Monday, May 2, 2011

Begging and Bargaining With God

This weekend I remembered something that happened to me years ago.

I was begging God to let me live. And bargaining by offering whatever He wanted. Period.

Now, King Benjamin does teach us that we’re all beggars, but I’m not sure this is what he had in mind.

Here’s the backstory: I was on a plane from Hiroshima, Japan to Seoul, Korea. I felt an incredible tightness in my chest. Breathing became very difficult. And I hurt!

I was not yet 35 years old, but I thought I was having a heart attack. I kept trying to remember those warning signs I’d read about. Was it a heart attack? Whatever it was, it hurt.

And I was on a Korean airliner surrounded by Korean and Japanese nationals. And I don’t speak either Korean or Japanese. (And did I mention it hurt?)

So I prayed. I probably started off pretty calmly, trying to keep my cool. But very quickly, my prayer escalated to pleading in the first degree. Please, God, don’t let me die. I’ll serve any way I can, wherever you want me to serve. I’ll do whatever you want me to do. Please don’t let me die on this airplane. Just let me land. Please. Please. Please.

All things considered, it was pretty selfish, wasn’t it? I don’t remember praying not to leave my wife a widow or my children fatherless. Don’t let me die.

And all those things I promised? I’d already promised all those things years before.

Well, I didn’t die. And I was grateful for that. By the time we landed, the chest pains had subsided (though I felt bruised for the two days I was in Seoul, like someone had punched me in the sternum).

When I got back home to Hiroshima (we were living there as a family at the time), I called my dad and told him about what had happened. Based on what my dad told me, it probably wasn’t a heart attack. It was probably a hiatal hernia (where the top of the stomach presses up into the esophagus).

A few weeks later the same thing happened as I was waiting for a meeting to start. Same 30 minutes of torture. Same pressure and pain. As it subsided I began to put the pieces together. Just before the second incident I had eaten lunch. Just before the airplane incident I’d eaten the sandwich served me on the plane. I had tried the horseradish at lunch (usually I never eat it). And I suspected horseradish in the sandwich on the plane. (Two years later I got some dip at a US restaurant that caused the same reaction and we confirmed it had horseradish in it.) For whatever reason, the horseradish produced the symptoms of the hiatal hernia.

I’ve thought about my begging for my life on that plane and my selfish prayer. I’m really grateful I didn’t have a heart attack, and I’m very grateful I did not die on that plane. I’m glad I didn’t leave my wife a widow and my children fatherless. But I’m not proud of my prayer that day.

In the intervening years (nearly two decades), I’ve matured a bit. First, I avoid horseradish at all costs. And I exercise 5-6 days a week to keep my heart healthy. And I have an annual physical. But I also have come to change the way I pray.

For many, many years, my assumption was that my personal righteousness was a golden ticket to having my righteous desires granted, so all I needed to do was make them known. As I’ve studied it in the meantime, I’m come to realize that there are really very few in the scriptures who are given that promise (one of the Nephis and Elijah spring to mind, but not many more).

I’ve learned instead to seek the Lord’s will for me. And to stop handing God my punch list with a perfunctory “Thy will be done.” Now my prayers most often (I hope!) are more along the lines of, “Here’s my situation. Here’s what I think would be helpful. What do you think?”

I do still seek the Lord’s blessings. And I do fast and pray for certain specific things along the way. But I hope my heart is more open to the Lord’s will for me rather than dictating mine to Him.

I can’t say how I’d pray if I were on that Korean airliner today, but I hope it would be more along the lines of, “This really hurts and I don’t know what’s going on. Of course I’ll accept Your will, but I would prefer to live through this so that my wife and kids are not alone.”


  1. Nice thoughts, but I can still eat horseradish.

    I have come to learn that God does not tend to function on a credit-basis. He seems to prefer that we live correctly BEFORE we hit crisis mode, instead of negotiating a reprieve after the fact.

    Personally, I feel kind of stupid if I suddenly start praying when the "chips are down". (Dear Lord, I know you haven't heard from me for a while...)

  2. I need to learn this lesson too.

  3. Thanks, MMM and Chris, for reading and commenting.

    Interestingly, I believe God hears all prayers, even those prayers of pleading and bargaining. Perhaps especially those prayers of pleading.

    But we know he does not always answer them the way we wish he would. Instead he answers them according to His will and His timetable (and ultimately, I think, for our good).

  4. It's Eric.

    Anyway, this leaves us with wondering what we should do in the meantime. If we have no clear answer, do we just act out of self interest anyway?

  5. Sorry, Eric! I was typing the emergency room this morning -- my brain and my fingers weren't so well connected.

    The specific cases I spoke of in the OP and in my comment weren't so much decisions as how to go forward, but rather demands I felt I was making on the Lord.

    Elder Scott did say a few conferences ago that if we don't get a specific answer, and we don't get a stupor of thought, we should assume that the Lord wants us to go ahead on our own judgement (and to learn our own lessons, I suppose). Self interest is certainly one way to make those choices.