A Personal Account of Grief and Resurrection
| Select chapters by Gary R. Habermas
Originally published by College Press Publishing Company (1997)
This is an electronic copy of chapters 9 and 10 only.
Table of Contents:
Many times throughout Debbie's sickness, while she was lying upstairs on our bed, I thought about the case of Job, the Old Testament believer who wrestled with such a severe dose of suffering. This was a recurring meditation in my life. It was definitely not that I thought I had suffered as much as he did. It was just that I had often written and lectured on this famous man whose name is almost synonymous with pain, and, frankly, I wanted to know if the lessons he learned could in any way be applied to my situation.
In other words, even though I hadn't suffered as much as had Job, was what he learned practical enough to help me, thousands of years later? Or to say it still another way, I had said many times that Job's lessons really worked in real life predicaments. Now I had a chance to actually prove it! Could I "put my money where my mouth was" during what was easily the toughest time in my entire life?
I started by remembering a few of Job's problems. Maybe this would make me more appreciative of the remedy that he discovered. There was no question that Job suffered greatly, both physically and emotionally. On top of all this, he couldn't understand why God did nothing to help him. Why was God so silent? Couldn't God just reach down and heal him any time He wanted to? He was the God and Creator of the universe, wasn't He? But now the situation had lasted far too long. It didn't seem like the suffering would ever end. Yet, we are also told that Job's trials taught him fantastic truths that completely transformed his life.
Checking the Book of Job once again, I reviewed his situation. Although he was a righteous man, Job was tested by Satan with numerous calamities. One major problem was not enough! His domestic animals were either killed or stolen by outlaws. There goes the family livelihood! Then his servants were murdered, too. Then the evil touched his own family. All of his children were killed in a desert storm (Job 1:13-19).
Then phase two of the suffering kicked in, and the pain moved closer to home. Satan tormented Job with personal sickness in the form of painful sores from his head to his feet. Either from the itching or from the oozing of the sores, he had to scrape himself with a piece of broken pottery. "Curse God and die," his own wife counseled him (2:7-9). In spite of all of this, Job refused to sin by charging God with the fault of these multiple tragedies (1:20-22; 2:10).
Job didn't have the luxury of sitting in a classroom and philosophizing about his dilemma in some theoretical, detached manner. Neither did I. He was forced to live through his struggles and pain. So was I. But I didn't suffer as much as he did. Since he personally "paid the price" that he did, his experience should be quite instructive for me. As I said, I gravitated towards the advice and comradery of others who had lost either spouse or children. So, could Job's conclusion be applied to my own situation with Debbie? I wanted to know how well it would actually work.
After awhile, Job began to challenge God. Several times he demanded his right to have a hearing before the God of the universe. He even requested a debate on the subject (Job 13:3; 13:21-22; 27:2). Job's major question was quite a normal one: "Why am I suffering the way I am? What could possibly justify this horror?"
God responded in chapters 38-41. He spoke to Job and challenged him to answer an entire host of questions--sort of like a final exam. More than once, God asked Job if he could solve the problem of pain and suffering. Understandably, Job didn't have an answer.
It is instructive that God never answers Job's main question, a typical one that we all ask from time to time. He doesn't tell Job why everything has happened to him. I think this tells us something very crucial and that it is even one of the keys to the entire issue. If God had provided a philosophical justification of suffering, could Job even have understood it? We're not talking about graduate school here, but an audience with Almighty God! But perhaps a layman's answer would still not have been understood by Job, or perhaps worse, wouldn't have done what Job most wanted or needed.
After all, don't the textbooks say that we shouldn't rationalize with those who have just lost a loved one? Although I sometimes enjoyed philosophical discussions with my friends during Deb's sickness, usually I wanted no part of this sort of banter. I had no time or patience for it. After all, this was not just a theoretical situation! I wasn't interested in the three leading theories on the subject. I was hurting! If I knew this, wouldn't God? Maybe God knew that such an answer, on whatever level, was exactly what Job didn't need!
Whatever the reason why God never gave Job an answer to his main question, one thing is crystal clear. In the end, Job was entirely satisfied. But why did he abandon his protest against God? What had he learned?
