Tough night last night. I hesitate to write about it in the past tense because I don't really know if I'm truly on the other side of it. I was sitting here at my computer, half-writing, half surfing, when I had some very strange burning in my left shoulder. Not like muscular pain from lifting weights. It was kind of a stinging warmth on the inside. Then, I felt tingling in my left hand. I had shortness of breath and an odd (though not painful) pressure on my chest.
I called my wife up, not sure if I should make much out of it or not. See about 6 years ago, I had a bout of something similar. I had two ER visits, once being wheeled out of my school where I was teaching that morning. Over a 6 month period I went through a battery of cardio tests: EKG, Halter Monitor, Tilt Table Test, Stress Test, even a Nuclear Stress Test (sounds painful, eh?) Not really. But in the end, (thank you God) the tests showed my heart was perfectly normal and healthy.
So it had been six years since I'd had any serious symptoms, but last night, there they were. My wife (who is an RN) came up and took my pulse and BP. I lied down on the bed, and that is when things got worse. My heartrate went crazy, and I felt on the edge of passing out. My wife took me to the ER at a local hospital--and I can't tell you how uncomfortable that ride was. Seemed like the few cars in front of us were bound and determined to travel 15mph BELOW the posted limit.
Long story short, I had about six uncomfortable, frightening hours in the ER, and overnight stay in the hospital, and another Nuclear Stress Test. All results, again normal. So now, I'm at home and feeling much better, though, to be honest, a little leery about my health. I share all this with you for two reasons: 1. A Prayer request: Please pray that I will be done with these scary symptoms and/or get myself healthy enough to avoid them.
And 2. A plea from me to you. When I was laying there in the ER, I just felt compelled to tell my wife and my daughter who was with me how much I love them, and how sorry I am for not loving them better. It just occurred to me in there that I just might be on my way out for good. And I felt immediately and deeply sorrowful for all the slights and conflict and selfishness that had been my sole responsibility with my wife and daughter.
But after that, all I wanted to do was see my pastor: Joe Duke of Lifepoint Church. I desperately wanted to talk to him. And by God's very real grace, Joe was home. He came over to see me right away. He was barely in the door and all this stuff gushed out of me. I told him how I've struggled mightily as a Christian, especially just wondering if God really loved me and saved me. I know what you're probably thinking: here's this author guy, this guy whose written such amazing books that reveal the love and power of God, and…he's sitting there with those kind of doubts?
I can't explain it, but in that moment, feeling like, at any minute, I could just black out and never wake up, I was utterly terrified. And not just of death, but more of what would happen after. I had it all screwed up in my head that I was that guy Jesus talked about who would get to heaven and say, "You see, Lord, I have prophesied and cast out demons in your name." But Jesus replied, "Away from me. I never knew you." I can not imagine any greater horror than to die and find out once we've crossed over that whatever system we thought would get us to heaven, failed. Eternity is incomprehensible to most of us. We are too near sighted. We figure life is about 70-100 years here on earth. We do everything we can to fill this life with happiness and often forget about forever.
I told my pastor that it's just crazy: I've led Bible studies for 18 years, taught classes, written books, and there I was afraid for my eternal soul. My problem is and always has been that I think too much about myself: what I've done, what I've earned, what I deserve. And that, is a recipe for disaster and shame. Joe rightly and mercifully pointed out, "Wayne, it never has been about you. Jesus died with every horrible black sin you've ever done--ever will do--laid on his shoulders…willingly. Jesus knew you'd never make it. HE made it. And whether you feel Him or not, He IS right here with you. And this event, even now with your fear and doubt and pain, this event is not wasted."
Poor Joe. I think I threw every doubt I've ever had at him. I said, "What if I did the unpardonable sin--I mean there was that time when I was sixteen and I yelled at God and told Him I didn't want anything to do with Him." Joe said, "Of all the studies I've done and all the education on the subject of the unpardonable sin, I've come to realize that the only unpardonable sin is to reject Jesus." And he asked me do I believe in Jesus, that He is real, that He died on the cross, rose again to pay for me and give me life. I wept aloud, "Yes, I believe. It's just--" There Joe stopped me and said, "There are no buts. You belong to Jesus. And there is nothing you can ever say or do to change that."
Joe went on to say that it's important to talk to others about these real doubts and fears because the terrible alternative is to become fake. You make yourself look good because people are watching. And fake is a horror.
So as I wrap up, I just want to urge you on a few things. First, remember that this life REALLY isn't all there is. And all of us are dead men walking. At any moment ANY moment, it could just end like the flip of a lightswitch. And then...forever begins. Forever. Timeless, never-ending…forever. If there is anything keeping you from God right now, I assure you it is not worth ignoring forever. You may have gone through the worst life has to offer or be in the middle of the very best life has to offer, but it's all temporary. Whether you like it or not, years will pass and the glow or the pain will fade. And forever will still be sitting there, the 800 pound gorilla no one wants to talk about. Bow your inner knee to Jesus right now. He doesn't promise to take away the bumps in life, He doesn't promise that person who stung you will ever like you, He doesn't promise to make you sober, or to make you stop swearing. He does Promise to be with you ALWAYS. Never alone. And the best news of all is that ALWAYS includes forever. I want to be with Jesus forever. I so badly wait for that day when I first pass to the other side, and the chains of all the junk we struggle with just fall away. And there will be my Savior (our Savior) waiting there to lift your chin and mine. "Well done, good and faithful servant."
I want to encourage you. If you are struggling with doubt, first you are not the only one. When I told my pastor all that stuff last night, he said, "Wayne, you are among many, many others that struggle. And if you know anyone who says they don't, just wait. It's what the church fathers call the dark night of the soul or the wilderness time, when God seems far away and prayers seem to bounce off the ceiling." Joe went on to explain, "We as Christians, do live a life of faith. And those times when we don't see, hear, smell, taste, or touch Him, TRUST Him. Tell Him you trust Him." Yes, there is credible evidence for Christianity. But we walk by faith.
So if you're in the thick of it right now, brother, you are not alone. And God has not abandoned you or forgotten you. It's like the old footsteps poem: you may only just be standing at all because Jesus is carrying you. I encourage you to talk to someone you trust about whatever you are facing. Don't be fake. Be real, and know that God can take broken, screwed up people and create everlasting works of art.
And one more day-to-day thing: Don't mess with sin. Sin damages or even destroys relationships. Sin equals shame. Sin equals death. Beware of rationalizing of dancing too close to the line of sin. It leads all too quickly to a mire, a swamp of horrors. One of the first things to happen when you sin, is that you suddenly doubt--self, God, everything. Sin screws up the way things are supposed to be. You might want love, security, friendships, possessions--all can be good things. But not if you trample Jesus to get them. It's just not worth it. Forever is waiting. But so is today. Jesus came to give us life...even life now. Do not knowingly lock yourself in a fortress of shame by indulging sin. Go to the Lord with every worry, fear, temptation, thought, hope, and dream. Appeal to Him and trust.