The 9-1-1 emergency phone system we have in America it a tremendous service. Dial it for medical emergencies, during a home break-in, when witnessing a crime, when coming upon an automobile accident, seeing a house on fire, reporting a lost child, or any emergency that might require police, rescue, or fire department assistance. A few other nations have a similar services. My life was once saved after 9-1-1 help arrived. It shouldn’t surprise us that God has been answering 9-1-1 type calls for thousands of years.
My heart was racing as I struggled to breathe. Panic was setting in. I awakened JoAn and mumbled, “I’m in trouble.” She immediately suggested calling the emergency 9-1-1 service. I said let’s wait a few minutes and see if I get better. It was 3 AM and the thought of fire engines and aid cars rushing into our quite little neighborhood seemed an embarrassing commotion. Maybe my distress would lessen.
It got worse. My heart raced wildly and I was fighting for every shallow little breath of air. JoAn said, “I’m calling 9-1-1.” I said, “okay.”
The preceding weeks had been some of the toughest of my life. Six weeks earlier I’d had open-heart quadruple by-pass surgery and was not fully recovered. My chest wound and leg wounds (where the surgeons stripped a vein to use in the by-passes) were still tender. One week earlier I had just finished hosting our first One God Seminar looking into the doctrine of God issues. We had speakers from around the nation attending the 3-day affair including one speaker from England and his wife who stayed in our home. The last of our house several guests had been gone just three days.
Those three days were the very worst of times. Family problems, caused by some very nasty bureaucrats, resulted in three of our grandchildren staying with us for a few days. They all had colds or the flu. As soon as they moved in JoAn was in an auto accident that totaled our car but caused no serious injury. But we discovered that during the turmoil of the past few months we’d neglected to renew the insurance on the car, so all was lost.
A combination of all the stress, being still weak from heart surgery, and then catching whatever the grandkids had, put me into a serious health crisis.
I struggled down the stairs just in time to open the door for the first fire engine company to arrive. JoAn was a few steps behind me. Immediately the EMTs had me sit down, told me to try to relax as they began asking questions and unpacking their gear. Then the second engine company arrived with more rescue personnel. I hadn’t been in the living room chair but a minute when it happened.
Needless to say, I’d never “died” before and didn’t know quite what to expect. But when I felt the blood beginning to drain from my brain I was able to get out two short phrases to alert the team of men surrounding me: “I’m going. I’m going.”
It felt like a black curtain was being quickly pulled down in my head. That was it. My heart had stopped. I had flat-lined.
The next thing I remember was opening my eyes on the floor looking up at our living room ceiling—a vantage I’d never seen before. Atop me was one of those burley firemen pounding his fist on my chest. My immediate thought was please don’t break open my breast bone, still being held together with staples from the surgery. Well, that was the least of my worries.
I was back alive! The men helped me sit up. I vomited. They loaded me on a wheeled gurney and rushed me to the hospital. During my week there I was treated for pneumonia, examined, and recommended for a pacemaker and defibrillator implant, which I now have.
God was merciful and spared my life. If JoAn hadn’t called 9-1-1 when she did I wouldn’t be writing this article. The most upsetting part to me was that my dear wife had to watch all this. Later she told me what happened after my heart stopped—as well as the private thoughts of her heart as events unfolded.
She said as soon as I fell out of my chair the room full of firefighters and EMTs sprang into frenetic action, throwing tables aside, clearing room, and feverously unpacking gear as one of them immediately began pounding on my chest.
JoAn said it was a surreal moment. She said to herself, sadly, “So this is how it ends.” Her next thought was, “Was I nice to him since I woke up?” Thanks to God’s great kindness she was able to share those thoughts with me and I was able to thank her. Yes, she had been truly nice…and has always been nice to me. In those bleak and dark 3 AM moments JoAn and I were sending our desperate cries to God for help. He heard and answered.