Job came to understand that God could do anything, including giving an explanation for the suffering in the world. First, Job realized that God was omnipotent--he confessed that God was all-powerful (Job 42:1-2). Indeed, only God could perform all the things that He had just asked Job to do, including solving the puzzle of pain. Next, Job realized that the problem was actually with him--he simply did not understand the areas he was questioning (42:3). This realization must have hurt his pride! But he was honest enough to admit that he had lost the debate. After his "showdown" with the Lord, Job declared that all he could do was repent. He now despised the position that he had previously taken (42:6).
This wasn't just some mental conclusion on Job's part, either. It cost him something. He had been humbled. He had to relinquish his previous objection. Even more, he needed to act further on his decision and repent. All of this, he did willingly. What in the world could he have learned to make him do these things? What changed his mind so drastically?
We can now summarize what Job learned in his encounter with the Lord--that which became the foundation for his liberation and peace. Based on what he knew about God, Job now realized that he could trust God even in those things that he still did not know. In other words, Job concluded that he already knew enough about God to realize that there was a good reason(s) for his suffering, even if he did not understand what it was. He could trust the One who did know why it all had happened.
Therefore, Job was satisfied without ever knowing why God hadn't answered the question about his suffering. And we must remember that he made his decision even while he was still afflicted, before God blessed him (42:10-17). So it wasn't all the forthcoming blessings that made Job repent; his change occurred first.
I had realized long before Debbie got sick that there was a tremendous principle here for me to learn, as well. The times when I knew the reason why pain and evil occurred, it was so much the better. I realized that Scripture provided many of these reasons, for which I was thankful.
But even when I could not figure it all out, or when God seemed to me to be so silent, I also knew that I still had to trust Him. Why? Because I knew more about God than Job did. He didn't even have the Scripture, for one thing. So I had even more grounds than he did for concluding that God knew everything and could do anything in accord with His nature. I certainly knew enough about Him to trust Him in the things that I didn't understand, such as Deb's illness.
I also realized that there were plenty of other things in the last category, too--things that I didn't know! They say that this is an inevitable result of earning a Ph.D.--you're exposed to so many items for study that you are never able to master them all. So I had no problem believing that I was finite. In fact, I never quite understood why human beings who knew better, frequently acted as if they had unlimited knowledge. But surely there is much in the universe that we do not know.
So could I really learn from Job's experiences and apply it to our situation? That's what I wanted to know. I realized that his account was included in Scripture so I could read, learn, and implement these truths. And I knew that it all made good sense, too. But what could it do for my pain?
I was also suffering, although, granted, not on the scale that Job did. Still, I wrestled with some of the same quandaries: Would Debbie be taken from us? Why did she have to suffer like this? Why was pain my constant companion during her sickness? How was I to handle what seemed to be God's silence? Why didn't God do something about the situation? Weren't we His children? Hadn't we been trying to live for Him?
I think that we probably know more often than Job did why we suffer. Scripture helps us in this regard. We have more revelation than he did, which includes the experiences of others, like Joseph's rejection by his own family, David's persecution by his family and friends alike, and the prejudice against Daniel. We also knew about the very Son of God in the Garden of Gethsemane, Paul's physical suffering and unanswered prayer, and the persecution (and even the death) of early believers. It was comforting to see that we were not alone in our struggles.
What about our particular case? What did we know? We knew that sin affected the world and pain and suffering often resulted. We knew that God had not been silent toward us. He had clearly spoken to Debbie during her worst moment in the CAT scan, forever changing her life. I knew that I couldn't charge God with not answering our prayers, and couldn't have asked for a more clear answer. Further, He revealed to me about her cancer count going down so that we could have a week of vacation. No, I reminded myself, I couldn't say that He had been silent.
But then again, in many other things we didn't know why we were suffering. It was in these items that Job's advice was best applied. I knew that the basis for Christianity was firm. I couldn't deny this, and even in these troubled times, this gave me great comfort. Therefore, what I knew about God was sufficient to trust Him with those questions where I didn't know the answers. I could trust Him whether or not I had an explanation for a particular situation.
So how would I actually apply this knowledge to the numerous circumstances when I didn't know why things happened the way they did? On these occasions, I resolved to remind myself what I did know about God. This approach could take many forms. Subjects for meditation could include the attributes of God, the truth about heaven, numerous other promises of God, or other aspects of His Word.
But given the more than half dozen books that I had written on the subject of Jesus' resurrection, my thoughts almost always followed a very specific trail. It had always given me instant relief during troubled times in my past. But could it have the same results in the situation with Debbie? Or would it fail to produce the desired benefits this time?
