The recent pandemic has surfaced a theological question that many of us have at least considered. Will God protect us if we don’t protect ourselves? Are we testing God or trusting God when we ignore recommended precautions and treatments against CoVid19 or other illnesses? The following is written by my friend Rev. Dr. Timothy W. Ehrlich in his recent book The Long Road to Eternity. In it he lays out the reasoning and experience behind his answer to these questions.
Behold! The Old George Is Gone.
In the summer of 1989, I was invited to provide a communion service at a large nursing home in the nearby town of Norwich. I was to meet with the administrator of the facility at 11:30, get a tour of the facility, and then have time for lunch and come back and perform the service at 1:30. This was to be another amazing mystical day; I woke up that morning feeling spiritually buoyant. Feeling very close to God, I wrote in my morning diary, “I’m ready for another miracle.”
After arriving at the facility and speaking with the administrator, his assistant followed me out of the office to talk about a problem. I counseled her and her husband for an hour and they both thanked me multiple times for relieving their minds. I was happy to be used by God so effectively and marveled at the set of circumstances that brought the three of us together at that time on that day.
The nursing home was located on top of a hill overlooking the city of Norwich. Since I had half an hour before the start of the service and it was a sunny afternoon, I decided to sit outside in front of the nursing home on the side of the hill facing the sun and the city of Norwich to pray and to think about the message I was about to deliver. As I began to pray, I thought about how low my spirituality had been over the previous month and it caused me to begin to cry. I had been so busy moving and doing the Lord’s work over the last month that I neglected the number one job of a pastor – stay close to the Almighty. My tears were because of my failure to pray regularly, and because of my gratitude for the amazing contrast between that low point of the previous month and how buoyant I now felt. I could feel God with me so powerfully at that moment.
As I prayed, I was also praying for my friend George who was the Lay Leader of one of the churches I pastored; he was battling kidney cancer. He also was a saintly person, a salt-of-the-earth, wonderful guy, full of the fruits of the Spirit. Some months earlier he had a small amount of blood in his urine, but instead of getting it checked out, or even telling anyone about it, he decided that faith required him to let God take care of it. Then one day in the end of May there was suddenly a tremendous amount of blood in his urine. He told me what was going on with him as I was packing to move to a new church. I was upset that he waited to seek medical attention, but I was relieved that at least now he was seeing a doctor.
Unfortunately, the blood in his urine was there because George had an aggressive form of kidney cancer in both kidneys and it was spreading rapidly. George was in the hospital and, as I sat overlooked Norwich, I prayed for George and his wife Olive. “My prayer for George, Lord, is that he recovers if it is your will.” Suddenly, the sun seemed to be extra bright and time froze just for a moment. I had my head bowed in prayer and, looking up, saw the same beautiful transparent golden substance I had seen in my attic room in Fire Island. It rapidly approaching me until it was right in front of me. This time it did not settle on me or pass over and through me. It was like a curtain – about six feet high and six feet wide and a foot thick, transparent yet like a golden shimmering fog. I heard God’s voice speak from the square, “Behold, the old George is gone; the new George is!” and then the golden substance faded away. I looked at my watch; it was 1:10 p.m. I prayed some more and went in and led the communion service for the retirees.
Coincidently my sermon for that service was entitled, “Holy Fire.” When I arrived to preach and serve communion, the altar candles were not lit. No one there was a smoker so I told the group we could not light the candles. A woman in the service said, “You will have to be our fire today.” Little did she know I was filled with holy fire.
That afternoon at about 3:00 I called Olive. She said, “George died today.” I asked her what time he passed, she said it was about 1:10 in the afternoon. I told Olive what I had seen and heard that afternoon, but she was only minimally comforted as she was already convinced George was going to heaven.
George had been the main income earner in the household and Olive was confronting both the loss of her husband and the economic turmoil she was going to have to deal with. The rapidity of the progression of the cancer caught everyone by surprise – George went from healthy and seeming fine to gone in a little over two months. Heaven’s joy was Olive’s great loss.
