A man I know: Jim. An older, white-haired man from Berkeley. A guitar player with a wife and two kids, a Jewish man.
I’ve known him for years. We work out at the YMCA together. I know his son Zach, also. He’s probably 27 or 28 by now. He worked out at the Y several years ago, before leaving for college in Vancouver, B.C. I remember him as a carefree and happy teenager who surfed every morning and worked at a surfshop in the afternoon. After college, he stayed in Vancouver. He’d met a girl up there and they’d recently become engaged.
Several weeks ago, I spotted Jim on the elliptical cross trainer. I hadn’t seen him enter the gym; that seemed unusual, as he typically speaks to several people before beginning his workout. I waved and walked across the room to say hello.
“Zach has cancer,” he said. “It’s incurable.”
Had I heard him correctly? He had spoken so softly I wasn’t sure. I pulled out my earphones.
“Zach has cancer. I wanted to tell you but I haven’t seen you. He’s in the hospital now.”
So many questions, so many thoughts. What of his fiancé? The hope of survival—was there one? Should I say something about God? Maybe say I would pray for him?
I kept my mouth shut. Finally, I whispered, “I don’t know what to say.”
“There’s nothing,” he said. “It’s an (f-bomb) nightmare.”
I couldn’t work out after that. I left and went to my car and sat for a few minutes. How does a person pray about that? I tried to say something but nothing came out. There were no lofty words. No reasoning of hope. Eventually, I managed to spit out, “This can’t be the way you want it.”
“It just can’t.”
I’ve seen Jim a few times since then. I don’t say anything to him. Anything I say will come across as scripted and trite. I give him a hug, that’s all. Last week, he entered the gym as I was leaving. He hugged me and said hello.
“Is Zach home?” I asked.
He nodded meekly.
“How’s his white blood cell count?”
“It’s down,” he said and shook his head. “It’s an (f-bomb) nightmare. We’ve just got to keep praying.”
There was a slight opening. “I have been,” I told him.
It was true; I had. And still am. Though most of the time I don’t know what to pray. All I can say is: “Heal Zach.”
I told the story to those in my community group. I followed it with the question, “Do you believe God is good?”
Someone said, “I don’t doubt God is good. But I realize there are things about him I’m never going to understand. His ways are not my ways, and it’s hard to figure out what he is doing.”
One of the women said, “I see the suffering in the world and it makes me question whether God is good or not. Even in my own life, some of the things I’ve gone through. Why would God allow these things? I’m sure I’ll struggle with it the rest of my life.”
An honest answer. It’s likely I will, too.
Back to Jonah, and how it relates. If we don’t trust God—if we don’t believe he is good—why would we make our lives uncomfortable for him? Jonah was asked to give up everything, to put his life at risk and walk into the face of darkness and uncertainty, to help a people who had caused affliction to him and his own.
For whom will we make sacrifices? For whom will we risk everything?
We will only put our lives at risk, or furthermore, make them uncomfortable, for someone we believe is worth it. Just as a man will pick up his life and move for a woman he loves, or a parent will make the sacrifices of time, money and freedom for a child she longs to protect, we will only forego our happiness and place ourselves into unknown and precarious circumstances if we believe God is good and loves people. And if we are honest, sometimes it’s hard to believe that. For every story of healing, there’s a story like Zach’s. A young man taken before his time.
Thankfully, faith is formed in the crucible of doubt.
There’s an amazing verse near the end of the book. God is speaking to Jonah, and Jonah answers, “I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity.”
Jonah knew God was good, amidst the doubt. Today, I got on my knees and prayed for Zach. That he would be healed. That God would comfort the family. Because there is hope. There is always hope.