So here's what I said many times to myself during Deb's sickness: "I'm not always sure why things are happening the way they are, but this is still the same world in which God raised His Son from the dead. Eternal life for believers is the result. Therefore, I can trust God that there is a good answer to this situation even if I don't know what it is. At worst, I'll see Debbie again in heaven."
So how was Job's lesson applied during Debbie's struggles? How could I build a bridge between theory and practice? Even more down to earth, what would make me relax and feel better, even when I didn't know all the answers?
I pictured a situation similar to that of Job--with me asking the "Why?" questions. What would God say to me if He came and spoke to me as He did to Job in 38:3:
Brace yourself like a man; I will question you, and you shall answer me. (NIV)
What would God ask me in a situation like this one? I knew in an instant: He would undoubtedly ask me about the resurrection, about which I had done so much research. Here's a sample of how I pictured the conversation going:
"Lord, I just can't understand why You are allowing these things to happen to my family and me. Why us, especially when Debbie is so young and all four kids are still at home?"
"I just want to ask you one thing. Did I raise my Son Jesus from the dead?"
"Well yes, certainly, Lord. But how does that help me in my current sorrow?"
"Answer me once again--you do not seem to be understanding my point. Do you really believe that I raised Jesus from the dead?"
"Sure I do, but . . . ."
"Since you know that this is a world where I raised Jesus, don't you also know that His teachings are true?"
"Yes, I've always said that would follow."
"And do you have reason to think that I am still in control of the universe?"
"Yes . . . . I think you are, Sir. I have no reason to question it."
"Then isn't it also the case that, while you don't know why you are suffering, I do?"
"Well, certainly that's true."
"And whether or not you know why Debbie is suffering, have I not chosen you two in my Son, to be with me in heaven, where you'll see her again?"
"Yes, Lord. I couldn't even imagine a more glorious truth."
"Then what remains to be asked? Since you know these truths, including the resurrection, shouldn't you trust me in those areas where you don't know all of the answers?"
"Do you, then, have enough knowledge to trust me through circumstances that you do not, as yet, understand?"
"I think you've got me, Lord. Yes, I should trust you with all of my heart."
"Then review and practice these truths. Don't get sidetracked by other issues, no matter how painful. You do not have to carry the heavy burden of trying to figure everything out. I want you to trust me with all of your heart."
Granted, sometimes my questions and worries were more stubborn than this. But I learned that, in these cases, I just needed to be more forceful with myself. No matter how much I hurt or how much I might have wanted to cry out in anguish, I had to make myself focus on the factual issues alone.
I can't emphasize too much the directness of the approach: I could not allow myself to get sidetracked here. There were very few issues that needed to be addressed at this particular point. When I wanted to shift the discussion back to the disease or to the pain, I sometimes had to forcefully say, "Not now. This is not the time for this."
Whenever the pain felt unbearable, I would sit down, usually outside on my porch. Then I forced myself to address the questions that I thought God would ask if He were challenging me, as He did Job. I quickly discovered that I could not answer this line of reasoning. Since the facts were true, the conclusion followed.
I made myself answer each of the questions as if I were hearing them for the first time. Once again, I had to decide. Do the facts say that God raised His Son from the dead? (Yes or No?) Then, is eternal life a reality? (Yes or No?) Then, are Jesus' other teachings also true? (Yes or No?) While other issues may be important, these were sufficient for me to know that everything would work out in the end, even eternally so. I would know the answers to my questions one day. I could wait, assured that there were, indeed, answers. And best of all, Debbie would be waiting for me in heaven, all smiles, for she already knew!
Of course, this might not be the exact line of questioning that God would use with everyone. I think the examination would be tailored differently, according to our own situations. For some, the issue might be, "And didn't I already answer a major prayer request (perhaps even healing) for you last year?" (Yes or No?) Or: "Didn't I save you out of some pretty bad circumstances? (Yes or No?) Or, more like Job: "You've studied (or always appreciated) my creation. Can you explain the intricacies of my design--say, the secrets of DNA or enzyme development? (Yes or No?) Or even tougher and also like Job: "Can you explain to me why there is pain and suffering in the world that I created?" (Yes or No?) "Why is free will necessary?"
Even though the challenge could be different, the conclusion would be the same. If we cannot explain or even understand God's ways, on what grounds can we "second guess" Him? He created the world, raised His Son from the dead, saved us, answered our prayer(s), and prepared heaven for us. Then why can't we trust Him in our present circumstances? Why can't we at least realize that He knows more than we ever could, and that includes what has happened to us?