God Answers the 9-1-1 Line
I don’t know if one can quite be the same after such a brush with death. When I think of it I’m amazed anew over God’s closeness and willing readiness to hear and answer our cries for help.
Our God is a God near not far away. “…Yahweh our God is near us whenever we pray to him….Seek the Lord your God, you will find him if you look for him with all your heart, and with all your soul” (Deut 4:7, 29).
When we think of God up in the heavens we need not think of him as residing one billion light years removed from our galaxy. Why not think of him as near? The whole notion of heaven being far away is not necessarily a biblical one. Heaven or God’s abode could just as easily be surrounding earth as God’s kingdom is invisible to us. Of course, God is not restricted to the speed of light so it matters not “where” God is at any moment. What matters is that his attention is directed toward you and your requests. I think it is helpful to think of him as “physically” at hand, imminently near rather than being in some far corner of the cosmos.
This seems to be the way he wants his people to relate to him. To pray is to bring God into our personal world. Righteous believers who were close to God and experienced answered prayers confidently advise us to “make our requests known to God” (Phil 4:6; 1 Jn 5:14-15).
When you are in trouble and your “enemies” are all too close and getting closer (whether the “enemies” be financial, health, or people troubles), God is closer. As the Psalmist puts it:
Those who devise wicked schemes are near, but they are far from your law.
Yet you are near, O Lord, and all your commands are true. (Psalm 119:151)
The Lord is near to all who call on him,
to all who call on him in truth.
He fulfills the desires of those who fear him;
He hears their cry and saves them. (Psalm 145:18-19)
Many Christians, I fear, do not pray as passionately as they could because they don’t think God is near and listening. Or they don’t see how their prayers could make any significant difference. They pray, but they often do so out of sheer obedience and without any sense of urgency and without much confidence that God hears or will actually answer. 9-1-1 type prayers, however, require a sense of urgency and expectation.
Perhaps our prayers lack urgency because in our hearts we doubt we can influence God. Much of Christianity teaches that God’s sovereignty means exhaustive control of all events. We’re told that all events are predestined by God and the future is settled. If that is so, what real difference could prayer possibly make? Some theologians like to answer, “prayer changes us, not God” but this saying contradicts the scriptural record and doesn’t reflect the urgency that Scripture gives to petitionary prayer. Are we praying to ourselves as some psychological exercise, or are we are praying to get God to respond?
The way God has chosen to create his world allows for his creatures to have freedom. He has willingly restrained his power to not control all human events. He has chosen to have free relationships with those made in his image.
Men and women have key roles in deciding things and God says all will be judged by what we do. All that humans do is not controlled or predictable. God has allowed the future to be partly open and partly settled. The settled part is what God ultimately plans to achieve. The future is not totally settled and prayer affects what happens in our lives, what God does, and at times even causes him to change his mind and accede to the one praying. Prayer changes things because God changes things.
Jesus told the parable of the unjust judge who was persistently bothered by a widow until he finally granted her justice. Jesus’ point was that we “need to pray and not lose heart.” If an unjust judge will relent and hear a widow’s persistent plea, how much more will our loving Father be affected by our persistent pleas? Jesus asks, “Will not God bring about justice for his chosen ones, who cry out to him day and night?” (Luke 18:1-6).
Prayer has many forms including praise, confession, intercession, worship, and meditation. Our focus is another form of prayer—the 9-1-1 emergency prayer for help, petitionary prayer. We expect God to do something because we request it (this type of petitionary prayer is called “impetratory” prayer because of its bold and urgent expectation of God’s answer).
Some 9-1-1 Prayers
The Bible is full of examples of prayer to God changing things, even God’s mind. Consider just a few of them. How about God’s answer to Jacob’s emergency prayer for God’s blessing upon the impending meeting with his violent and revengeful brother Esau? And this fire alarm call: Yahweh was in the process of judging Israel by fire for its blatant complaining, but Moses intervened and prayed for God to stop. God did, “and the fire abated.”
