On Tuesday, May 8th of this year I sent an email from my hospital bed to the congregation I serve as a pastor. The previous Thursday I had collapsed on the tennis court and been taken by ambulance to the hospital. That would be the entry way to a slew of tests to figure out what had happened and what was going on. May 8th was my sixth day in the hospital and this is what I wrote in my email:
I wanted to thank everyone for your prayers. I was able to have my cardiac catheterization yesterday. It indicated diffuse cardiac disease. What that means is I will need multiple bypass surgery, which is scheduled for tomorrow. If things go well, I’ll be in ICU for a couple of days and then a regular room.
Please pray for the surgery and for the days ahead.
I have struggled, but God has brought me to rest in His will. As you’ve heard me say before, a trial is a weight room for the exercise of faith. The Holy Spirit is our trainer, knowing how much we can bear and just what our needs are.
The passage that’s given me greatest direction is Phil. 4:4-9.
When I say “struggled” I mean struggled. It was like a tidal wave of anxiety washed over me, like I would drown in it. You know how the accelerator of your car sticks sometimes and the engine races? That’s what I felt like. It was the closest thing to a panic attack I have ever had.
I want to share with you how God used that passage in Philippians as a pathway to peace. Peace belongs to each of us as believers and stems from two realities.
Peace with God
My panic had nothing to do with fear of death or dying. In fact, when I returned to church in June I was talking to someone about the experience. He asked me a question that some might consider odd, maybe even inappropriate. He asked me if I was disappointed that that I did not die. (The cardiologist had told me 90% of those who experienced the cardiac event I did at the tennis court died on the spot.) I was surprised at the question, but also pleasantly pleased with the perspective of faith he was bringing to bear.
I told him that was a good question, one I had thought about. In my answer, I referred to what Paul says earlier in Philippians. Paul was in prison. He knew full well that there was a good possibility that he would be executed. But here’s Paul’s take on his situation:
For I know that through your prayers and the help of the Spirit of Jesus Christ this will turn out for my deliverance, as it is my eager expectation and hope that I will not be at all ashamed, but that with full courage now as always Christ will be honored in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me. Yet which I shall choose I cannot tell. I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better. But to remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account. Convinced of this, I know that I will remain and continue with you all, for your progress and joy in the faith, so that in me you may have ample cause to glory in Christ Jesus, because of my coming to you again. (Phil. 1:19-26)
That was my frame of reference. I had full confidence that to be absent from the body was to be present with the Lord. I knew that death would be gain for me because it would usher me into the presence of my Lord Jesus, who died for my sins and assured me of eternal life, and would receive me to His side.
So in answer to the question, I wasn’t disappointed in not dying because I knew that God had allowed me to live and continue with my family, and with my congregation for their “progress and joy in the faith.” But I wasn’t afraid of death in the least. It actually held a certain excitement for me to think of the glories of heaven.
That’s because I had peace with God. It’s what Paul talks about in his letter to the Romans when he says: “Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” (Romans 5:1). Jesus had atoned for the guilt of my sin. His record of righteousness was mine. All by grace through faith. I had peace with God because of Jesus.
Knowing that our salvation has been secured by Christ and we rest secure in His hand, leads to rest and joy.
When Paul addresses his letter to “the saints” and greets them with the words, “grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ” (Phil. 1:1-2) as he does at the opening of his letter to the Philippians, he acknowledges a profound truth.
By God’s grace we are reconciled to the Father through Jesus Christ. The outworking, the fruit, of that peace is confidence, assurance and delight. Nothing can separate us from His love—neither demons nor death, neither our continuing sin nor our unbelief-riddled fears—nothing.
Peace describes our condition, our standing before the throne of God. By Christ’s work, we have peace with God.
There is another reality for us as believers, in addition to peace with God and its fruit.
Peace of God
It wasn’t death or dying that provoked my panic. It was my circumstances. I was admitted to the hospital on Thursday. On Friday, I had every test under the sun. I gave what seemed like a couple gallons of blood, one vial at a time. (In another email I referred to myself as “Pastor Pin Cushion.”)