For me, an incredible aspect of this approach is that it is definitely not based on some blind leap of faith. At no point was Job told to believe something without a basis. God pointed him to facts in the real world, usually from the areas of biology and physics. That's pretty noteworthy in an age where science is frequently thought to oppose religious belief. And the resurrection of Jesus Christ was an historical fact. No, there was no way I could say that God had asked either Job or me to believe in a vacuum.
Once again, Job's realization is the key: what we already know about God is enough for us to trust Him in those things that we don't know. Such a truth should keep us focused on the most important matters in the Christian faith. Even more so, it can free us from the burden of always having to figure out exactly what God is trying to accomplish when believers hurt.
Incidentally, even the insinuation that we have a right to know God's thoughts is ridiculous, besides violating clear biblical teachings. The facts are quite simple here: I am certainly not God. Christians would readily admit this. Then why do I insist on acting like I have a right to know all of these things?
True, it could be the almost unbearable pain we're undergoing at the time that influences us to do what we probably would not do otherwise. But this is all the more reason to make sure that our suffering falls into line. In short, it's precisely because of the pain that we need to apply these truths, and do so forcefully! Just like suffering often leads us to think things that we would prefer not to, so it now can help us to learn and accomplish what we need to. Do we want to gain peace, or not?
This is what Job learned. He unquestionably went through some deep waters and suffered what few others have, either before or since. He responded by charging God with treating him unjustly. But God's personal challenge brought him back forcefully to his senses. In the end, Job confessed his rebellion and acknowledged that he had charged headlong into matters that he did not understand. He also recognized that God could do all things. As a result, he knew that he could trust God to take care of the deep things of the universe, including the problem of suffering and pain.
Although I didn't suffer like Job did, I still found that his remedy would work for me, precisely in the middle of my pain. I applied his lesson very often during the four months of Debbie's sickness, and it never once failed to provide relief. Every single time I thought through what would be God's challenge to me concerning the resurrection of Jesus, I realized again that the theme of Job could answer my deepest questions about our suffering. In fact, the application even became rather easy; I didn't reach it through gritted teeth.
What, precisely, did God do for me through this practice? While I still didn't know exactly why Debbie was dying, it quickly became a moot point. Anyone who knows me and my questioning mind set would realize how revolutionary this was. But the reason for the suffering was inconsequential. I knew that the One who had raised His Son Jesus from the dead knew the reason why. Since I couldn't deny this, I could wait for the final answer.
Along the way, I gained something else, too. Since I was no longer tempted to even ask the "Why?" question, neither did I suffer the additional emotional pain associated with not knowing the answer, or thinking that God should have done otherwise. It is well-known that emotional suffering is worse than physical pain. I could now deal with the daily issues directly in front of me, without adding the anxiety-causing distress that comes from worrying about the extra "what-ifs" of the situation. This allowed me the tremendous blessing that, whatever else happened, I knew that God was indeed in control. And I also knew that I would again be with Debbie in heaven, and for all eternity. I could rest in this, even in the middle of the suffering. It really worked, too! The relief it provided was immeasurable. God had answered my prayers.
I tried to be very observant throughout the entire ordeal with Debbie's cancer. One thing I was careful to do was to keep detailed notes concerning the lessons I had learned during our suffering. Besides the message of Job, discussed in the last chapter, I concluded that there were three other, major lessons, as well as many smaller ones. Most of the items learned also served as blessings for our family.
First, I learned that God sustains His children, even in the very worst of times. Just as He states in His Word, He will never give us more than we can handle. Paul says it so nicely: "No temptation has seized you except what is common to man. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can stand up under it" (I Cor. 10:13, NIV).
I had observed this promise being fulfilled over and over again during our trial. Some days, things would seem to be the worst I had ever experienced. I literally didn't know how I could make it through the next moment, let alone the remainder of the day. Sometimes I just wanted to crawl off and hide. Better yet, I wanted to simply push a button or have Debbie take a pill and escape it all.
But then the very next day, unbelievably, everything had done an about-face. Once, a particularly bad day in the hospital was followed by a tough night with sleep that was repeatedly broken by nurses, medicines, and the observation of machines. Then just as abruptly, as I walked the hallway early the next morning and watched the sun rise into the summer sky, I was buoyed. Then and there, I just knew that things would work out all right, no matter what happened. I even felt strong enough to try to encourage a woman that I had never met, but who had just lost her mother during the night.
