“These moments were not empty suffering”

Any person who believes in God has to confront the problem of human suffering. Why does God permit it?

“Lord, does suffering have any purpose or meaning?”

Of course, suffering is what makes life serious. Imagine a world in which actions never resulted in suffering. Imagine a world without the pain of regret, without feeling bad about doing something wrong (or) shameful.

“But disease serves no moral purpose.”

Now you are fencing with Me on “the problem of pain.” Just listen. You will never learn from fencing.

Disease, disaster, aging, death are essential aspects of suffering. “We” live in a physically vulnerable world. That is the essential condition that makes life serious.

“All that’s rather abstract, Lord. What exactly does disease do for us?” I thought of Job’s boils.

Suffering is the test of your humanity. There is no greater test than pain—how one copes with it. It is easy to be nice, faithful, and such, when things are great, but very hard under adversity.

“But, Lord, that just seems perverse—or cruel.”

No, that’s not so. Think about your own times of physical suffering—in the hospital, for example—the shots, the clumsy aide, the itch, the nurse about urinating, those were full of growth.

Those examples brought back memories. A couple of years before these prayers began, I suffered a mild heart attack and was rushed to the intensive care unit. They took blood tests, day and night. There are a limited number of places from which blood can be drawn, and the same spot cannot be used again right away. The wrists are ideal, but mine are sensitive and a needle there smarts. One does not have much power as a patient, but safeguarding my wrists became my prime imperative. One after another blood drawer would come, and I would plead, argue, wheedle, and insist they find some other place to puncture me. Each resisted, then managed to find a spot.

I was transferred to another hospital for the surgical procedure. I was met by a technician who said his name and stuck out his hand—while looking the other way and standing on my oxygen tube. When it was time to go into the operating room, he snatched away my blanket with so violent a jerk it would have ripped out the intravenous insertion if I had not by now been on high alert.

Once in the operating room, I was placed on a slab with my arms flat at my side. Medical equipment loomed above, posing an impressive threat. “Don’t move!” I was told. My nose chose that moment to itch. The itch grew intense, then more intense, dreadfully intense, until nothing existed but me and that itch. Then I understood. I can’t fight it. I just have to live with it, until the procedure is over. I don’t know if the itch went away or what—I forgot all about it.

The procedure went smoothly. I watched the monitor as the surgeon snaked a catheter through an incision in my groin up to a major coronary artery where a stent had to be placed.

Opening an artery is a very serious matter. Bleeding can be life-threatening. The patient has to lie flat and immobile for twenty-four hours. Nurses at my first hospital had been angels in white, but here I was attended by Nurse Ratched’s less charming twin. She seemed to resent patients needing her help. Finding it difficult to manage the bedpan flat on my back, I asked for assistance. She acted as if it were a dirty-minded request and responded by threatening me, “If you can’t manage the bedpan, we will catheterize you!” Finally, I did manage, and it was time to close up the artery. Another patient had told me the closing could be dangerous as well as painful.

“Who is to perform this delicate operation?”

Nurse Ratched gave me the grim news: young Mr. Sizzorhands, the technician whose previous efforts to hurt me had been foiled, would now have another shot. I asked for someone else. “He is the only technician available.”

“I am not going to let that guy lay another hand on me.”

She made it a battle of wills. We went back and forth. Finally I said, “Let me speak to the doctor.”

She said she would see what she could do and, after a time, she returned with a young Asian-American attendant. He had magical hands. I didn’t feel a thing.

My body was recovering nicely, but the whole experience—starting with “indigestion” in the night (I didn’t know that was a heart symptom), calling the office the next morning to find out what nearby doctor was covered by my health plan, driving myself (fool that I was) to the doctor’s office, filling out forms and waiting for some time before going up and telling the receptionist, “I may be having a heart attack,” the quick examination and discovery that I was at that very moment in the throes of an incipient attack, an emergency medical team rushing to my side trying to head it off, being shoveled into an ambulance, the sirens, intensive care, the surgery, the whole ordeal—left me feeling fragile, as if I were made of spun glass. A sharp tap and I would shatter.

They (these moments) were not empty suffering; they even had to do with leading you to Me.

“How so, Lord?”

They focused your attention on your mortality, which (led) you to open your heart fully to Abigail because you realized how precious this love was. And it led to your prayer to serve God.

“There are different pieces of the same puzzle.”

If there is one God, why are there so many religions?  Philosophers call this the Problem of the Diversity of Revelations.  But I was told,

(There is) no reason to think (the) diversity of revelations is a problem, any more than for a therapist to say different things to different clients (whose needs and situations differ).

