An Open Hand or a Clenched Fist?
The Frightening Reality of a Fair Weather Faith
I don’t know how else to say it, so I’ll come straight to the point. Last Sunday, August 17, 2008, I came face to face with the fragility and weakness of my faith in God. It may have been the most frightening moment in my Christian life. Let me explain.
On Wednesday, August 13th, just five days earlier, I was in Oklahoma City meeting with the staff of Bridgeway Church. During lunch, as I was about to respond to another question, my cell phone rang. It’s every parent’s worst nightmare.
My younger daughter, Joey (23), was hysterical and virtually incoherent. It took at least ten minutes for me to get her calm enough that I could understand what she was saying amidst the tears and shock. She had been on her way back to Kansas City from Branson, Missouri, when her car grazed the side of a large truck that had moved into her blind spot. She was instantly airborne, her car virtually flying through the air at 65 mph.
The car flipped upside down, but not as you might expect. It didn’t roll over, side to side, but rather back to front. The nose of the car dipped as the rear end rose, eventually landing on its roof. Joey immediately unhooked her seat belt, pushed away the airbag, and fell to the roof of the car which was now the floor.
Her immediate instinct was to call me. But I was helpless to do anything, being nearly four hours away. I called Ann in Kansas City and she quickly made her way to the hospital in Bolivar, Missouri, where the police took Joey for an examination.
Miraculously and mercifully, she had only an abrasion on her neck from the seat belt and a slight chemical burn on her forearm. No broken bones. No internal injuries. No bleeding. She was sore for several days (and still is, as of Wednesday, August 20th), but was graciously preserved from any serious injury. Everyone at the scene said they’d never seen an accident like that in which the driver walked away unscathed. The car was thoroughly crushed and destroyed. We have pictures to prove it. “I have no explanation for why your daughter isn’t dead,” said the police officer to me on the phone.
You may wonder, then, why Sunday would have been a difficult day for me. I was filled with such indescribable gratitude for what God had done. My heart was flooded with joy and delight as I reflected on how close she had come to death and how wonderful it was that she emerged without serious harm.
The tears of thanksgiving and profound appreciation and worship flowed freely and unashamedly. My hands were lifted high in adoration and praise as we sang that now familiar and somewhat dated chorus, “He is exalted, the King is exalted on high, I will praise Him!” We then sang what has quickly become one of my favorites, “Beautiful,” by Phil Wickham, one verse of which is as follows:
“I see your power in the moonlit night
Where planets are in motion and galaxies are bright
We are amazed in the light of the stars
It’s all proclaiming who You are,
Suddenly, my hands began to tremble ever so slightly. The tears dried up. Without warning, giving me no chance to prepare my heart, this horrifying thought raced through my mind: “Would I be lifting my hands in love and adoration of the Lord if Joey had died last Wednesday? Or would my raised and open hand be a clenched and defiant fist? If she, like so many who had similar wrecks, had died, would I have praised God for being ‘Beautiful'”?
I was spiritually paralyzed. A shiver of raw fear ran down my spine. No words can adequately explain the emotional terror that gripped my soul. Was I the sort of person who would only worship and honor and love God so long as he saved my daughter’s life? Was I the sort who would happily and profusely speak of the mercy of divine providence only if it shined on me favorably?
If Joey had not survived the wreck, or if she had been severely injured or paralyzed, would I have declared God to be beautiful, or would I have seen him as ugly and uncaring and indifferent? Was my faith the sort that flourished only in fair weather, or would it withstand the storm of tragedy and loss of the worst imaginable kind?
I couldn’t answer my own questions. I froze in fear. Would I have cursed God instead of extolling him had my precious little girl died? How have other people coped when their child was lost? What did they think of God? Was he still worthy of their praise? Was he still deserving of their devotion and affection and love? Was he still “exalted” as “King on high”? Was he still beautiful in their eyes?
I wish I could tell you that I reassured myself by saying, “Hey, Sam, don’t worry. Of course you’d still love God. The pain would be unbearable, but your faith would withstand the test. You’re strong. After all, you’re a Calvinist. Your whole life and ministry are built on the stability and strength of divine sovereignty.”
I wish I could tell you that’s what passed through my mind. But it didn’t. Maybe I would still have praised him. I certainly hope so. Oh, God, please let it be so! But I felt vulnerable in that moment in a way I never have before. I felt weak and frail and terrified that my faith was only as good as were the circumstances of my life.
I have many times glibly and proudly quoted the words of Job: “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return. The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord” (Job 1:21). It’s always been easy, because the Lord has not as yet “taken away” anything of great value to me. He came close, but he gave her back. If he hadn’t, could I have honestly and sincerely said, “Blessed be the name of the Lord”? I don’t know. That’s what scares me.
I want to believe that I would still love and honor God following the sort of loss Job suffered. I desperately want to believe it. I labor in my study of God’s Word and in prayer and in so many other ways to cultivate a heart that is quick to submit to his sovereign ways. But I would be less than honest if I didn’t say that I was shaken the other day.
There’s no great struggle in affirming God’s sovereignty when he has given rather than taken away. I felt no strain last Sunday in saying, “Blessed be the name of the Lord,” because Joey was standing next to me. Had it been otherwise, would I follow the advice of Job’s wife and “curse God and die” (Job 2:9)? I don’t know. I pray not. God help me.