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A Passion for Missions
by Wendel Cover
 

Sir, Do You Know God?

My friend Willard Cantelon told me a story that came from his travels in India in the mid 1950's. It is one that I will never forget. At the time Willard was preaching to open-air gatherings in Calcutta. After one such gathering, Willard was approached by a sadhu, a Indian holy man, an ascetic who had spent his entire adult life in search of spiritual truth. The man bore the outward signs of his search to find God, emaciated, he was dressed in the traditional ochre-colored robes of the sadhu, his hair lay matted on his shoulders, in his arms he clutched an alms bowl and a dan-da (staff). He asked, "Speaker, tell me, do you know God?"

The crowds were pushing around where Willard was standing after the meeting, and he answered the man, rather quickly, as he later confided to me, "Yes, I know God."

At this reply, the holy man remained momentarily silent, pondering, perhaps, the confidence of the American speaker's response. Then, more to himself than to Willard, he began to give account of his life-long search for truth. "Early in my youth, I went to the mountains to meditate," he said, "to join the monks of the Ramakrishna Mission. I became a Saiva, a follower of the god Siva. Many days I wandered alone, desperately hoping to get off to a good start on my search for God. At times I would cry aloud to the towering peaks, 'Mountains, do you know God?' But the only answer I received was the echo of my voice reverberating in the lonely canyon below. The echo of my voice returned, sometimes as if to mock the sincerity of my cry, 'Do you know God? Do you know God?'

"On the twelfth year I traveled to the banks of the sacred Ganges for Kumbh Mela, and joined millions of fellow Hindus who had come to bathe in the sacred water. But even there, amidst the dancing and singing, the incense and flower offerings, peace eluded me. Later, I spent many days waiting in the solitude of the sacred shrines in Varanasi, Benares, and Hardiwar. But the images of the gods remained silent, and did not convey a message to me, nor bring me closer to the peace I so longed to find.

"Even here in the city of Kalikshetra (Calcutta), 'Ground of the goddess Kali,' (in Bengali) I have found no peace, begging in the streets, humbling myself to the point of death."

Then the sadhu asked Willard for a second time, as if his first answer had not been adequate, with an expression so deep and sorrowful that it filled his dark eyes and permeated the sound of his voice, "Sir, tell me please, do you truly know God?"

Moved by the man's words, Willard took more time to explain his understanding of the Christian message, of Jesus the Son of God who was sent to earth to reveal his Father, God, and to redeem men and women from a state of separation that seemed to be the plight of all humankind. He spoke of the promise of heaven to those who opened their hearts to Christ, and of the reality of hell for those who lived and died outside of this truth.

The man listened with fixed attention, as if hanging on every word. When Willard was finished speaking, the sadhu asked, "What is hell?"

Willard told him what was written in the Scriptures, how that God had promised to write in the Book of Life the names of those redeemed by the sacrifice of Christ, and of the warnings for those who did not accept the sacrifice made on the cross. When he had finished speaking the sadhu sighed. "Suppose I did not hear this story, would God condemned me to hell? I have spent my entire life seeking him, longing to please him to the extent that I have given up all else. Surely, He will consider this when my name is called!"

Then the crowds pressed close around them. A few more words were exchanged, and before Willard could conclude their discussion, the holy man withdrew into the nameless masses.

A few weeks later, Willard left India, but he could not leave behind him this conversation with the earnest sadhu. The man had been so sincere, and had sacrificed so much to find God! In the days that followed, Willard continued to turn the man's question over and over again in his mind. His preoccupation with the dominant question the man had raised grew stronger as the days turned to months. Unsure of the answer, he began to cancel meetings that had been scheduled in Germany, and even felt that he would not be able to continue his ministry. Coursing through his waking hours was an unsolvable question: How could a God of love condemn to hell the man or woman who had sought in vain, to find a path to God?

Willard knew very well that the churches of the world could accommodate less than one percent of the world's population. A frequent speaker at missions events, sponsored by a variety of denominations, he was familiar with the statistics. Now, however, the reality of these numbers had been matched with the face of one man whose search for God paled the depths and sincerity of the average church-goer. Was it fair that this man be bound for hell after trying so hard to know and please his Creator?

Time and time again, Willard would flip the pages of his worn Thompson Chain Reference Bible to the last book of the New Testament, there reading from Revelation's tenth chapter, "Whosoever was not found written in the Book of Life was cast into the lake of fire (hell)."

