He was only forty-five when the doctor told him he was dying. Sitting in stunned silence, Jonathan Thigpen of Wheaton, Illinois, tried to focus his gyrating mind on Dr. O’Riley’s matter-of-fact diagnosis. Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis. ALS. Lou Gehrig’s Disease. A cruel, incurable illness characterized by progressive muscular weakness resulting in paralysis and death. Fifty percent of all ALS patients die within eighteen months of diagnosis. The cause is unknown, and there is no cure. It is always terminal. Perhaps a year; two at most.
But it couldn’t be. This wasn’t part of the plan. Jonathan was relatively young and happily married. His daughter was in high school, and he himself was working on his doctorate. As head of the Evangelical Training Association he was providing Christian Education materials for churches and schools around the world.
Perhaps a year? Two at most?
Jonathan later recalled, I remember walking out of the doctor’s office in Carol Stream, Illinois, and deep in the pit of my stomach there was a feeling of overwhelming fear. I can’ t describe it other than it felt like I was being hugged by something so dark and so horrible that I can’t describe it.
Just before the darkness totally engulfed him, he heard a familiar voice speaking distinctly in his mind. Jonathan was a preacher’s kid, and, growing up, he had noticed that every night after supper his dad would disappear for an hour or two. For many years, Jonathan didn’t know where his father went. But one day his dad invited him to tag along, and from then on they spent their early evenings visiting the hospitals together. At every stop Dr. Thigpen would chat briefly with the patient, smile, ask concerned questions, then pull out his little New Testament and Psalms.
Time after time, Jonathan had listened as his dad had read from Psalm 46:
God is our refuge and strength,
A very present help in trouble.
Therefore we will not fear,
Even though the earth be removed,
And though the mountains be carried
into the midst of the sea.
Now in the worst moment of Jonathan’s life, the voices of his earthly father and of his Heavenly Father united in the chambers of his memory, and those words reverberated in nearly audible fashion through his mind. The effect was electric.
By the time I got to my car that cloud of darkness had begun to lift because I realized that God was still in control. I didn’t have any more answers than I had had when I was in the doctor’s office five minutes before, but I can tell you this: Fear cannot stand in the face of a faith and a God who does not change. My fear had left.
In the months that followed, Jonathan’s body weakened but his spirit grew stronger as he traveled across the country sharing Psalm 46, imparting strength to fellow-sufferers, and reminding his listeners of our refuge and strength—a God who is a very present help in trouble.
Robert J. Morgan