What a change from one day to the next! It was as if David's comment had been written directly to me: "weeping may remain for a night, but rejoicing comes in the morning" (Psalm 30:5, NIV). And I knew it was the Lord Who was giving me the strength for the victory. He hadn't chosen to heal Debbie, but He did give me His grace to make it through the dilemma. Yes, healing definitely comes in different forms.
Accordingly, I also realized another, very precious truth: just as the Lord had been with Debbie throughout her struggles, providing her with a very real sense of His presence, so He would be with us, when it is our time to face death. So, too, would He be with us in any other calamities that might arise. Therefore, I didn't need to face the unknown future with undue anxiety. I realized quite early that ongoing death anxiety, for the believer, was in all likelihood worse than death itself. As Scripture attests, Jesus Christ came in order to "free those who all their lives were held in slavery to the fear of death" (Heb. 2:14-15, NIV). Christians can overcome excessive fear of death and experience God's peace.
Second, I knew that heaven was real and provided another great lesson that, like Job's experience, could actually be immediately applied to our pain. Paul commands believers who suffer to turn their thoughts away from their immediate circumstances, even their own deaths, to the reality of eternal life. God has guaranteed eternity by raising Jesus from the dead, he says. Therefore, while our suffering is temporal, our life in heaven never ends (II Cor. 4:14-18).
could this truth be stated any more clearly and beautifully
than it was:
These troubles and sufferings of ours are, after all, quite small and won't last very long. Yet this short time of distress will result in God's richest blessing upon us forever and ever! So we do not look at what we can see right now, the troubles all around us, but we look forward to the joys in heaven which we have not yet seen. The troubles will soon be over, but the joys to come will last forever. (4:17-18, LB)
One thing that is so incredible here is not only does Paul tell us to meditate on future truth, but, like Job, doing so can even reduce the level of pain, which is the immediate problem! Initially, eternal life is not only real, but its very nature should give it priority in both our thinking and our acting. The pain is also real, to be sure. But Paul's advice is appropriate even if the pain is not thereby lessened, because eternal life is still ultimate reality, long after the suffering has subsided. In short, heaven lasts longer and is far better than earth. We are justified in thinking ahead and planning for retirement. Why shouldn't we meditate on and plan ahead for our ultimate future in heaven?
Further, Paul's teaching can actually lessen the pain we suffer! A positive word from a medical doctor who informs us that we are healthy often lessens our anxiety, since the emotional factor has been removed from our other symptoms. We leave the office already feeling better because our feelings have been soothed. Similarly, a proper perspective on the truth of eternity can shift the believer's thinking away from the problems of the immediate situation. We are given the assurance that, at least ultimately, everything will be fine (especially in eternal terms!). Therefore, meditation on heaven actually allows us to refocus our attention away from the suffering, thereby lessening the emotional component. Since our emotions frequently cause the worst pain, this element alone is worthwhile.
I often thought about this message of heaven while Debbie was sick, and it was indeed comforting. In fact, given our circumstances, I couldn't imagine a more encouraging truth than this one. As I meditated on this common New Testament theme, an even more blessed angle occurred to me.
In Matthew 6:19-24, Jesus Christ commands believers to store treasures for themselves in heaven, where it cannot be contaminated by moths, rust, or robbers. Inasmuch as people themselves can be part of our eternal treasures (Phil. 4:1), I now realized that Debbie, herself, was such a prize that I was "laying up" in glory. We had mutually influenced each other in our twenty-three years of life together, and this spiritual fruit was now preserved in heaven. Therefore, she could not be contaminated in any way. She was, in effect, part of a heavenly bank account that could not be stolen, corrupted, or otherwise suffer any additional pain of any kind! It gave me great peace to realize that Deb had been sent ahead of me and was now waiting for me in heaven.
So the New Testament proclamation of heaven, combined with Debbie's presence there, made it all the easier to meditate on this reality rather than on my temporal circumstances. Like the message of Job, this was a great comfort to me every time I contemplated it. I do not remember a time when either theme failed to lift me up.
The third major lesson I learned was an even deeper impression of the value and sanctity of life. In a primary sense, Debbie was my closest earthly friend and the value of her life was ever before me. Secondarily, the response to our plight by family, loved ones, and friends alike was nothing short of incredible. I guess some are disturbed by the lack of support they get in such times. But all I could do was praise God for the overwhelming show of support on our behalf.