Willard describes his experience: "Is it fair?"
In the depths of this struggle that, spiritually, had become life and death, Willard prayed a unique prayer, one born from his own desperation. In this prayer he asked God to let him see himself in the final judgment as one, like the sincere sadhu, who had striven a lifetime to find God without ever hearing the Christian message. Almost immediately this prayer was answered. Some years later, Willard described it to me in the following words::

"In a vision that came in the form of a dream, so real that it overwhelmed me, God allowed me see the following: The dead, both insignificant and great, stood before the Judge of the Ages, each waiting until his or her name was called. When it was my turn, only one thing mattered, was my name in the Book of Life? The great Book was opened, and I waited as if my heart would explode, but my name was not there! I uttered the most agonizing cry, 'My name! My name! It is not there!' Facing the judge, I pled with tears, Might I not return to earth and try a little while longer? You know at what lengths I have sought you dear God, but no one came with the message of your Son. I prayed to the mountains and rivers that you created, and I lived the life of a holy man. But judge, no one came with the message of Jesus, no one came.'

"Then the voice of the judge uttered the words, 'Whosoever is not found written in the Book of Life shall be expelled to the lake of fire.' And so I turned and joined the legions of the lost, weeping as I went, 'Is it fair that some should hear the message so many times, and I never heard it once? Is it fair?'

"I wakened from my dream-vision," Willard told me, "crying aloud, 'No! No! It is not fair! It is not fair!'

Then began the most awesome struggle my friend Willard had ever known. In his heart he confronted all that he had been taught since childhood. How could a God of love condemn a man who had tried so hard to find the way, when no one came to tell him the message of salvation? Unable to find the answer to this question he would walk alone at night and look up to the heavens, praying with a trembling heart that God would have patience with him.

"I know you are a God of justice," he would pray, 'but I cannot understand the injustice of condemning the person who has never heard to eternal hell."

"To make matters worse," Willard told me, "in my vision of the judgment I had also seen a crowd of happy Christians entering the gates of heaven. They were singing, 'When we all get to heaven, what a day of rejoicing that will be.' Their song only rubbed salt in my wounded heart. They had heard the message so often and in my dream I was one who had never heard it, even once.

"During those weeks of isolation, I would complain to God, 'You gave me a mind with which to think and reason. Even Saint Paul writes that he 'served you with his intellect.' Fear had crept into my mind that I was falling into rebellion against God. I had been scheduled to preach at large outdoor meetings in Hamburg, but I couldn't pull myself together. Instead, I secluded myself in Switzerland with my wife Verna. Without love offerings, on which our livelihood depended, we survived on cheese from a CARE package picked up at an Army base. Our friends and associates were becoming gradually alarmed by our withdrawal from the ministry.

"One day I received a letter from Reverend Phil Hogan in Springfield, Missouri. He wrote, 'For many months we have been trying to locate you. We know you are not accepting new speaking engagements, and have canceled the ones that were scheduled, even the convention in Norway. Are you well? Is there any way we can help you?'

"Phil had always been a good friend and supportive of my often unorthodox approach to the ministry. His concern meant a great deal at that time and I wrote back, "Thank you Phil, for your friendship and for worrying about me and Verna, but I cannot go on in my ministry until I know the answer to this question - How a God of love can condemn to hell the man or woman who has never heard the message of salvation that we have heard so often and so freely?'

"Had Phil wondered about this? How was he able to function in the face of such a question? For many more weeks I walked beneath its shadow, feeling always the awful reality of being lost, as one separated from God."

The answer: An indictment of our complacency
When at last God granted Willard some reprieve, it was not, I will admit, an answer in full, more like the first rays of dawn creeping through the shutters of his troubled heart. Again, he experienced a vivid dream. Again, the dream was of the day of final judgment. And again, Willard witnessed groups of happy Christians entering the gates of heaven. They were singing and clapping their hands with joy. As in the first dream, he was one being turned away to eternal darkness. He could hear the laments of the condemned around him, and cried, as he had in the first dream, 'Unfair, that some should hear so often, and we never received the message once! Unfair!'

But there was something different in the second dream, something that if it had been present in the first dream, Willard had not noticed. None of the condemned were pointing accusing fingers at God, as he had done. After all, God had sent his only Son as a living sacrifice for humankind. (See: John's message of salvation.) Nor did they cry unfair to the Son's face. He had died on the cross for a lost world. Equally, no fingers were pointed at the early church, who had faithfully labored to fulfill the Great Commission of Christ (to take the message of salvation to the four corners of the world), many dying for their efforts in prisons and far from home.

"Instead," Willard told me, "the fury of accusation seemed to be directed at the happy throngs of Christians who had heard the message of salvation, but had kept it to themselves. The truth of the second birth had been liberally preached among them, and they had done nothing to take it to those who had never heard."

Willard awoke from this dream with the words of Saint Paul (written to the Christians in Rome in the first century; Romans 5:19) ringing in his ears, "By one man's disobedience many are made sinners, and by the obedience of one many shall be made righteous."

coming soon: part two of Pastor Cover's missions sermon

  
read comments by Lee Cantelon
   remembering his father's life commitment to missions

visit the Word of Life pages on The Words site

 

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