The phone jangled me awake at 5:30 a.m. The voice on the other end, a nurse in coronary care, urged me to hurry because the individual had already had a series of massive heart attacks and would probably not live long.
As I was ushered into the small private room, I met Jim and Betty for the first time. In their early sixties, they had arrived the day before from out of state to begin what they hoped would be a long and enjoyable retirement. However, even before their bags were unpacked, Jim became ill. In the emergency room of the hospital it was determined that he was having a heart attack. On the way to the coronary care unit, he had several more.
What does one say at such a time? There were no heroic efforts being made to prevent further attacks. It was obvious to everyone involved, including the patient, his time was short.
I prayed a simple short prayer invoking the help of Jesus, our great physician, and praying for the spiritual well-being of the patient and Betty. When I sought to move away, Jim clung to my hand, waved the others out of the room, and in a strong but quiet voice said, "Help me become a Christian. My brother is a pastor and has tried to get me to accept Christ for years. I don't think I have much more time."
He did not need much coaching. His prayer to receive Christ was sincere. This was a pastor's dream, helping someone about to die receive assurance of life with God after death.
After comforting Betty and speaking with the hospital staff, I return to my weekly schedule with the promise that I would visit later. During the day, my thoughts were constantly turning to Jim and his prayer and the irony of the situation—a relatively young retired couple in a strange town planning a joyous retirement when death knocks on their door. How does one counsel in such circumstances? What words of comfort are there?
Early the next morning, I again received an urgent call. Jim was dying. Could I come right away? As I approached the coronary care unit, the doors burst open and Betty came running out shrieking, "He's dead! He's dead!"
I took her to a small chapel and tried to calm her hysterics with words of assurance that Jim was now with Jesus. "But you don't understand!" She sobbed. "We weren't married!"
Comprehension began to penetrate my awareness. Her cries were not for the loss of a loved one but for years of a life of guilt. Cohabitation outside the marriage bond was contrary to both Jim's and her standards. It was not youthful passion that brought them together nor an inability to form a lasting relationship which kept them from legitimizing their union. In their minds, society had dealt them a set of circumstances which forced their actions.
Betty and her husband had known Jim for years and were best friends. Upon her husband's death, it was only logical for Jim to offer comfort. With the passing of time, comfort became love, and the two decided they wanted to spend the rest of their lives together. However, Jim would not marry Betty because by doing so, Betty would lose her husband's retirement, which had the provision that when she remarried, it would cease. Jim had nothing to offer, not even social security.
Trapped by circumstances, they often discussed the prospect of marriage, with Betty agreeing to give up her retirement. However, Jim refused, even though his family and friends disapproved of their arrangement. The idea of causing her to lose her financial security was too much for Jim.
In the days that followed, I comforted Betty as best I could. There was much to do planning for the funeral and for Jim's family to arrive. Betty was all alone. She had no family and no friends, and the thought of members of Jim's family coming for the funeral was frightening. They were the ones who protested their relationship for years, scolding them for what was surely a most unpardonable sin.
"But you don't understand." Betty cried. "Jim and I loved each other. Surely God does not blame us for what we did." I tried to explain to her that God is just and quick to forgive. Adultery and fornication are not unpardonable sins. However, the sin of unbelief, when it extends to not believing in Jesus Christ as our savior, is unpardonable. Jim received Christ as his savior on his death bed. But Betty still refused to accept Christ because she did not believe God would forgive her.
I counseled her: "As a man, I can understand and do not condemn you for what you and Jim chose to do. As a pastor, I believe that you need to receive Christ as your Savior and seek God's forgiveness."
I met with Betty several times before the funeral. The funeral was sparsely attended. The couple were not known in the area and few family members and no friends could come from out of state. For the text I chose Psalm 130:3-4, "If Thou, Lord, shouldst mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand? But there is forgiveness with Thee, That Thou mayest be feared."
My purpose was not only to bring comfort to Betty regarding forgiveness, but to challenge others present not to judge too harshly and to leave room for God's righteous judgment.
I did not see Betty for several days after the funeral. My schedule took me out of town, and the work of the church, delayed as it was by the hours of counsel and preparation for the funeral, required my time. My wife, sensing that she might have an opportunity for ministry, stepped in and invited Betty for lunch. A few hours later, when I returned home, she told me that she again presented the plan of salvation but Betty refused, wishing instead to talk with me. I contacted her immediately.
As we talked, Betty said, "Tell me again about God's forgiveness and how to be saved." This time she prayed to receive Christ and asked for forgiveness for her sins. Then sitting back, she sighed a deep sigh of relief. The burden of guilt rolled away. She now felt like a new person.
Had I been calloused and said, "It doesn't matter why you did it. It was sin," or had I counseled, "Now, now, God understands," Betty may never have come to Christ as her savior. We cannot say we trust in God for eternity if we cannot trust Him for the present.
Frequently individuals find themselves in circumstances which seem to require accepting the lifestyles of the world. This seems to be a greater temptation the older we get, particularly if we have not been able to set aside enough for retirement or if we have faced reversals or loss. However, these situations should be viewed as opportunities to trust the Lord all the more.
One of the best ways to prepare for old age is to learn to trust God in difficult circumstances when we are young. Through trials we learn that God fulfills His promises and this strengthens our faith. While the trials of old age may seem more acute, they are no different than we face everyday. If God can save us for eternity, surely He can save us from poverty in our old age.
Note that the names have been changed.