The ceiling didn’t open and the walls didn’t collapse. No sea of relief engulfed my soul, as far as I could tell. No burdensome weight dropped from my heart. From the vantage point of my couch, I could see and feel no change.
Yet a miracle had occurred. My sins had been forgiven, and my reconciliation with God had begun a relationship that would last forever. Soon that relationship would break into my consciousness as the confidence of God’s present help and the guarantee of his eternal presence.
It was March 1977, and I had finally made the decision I had been putting off for four months. That’s how long it had been since I’d concluded that the Bible was what it claimed to be-an inspired communication from God to the human race. I’d also concluded that if my own Jewish Bible were true, Yeshua had to be the Messiah who was promised to us in the Law, the Writings and the Prophets. I’d reached these conclusions in December, but it took four months to grapple with the truth. Understanding it wasn’t enough. I needed to take a step of faith and act upon what I’d discovered to be true.
So, in March I sat in my apartment and said a simple prayer, making a commitment to follow Yeshua in an open way.
A little over a year later, in June 1978, I was diagnosed with a chronic illness called Crohn’s disease. It’s also called regional enteritis and terminal ileitis (because it affects the terminal section of the ileum). I’d been ill from time to time throughout my life, so the onset of this new condition simply seemed like a new circumstance with which I’d have to cope. It didn’t send me into a tailspin nor did I think it would require me to reorient the way I lived my entire life. I would simply have to make some accommodations, particularly regarding what I ate-or so I thought.
I didn’t know that pain was to become my regular companion. So was the frustration of pre-empted plans. Eight years and eleven hospitalizations later, my wife, Ruth, and I concluded that something had to change. The doctors were reluctant to operate because-as they explained it-one operation often needed to be followed in time by others. It was better not to introduce surgery if the situation could be managed somewhat with medication.
It wasn’t a promising scenario, but there was something the doctors had not factored in: the confidence of God’s present help and the guarantee of his eternal presence. Ruth and I prayed for something that would alter a course that was getting progressively worse, and God performed another miracle.
Suddenly, complications changed my condition from chronic to life-threatening. Surgery was the only option. And so I underwent what is called a resectioning, in which the doctor attempts to remove all the diseased portion of the intestinal tract and re-attach one clean end to the other. My doctor warned me not to be too hopeful; the operation, he said, was a management tool-not a cure. There are no cures for Crohn’s disease, he reminded me. That’s why it’s called “chronic.”
Despite the warning, I felt God would accomplish more than the doctor expected through this surgery. So, after the surgery I was very pleased but not surprised to hear that follow-up tests indicated no further presence of the disease in my body. Apparently, the doctor explained, the condition had been much more localized than anyone could have imagined. They were able to remove every part of the diseased intestine. Some might think that was a lucky break. I think it was an answer to prayer. It was certainly not what the doctor expected . . . another miracle, as far as I’m concerned.
Shortly before my release from the hospital, I spoke with a man in an adjacent room. He also was scheduled to go home, but our situations were completely different. Whereas my surgery had been for Crohn’s disease, his had been for cancer. I was going home to recuperate; he was going home to die. I believed in Yeshua; he believed only in himself. I wanted to offer him something before our paths parted. The nurse who attended both of us had told me that despite our differing points of view, the man next door would be happy to chat with me before each of us went our separate ways. I stopped into his room, and we had a pleasant conversation.
“Do you believe in miracles?” he asked me at one point.
“Yes,” I said, “I do.”
“Miracles would be nice,” he admitted.
“Miracles are all right,” I parried.
He was discernably surprised. “Just all right?”
“Well, there’s a problem with miracles,” I told him.
“What could be wrong with a miracle?” he wanted to know.
“Actually, the problem isn’t with the miracle,” I explained. “The problem is with the kind of miracle that we want. We usually ask God for smaller miracles, which he may or may not grant. But we overlook the most important miracle of all-the one he’s always willing to perform.”
“What’s that?” he wanted to know.
I asked if I could show him a passage from the Bible to give an example of what I meant, and he shrugged in a noncommittal fashion to let me know that he wasn’t opposed to seeing what the Scriptures had to say. I opened to the Gospel of Mark, Chapter 2, verses 1–12. The narrative records an event particularly relevant to the situation. A paralyzed man had some friends who brought him to Yeshua on a stretcher. Actually they lowered him into a crowded room from a rooftop. The people watched to see what Yeshua would do. They were hoping that he would heal the man-but they were hoping for less than what God was ready to give. On that particular day, the Messiah startled some people, angered others, and made at least one person happier than he’d ever been before.
The paralyzed man wanted a miracle, a healing. But what did he receive? A greater miracle-a pardon. “My son,” Jesus said to him, “your sins are forgiven.”
Some of the religious leaders in the crowd responded with anger. They knew what the Scriptures said: All of us are guilty of sin and deserve God’s judgment, and any of us can receive forgiveness if we repent. But only God can bestow that forgiveness.
So, who did this Jewish carpenter from Nazareth think he was? God? As a matter of fact, yes. What did Yeshua think he could do-pardon sins and give men and women the gift of an eternal, personal relationship with God? Yes, he did. That’s why, when Jesus saw the faith in the paralytic’s face, he said, “My son, your sins are forgiven.” The religious leaders considered the statement blasphemous-and if Jesus had not the power to forgive sins, indeed it would have been blasphemous.