That analogy didn’t take me very far.  The therapist, like a doctor, is giving advice depending on the needs of the client.  But God is giving different people contradictory stories about Himself, and also about how they should live.  Perhaps God’s messages had to start simple, when cultures were primitive, and became more adequate as cultures developed.

“Lord, do Your revelations progress from lower to higher?”

Yes and no.  Much of what I have to say is universal, and good for all times and places.  Some is quite specific to the individual and his or her circumstances, the actions he or she faces.  Some is developmental, on the side of the culture and also on My side.

“Why not just give everyone the whole truth?”

Your question has presuppositions—that I have given different, incompatible stories to different cultures.  This is only apparently true.  If you think them through, they are different pieces of the same puzzle.  Names shift but that is superficial.

“Even though one says ‘God’ and another (thinking of Buddhism) says ‘Nothingness’?”

No religion puts Nothingness in the place of God.  If it appears to, think again.  What is the role of each (name)?  Is one a substitute or replacement for the other?  And (think about) the meaning of each.  Are they really incompatible once you examine their properties?

“Perhaps each religion is like a single eye-witness report of some strange event such as a Martian landing.  The reports might be wildly different from one another.  The challenge would be to sort them out and put them into a single coherent account.”

Not exactly.  It’s not to blend the religions into a single synthesis or theology.  It’s to put them into one story.  (To take your analogy,) imagine a reporter who interviewed everyone who had an encounter with the Martians, starting at the first encounter, and wrote it up as a narrative.  Certain consistent themes might emerge, but this would be different from a scientist trying to adjudicate and synthesize the reports.  In your version (of the religions), there will be an additional unifying factor—Me.

“I want you to enter My heart”

It all seemed intolerably bizarre. I thought I should talk it over with the wisest people I knew. One, a distinguished medical ethicist, responded, “First of all, this is not weird.” Nothing he could have said would have been a greater relief to me! Another, a well-known author, said, first, “That’s great—now you know there is a God,” and then added, “You have had a Kierkegaard moment,” recalling that philosopher’s question, “If you encountered Jesus on the streets of Copenhagen, would you follow him?” A prominent lay theologian said he was “touched” by my story and suggested some reading while I waited for my “big” assignment.

While there were also cautionary responses, no one seemed to think I was crazy or a fool to take the voice seriously.

Still, I was not prepared for the next experience.

I want you to enter My heart.

Enter God’s heart? This is weird, Lord, and scary, like out-of-body travel.”

I will protect you.

For moral support I asked, “Lord, first give me Your love.”

Let Abigail love you. You will feel My love through her.

“Then strengthen me, be with me, for this.”

I will.

He took my hand, as it were, and led me into the “heart of God.” I had expected it to be an overpowering, perhaps terrifying experience. But it was more like the eye of a hurricane. I was at the center of something vast and powerful, but here it was quiet, calm, and peaceful. I surveyed the things I feared—the end of my career, loss of reputation, financial insecurity, and a book that went nowhere. In that calm that is God, each concern disappeared.

“It’s a mistake to try to control God . . .”

My first impressions of the ancient Egyptians were formed in Sunday School, put to music by gospels such as “Go Down Moses,” and brought to the silver screen by Cecil B. DeMille.  It was not a pretty picture—false gods, harsh rulers, fake magicians, and slave-drivers wielding the lash.  Egypt was on the wrong side of everything.

But now I was told that God was sending divine messages to every culture.  So I had to look at the land of the pharaohs through different eyes, Egyptian eyes.

Written in hieroglyphs that were already old when Sumerian cuneiform was young, the Pyramid texts date back almost five thousand years.  Chiseled into the walls of the dark corridors beneath these monumental tombs, these texts provide the deceased Pharaoh with the keys to a successful afterlife:  how to overcome each obstacle on the way to the divine realm and what words to speak to the guardians who block the way.  One strategy was to enter the cyclical course of the cosmos and accompany the sun god in the barque that transverses the sky each day.  The deceased king went so far, according to one inscription, as to kick the sun god overboard to make room for himself in the divine barque.

The complex mythology of the Egyptians far surpassed the simple piety of preliterate polytheism.  But, however complex, these greedy efforts to compel or trick the divine powers seem spiritually retrograde compared to the sensitive cave paintings and the humble peasant honoring a stream with a pile of stones.

“Isn’t that right, Lord?”

Yes, it is a fundamental mistake of man to try to control God rather than the other way around.  Do not exaggerate it.  It is no different from (no worse than) trying to bribe the king’s mistress or learn the password that goes you through the palace gates, but it is not high spirituality, and in fact is not really a kind of spirituality at all.