Finding a way through the darkness of doubt.
by Pastor Bob Leitton as told to Penny Smith
Shoving my sermon notes aside, I reached for the phone with a sigh. Seems like its cue to ring is linked to my quiet time.
“Bob, come — pray for me.” Ruth’s voice trembled with the words that followed. “I’m hemorrhaging,” she whispered.
What’s this all about, Lord? I prayed as I bolted out of my chair. I hesitated for a moment, then God’s presence settled upon me. “Prepare your heart,” He seemed to say.
I grabbed my coat and keys and rushed to the parsonage across the parking lot from the church. My wife trembled on the bed, clutching her Bible.
Reaching down, I stroked her hair and noticed its softness, now jet black in contrast to her pale countenance. She’s so fragile, I thought, a shiver rippling through me.
“C’mon honey, let me pray for you,” I said, gathering her in my arms.
For a year, Ruth had been battling a low-grade fever, along with periods of extreme exhaustion. She tired easily, often becoming edgy — even with Renee, our twelve-year old daughter. Medications and prescribed antibiotics afforded only short-term relief.
Now this latest episode spurred the doctor into scheduling Ruth for a complete battery of tests. I was concerned, but not troubled. Jesus was our healer. How could I know that my faith in God’s goodness was about to spin-off into the darkest days of doubt ever to touch my ministry?
Several days later in the waiting room of the hospital’s x-ray department, Ruth’s doctor was paged. An uneasiness gripped me. They’ve found something wrong with Ruth. Soon afterward, the doctor approached me, Ruth’s x-rays in hand.
“I have bad news for you,” he stated. He showed me the pictures, pointing out a large mass on Ruth’s kidney.
“Is it malignant?” I asked.
“Undoubtedly,” he nodded.
Ruth was scheduled for immediate surgery. “If the surgery is a success,” the doctor said, “she may have three to five years.”
I hung onto the fact that God had never failed us before, and held Ruth’s hand as she was wheeled to the operating room.
She squeezed my fingers. “Always serve the Lord. You’ll be all right,” she smiled. I kissed her and watched the door close behind her.
Oh God, spare her, please. We need her.
After what seemed an intolerable wait, the surgeon emerged from behind the dreaded door and pronounced the surgery a success. Renewed hope surfaced.
Recuperation and radiance
Before our two pastorates, Ruth and I functioned as a team in evangelistic work — Ruth at the piano while I preached. After her recuperation, Ruth felt so good that it wasn’t long before she not only played for the worship service but also sang a solo.
She never looked better or more beautiful. The touch of God was evident upon her as she sang “We Shall Behold Him.” My eyes filled as God’s presence filled the sanctuary. All at once, those words came to me again. “Prepare yourself.”
I knew it was the Lord and sensed that Ruth was singing about her own imminent home going. Angry, I pushed the thought aside. No! She can’t die! Renee needs her mother. Lord, You must heal her.
Just when life had almost returned to normal, another blow struck. Again, the phone rang in my study, and this time Renee’s voice broke into my thoughts.
“There’s something wrong with Mom!” she cried.
I found Renee crying over her mother, who lay unconscious on the floor.
“Daddy, she’s dead, she’s dead!” Renee sobbed.
I struggled to get Ruth on the bed. Much to Renee’s relief, her mother still had a pulse. When Ruth came to, she seemed partially paralyzed, and I thought she had suffered a stroke. However, we learned it was a seizure, and Ruth was hospitalized again.
“You be good now,” she admonished the ambulance attendants. “You accept the Lord. You need Him.”
Note of surrender
When she returned home, Ruth’s vision was blurred, and her eyes watered constantly. Since she couldn’t focus her eyes, I would read the Bible to her. One day I found a scribbled note in her Bible:
“God, I yield myself to you. I no longer have control of my life or body.” I slipped into the bathroom and bawled. Lord, I can’t give her up. She’s part of me. Ruth had been my best critic, and I was just beginning to realize how much my wife complemented my ministry.
The following day, I was strengthened from reading 2 Corinthians 4:16: “Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day.”
Although Ruth physically weakened daily, her devotion to her Lord and Savior never waned. She prayed for visitors, and they left saying, “She ministered to me.”
If Ruth entertained doubt, she rarely showed it. Even as Renee and I took over the housework, Ruth’s words “When the Lord heals me . . .” prefaced every solution to the increasing difficulties.
Frustration with God
On New Year’s Day, Ruth returned home from yet another hospitalization. The cancer had spread throughout her body, and she was bedfast. Our home had become a crisis center with a time bomb on the hearth.
Happy new year, God. Are You there? How can I pray for others when You don’t answer my prayers for my own wife?
One day I found Ruth watching Renee (who looks strikingly like her mom) doing her homework in our bedroom. When Renee left, I sat on the hospital bed that Ruth now occupied.
“If God takes me, make sure Renee takes piano and violin,” Ruth said. “Don’t let her forget me.”
Choked up, I buried my face in the pillow. She was slipping away, and I was powerless. My prayers weren’t working.
Later, I slipped into the sanctuary and knelt at the altar rail.
She’s too young, God, and too talented. We need her here. Why won’t You heal her? Oh God, why don’t You answer?
Gift of grace
Sobbing uncontrollably, I felt God’s presence surround me. Into my heart came the words “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9). I knew God had answered. And His answer was no.
Please, God, I can’t watch her suffer. Either heal her or take her. Just end her agony. Help her, please.
When I rose, I somehow knew I would find the strength to face the future.
As Ruth’s illness progressed, we obtained the services of a homemaker. After a hectic week, I’d handed the hospice volunteer a chore list, then left to run some errands. When I rushed into the house later, one glance told me nothing had been done.
Now what? Can’t I even leave for a few hours? I stormed through the house, intending to let the worker know exactly how I felt.
At Ruth’s doorway I stopped short. The hospice worker, on her knees at Ruth’s bedside, an opened Bible before her, held Ruth’s broken hand. Tears filled my eyes as I listened.
“Jesus will never fail you,” Ruth said. “You just ask, and He will come into your heart. You’ll never regret following the Lord.”
Ruth’s gaunt face beamed as the weeping hospice worker repeated the sinner’s prayer.
The bright morning sunlight danced off the mirror as I entered the bedroom with a cup of tea.
Ruth smiled and closed her eyes. I tiptoed out to the kitchen to wash the dishes. A few minutes later, hearing the sound of the respirator, I returned. Ruth’s head had slumped to one side, a wistful smile on her lips. Her face glowed. She was gone.
The inner renewing that Ruth received daily had swept her through the pangs of death triumphantly. God enabled me to release her and to help our daughter through this difficult time.
When God says no, He has a reason. Ruth’s faith reached out in her illness to touch others. That’s why God’s no to me became someone else’s yes.
Scripture quotations were taken from the New International Version.
About the Author
Pastor Bob Leitton served as pastor of churches in Pennsylvania and Maryland.