To prove that he had just performed this greater miracle that no one could see, Jesus condescended to perform a lesser miracle that could be seen by all. “Arise,” he said, “take up your pallet, and go home.” When that man stood up and walked, everyone knew that Yeshua was who he claimed to be, and that he had the power to forgive sins. God’s power would not be so displayed through a blasphemer.
“There’s one miracle that God wants to perform in every person’s life,” I told my acquaintance in the hospital room. “He wants to forgive our sins and give us an eternal relationship with him. That’s a miracle he’ll always perform.”
My new friend rubbed his palm down the length of his face, then dropped his head back against his pillow. He was tired, and it was difficult for him to concentrate. In a polite way, he let me know that he really wasn’t so interested in miracles after all. We shook hands, said good-bye, and I left. I never saw him again.
After a month-long convalescence at home, I was well. After all those years, it was such a pleasure not to be ill. I was glad to be to be free from the burden and the inconvenience of the disease. I was glad to be rid of the medication. I remember the night I awoke with the realization that I wasn’t in any pain. I remember the day that I ate my first piece of cantaloupe.
Three years after the surgery, I returned to the same hospital, but not as a patient. A friend had asked me to visit her daughter, Leslie. She was young, and she was dying. The doctors had “opened her up” only to discover that there was nothing they could do for her.
When I knocked on the door and entered the room, Leslie was propped up on a pillow, reading the financial page of the L.A. Times. I introduced myself as a friend of her mother’s and a minister with Jews for Jesus. She gave me a knowing smile, and we talked about inconsequential things for a minute or so.
Then I asked, “So, how can I pray for you?”
Suddenly, she started to cry. Actually, it was a sob. Her tears were falling on the financial page lying across her lap, blurring words and figures that had once been a source of great interest.
“Can Jesus make me well?” she asked.
I didn’t hesitate to answer. “If he wants to,” I said. “But he can do something even better.”
“What’s better?” she wanted to know.
“You and I are strangers. Do you mind if I speak very personally to you?”
She managed a smile. “I’m dressed in a hospital gown, you’re sitting at the foot of my bed, and I’m dying. How much more personal can you get?” She wiped her eyes, and sat up a bit straighter, as though she were pretending to be an attentive second-grader. “What do you want to tell me?” she asked.
I told her about Yeshua. I told her that he died as a payment for her sins and then rose from the dead. I explained that if she believed this message and asked for his forgiveness, she’d be spared the judgment that our sins deserved. “Is that personal enough?” I asked.
“That’s pretty personal,” she agreed. “What else?”
I explained that God wanted to help her through this time. He didn’t want her to feel alone.
“Will he make me well?” she asked again.
“I don’t know. If he does, and if you live another ninety years, you’ll have all that time to enjoy a close relationship with him in whatever other hardships and joys you face. But if you die next month, well, then to tell you the truth, I’ll be a little jealous.”
Her eyebrows shot up in a tacit question, so I explained. “You’ll get to see him before me.” Now it was my turn to smile. “That’s pretty personal, too.” Neither of us said anything for a moment. Neither of us objected to the silence. It was very comfortable. Then I asked, “So would you like to pray with me?”
“All right,” she said.
I prayed, she echoed my words, and it was a miracle.
A month later, she died.
I suppose someone might say, “It’s easy for you to talk. It’s easy for you to say that the most important miracle in a person’s life is the miracle of God’s salvation. It’s easy for you to talk,” someone might say, “because you’re well. But maybe you wouldn’t talk that way if you were still ill.”
Yes, I would.
Yes, I do.
In March 1996, nearly ten years after my surgery, I returned to the hospital-as a patient. The doctors told me that surgery wouldn’t be necessary this time. They said they could handle the recurrence with steroids.
The pain returned. The medication was once again necessary, and the side effects had to be endured again. As I write, I hope I won’t need any future hospitalizations, but we’ll see. In the meantime, I’m not eating cantaloupe.
So what happened? Did God change his mind? Did God play a joke? Was there something deficient in the miracle that God performed through the surgery in 1986? No. I believe that miracle was just as complete as the miracle that God performed for the paralyzed man described in the Gospel of Mark.
I think about that man from time to time. I also think about the blind beggar who received sight from the hand of the Lord (John 4). And I think of Lazarus, who died and who was raised from the dead (John 11). I’m looking forward to speaking with them when we meet in the Kingdom. Did the healed paralytic feel betrayed when his legs ultimately began to fail with the onslaught of age? Did the healed blind beggar resent it when his vision ultimately blurred as the years piled up? Did Lazarus feel that Jesus failed him when his body grew old and died a second time? I wonder if they felt disappointment for the impermanence of God’s physical miracles, or whether they felt gratitude for the only miracle that really counts in the long run: the forgiveness of sins and the gift of eternal life.
Actually, I don’t really wonder at all. I’m confident that neither the healed paralytic nor the beggar with new eyes nor Lazarus are disappointed right now. I don’t think Leslie is disappointed, either. I know I’m not.
I can always eat cantaloupe in heaven.