frequent contributor to a certain website where bitterness was fertilized incessantly by former church members who refused to handle hard times and hurts God’s way. Bottom line, bitterness may enter our hearts through different avenues, but once inside, it is only a matter of time before it destroys our own hearts. I have watched this process over and over in the past few years. Satan must be rejoicing.
You might be thinking, “Wait just a minute, Ferguson! You don’t understand my situation. I’ve been hurt, and hurt badly!” I am moved quickly to respond to statements like that by saying, “I’m truly sorry, I really am.” But I am also moved to follow that statement up by saying, “Join the club—the human club, and then the Jesus club.” The human club is a large one indeed, because we have all experienced hurts at the hands of others, but the Jesus club is a very small club, comprised only of people who have chosen to respond as Jesus did (and does, by the way). Am I critical of the military model of leadership described in this chapter? Yes. But do I also understand the environment that produced it and the good that occurred all over the world in spite of many types of sins by the leadership? Yes. If I could redo those years, would I do things a lot differently? Yes. If I could just remove those years from my life, would I do that? Absolutely not! God has always worked his will through sinners. He has no other choice.
What does he expect of us sinners? That we do the best we know, and keep striving to learn and become better in every way; in other words, to be disciples of Jesus: followers and learners. Will we make mistakes and hurt people? Let’s get real here. The person I have hurt most in this life is the one I love most: my wife. But she will tell you that I came from a very dysfunctional home and did the best I knew in our earlier days of marriage, and that over the years I have also kept striving to learn and become better in every way. And by her grace and God’s grace in my life, I have come a long, long way. Yes, I still have a long way to go, but I’ve come a long way. As the old saying puts it: “I’m not what I ought to be, but thank the Lord I’m not what I used to be.”
Some years ago, I was walking around my basement praying. The week before had been a bad one for me (for reasons I no longer remember). As I prayed, I confessed that I had been a mess the week before, and I promised to work really hard in the new week and make up for the bad week. I remember exactly where I was in the room when I said that, because I stopped in my tracks and said aloud, “That’s really bad theology, Ferguson.” No one can make up for anything in the past. Even if that new week I was entering went really well, it still would have contained quite enough of its own sin. That’s the “reality show” that we all live in every day, every week, every month, every year, for our whole life.
What shall we do with our bad days, weeks or months? I discovered an approach to prayer that day in my basement that I think is not only practical, but also biblical. I started most of my prayer times long after that day with this approach: “Lord, here is what happened yesterday—the good and the bad. For the good, I thank you so much. For the bad, all I know to do is confess and repent and then learn from it. So, my plan for today is to learn from both the good and the bad of yesterday, shut the door on yesterday and set out on my journey with you today determined to make this the best day I can, by your grace.” If you are unable to process your past like that, you are in a heap of trouble.
Is not Paul saying basically the same thing in Philippians 3:15–16 that I said in my prayer? After describing some lofty goals in his own life, he then gets practical with these words: “All of us who are mature should take such a view of things. And if on some point you think differently, that too God will make clear to you. Only let us live up to what we have already attained.” I’m not as good a leader today as I will be next year, but it’s not next year yet. What I am today, I am, and I have to be content with living up to what I have attained at this point. And guess what? The people under my leadership are going to have to be content with that as well—it’s the best I have to offer. Can you follow that principle, for your leaders’ sake? Can you follow that same principle, for your own sake? Can you give others grace and can you give yourself grace? If not, you are cooked—no way out. If you cannot accept mercy and if you cannot give mercy, I pity you. We are all a bunch of sinners, trying to get to heaven and help each other get to heaven, and that’s going to require enormous amounts of grace from God and from one another.
Nineteen Reasons—Stumbling Blocks or Stepping Stones?
In this chapter, I listed nineteen evidences of our military model of leadership in the past. For you and for me, that list contains either nineteen reasons to be bitter or nineteen reasons to learn and grow spiritually and not make those same mistakes in the future. It is not what happens to us that ultimately matters; it is how we process what happens to us that matters. We need to learn from our mistakes, but what then? We will make some new ones! We are sinful human beings. This life is not heaven, nor will it ever be. The challenges of life, including all sins you commit and that others commit against you, will either be stumbling blocks or stepping stones. The old bumper sticker said, “Life is tough—and then you die.” That’s true, isn’t it? The real issue is how you handle life when it’s tough. Will it be Satan’s way or God’s way? Those are the only two choices we have, and we have to make that choice on a daily basis, usually many times a day. Jesus said that there are two paths: The narrow path is difficult in the short run, but is the only choice in the long run; the wide one seems deceptively easy in the short run, but is deadly in the long run. If we hang in with God, no matter what happens to us in this life, the long run will be unimaginably wonderful and wonderfully long.
The evolution I wrote about in the Introduction has occurred once again, hasn’t it? In talking about a bad style of leadership, we have ended up at the cross once again. It’s interesting how that will keep happening over and over, if we allow it to happen. The Latin word for cross is crux. The crux of the matter is not man’s leadership style, although I deem it important enough to write a chapter with the title. The real crux of the matter is the cross—God’s leadership style. That is the style I want to employ in my own leadership and to experience as I follow others, but no matter what people may do, God is still my leader, and yours. Whatever he causes or allows in my life, he already has my permission. Otherwise, life will make me bitter. But if God really is the architect of my life, I can handle whatever design he develops in my life. You can too—but the question is: Will we?