Relatives who sacrificed so much of their vacation and personal time to be with us, church members who brought special meals, the ministry of our church worship team, colleagues who taught classes for me so I could be home with Debbie, those who sent various gifts of other sorts, as well as loving cards and phone calls were all witnesses of love. I couldn't see them any other way. It was as if each one had the word LOVE stamped on it in bold letters.
Through this, I learned that our burdens are not meant to be carried alone. Others want to assist us and are both capable, as well as being worthy of our trust. I learned to give up jobs that Debbie or I had always handled ourselves, and, one by one, discovered that I didn't have to worry about them any longer. This was a refreshing truth to discover.
More than physical burdens, I also shared the emotional weight that I carried, especially with those close to me or with friends who had suffered similar losses. The more someone responded, the more I would share with them. Those who not only told me that they would pray for us, but were diligent in doing so, were also appreciated.
At the same time, these friends and loved ones were also suffering. Although it hurt to relive certain episodes or details by discussing them, it was often what they wanted or needed. Strangely enough, I also noticed that repeating an incident several times made it easier for me to think about and retell it the next time. At any rate, I enjoyed being able to minister to them and return the favor they had given us. It was uplifting to me when I could encourage others who were also grieving Debbie's sickness and death. Many times, it was either Job's lesson or the message of heaven that brought the blessing, too.
After all, I mused, this mutual sharing is a crucial part of the ministry in the Body of Christ. I was able to witness firsthand the pure sacrifice that occurs when brothers and sisters in Jesus Christ surrender themselves in so many ways for the benefit of others. Isn't this at least part of what the apostle Paul had in mind when he spoke about sharing and suffering together in Christ's Body (I Cor. 12:26)?
While these three areas plus Job's experience were the predominant lessons that I learned, other ideas also became very meaningful to me. Once again, each of these served as independent benefits, too.
I learned to appreciate the small blessings of life, whether it be a sunny day or a smile from Debbie. Even a warm meal and a good night's sleep were special. Time with the children or a note or call from a concerned friend were also welcomed. Often I thought about the fact that Deb got sick in the summer, when I could be home with her virtually the entire time. It seemed like nothing was too small to touch me.
Another blessing was how Debbie taught me to take just one day at a time. Chiefly by her example, she showed me how not to worry about the future. Sometimes, I even realized that I could only take a portion of a day at a time, even just an hour or two, since there was so much uncertainty. I realized that making each moment count for the Lord is something that we don't seem to emphasize too much any more.
I learned more than one lesson about my emotions. On the one hand, I remembered that feelings are a gift from God and are a blessing in themselves. Even during the most painful times, I could still appreciate the fact that I had feelings at all, the good along with the bad. I even became a "hugger"--something I never was before and, to tell the truth, have not kept up too much since those days. But at the time, these expressions of love and friendship were very meaningful to me, and I needed them. Men can show emotions, too!
But on the other hand, I had to apply other lessons I had learned long before--emotions also had to be controlled. Feelings can become very unruly when left to themselves, so not all experiences were good. The kind to be avoided and corrected are the ones that come from telling ourselves untruths. These can lead to additional suffering, and of an even more painful variety. I reminded myself very often (and told others, too) that we are most harmed not by what happens to us, but by how we cope with it and what we tell ourselves about it.
Closely aligned with controlling our emotions, I witnessed the benefit of practicing several of the biblical disciplines. Meditation was a blessing, as well as a calming influence in my life. Familiar Scripture passages leapt to life, overflowing with special meaning that they did not before have in the same way. The Book of Psalms probably became our favorite over the summer. Debbie was always blessed by Psalms 91 and 148, no matter how often I read them. Individual texts like Psalms 3:5, 4:8, and 16:11 had a profound impact on me.
I also noticed that giving a witness to God could be more than hounding others. It could be a very natural way to share a message during the time that it will be the most readily received. In the hospital, for example, I tried never to pass up an opportunity to mention our faith to a doctor or nurse, even if it was only in some small way. Debbie did the same, probably even more than I did. It was hard not to notice that an honest word given during genuine suffering is respected by all. It was our prayer that it would affect lives, as well.
