Andrew had expected to burst into tears as he poured out his story to Pablo in the Fairview Correctional visiting room. But instead, he found himself shouting — launching into an angry diatribe against God. Several guards eyed him suspiciously as he vented his frustrations, but Andrew didn’t care.
“I guess God’s the original heartbreaker,” he said bitterly, looking towards the ceiling. “Did He trick me on purpose?”
His anger spent, Andrew looked down to Pablo. He was surprised to see tears glistening in his friend’s eyes.
Andrew knew that Pablo wasn’t above weeping — in fact, he did it often when he talked about God’s grace. Yet it still surprised Andrew every time. Tears seemed out of place on the face of this tough-looking felon, who had tattoos down both arms and an ominous goatee on his chin.
But Andrew thought he knew the reason for these tears, and it didn’t comfort him. “Look, I know you’re upset because I’m bashing God,” Andrew said wearily. “But that’s just how it is right now, OK?”
“Brother, I’m not weeping for God,” said Pablo, in a choked voice. “The psalmists yelled at him all the time. He’s used to it.”
“Then what —”
“I weep with those who weep.See Romans 12:15. In the story of Lazarus (John 11:35), even Jesus wept for the sorrow of others. Brother, you are hurting — and I’m so sorry. I wish I could take it away.”
Andrew studied the tabletop. “Yeah, I guess I’m hurt … but mostly I’m ticked.”
“Good! Otherwise, I’d think you didn’t love God very much,” said Pablo. “You wouldn’t be mad, you’d be indifferent.”
“I guess —”
“I’d say you’re wrestling with God.”
“Brother, God’s ways are beyond us,” said Pablo. “So when He lets hurt into our lives, we have to revise our opinion of the nice Man Upstairs who just wants us to be happy.”If we believe God always keeps his promises (see, for example, Joshua 23:15 and Psalm 119:160), we have to assume that our understanding is wrong when the Lord seems to be breaking his word. Of course, that’s not an easy truth to stomach when we’re hurting.
“That’s not what I think about God —”
“Well, you’re pretty ticked about this one —”
“Because I thought God was good,” spat Andrew. “And there’s not much ‘good’ in losing the girl I thought I was gonna marry.”
“So the Lord’s only good when you get what you want?”
“No, but a good God wouldn’t — lie to me, OK? I really believe He said —”
“Brother, before you call Him a liar —”
“Fine, then I have no ability to understand His will for me. And that’s almost as bad.”
Pablo sighed heavily. “Brother, we can talk about God’s will,” he said. “But that’s not the real issue here. Are you willing to wrestle with God — to stay with Him until you know Him more; to figure out what He’s doing? Or are you going to run because He doesn’t fit your ideas?”
Andrew said nothing.
“You remember Jacob in the Bible?” Pablo asked. “The Bible’s first con man? He swindled his own brother — took Esau’s spot in their dad’s will for a bowl of stew.” Genesis 25:29-34.
“I know all about Jacob —”
“This guy wasn’t a model citizen, just an old sinner like you and me. But then one night — years after the bowl of stew — his tricky ways caught up with him. Esau had tracked him down, and Jacob was sure his brother was out for blood. So Jacob was desperate to figure out what God was doing. He wanted some assurances Esau wasn’t going to kill him the next day!
“And what did the Almighty do? Instead of sending Jacob a gentle message that everything will be all right, God wrestled with him — in the flesh, the ultimate grudgematch! They went at it all night, brother. God wasn’t giving up any ground, because Jacob had a lesson to learn. Then finally, Jacob grabbed hold of the Lord and said, ‘I won’t release you until you bless me!'” Genesis 32:3-12, 22-30.
Andrew shrugged carelessly. “So what happened? God smited him for arrogance?”
“No — he blessed him! And why? Because Jacob held on!”
“Oh, I get it!” Andrew exclaimed bitterly. “This must be my blessing now: losing the girl I loved —”
“Brother, you might have to go a few more rounds with God,” Pablo said gently. “And it will hurt. Jacob walked away with a lame hip, and we should be so lucky. But if you hold on, if you wrestle long enough — you won’t leave empty-handed.”
Andrew didn’t want to hear it. He was tired of being miserable; tired of feeling pinned to the mat; tired of going home to his apartment alone and feeling a huge lump in his throat all night. “Well, I can’t do it anymore,” he said stubbornly. “I’m done.”