The Theological Lessons
God Happily Awaits Our Arrival in Heaven
The theological lesson in this experience is to realize how happy God is about us having and receiving eternal life. God’s choice of words and the way it was proclaimed, “Behold!” showed how happy He is to receive us into His eternal home.
God Will Not do for Us What We Can do for Ourselves.
George’s flawed decision to not seek medical help until it was too late, based on the belief that God would take care of it, is also a lesson. It is a reminder of one of God’s operating principles – God does not do for us those things which we can do for ourselves. So, if we have blood in our urine, or some other ailment we need to get medical attention. God gives us brains and he wants us to use them, both to obtain healing or to get anything else we need.
It is not a part of God’s plan to be a cosmic lifeguard, jumping into action to miraculously save every believer from every situation, especially when He has already made a way for us to be saved through science, medicine, or technology. God will not save us if we can save ourselves from whatever situation we are in and God will not save us if we have chosen to reject an already established path to safety from whatever calamity is facing us.
When We Can’t Do It, How Much Does God Do?
That goes together with another one of God’s operating principles – God always does the minimum possible to bring about His desired results. He will not send an angel to save you if He can motivate a person to save you. He will not motivate a person to save you if He can reach you through other means like your prayers, Bible readings or the words of another person. These may cause you to alter your path, so you don’t need saving in the first place.
Why Doesn’t God Perform More Miracles?
It is clear that God loves us, cares deeply about each of us and especially appreciates those who truly love Him. Considering the miracles God is performing, why does He not just do a few more and do all the things that I ask Him to? Why does God not save all His people all the time? It doesn’t seem very loving of God at first glance. The answer is somewhat paradoxical: God limits the use of His power precisely because God loves us and wants to allow us maximum freedom to choose to love Him in return. (See Longing to Reciprocating God’s Astonishing Love) Stick with me here for a moment; it is a complex answer, but I will make it as clear as I can.
- God wants us to have faith, to trust and believe in God.
- If we knew that God would always save us or always give us what we want, then our need for faith would be removed.
- Doubt and faith live in the same place inside us. How do we know? You can’t have faith if you are filled with doubt and you can’t doubt if you are filled with faith.
- God wants us to love Him, and love is not real love if it is not given in freedom. True love cannot be compelled.
- If we could not doubt or question the existence of God, if we knew for absolute certain the reality of God, including fully recognizing His omnipotence and omniscience, then it would take away our freedom to choose to love God: we would be terrified not to obey God. And love is not real love if it is not given freely.
- Faith itself is a choice. We choose to either give in to doubt or to push doubt aside and trust “where we cannot see.” Thus, faith allows us the freedom to choose to love God or not to love God. So, when we love God in faith our love is not coming from a place of fear or compulsion but out of appreciation, respect, and admiration.
- God creates the freedom we need to be able to love God freely by creating a space or distance between us. This space inside us is where both doubt and faith live. The separation or distance between God and us reflects the reality that God is Spirit and we are matter. There is a natural divide between these two.
- Sometimes the freedom to choose God means God needs to keep His hands off things and allow stuff to happen to us that we perceive as negative. If He didn’t keep His hands off, if he saved us every time, we would know for sure with no doubt that He exists in all His godliness, and again that would remove our ability to love God freely. The things that we perceive as negative that God allows to happen includes allowing us to receive and experience the consequences of our bad decisions, the consequences of the bad decisions of others, the impact of natural disasters, and the weakness or fragility of our humanity.
- But God allows these bad things because they are of a small significance compared to the blessing of knowing, experiencing, and loving God in this life, and to the promise of eternity with God in heaven in our life to come.
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Do not put the Lord your God to the test as you did at Massah. (Deut 6:16)
Jesus answered him, “It is also written: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” (Matt 4:7)
On hearing this, Jesus said, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. (Matt 9:12)
Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see. (Heb 11:1)