“An evil and adulterous generation seeks after a sign,” Jesus taught us so long ago. Does that mean he was opposed to miracles? That verse might lead a person to think so, but the Bible also teaches us that our Lord was willing to perform signs, thereby establishing his ministry and proving that he was the Messiah, the Son of God.
I have often wondered about this apparent tension between two ideas. On the one hand, we are warned not to seek after miracles; we should not look for God to prove something in order for us to obey. On the other hand, God has graciously worked wonders throughout all of history, not just to bring about a desired end, but also to demonstrate his existence and power.
I have witnessed some of these wonders. I thought at the time that God was graciously trying to break through to people’s hearts by letting them see his works with their own eyes, but their unexpected responses to his mercy made me wonder if another purpose might exist.
While I attended the University of Florida in the late seventies, I befriended a young man who labored through an advanced Physics class with me. Bill and I made a habit of studying together, and as we gradually became friends, I took opportunities more frequently to initiate spiritual conversations with him. For several weeks his response was polite, listening, nodding, and giving an occasional, obligatory “yes” or “no” in response to my simple, probing questions. One fateful night, however, the dialogue changed dramatically.
As was our habit during a late-night round of studying, we holed up in the equipment room of a dormitory amid volleyballs, horseshoe sets, and a considerable pile of books. After a couple of hours of attempting to decipher the latest chapter in our lessons, I was able to turn the conversation toward God. Our brains were becoming tired and numb, so Bill didn’t seem to mind the break. At one point in our discussion, I tried to search my mind for a particular Scripture, but in my state of fatigue, I drew a blank. I knew the passage was in Ephesians, but I couldn’t come up with the words to save my life. I said aloud, “If only I had brought my Bible,” knowing I could have found the verse quickly if my familiar copy had been available.
Bill stared at the shelves on the wall, seemingly in a daze. “There’s a Bible,” he said blankly, pointing toward a mess of sports equipment. I reached over our pile of books, grabbed the small white bible, and whispered “Thank you, Lord” loud enough for Bill to hear.
“I’ve never seen that Bible in here,” Bill said, “and I work here all the time.” Indeed, Bill was a part-time employee of the school, working the front desk of the dorm, and one of his jobs was to police the equipment room, signing out the sports items to the students and putting them back in place in the evening.
“It shouldn’t be too surprising,” I said, as pleased as I could be but resisting the urge to jump for joy. “God has always been in the miracle business.” I then flipped open the Bible, turned to Ephesians, and read the passage I had been looking for.
“Now to Him who is able to do exceeding abundantly beyond all that we ask or think, according to the power that works within us, to Him be the glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations forever and ever. Amen.”
Bill was more attentive than usual as I started, but he was distant and quiet as I read the last few words. Clearly the word of God had brought about a sincere meditation.
“Is something wrong?” I asked.
Bill shook himself free of his trance, but his mood became dark and somewhat angry. “No, nothing. Just the usual.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, you think this Bible showing up was a miracle, but there are other explanations.” As he spoke the level of his passion grew. “I’ve listened to you for a long time, and it’s great that you believe God does stuff for you and all that, but God’s never done anything for me. I’m just an unlucky person and you’re not. I don’t think there’s really a god involved.”
I listened carefully to his heart-felt words. The sincerity in his expression was as real as his anger. I wasn’t sure what to do, but the work God had already done that evening made me feel rather bold. “Bill, what could God do that would make you believe in him? I’ll pray for whatever it might be.”
Bill barely paused at all. Apparently many troubles were at the forefront of his mind. “I don’t really believe any god will do anything for me, but what have I got to lose?” He looked toward the ceiling and sighed. “My father has terminal cancer and the doctor’s given him one month to live.”
Already I was struck to the core with anguish. All this time, and I had never asked him about his problems. I swallowed the sorrow and began writing as Bill continued.
“I’m supposed to graduate in nine months, and his dream has been for one of his kids to get a college degree. I want him to stay alive long enough to see it.”
“Okay, I got it.” I wrote with confidence, in spite of the fact that our session was beginning to get a little scary for me. I was sure that God could do anything, but I had never experienced any “big” miracles before.
Bill went on. “My sister is a drug addict and lives in the streets as a prostitute. I want her to get her life cleaned up.”
I kept writing as Bill listed three more terrible problems that dwarfed any that I had ever faced. I was nearly in tears when he finished, but I was grateful for the opportunity to minister to him. Just speaking all of his needs seemed to have a calming effect on him.
“I’ll take these to my prayer group,” I said with all the sincerity and compassion I could muster.
Bill smiled. “I don’t expect anything to happen, but thanks for listening.”
My prayer group met on Wednesday night, immediately after the evening service. The leader was a Vietnam War veteran, an unusually godly man in my eyes, and as the group filed into the little room, I handed him my list and explained the circumstances. He took out his own pen and copied the list to a card he kept in his pocket, and the confidence he exuded in prayer that night was truly a blessing. As was our custom, we prayed for an hour, and we continued a weekly vigil over Bill’s concerns for the next few months.
I didn’t see Bill often during the next semester. We had no classes in common, and he no longer worked in the dormitory. I would see him on campus on occasion, but constantly asking him about his father and sister quickly seemed inappropriate. His father was hanging on, but his sister was showing no progress. We continued to pray.
Finally, graduation day came. I was excited, hoping to see Bill, but I had no idea how our prayers had been answered. I did run into him, almost by “accident”. He was dressed in a Navy uniform, having completed his NROTC training, proudly standing with family members. When he saw me, he beamed. He excitedly introduced me to his father and mother, along with his other guests.
I pulled him to the side for a moment. “I see your father made it.”
“Yes, he did.”
“And your sister?”
“You’ll never guess,” he said, sounding like an excited teenager. “She’s in the Air Force now. She’s off drugs and doing great!”
I asked about the other items on the list, and his mood became sober as he gave me good news concerning each problem.
“Why are you so glum?” I asked, filled with so much joy I could hardly speak. “Every prayer request you had was answered completely! God has proven himself to you! What’s to keep you from believing in him now?”
Bill’s expression grew ever darker, and I could tell that the big, burly Navy man was near tears. “I can’t believe in him,” he said, fighting his emotions. “Not yet, anyway.”
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. “Why not?” I nearly shouted. “Can’t you see what he’s done for you?”
A tear trickled down Bill’s cheek. “That’s the problem, Bryan. I know if I believe in him, I’ll have to change my life, and I don’t want to do that yet.”
I was speechless, and I’m sure my jaw dropped open in utter amazement. He looked at me sympathetically for a moment, and I was finally able to talk again. “Bill, God has extended his hand to you in a way that most people never see. You might never get an opportunity like this again.”
“I know,” he said, gathering more courage and becoming increasingly hardened by it. “I’ll take that chance.” He turned and walked away, rejoining his happy companions.
I was dumbfounded for days. God had worked mighty miracles, and they seemed to come to nothing. My friends at church tried to help me understand, including my prayer group leader, who pointed out that the faith of each prayer warrior had been increased through this experience. He was right, but there was something missing in the puzzle, and I wasn’t able to grasp it at that time.
Yet, the prayer leader’s next exhortation stuck with me, “Just keep praying for Bill. Never give up hope.”
Continued next Sunday.
Categories: Thoughts from the Heart