“Brother, don’t let go of God. Anger turns to bitterness —”
“Too late for that.”
Andrew turned his chair away, refusing to look at Pablo — and by extension, at God.
* * *
There was a long silence. Then one of the guards stepped out from his place along the wall and approached their table. He reminded Andrew of a Hispanic Santa Claus — long white beard, pudgy stomach, half-moon glasses. The man spoke to Pablo in rapid-fire Spanish.
“Pablo, este hermano necesita tu compasión,” said the guard. “¿Por qué le echaste un sermón?”English translation: “Pablo, this brother needs your compassion. Why did you preach him a sermon?”
Pablo sighed heavily. “Sí, sí, tienes razón,”English translation: “Yes, yes, you’re right.” he muttered to the guard. Then he turned back to Andrew: “Brother, I owe you an apology.”
“What?” said Andrew, confused by the burst of Spanish.
“I’m too quick with my sermons sometimes,” Pablo confessed. “I forget how much things hurt unless I’m the one hurting.”
“I didn’t mean to eavesdrop,” the guard said apologetically, “but you brothers were talking pretty loud —”
“No problem,” muttered Andrew.
“Maybe I can distract Hermano Pablo from preaching at you any more,” the guard said mischievously. “How about if I tell you one of his deep, dark secrets?”
Pablo’s face went pale. “Marco, he doesn’t need to know about that —”
“I think he does,” chuckled the guard. “Consider it your penance for sermonizing.”
Pablo sighed, then folded his arms in resignation.
“This happened maybe 10 years ago — after Pablo had already been a Christian for a while,” Marco said. “It started when Chaplain Matt, the preacher-man around here, spoke in chapel about God giving Peter a jailbreak. You’ve heard the story — from Acts?”
“So you know how it goes: Peter’s locked up for preaching Jesus. In the middle of the night, an angel comes in and takes off his chains; leads him right out of the joint. Before he knows what’s happening, he’s standing outside as a free man.” Acts 12:1-11.
“Must you do this to me?” muttered Pablo.
Marco ignored him. “Well, one night after lights out, Pablo had a dream. An angel came and escorted him out the front gate of Fairview Correctional! Our brother here was sure it was a sign from God, and he told everybody who’d listen, even me. I wasn’t a Christian then: I was sure religion had driven San Pablo out of his mind.”
“‘Saint Pablo,’ that’s what they used to call me,” broke in Pablo. “Honestly, Andrew, I was an idiot — it was just a dream. Peter was innocent, unlike me. I was misinterpreting the Book —”
“But that’s not all,” Marco went on. “The next week, Pablo got recommended for parole — even though he had a life sentence! He praised Jesus from morning to night, and I started wondering if this guy knew something I didn’t.”
“I told Marco the parole board was gonna be God’s angel for me, escorting me out of jail,” Pablo confessed, shaking his head.
“But it turned out the parole hearing was a computer error,” interjected Marco. “Actually, Pablo was still stuck in here for good.”
“I was furious when I found out,” said Pablo. “All the unbelievers gloated — especially Marco,” said Pablo. “I knew God let me down. I actually hit my cellmate, cussed out Marco —”
“Well, I kind of deserved it,” Marco admitted. “I was horrible. ‘¡Pero San Pablo, yo creía que eras profeta!”
“‘But Saint Pablo, I thought you were a prophet!'” translated Pablo.
“Of course, Pablo’s temper confirmed everything I thought about Christians,” Marco said. “I had things all figured out: People got jailhouse religion to cut a deal with God. Then when God didn’t give ’em what they wanted, they became heathens like the rest of us.”
“I was out of control,” Pablo said, “back to my old sinful ways. Until one day, Chaplain Matt came down and let me have it. He told me I was disgracing the name of Jesus; I claimed God was a liar. We had a big argument. Then finally, Chaplain Matt goes, ‘Why are you blaming God because you got too much wax in your ears to hear him right? You want outta prison so bad you’ll believe anything. If you thought the Buddha would turn you loose, you’d change religions.’
