Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Bargaining with God

It was the early 1990's. I was living in Hiroshima, Japan and traveling to Seoul, Korea on business. About halfway through the one hour flight I was sure I was having a heart attack. I couldn't be having a heart attack, I thought – I was in my early 30's. But pressure around my heart was building and the pain was incredible. Which arm is supposed to go numb? I couldn't remember, and neither hand was tingling. Or maybe they were. I wasn't at my most rational.

As my pulse raced and my breathing became shallower, I began to bargain with God. Heavenly Father, let me land safely and I'll do anything. Anything. I was willing to promise whatever I had to in order to be saved from a heart attack on a Korean airliner far from everything I knew and loved.

The pain subsided. I could breathe again. My heart rate returned to normal. There was a feeling like bruising behind my sternum. But by the time I deplaned, I was, as far as I could tell, fine. I was to be in Korea just overnight, and I'd be back home in Hiroshima the next evening for dinner. I finished the trip without incident, and without ever finding out what caused the pain in my chest.

A couple of weeks later I had a repeat experience. I was waiting to go into a meeting after lunch. Same chest pain. Same racing heartbeat. Same panic. I began to think about what I'd done that day. I realized I had eaten a Japanese lunch and I had eaten some horseradish – something I never have liked, but which I'd eaten by mistake. Then I thought back to that Korean Air flight to Seoul. Had there been horseradish in the sauce on the sandwich I had on the plane? Probably. I then avoided horseradish and avoided another repeat performance.

I described my pain to my dad and he said he had the same thing – a hiatal hernia. As we discussed it, I realized this is what had happened to me, and it must have been somehow brought on by the horseradish. (I had horseradish again several years later back in the US – it was in a sauce at a restaurant – and I had the same reaction.)

Well, the health history is to illustrate a point larger than my weak constitution. In my first moment of distress, I prayed. And I prayed specifically to be delivered from what I perceived to be danger. And I bargained with the Lord.

While I am a fan of prayer, and a fan of covenants in which we make commitments to the Lord, in this case my prayer of desperation, however laudable on the one hand (for instance, at least I thought to pray, and I did have faith that God could deliver me if He wanted to), was probably misguided. Not because the source of the pain was a temporary allergic reaction, but because I was trying to tempt God by bargaining my own righteousness for my relief.

I should have been willing to give my righteousness anyway (and, by the way, I think I am doing that, even in my own imperfect way). King Benjamin (Mosiah 2) reminds us that when we obey a commandment, we're instantly blessed, so it's not like we have some bank account full of "obediences" that we can draw on when it's convenient to do so. No, the point is that we are not ever in a position to bargain with God.

It's true, God tells us He's bound when we do what he says (D&C 82:10), and it's true that there are blessings associated with obedience (D&C 130:20-21), but we don't ever get to set the terms. King Benjamin reminds us that we are not in a position of power in our relationship to God.

Here are some lessons I take away from this and other experiences I've had in connection with these principles:

1. I don't get to set the terms of my relationship with God. He's in charge, and it's up to me to find Him. (He knows where I am already, and the scriptures teach that his hand is always stretched out to me.)
2. I don't get to pick my blessings. He has already decided what blessings are associated with obedience, and it's up to Him to sort that out. It's not like going to the prize booth at Chuck E. Cheese with my game tickets and getting to pick the blessings I want.
3. I do better when I seek to find His will for me, rather than giving Him my shopping list of what I want.
4. He really does bless me, and it is good for me to recognize His hand in my life.

In that regard, my prayers about my "heart attack" were answered. I did land safely. And over time I came to an understanding of the cause of my pain and I learned to avoid it. I suppose that all might have happened just the same way if I had not prayed. But I'm still glad I prayed on that airplane. Just as my children learned to walk by stumbling a few times, so do I.


  1. I left quite the response to your question on my blog...I think it may become a post in of itself :-) I really appreciate your questions and comments!