I often tell the story during my Introduction to Theology class of an experience that I had that deeply implicated me and has affected the way that I “listen” to God’s movements in my life. It concerns an event that happened in 2003 with my sister Angie. It has to do with how experience can seem to say one thing, but be very misleading.
When my sister was sick with depression, the entire family was perpetually in fear of what she might do to herself. Her depression overcame her literally overnight. She was fine on a Thursday, never having experienced depression and anxiety before, then Friday morning she was a different person. She said to me on Friday, “Michael, I don’t know what has happened. Something is the matter with my brain. I think that I have gone insane. I can’t think right and I don’t think it will ever change.” After a few hours, her conversation continued, “This is just the way I am now and I am so scared that Drew [her two year old son] will live the rest of his life with his mother in an insane asylum. I don’t think I can live with that.” I did not take her too seriously. “Angie,” I said, “it will be over tomorrow. Don’t be ridiculous.” When it was not over the next day, we tried to continue to encourage her. On Monday of the next week, her “episode” had not ceased. My mother called me from Oklahoma and told me that she had been unable to get a hold of Angie all day and was scared that she might have “done something to herself.” Since Angie lived only fifteen minutes from me in Texas, I was the man to go look for her. I drove over to her house and, to make a long story short, found her overdosed on pills in her room. She survived, but the depression survived as well.
Over the next year and a half, I had many calls from my mother to try and find Angie. We often lost contact with her during the day and we would panic thinking she was going to take another attempt at her life. All and all, I had to go over to her house seventeen times to see if she was alive. In great dread, I would always imagine how I might find her dead.
The last time started out as the others. I received a call from my mother who said that she was really worried about Angie. She was doing particularly bad that day and my mom wanted me to check on her once again. I was heading home for lunch from the church and made a u-turn to head to her house. Once I got there, I broke down the door (once again) and was relieved that I did not find her. I called my mother and told her that she was not there and not to worry. My mom said that she wanted me to stay there because she knew that Angie was planning something. I told my mother that if she was planning something, it would have to be with a gun. “Why?” my mother asked. “Because,” I responded, “she knows that I kick down the door within one hour of us losing touch with her. She knows that pills will not work that fast. If she is coming home, then she is coming home with a gun.” I granted my mother’s wishes even though I was skeptical that Angie was going to come home. (I thought that she was just at work.) But I was about to change my mind. For some reason I went outside to the side of her house. I don’t remember why. But while there, Angie drove by slowly in her car. As she approached, she made eye contact with me and jumped on the gas and took off. This was bad. I ran to my car and tried to chase her down. But it was too late. There was no way to find her.
I went back to her house and thought through the situation. I was convinced now that she did have a gun and that she was coming home to use it. It is the only way to explain why she took off the moment she saw me. I did not know what to do. Sadly, I proceeded to call my mother intending to tell her that it is just a matter of time before the police call to inform us of Angie’s death. They are going to call and say that they found her in a park or on the side of the road somewhere dead. I did not want to make that call. I put the phone down and decided to drive home first and think about it. Who wants to make such a phone call to your mom?
I was very worried about Angie, but I did not know what to do. I was seen by my family as the savior. I had come to the rescue the first time and I had been on stake out ever since. I did not want to call and admit the final defeat. I thought about praying that I could just drive around in my car and find her, but before the prayer was articulated it faded. It was too big of a miracle to hope for. How could I find her in the Dallas area? Where would I look? So I got into my car and began to head home. The phone was still in my hand ready to make the call to my mom, but for some reason, I decided to look for her. It was silly I know. I did not even know which way to turn out of the neighborhood. Once I got out of the neighborhood, which way would I turn at the light. Once I turn this or that way, which way do I turn at the next intersection? And so on and so on. I thought to myself, which way would I go to kill myself? The only thought that I had was that I would not go away from Oklahoma, our home, but toward it. So I drove to the highway and continued driving. After a while, I thought, “This is worthless. What am I doing. There is no way I am going to find her.” But just then, I looked on the right and there was a hotel. I turned in and drove toward the back looking at the cars in the parking lot. Then I saw it. Her black Mercedes with her physical therapy folders in the rear window. My panic was so great I did not have time to ponder the wonderment of the events that had just transpired.
Again, to make a long story short, I stopped her before she could shoot herself with the gun that she has just purchased two hours before.
Interpreting God at that point seemed to be very easy. That was a miracle. In my mind, there was no way that I could have found Angie without God’s direct hand of intervening guidance. Interpretation: God is not going to let Angie die! That is the way we took it as Angie’s depression continued in the months that followed. This was the comforting subject of discussion between myself, my mother, and my two other sisters as we would talk about the situation. I would tell Angie, “Quit talking about suicide. You should know by know that God is not going to let you die.” Although I could not find a verse in Scripture that said Angie was not going to die, my experience screamed such a testimony.
The problem is, the experience was misleading to all of us. While I believe that the only reason I found Angie that day was the intervening hand of God, I also believe that I interpreted it wrong. Three months later on January 4 of 2004, while I was out looking for my sister on a different highway, I received a phone call that I will never forget. Angie was at a hotel room in Denton Texas, dead — shot to the head by her own hand. God did not use me to save the day. I was not the hero I thought I was. The day was tragically lost. I had to make the phone call to my mother that will live with me as a nightmare until I die.
We had to interpret the experience of three months before anew, in light of the change of events. Did we misinterpret God? Yes. Experience can be a beautiful thing that clearly communicates messages about particulars in our life that cannot be found in Scripture. Indeed, experience is something we cannot live without. But it can also be very misleading, giving us a message in which we set our hope, not realizing that we have misunderstood God’s voice through it. As was the case with me and my family, we took the miraculous events that transpired as a particular message that God was not going to let Angie die. This turned out to be false. God did not speak such a message through those events, even though it was easy to interpret it as such. We must be very careful when interpreting experience.
C. Michael Patton is the primary contributor to the Parchment and Pen/Credo House Blog. He has been in ministry for nearly twenty years as a pastor, author, speaker, and blogger.
Th.M. Dallas Theological Seminary (2001), president of Credo House Ministries and Credo Courses, author of Now that I’m a Christian (Crossway, 2014) Increase My Faith (Credo House, 2011), and The Theology Program (Reclaiming the Mind Ministries, 2001-2006), host of Theology Unplugged, and primary blogger here at Parchment and Pen. But, most importantly, husband to a beautiful wife and father to four awesome children. Michael is available for speaking engagements. He can be contacted at [email protected]