“It was like he slapped me across the face. Because suddenly, I realized I wanted ‘God’s will’ … not God. I got down on my knees and did some repenting, then I apologized to Marco here, and my cellmate —”
” — Of course, he leaves out the part where it took him a week to start repenting,” Marcos chortled. “But I’ll tell you the truth, brother: Pablo’s apology to me is when everything I ‘knew’ about Christians got turned upside down. ‘This guy is the real deal,’ I thought. ‘He’s not just making bargains with the Lord.’ I started going back to church … and a couple weeks later, I found Jesus.
“Sorry, Pablo,” said Marco, turning to their friend. “I know it’s embarrassing. But when a brother’s struggling” — Marco nodded towards Andrew —”that story’s too good to skip.”
Andrew had to admit, it was comforting to know that his mentor had mistaken God’s will, too. And he certainly understood Marco’s point — a little too well. But he wasn’t ready to go down without a fight.
“So what’s the moral of the story?” he asked stubbornly. “It’s against God’s will if you want out of jail, or want to marry your girlfriend?”
“Andrew, you know better than that!” admonished Pablo. “I still pray I’ll be paroled someday.”
“Then what —”
“If I want freedom from prison more than freedom in Christ, I got my priorities upside down,” said Pablo. “But you already know all about that, brother. Don’t you?”
Andrew sighed heavily. In the silence that followed, he finally admitted it to himself: He’d desired Melanie above God. In Exodus 20:2-6, God commands us to put nothing and no one ahead of him. Like Pablo, maybe he had some repenting to do.
* * *
“OK, fine,” Andrew said. “I was a little carried away. But even if I put God on top, I could still get things wrong.”
“That’s true,” Marco said, nodding his head sadly. “The Book says my heart is deceitful above all things. Jeremiah 17:9. So I’ll never be sure about God’s voice inside me.”
“Yeah, and that’s real fair!” complained Andrew. “God appeared to people in the Bible — like that wrestling match. Or they heard him out loud. How am I supposed to make good decisions if I can’t be sure what He’s saying?”
“You have a point, brother,” Pablo said. “Sometimes I’m jealous of our friend Jacob. Before he was born, God prophesied he would be Top Dog over his brother Esau. God appeared to him in dreams — and they weren’t wishful thinking like mine; they were real! God even spoke out loud —” See Genesis 25:21-23, 28:10-16, and 31:3.
“That would sure make life easier,” grumbled Andrew.
“So what if you had heard God say, ‘Don’t marry Melanie’ — and there was no doubt it was Him?”
“I would’ve listened,” Andrew insisted. “If we broke up sooner, it could’ve saved me a lot of grief.”
“Fair enough,” said Pablo. “So when God tells you ‘love your neighbor as yourself’ Matthew 22:39. — and you know it’s Him speaking, because Jesus says it in the Book — why don’t you listen then?” This idea first struck me when I read Gordon Dalbey’s book Sons of the Father (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House, 1996): 165-186. His book helped to form some of my thinking on the will of God.
Out of the corner of his eye, Andrew could see that Marco was trying not to smile — the guard had seen Pablo’s trap coming.
“I … well, I try … mostly,” Andrew stammered.
Pablo grinned. “So did Jacob, brother, and he still messed everything up. With or without visits from God.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, let’s see: When God took his sweet time fulfilling the prophesy about Jacob ruling over his brother, Jacob conned Esau and his Dad as well,” said Pablo. “The kid had to run for his life so Esau wouldn’t commit brother-cide. Then Jacob tried to wheel and deal with God — ‘I’ll serve You so long as You bless me,’ he said. Nothing like bribing the Almighty, right? After that, Jacob went and got married — twice. And then —”See Genesis 25:29-34, 27:1-29, 27:41-45, 28:20-22, and 29:15-30.
“OK, I get the idea,” muttered Andrew.
“Brother, the Lord spoke to Jacob! And if that was the best Jacob could do, what hope is there for us?”
Pablo didn’t need to say any more — Andrew understood. Maybe it was better to spend his energy on obedience instead of “God’s will.”
* * *
Marco exchanged a hug with Pablo, then headed back to his station along the wall of the visiting room. “I’m sorry I interrupted you brothers,” he said. “Dios te bendiga, Andrew.”
Andrew gave a halfhearted nod to the guard, but he still had a big question unanswered in his mind. If he couldn’t know God’s will with certainty, how could he make decisions without royally screwing up?
