I visited a sick friend this week. This friend had a heart attack recently and he’s currently confined to his house and a painfully strict diet. We talked about the heart attack, about his frantic drive to the nearest ER and his fuzzy memory of a helicopter ride to another. Scary stuff. And then my friend asked something about God. He said, “When you were going through all that stuff with cancer, did you feel like God had a message for you?”
I knew what was behind that question before he finished the sentence. It’s the obvious question for a believer who has experienced a major health event. In fact, it’s an amalgamation of several questions:
- Is God trying to get my attention?
- If I get the message, will my suffering stop?
- Is this some kind of calling or test of faith?
- Is this an opportunity to do something for God? How do I know what it is? And how do I do this well?
- Should I expect to meet God in my suffering in some mysterious new way like the martyrs or saints of old?
In his book Notes From the Valley, my pastor Andy McQuitty relays a similar question from one of his friends. Andy is part of a pastor’s group. They meet for lunch once a month to encourage and pray for one another. On the day when Andy announced to that group that he had stage four colon cancer, one of the men pulled him aside and asked, “Do you still believe?” In other words, when the chips are down, when you’re facing the real possibility of death, is God there? Is the gospel still good?
Andy reassured his friend that, indeed, God is as real to the dying as the preachers tell us he is. My answer to my friend was a little different, but equally positive. God was equally real to me when I was sick as he was when I was well. In hospital rooms and isolation rooms, I stared at many ceilings and wondered if I was supposed to meet God in some new way — if there was such a thing as wasting cancer with a faithless response. But none of that played out for me. Instead, I sensed God meeting and relating to me in hospital beds just the same as he related to me in office cubicles or living rooms. Always there. Always gracious. Eager to give good gifts to his children, be they physical or eternal, seen or unseen.
When we suffer or fear, it’s natural to ask questions, to wonder about how things work in higher realms, to worry and look for God. But my experience, and Andy’s I think, is that the most comforting thing about God in those times is his consistency. God doesn’t arrive at emergency rooms breathless and flustered saying, “I wish I could have gotten here faster. I wish there were something I could do.” He’s in the ambulance on the way. He’s in the steady, annoying beep of heart monitors and IV drips. He’s in the team dynamics at the nurses' station and the concentrated focus of the surgeon. And in every line of the steadily unfolding story of our suffering, he whispers the same endless encouragement. “Fear not.”