Publication: Pastoral Letter, April 2005
Dear Friend in Christ:
Sometimes it is hard to know what to think. There are times when one can hardly think at all. Such was the case a few days ago when the doctor told me that my wife, Carolyn, has ovarian cancer. “We feel confident that we can achieve a remission, but,” he said, “we cannot promise a cure.”
Carolyn’s chest cavity had filled with fluid; she was very short of breath. Earlier diagnosis was that it was probably a virus; but tests and scans proved otherwise. I have never heard news more difficult to bear.
A few weeks ago I went to San Diego to participate in a memorial service for Ben Maggos, who suddenly dropped dead after running on a treadmill. He was just 24 years old. Ben was an honors graduate at The University of California at San Diego. He was working on a master’s degree at Arizona State University. His life was so full of promise; then his parents, John and Gretel, got the call_Ben was gone.
It was only a few days after returning from San Diego, when we got our own unexpected news. I had been studying the Bible regarding God’s thoughts versus ours, but the news that we got drove me back to the Bible in a new way. It was not theoretical! Carolyn and I_and our family_had to know what to think.
At the same time that we have received this news, my brother is fighting cancer, and we realize that people in nearby hospital rooms and places around the world are facing similar difficult issues.
I was reminded that on the first Sunday of this year, Carolyn and I had recommitted our lives to God and His purpose. “This will be a year to test our faith,” I told her as we went to the altar. I believed that the Holy Spirit had spoken to me and that we should prepare our hearts. But I had no idea.
I often remind myself and others that God is Sovereign and that His grace toward us is sufficient. His thoughts toward us are good and merciful. He does not bring evil upon us, but is there to enable us to triumph over it.
In our moment of trial, I turned to Ps. 40:
I waited patiently for the Lord, and He inclined to me and heard my cry. He also brought me up out of a horrible pit, out of the miry clay, and set my feet upon a rock, and established my steps. He has put a new song in my mouth – praise to our God. Many will see it and fear, and will trust in the Lord. Blessed is the man that makes the Lord his trust….And Your thoughts toward us cannot be recounted to You in order. If I would declare and speak of them, they are more than can be numbered”.
In Psalm 139, we read: “How precious also are your thoughts to me, O God…search me, O God, and know my heart; Try me, and know my anxieties.”
“I waited patiently,” David says. That took on new meaning as we waited for the diagnosis. And the prayer, “Search me, O God, and know my heart; try me, and know my anxieties,” also took on new meaning.
What are God’s thoughts toward us, and what are our thoughts about His purpose and our situation?
Isaiah 55:9 declares that God’s thoughts are higher than ours as the heavens are higher than the earth. God’s thoughts are as the heavens, established in His order. Our thoughts can become confused running in a small circle of bad possibilities. I have often said that life is more defined by the unexpected than the expected. The unexpected can be like a violent wind that blows away everything not established by God.
Luke 2:35 records that Simeon prophesied that Jesus would be a revealer of hearts. And Hebrews 4:12 says that the Living Word of God discerns the thoughts and intentions of the heart.
Natural thinking in such a moment can be something like this: “Why? Why me? What did I do wrong? Who is to blame?” Emotion can blow out the light of faith.
Our thoughts are often about ourselves, “What will happen to me or my loved one?” These thoughts do not solve problems; they only take us deeper into the pit of pity and the miry clay of doubt. “Why” is not a good question (see Isaiah 45:9).
God’s answers are often incomprehensible to our natural mind. Trust, not reason, brings us through the valley of the shadow of death. Trust, not reason, is the rod and staff that comforts us. Trust, not reason, assures us that goodness and mercy are following close behind. And trust, not reason, leads us to the table prepared for us. Anger and frustration only compound sorrows, as does blame. And blaming God is the height of folly. God is our hope and salvation. Facing Him and situations in faith is the path to peace.
Former generations faced death sooner than most of us do now. The lack of antibiotics and advanced medicines in the midst of epidemics and plagues caused those earlier generations to be better acquainted with sorrows. “Heaven” was the topic of more hymns then – we sing less about heaven now. We live in the moment. Given that life is a vapor, perhaps we should keep the eternal in mind.
Modern science has unraveled many mysteries of disease, but it has not conquered death. Jesus has!
HARMONY WITH GOD
When the shock of unexpected news comes, how do we find harmony between our thoughts and God’s thoughts? We have a friend in our church, Ginger DeLoach. Ginger was given a diagnosis of only a few weeks to live. She brought that diagnosis to God. She refused to dwell on her fears and determined that in addition to medical help, she would trust the promises of God. Years have passed and Ginger is still with us in good health. There is no contradiction between wisdom and faith.
Confessions of faith run throughout the Holy Word. Job said, “Though He slay me, yet will I trust Him.” Faith is not a denial of medical help; it is an affirmation of God’s help. Harmony with God brings peace and rest in times of trouble. On the first Sunday of this year, we sought to bring our thoughts into harmony with God before the trial began.
One doesn’t buy insurance after the fact. It must be purchased before the storm. When the storm comes, the insured can trust for redemption. While we do not understand all the reasons, nor do we try, we can accept His promise to never leave or forsake us.
Here are some thoughts that sustain us:
We rely upon God, our Rock. I love the old hymn, “Christ, The Solid Rock.”
We draw comfort from a strong family. It has been a primary investment.
We are very grateful for many friends_another great investment. Ecclesiastes 4:10 says, “Woe to the one who is alone when he falls.”
We are also very grateful for the prayers of literally thousands of people – many of them do not now us personally.
We embrace both truth and love. In God, truth and love have kissed (see Psalm 85:10)
We have tried to be honest, while knowing the love of God and friends.
We are grateful for the whole armor of God (see Ephesians 6:10-13). We are especially thankful for the shield of faith and praying in the Holy Spirit.
And, we are grateful for the able medical people who give us the best that they have to offer. And we continue to pursue the best help that we can find
How should we think? Someone has said, “Birds may fly over us, but we don’t allow them to build a nest in our hair!” Negative thoughts may knock at our door, but we are not required to allow them inside. One day I entered the hospital room and saw that Carolyn had been crying. Both of us have cried as we face this issue. “I have heard some discouraging words,” she said. In difficult times, there are times when you see faces that are not lit by faith or hear words that are negative. We are not required to give a “nest” for those thoughts. We can raise the shield of faith, pray in the Holy Spirit, and put on the helmet of salvation. We can quench the “fiery darts.” The Lord said in Matthew 7:24: “Whoever hears the sayings of mine and does them, I will liken him to a wise man who built his house upon the rock.” We can choose where to build our house of faith – on the sands of natural thinking or upon the Rock of God’s Word. We have made our choice.
WORDS THAT WORK
I have written these pastoral letters for many years. I have always attempted to write them from a biblical point of view and out of our own hearts and lives. By being both biblical and honest, I hope to equip others for life with its challenges. I do not offer religious platitudes or false peace. I seek to offer words that work in the trenches and in the battle field.
Mere reason is no match for the mysteries of God and life. Where reason fails, faith conquers. We are convinced of the love of God and that nothing can separate us from Him (see Romans 8:35-39).
As a minister, I have walked with many people through trials. I have seen that grace comes to those who look to God, and it is amazing to see the peace that comes. I was licensed to be a minister 50 years ago, but I continue to be amazed at the power of His presence.
Thank you for allowing me to be open with you. It is not for sympathy that I write, but for the equipping of believers and to testify to those not yet in the faith.
Please allow us to pray with you in the trials that you may face, and “May the peace of God that passes all understanding guard your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7).
Scripture Reference: Psalms, Isaiah, Matthew, Romans, Philippians