One rather profound lesson was learning that our lives are tiered. Emergency situations make us realize that very few things that we think are crucial actually are so. The wages we earn, money in general, the size of our house, the appointments we had lined up, business interests, hobbies, or summer vacations all get tested very quickly in the light of their eternal value. This is not to say that none of these, or the myriads of other things that sometimes clutter our lives, is important. Many of these items still need to be done, but the point is that an entirely new meaning is cast over them, as well as everything else that we do. And some of our practices simply fail the test altogether.
Here I made one of many mental notes. It's good to remember, I reminded myself, to be just as serious about life's priorities when current concerns are not so pressing. The re-evaluating and ordering of our lives should always be a prominent consideration. As strange as it may sound, I realized even more than I did before that sometimes the seemingly frivolous pastimes, like strictly free time with children, can be as significant as anything else.
The last of my lessons concerned my immediate family. There were a great many things to be thankful for, in spite of the sobering experience of the summer. Here I had to begin with Debbie. She had always been the consummate mother and wife. Now, in front of her family, she modeled patience, love, and many other virtues. In retrospect, I do not remember any complaints from her, in spite of her situation. There were no heart rending pleas, and virtually no requests. Her teasing and laughter were rewarding. I was so unspeakably thankful for the almost total absence of any physical or emotional pain.
Without hesitation, I attribute the lack of pain to her experience with the Lord in the CAT scan. Especially given her past fears, her present victories were inexplicable apart from His guiding hand. Beyond just having a "head knowledge" of biblical truth, her total assurance of His love, acceptance through Jesus Christ, and absence of any fear of death were nothing short of astounding. They came as a result of the wondrous grace of her loving Lord. She responded to this realization with daily praise and a cultivation of what she termed the awesomeness of God. She had modeled not only motherhood at its finest, but also devotion to God. He was the apex of her life and it was obvious. We learned from her testimony.
The children also did remarkably well during her sickness, as well as afterwards. Beyond my concern for Deb's physical condition, the four children were my chief interest. I learned a lesson about them, too: they had been exceptionally resilient, just as Judi had predicted to me. Of course there were many painful times, due to the loss of their mother. Many tearful discussions had taken place between us. But over both the summer and the months afterward, I was amazed again and again at how well they were adjusting. During their recovery, Debbie's memory was definitely not receding into the background. We took great pains to remember her regularly.
Another welcome feature of their recovery was that they were growing spiritually, as well. Here and there I heard some questions being raised by the older ones, but these were almost exclusively very early after Debbie's death and dissipated in short amounts of time. Not that questions are bad, and I knew that they could even facilitate further growth. But I was still thankful for the brevity of this stage.
Although he definitely had more questions than the others, the chief example of spiritual growth and maturation also came from my oldest child, Robbie. Though he had trusted Jesus Christ by faith as a small child, he now dates the time of his salvation from his own experience with the Lord just several months after his mother's death. The other children also kept up their interest in spiritual things, such as reading Scripture and their enjoyment of the worship portion of our church service. I regularly noted how their mother's death had little affect on their love for the Lord. Maybe it was precisely Debbie's attitude towards her Lord that caused them to respond this way.
Last of all, it seems that I could write volumes on the affect that Debbie's death had on me. In addition to all of the many lessons and blessings outlined in this chapter, her suffering has had numerous, profound influences on my own spiritual life. Having previously written a book on Christian doubt and another on death and immortality, I had now experienced the latter first hand. Many of the realizations outlined above, both theoretical as well as practical, were gems that came from her testimony and experience.
But there was also a penetrating affect on my ministry. Even though only a few friends actually mentioned it to me, I realized fairly early that others were watching us. How would we respond? Would we recover gracefully? Could I apply the principles that I had directed others to do?
I began to be asked to speak on the topic of bereavement. Whenever I did, especially when I gave Debbie's testimony of how the Lord had changed her life, I could tell that those present were giving me perhaps more attention than I had ever seen before in an audience. It was simply obvious that people were responding to her story. I had done well over a hundred radio interviews throughout my career, but when I spoke on this subject on a very small station, I perhaps received more comments than I had ever had before.
What was the Lord telling me? Was He directing me to an additional emphasis in my speaking and writing? I have concluded that Debbie's testimony, as well as the rest of the story, including both the heartache as well as the blessings, should now be a regular part of my ministry. It is my deepest hope that these accounts will touch many lives, just as Debbie would have wanted. As painful as certain elements were, the experience of a humble housewife and mother will attest, even in her death, to the awesomeness of her Lord.
I will never forget you, Debbie. I will love you forever, my love.