“Pablo, if I understand you right, you’re saying God doesn’t speak to us anymore,” Andrew said.
“Where’d you get that idea?” said Pablo, taken aback. “I never said God doesn’t speak. I just said we don’t always hear Him right.”
“Well, what’s the difference?” said Andrew. “If I can’t tell whether something’s from God —”
“He gave you a Book with His most important advice in it,” said Pablo. “So let’s start there.” See 2 Timothy 3:16.
“Uh, the Bible doesn’t get very specific. It never says whether to marry somebody —”
“Right — but why do you think God gave you a brain?” said Pablo. “You look at Scripture first — always. Then if you need specific wisdom, what about the other ways God reveals Himself? For instance, I believe He led you to a banking career, but I doubt He told you in a dream. He just gave you a gift for numbers.” See 1 Corinthians 12:7-20. The context refers to spiritual gifts, but I believe the principle is the same for any ability. We should discern the talents God has given us and use them to serve others!
“Yeah, I guess —”
“So maybe that’s one way he’s speaking. And didn’t He give you Godly people with good advice, like your parents or old Hermano Pablo?” See Proverbs 15:22.
“But sometimes you’re wrong —”
“Thanks, brother — between you and Marco, I’m getting a big dose of humility today,” Pablo chuckled. “OK, what about circumstances? Can you look around and see what the Sovereign God is doing in your world?” In Proverbs 16:9, God’s followers are told that while they can make plans, the Lord will ultimately determine what they do — in other words, he’ll guide them through circumstances. Also, see Luke 9:1-5 for an occasion when Jesus instructed his disciples to let circumstances guide them in their ministry. But an important note is in order here: While circumstances can sometimes lead us into God’s will (after all, he ultimately controls them), Satan and people can also have influence. So it’s important that we don’t let circumstances interfere with a commandment the Lord has revealed in Scripture!
“Sometimes, circumstances show you possibilities you never even thought about! Because when we pray for God’s answer, half the time we’re not asking the right question.
“Now, here’s another one. Can the Spirit give you insights while you pray?” See James 1:5 and Colossians 1:9.
“I guess — but look where that got me!”
“How about common sense? Did God give you some of that?” Throughout the book of Proverbs — especially chapter one — we’re exhorted to use wisdom in making decisions. You might say that wisdom is simply common sense informed by God.
“Not enough, apparently.”
“That’s not the point. Can’t God guide you in all those ways?”
“I guess … but what if I can’t understand what He’s saying?”
“I say this in love, brother,” said Pablo gently, “but I think God was trying to speak to you the whole time. Maybe your feelings for Melanie ran ahead of your common sense … and drowned Him out.”
Judging from the results, Pablo was probably right — but it had been a little harder to see that while he was head-over-heels in love. Andrew suddenly found himself blinking away water from his eyes.
Pablo reached out and put a hand on his shoulder. “The closer you follow God, the more you’ll think like Him,” Pablo said, with compassion. “That’s the good news, brother. The bad news is that you can still mess things up. You’ll look at the circumstances and the way God made you. You’ll pray hard, read the Book, and ask for advice. Some of these ideas on hearing God’s will are drawn from Henry Blackaby and Claude King’s workbook Experiencing God (Nashville, TN: Lifeway, 1990). I should note, however, that I disagree with Blackaby’s concept that we’ll always know when God is speaking. As I understand it, that seems like an Old Testament model (when God spoke through prophets like Elijah or Isaiah), rather than a New Testament model (when the Holy Spirit lives within Believers and whispers to our hearts). Then sometimes … you’ll get it wrong.”
“Great,” muttered Andrew.
“If there was no risk, we wouldn’t call it ‘faith,'” Pablo said quietly. “Still, if you’re wrong, God will make something good out of your mess: That’s a promise from the Book. Romans 8:28. Look what happened with Marco when God denied my parole —”
“But where does that leave me, Pablo? Next time I have a decision to make, I just take my best guess?” Andrew snapped.
“No — you walk with Jesus, and make a choice with the wisdom He gave you. Then you trust Him for the results,” Pablo said. “There’s a big difference.”
* * *
Andrew glanced up at the clock: His time with Pablo was almost through. In spite of their contentious visit, Andrew didn’t feel ready to leave.
