Editor’s note: Hugh Whelchel was recently featured in an interview with Praxis Circle. Below are a few highlights of that conversation, which you can watch in full here.
I have had some problems with my breathing the last year and a half. I’ve gone to doctor after doctor after doctor trying to figure out what it was, and really to no avail. And then finally I got a little bit more clarity. I went to a neurologist, they brought me in, and said the diagnosis is that I’ve got ALS, Lou Gehrig’s disease. Not what I wanted to hear. That was in March, so it’s been almost 6 months ago [at the time of recording].
And the interesting thing about ALS is that most people, by the time they’re diagnosed, live between one to three years, something like that in that range. Some live six months, some live ten years, there’s no real rhyme or reason to it. And they can’t look at you and tell you which group you’re going to be in. So, what do you do when something like that happens?
I’ll be honest with you, I never really thought too much about that. I never thought anything like this would happen to me. I really had to think through a number of different things. I almost believe at one point that maybe I was in denial because you think you’re going to have some great road to Damascus moment… I haven’t had any of that. None of the beliefs I had before this happened have changed, which I think is a good thing.
I’ve had some situations that have made me wonder about different things. For example, I’ve had people say, “Well, you know, maybe it’s your time to go.” And maybe it is. Who are you to say that you want to stay on a few more years? And I prayed about that.
I Should Have Died
And then one day I had a fall down those stairs. We came in, I was at the top of the stairs, and my knee buckled. I fell backward down that whole flight of stairs. It should have killed me. My wife was at the base of the stairs and saw it happen, and she said it should have killed me. But I didn’t break a bone. How does that happen? It doesn’t. I tell people that if God wanted me to go, he could have taken me right then; he had ample opportunity, but he didn’t.
What that’s shown me is A: to not walk up the stairs anymore, but B: that I do have more stuff to do. And I can’t be persuaded when people come along and say, “Your work is just not that important.” The reality of what I’ve said for the last nine years is true: what you do is very important to God. And I believe there are some things I’m doing now that he wants me to finish, and I’m praying that he will give me the time to do that.
You know, that might sound cold. Should I be praying for time with my family? Yeah, maybe. But that’s not what I believe God is calling me to do, and my family understands that. Am I ready to go see Jesus? I’m ready to go see Jesus. Compared to what could happen to me in the next three or four years, I’d much rather go to see him, I’d much rather have died on the stairs, but that’s not what he’s got for me.
What Am I Doing With My Life?
The question I have to ask myself all the time is: What do you know that you’re supposed to be doing? And are you doing it? I have to do that everyday. Because one of the things this has taught me is that you have to live day-by-day. You can’t get way ahead of yourself. You can’t go with the tips of your skis, as they say. Because what will happen, particularly with my situation, I’ll go down a rabbit hole in a hurry and maybe not come back. It’s been really good for me.
And of course now I’m wondering why I didn’t live like this before. Because I’ll be honest with you, all of us are under the death penalty. We’re all going to die. But it is something different when you hear that coming from a doctor. But God is good. He’s been more gracious to me than I could possibly imagine.
One other story. I’m in the doctor’s office. The doctor tells me this, and my wife is with me, and I’m a little stunned to be honest because I didn’t expect this. So he says, “Go back to the waiting room. We need to draw some blood, so the nurse will come get you in a few minutes.”
So we go to the waiting room, and I see a couple that I know from a law firm here in town, a big Christian law firm that I’ve done some work with, and I’ve actually done a day-long, off-site retreat for them.
They said, “What are you doing here?” I said, “Funny you should ask. I just got diagnosed with ALS.” And they ministered to me in a way that you cannot possibly imagine, talking about how influential I have been to their firm and to them personally. Then they said, “Can we pray for you?” I said, “Sure.” So they’re laying hands on me, praying for me in the waiting room minutes after I’ve been diagnosed with this. That just doesn’t happen!
God has orchestrated many things like that. I wrote a blog about this and I’m still getting letters from people that I don’t even know that were so touched by what we’ve done and what’s gone on.
It’s been very humbling to me, very inspiring in some ways. One of my best friends told me, “You’re not gonna keep working. People just don’t do that.” I said, “Why not? That’s what I’m here to do.” I mean, he (God) is not going to give me fifteen more years to lay around on a beach—I don’t want to do that anyway. It has been very, very interesting, and will continue to be, I’m sure.
Our Prayer and Hope
One of the things that we tell people, and I pray for us, is the great story about Hezekiah. King Hezekiah gets ill and Isaiah the prophet comes and tells him, “You’re going to die.” The King repents. Literally, before the prophet can get out of the palace, he has to turn around and go back and tell him that God is going to give him fifteen more years. So that’s what we’re asking of God, to give us fifteen more years to finish some of these projects. Will he? We’ll see.
The other passage that keeps coming back to me is what Meshach, Shadrach, and Abednego tell King Nebuchadnezzar in front of the fiery furnace. They say, God can deliver us from the fiery furnace.” God can deliver me from Lou Gehrig’s disease. Then they go on to say, “He will deliver us from the fiery furnace. But he may or may not. But he will deliver us from your [the King’s] hand.” I realize that God will deliver me from ALS, whether in this life or the next, I know that beyond a shadow of a doubt. Can he deliver me in this life? Yes he can. That’s what we’re praying for. And I will believe that until he tells me otherwise.
That’s my story and I’m sticking with it.
(Watch this part of the interview here.)