One of those tests was an echo stress test. That test showed some irregularities. I would need a cardiac catheterization to see what was going on. But they couldn’t do the cardiac cath until Monday. They didn’t think it advisable for me to go home and come back, so I was stuck in the hospital over the weekend.
I don’t know what happened but a panic started to set in. It seemed like the walls were closing in on me. I was afraid of something happening so I wouldn’t be able to have the test on Monday and be stuck in there longer.
Then it struck me. Here I am a pastor. I’ve counseled piles of people going through anxiety. I needed to apply God’s Word to myself. “Let’s see, where do I direct people dealing with anxiety? Philippians 4!”
Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your reasonableness be known to everyone. The Lord is at hand; do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me—practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you. (Phil. 4:4-9)
I knew the passage by heart. So I started to work through it. Here is a sample of my thought process.
“rejoice in the Lord always” Where did joy fit in? How was I not rejoicing in the Lord? I started to think of things to rejoice in. It occurred to me the whole reason I was in the hospital was because of God. His providence caused me to black out. He was doing something. His purpose was at work. That awareness prompted praise and thanks, even a sense of anticipation.
“the Lord is at hand” I had memorized in another Bible version: “the Lord is near.” I became keenly aware of God’s presence with me. He brought to mind passages like Isaiah 41:10: “So do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.”; and John 14:27: “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.” Each of thee passages brought divine commentary to the reality of the nearness of my Lord.
I turned to Philippians 4:6. The antidote to anxiety was through prayer, prayer peppered with thanksgiving. Thanksgiving completely changed the complexion of things, like food coloring in the cake mix, yeast to dough.
I saw God wanted me to talk to Him about it. Just that one verse contained the words “prayer,” “supplication,” “requests.” My Father wanted me to cast my cares upon Him.
The more I did this, the more the prominent and dominant the peace of God became for me. I pondered what it meant for the peace of God to “surpass all understanding” that would “guard my heart and mind in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 4:7) The peace of God became a sentry to my soul. My mind rushed ahead to the end of v. 9, where I was told the “God of peace” was with me. I reflected on the turn of the phrases “peace of God” (v. 7) and “God of peace” (v.9).
Then v. 8 helped provide the means to ward off the assault of anxiety: “if there is anything worthy of praise, think about such things.” The translation I had memorized called me to “let my mind dwell on such things.” I started making a mental list of things to be thankful for. It was like sand bags holding back the rising tide of worry, guard dogs keeping the thieves of peace at bay. I brought my mind to dwell not just on positive things (like an exercise in optimism), but on profitable things—things that drew me into the arms of God, nourished by His truth and encouraged in His hand of providence tailored to me as His child.
Two realities belong to the believer in Christ: peace with God and the peace of God
Let me pick up with my May 8th email to the congregation.
The passage that’s given me greatest direction is Phil. 4:4-9. Trials and uncertainty provide unique settings in what it means to rejoice in the Lord “always,” not to be anxious about “anything,” in “everything” to give thanks. God’s path to His peace in this passage has been precious to me, and has helped me to focus on His presence, and His cornucopia of blessings and wisdom.
I sent this email out after the struggles of the weekend. God had allowed me to have the cardiac catheterization on Monday. By now I now knew I’d need the bypass surgery. God had prepared me. He had shored up my faith, against my own fear and against the attacks of the devil.
It’s interesting that the weekend had been a down time in the hospital, but the Spiritual Physician had been actively attending to me.
I think one of the reminders we want to take away is not just the peace of God that is ours in Christ. We must bring that peace to bear in life’s trenches. We know truths of the Bible. We hear sermons that tell us what God says on a matter. But we need to put it into practice (as Phil. 4:9 instructs us). By the counsel of His Word, He makes wise the simple and revives the soul. God’s grace is sufficient.