“I’m sorry, brother,” said Pablo. “I’m so sorry your heart was broken. Whatever insights the Lord gives you, it still hurts. I don’t want you to think I’m forgetting that.”
Andrew nodded slowly. “I guess … I feel lost, Pablo,” he admitted. “I thought I understood God better than this. I mean, what happens if I meet another girl; will I know any better? Will I be this clueless?”
“I don’t know,” said Pablo. “But that’s not the big idea.”
Andrew was confused.
“Brother, there’s one other possibility we haven’t considered. What if you heard God right?”
“Maybe he did say to marry Melanie.”
“Uh, when the girl quits her job because she doesn’t want to see you, I think it’s over.”
“Of course it is. But what if He told you —”
“Obviously, He didn’t!” said Andrew vehemently. “She dumped me —”
“But maybe it was a test.”
Andrew was puzzled — he stared blankly at his friend.
“One more story, brother,” said Pablo. Is that OK?”
“This one’s about Abraham — Jacob’s grandpa. He had a son named Isaac, and Abraham loved that boy with his whole life. In fact, Isaac was even more than a son: He was the fulfillment of every promise God had made! This kid would father an entire nation and his descendents would bless the whole world.For God’s promises to Abraham (which were fulfilled through Isaac’s lineage), see Genesis 18:18-19. Isaac was the apple of his Daddy’s eye.
“Then one day — without any warning — God said, ‘Abraham, take your son up the mountain and kill him as an offering to me.’ Can you imagine how Abraham felt? God wanted him to put his little boy to the sword with his own hands!
“Maybe Abraham thought he heard God wrong — maybe he even refused at first. But eventually, he took Isaac and started climbing Mount Moriah. They got near the top, and Isaac said, “Uh, Dad … you forgot to bring a lamb.’ Abraham managed to choke out, ‘Son, God will provide a sacrifice.’
“They reached the place of sacrifice. Abraham pulled out his knife to do the unspeakable deed, and Isaac suddenly realized what was going on. Abraham felt his whole life was about to end, and he wondered how this God whom he’d served faithfully could be so cruel. He was about to close his eyes so he wouldn’t have to look …
“Then Yahweh stepped in. He gave Abraham a ram for the altar; took Isaac out of danger. Why? In the end, it was only a test — but it was the hardest one ever given, and it only had one question. ‘Who do you love more?'” Genesis 22:1-14.
Andrew nodded slowly.
“If I had to guess, brother,” his friend said, “I’d say you heard God wrong. I’d say you ate too many jalapeños and thought that funny feeling was the Spirit, instead of indigestion.”
Andrew couldn’t help chuckling.
“But there’s another possibility, brother,” said Pablo. “Maybe God really told you to marry her. Maybe the Almighty was asking, ‘Who do you love more?'”
* * *
The men sat in silence for a long time. Finally, Andrew spoke. “I guess I still have to do some wrestling with God, huh?”
Pablo nodded. More silence followed.
“Time’s almost up,” said Andrew. “I better go.”
Pablo nodded again.
“Thanks. For — all the sermonizing,” smiled Andrew wryly.
“Any time,” said Pablo with a grin.
Andrew stood up to leave. He was turning to walk away when Pablo suddenly spoke his name.
“Andrew?” he said.
Andrew stopped. Pablo suddenly grabbed him in a big bear hug from behind.
“If it is a test, my brother … I think you already passed,” said his friend.
Andrew looked at Pablo — and he could tell the man really meant it. He, Andrew, was choosing to hold on to God.
Andrew went out to his car, sat down in the driver’s seat, and bawled — just as he had in his office at the bank. He grieved the loss of the woman he loved. He asked forgiveness for making Melanie an idol — but also hollered at God for not speaking more clearly.
In the end, it was almost an hour before he finally started his car and drove away from the prison. He felt a little better, but knew he’d still feel a jabbing needle of pain when he went into work and saw the empty teller window.
Yet through all his tears, Andrew had a strange sense of God holding on to him tightly. He tried to imagine Jesus seizing him in a bear hug — kind of like Pablo’s.
But then, maybe he should’ve imagined a wrestling hold instead. Or sometimes … perhaps they were the same thing.
Copyright 2009 George Halitzka. All rights reserved.