It seems Moses offered a lot of 9-1-1 prayers like the time Israel’s bickering became too much and God said: “I will strike them with pestilence and disinherit them.” Moses asks God to please forgive the people and God does, “just as you have asked.” After the terrible rebellion of Korah the people were being justly punished by plague and began dying. Moses immediately prayed and directed Aaron to quickly make atonement for their sins, “and the plague was stopped.”
Did God answer the 9-1-1 prayers of the young Hebrew men thrown into the furnace? How about Daniel’s emergency need to have God shut the mouths of a den of lions? Did God answer Sampson’s dying request? “O Sovereign Lord, remember me O God, please strengthen me just one more….”
We could recount the desperate prayers of Elijah and Elisha and the prophets. The synagogue ruler Jairus who cried to Jesus, “My little daughter is dying, please come.” Or when Peter was thrown in prison where the 9-1-1 prayers of others help determine his fate: “but the church was earnestly praying to God for him” and with quick results as Peter exclaimed, “the Lord sent his angel and rescued me from Herod’s clutches….”
There are many things God would not otherwise do but will do because we ask him. How else can we understand James’ assertion that “you have not because you ask not” (4:2)? James further states that the prayers of righteous people make a difference (5:16). God may be prevailed upon. He makes himself open to us. Biblical characters prayed boldly because they believed their prayers could change things—even God’s mind. They understood that they were working with God to determine the future.
We don’t always get what we specifically want but we can receive what God wants for us. There is no better example than the impassioned prayers of Jesus on Passover eve. Three times Jesus prays the same prayer: “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup [of suffering and death] pass from me; yet not what I want but what you want” (Matt 26:39, 44). It was not a simple petition: “Give me strength to drink this cup.” Rather, he prayed to “remove this cup from me.” Jesus loved life and didn’t want to die. He was not suicidal. Yet he understood there were purposes of God greater than even his life.
God wants to hear our needs and wants, but always, even in panic matters of life and death, we must temper our requests with “thy will be done.” The Hebrew boys about to be thrown into the furnace expressed the same resolve to faithfully yield to God’s will: “Even if God doesn’t save us out of the fire we will not, O king, serve your false gods of gold but serve only the One True God.”
Nowhere Else to Turn
There are many moments in life when we come face to wall with the reality we have nowhere to turn but God. In truth, we should acknowledge that reality more than just when we are in distress. But when you have run out of options, feeling hopeless and discouraged, know that God is waiting for your 9-1-1 call. Like his Son Jesus, God is gentle, kind, merciful, just, and quick and powerful to act. He loves his children.
I took a lot of space in the beginning of this article describing my experience with God’s saving hand. Indulge me with one more biblical example that I’ve come to identify with ever so closely. It is the case of king Hezekiah who was very sick to the point of death. God sent Isaiah to give him the bad news that “you are going to die; you will not recover.” Then Hezekiah turned his face to the wall and burst into tears as he expressed his total devotion to God and wept bitterly for God’s help and mercy.
Isaiah was already halfway out of the palace when God stopped him and said “Go back and tell Hezekiah…I have heard your prayer and seen your tears; I will heal you.” In addition God said to Hezekiah “I will add fifteen years to your life” (2 Kings 20) Astounding. God changed his prophecy at the prayer of Hezekiah, a mere man.
God is just as open to our prayers now as he was in king Hezekiah’s day. In my case, I don’t know if God will give me fifteen more years (he’s already given me almost seven), but I praise him for his mercy and kindness.
This poor man called, and the Lord heard him;
he saved him out of all his troubles (Psalm 34:6)
 Genesis 32
 Numbers 11:1-2
 Numbers 14:12-20
 Numbers 16:41-48
 Daniel 3:16-17
 Daniel 6:21-23
 Judges 16:28
 Mark 5:22-43
 Acts 12:1-12
 See John Sanders’ fine book, The God Who Risks—A Theology of Providence, IVP, 1998, pp. 271-3.
 Matt 11:28-29; Jer 9:24