“I need a new belt,” I told my wife.
“What’s wrong with your old one? Did it shrink?” she asked, poking at my waist.
“I don’t understand what’s happening to me,” I whined, fishing for sympathy. “Do you think somehow God is punishing me?”
“If so, he’s punishing you for all that Captain Cluck’s chicken you eat.”
“I’m not sure God works that way,” I said.
“Maybe not,” she allowed, “but perhaps you wouldn’t be belt shopping if had follow that Jarred guy to his sandwich shop.”
The question of whether God punishes people with medical problems is a question I hear a lot. Despite my previous whining, I don’t believe God punishes us that way – and most of the time I am able
to assure other folks of that as well.
But the man I found in our hospital lobby on one particular afternoon wouldn’t accept such assurances.
With his cheeks cradled in his palms he was staring at the carpet between his shoes.
“What do you think of our carpet?” I asked with a humorous prod.
“Hi, I’m the hospital chaplain, and I noticed you were staring a hole in our carpet. You look like you got some tough news.”
“It’s my fiancée, Doreen,” he replied. “She’s in the ER.”
“What are the doctors telling you?” I asked, absent my humorous tone.
“She rear-ended a 10-ton street sweeper with her VW Beetle, and they’re saying she probably won’t make it.”
My face grimaced with empathy as I noticed the blood on his clothes.
“Were you in the accident too?”
“No. I was following her. I pulled her out and started CPR, but there was so much blood everywhere! Holding her, it felt like her life was passing through my fingers.”
I shook my head in disbelief and he knew I didn’t know what to say, so he changed the subject.
“Where did you go to seminary?”
I squinted; looking for the place where that question had come.
“I went to seminary too,” he explained.
“You’re a pastor?”
“I was. I’m divorced now.”
We exchanged knowing looks – divorce is a career-ender for many evangelical pastors.
Then I saw the question in his eyes. I don’t know how. I just did.
“Do you think God’s punishing you for something?” I asked.
“I know he is.”
“Doreen was the church secretary and we had an affair and the accident happened as she was moving her stuff to my house. Now she’s going to pay for my indiscretion with her life.”
At that moment the doctor appeared in the lobby to tell us that Doreen had lost a lot of blood. “If she survives the next 24 hours,” he reported, “she might have a chance.”
The ex-pastor asked the doctor more questions, but when he could see that the answers weren’t going to change much, he thanked the doctor and turned his gaze on me.
“Would you like me to say a prayer?” I asked.
“Go ahead, but I doubt if God’s listening anymore.”
The pastor reminded me of the Sunday School story of Jonah. But when Jonah shirked his pastoral responsibilities, God sent a big fish to swallow him up.
In the dark belly of the fish, Jonah’s prayer sounded like the cell phone commercial – “Hey, God, can you hear me now?”
Out of the belly of hell I cried and you heard my voice,” prayed Jonah.” The water surrounded my soul and weeds were wrapped around my heart…yet you brought me out of the pit.”
Like Jonah, swallowed up by the shame of his fall, this man doubted God could hear him now. Nevertheless, like Jonah, he began praying and as Doreen began to recover, the ex-pastor eventually
stopped seeing God as the vigilant sky monitor.
It’s easy to see how people can get the idea that God’s going to “get us” if we do wrong. The Bible is full of stories of godly wrath. But the Good News is that he’s always there to take our call when we reach for help. No matter where we are, God can hear us now.