Altar Call – Opelika-Auburn News
May 17, 2020
What little I know about God
The coronavirus pandemic has raised many questions for which there are no definitive answers. Some people say that God is using this lethal virus to punish us for our sins. Others disagree, insisting that God is using the virus to shake us loose from selfish and pathetic priorities. I am reluctant to argue the subject because I know so little about God.
That has not always been the case with me. When I was a brash young seminary student, I sometimes stayed up until midnight passionately debating theology with fellow students. I was quick to share my opinions but ignorant of how little I knew about God. Eventually my studies led me into the classroom of Dr. Nels Ferre who was teaching a six-months course on Systematic Theology at Vanderbilt University.
Doctor Ferre plunged us into the teachings of Karl Barth, Emil Brunner and Paul Tillich. Challenging to say the least for a country boy from Elmore County. But Ferre was a reputable theologian himself and instructed us to read several of his own books, one of which was titled The Christian Understanding of God.
In that book Ferre fervently speaks of our Creator as “the suffering God.” The death of Jesus on the cross was the supreme revelation of God “suffering to save a sinful world.” At the time I read that observation, I was too dense to grasp its full meaning. It was simply theology, talk about God, much of which sparked no excitement in me.
That, however, changed dramatically within a few months. It happened that while studying systemic theology under Doctor Ferre, our son David was suffering with leukemia. I was introduced to suffering in ways I had never experienced it. David’s treatment, which would prolong his life but not save it, was frequent blood transfusions. Then two years old, my son begged me not to let the nurses “stick me” again. Believing it was necessary, I let them “stick” him again and again. He suffered and I suffered.
During the several months of David’s illness, our pastor, crippled by rheumatoid arthritis, visited us often. I can still hear the sound of his crutches on the steps leading up to the door of our home. I can still see Tom Chappell on the floor playing with David. I can still see the pain in his face as he endured the suffering of moving his deformed body.
On the morning that David died in my arms, Nels Ferre became more than my systematic theology professor. He was the first person to come to our home only a couple of hours after David died. I still don’t know how he learned of David’s death. But there he was, a tall smiling Swede embracing us and lifting David’s lifeless body off the bed as though offering him to God and thanking God for our son’s three years with us. Then he took us in his arms and said, “I have come this morning to tell you that God hurts like you hurt.” Later on, I would realize that on that morning Nels Ferre became the messenger God sent to save us from drinking at the fountain of bitterness.
Over the following five years, baffled by why a loving God would ignore my prayers and let our little boy die, I struggled to understand who God was. I was “running on empty,” and trying in my own strength to become an effective pastor. Then I met E. Stanley Jones with whom I shared my frustration. He prayed that God would give me a spiritual breakthrough and God did. I began to affirm that the living Christ was in me and I was in Him. Brother Stanley inspired me to believe that I could find all the energy I needed by living in Christ, and that He would speak to me by way of His “Inner Voice.”
So, for 60 years, I have been listening to the Inner Voice of Christ and He has taught me what little I know about God. I can sum it all up in three basic affirmations.
First, there is a loving God who hurts like his children hurt. That loving God is the Father of our Lord Jesus. Far more than some abstract “Power,” He is “the suffering God” to whom I was introduced by Nels Ferre.
Second, there is a loving God who is eager to forgive our sins and save us from the debilitating guilt of our misdoings. David’s medicine during his illness caused him to become irritable at times. One day, a few weeks before he died, he threw in the floor the tray of food Dean had prepared for him. I picked the food up, then picked David up and walked up the street with him in my arms in misting rain. I did not scold him but held him close.
As I walked along, he put his arms around my neck, and said, “Daddy, I’m sorry.” I hugged him close, as tears flowed down my cheeks, and replied, “It’s alright son.” Only a loving God could have given a suffering father and son such a moment. But time and again, across the years, I have witnessed this loving God give such transforming moments to his suffering children. He is far more ready to forgive than we are, and longs for his children to repent and say to Him, “Father, I’m sorry.”
Finally, there is a loving God who is eager to empower His children to comfort hurting people. The course of our lives is often changed by the example of others. For 60 years I have wanted to be a man like Tom Chappell, a man who could ignore his own suffering long enough to comfort others in their suffering. For 60 years I have wanted to be a man like Nels Ferre, a man who could put his arms around hurting people and tell them that God hurts like they hurt.
When I consider what little I know about God, I believe I hear the Inner Voice telling me not to waste time debating God but to get busy, while it is day, serving the loving God who is hurting with us during this terrible coronavirus pandemic. There are hurting people all around us; let’s not “burn daylight” but do what we can, while we can, to share the comfort He has given us with others. + + +