On God, the Devil, and the $50 Bet
I feel certain that no one has remembered me in their prayers for a long, long time. Until recently, that is.
I passed the half-century mark a couple of years ago, and at this point in my journey, let’s face it, there’s really no reason to appeal to God on my behalf. I’m fresh out of raw human potential, having squandered it years ago, and now all I have to show for it are aching knees, an irritable bowel, and the slippery downhill slope.
That’s why I was pleasantly surprised to log on to Medium recently and find that one of my favorite writers, Kel Campbell, had asked God to take care of me. It was a nice gesture, and I thank Kel sincerely for thinking of me. Or . . . well, OK . . . not me specifically, but me generally, as a member of a class or type, i.e., one of Kel’s followers, which I most certainly am, because Kel is one of the funniest writers I’ve ever read. That’s why I follow her. And because I follow her, I now stand a better chance of having God look out for me. I’m right there with her dogs and her husband, her sister, brother and friends, in the penultimate paragraph of her story, titled A Prayer:
Please take care of my husband, sister, brother, dogs, friends and Medium followers. (Emphasis added by me, one of Kel’s Medium followers)
I’m making a big deal out of this because it may be the first time I’ve ever been mentioned in the same paragraph as God. In the past, my relationship with God has been strained, at best. I’m frightened of Him, and with good reason, I think. He’s omnipotent and could smite me in two shakes of a lamb’s tail. Hell, He could smite me in one shake. Dammit, now I’m cursing in a story about God. He’s not going to like that.
My fear of God is the reason I’ve always tried to fly under the radar and escape His notice. The times when I have attracted God’s attention have turned out, if I’m being honest about it, pretty awful. He’s probably still a little angry with me for what happened when I was seven years old and my sister Misti was nine, the day she decided to answer the altar call at San Jacinto Baptist Church in Amarillo, Texas.
This was about forty-five years ago, at the end of the preacher’s sermon one Sunday in September. While the choir sings “How Great Thou Art” over and over in hushed tones, accompanied, very softly, by the organ, the ushers pass the collection plates from one pew to the next. Pastor McGargle works the aisles of the sanctuary with a microphone, tending the electric cord and the wayward sheep of his flock: “Won’t you come forward today and accept Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior? Unburden yourself, my friends, don’t wait. Let the blood of Christ wash your sins away. Let Jesus lift the burden from your weary shoulders. He knows you’re hurting.”
Half-crooning, half-whispering, Pastor McGargle modulates his voice expertly, pitching a tone of sadness tinged with hope. He’s sweating, rivulets flowing in the deep crags of his face, which I estimate from my vantage as being approximately 113 years of age. I note unhappily, as the hands on my watch tick past noon, that I’m missing the kickoff of the Dallas Cowboys’ home game against my most-hated team, the Green Bay Packers.
The timbre of the preacher’s voice drops an octave as he spots his prey and moves in to close the deal, training every ounce of his attention onto the tender flower wrestling with his or her demons, who surrenders with the barest nudge from McGargle and shuffles forward to be saved.
McGargle approaches, and I realize he’s fixed his crosshairs on my sister Misti, seated next to my mother and grandmother in the pew ahead of me. Misti turns to the preacher, tears welling in her eyes, her lower jaw quivering, takes his outstretched hand, and steps into the aisle. What the — ? I can’t believe this. Why would Misti risk the certain disaster of God’s attention? She seemed fine a few minutes before we left the house for church, when she punched me in side of the head and took the nickel my grandmother had given me for the offering plate. What was all this?
My mother turns to me and stage-whispers, “Sonny, go with her,” gesturing with her head for me to follow my sister. I’m sitting next to the aisle, and my mind blinds with panic when the preacher reaches for my hand. I snatch it away and cling to the wooden armrest as McGargle and my mother prod me to loosen my grip and urge me forward to unburden my soul. I don’t budge. I’ve never been baptized, and I sure as hell do not intend to be on this day. (Please forgive that curse word too, Lord.)
The thought of surrendering my will to God’s horrifies me. It is akin to the way I felt a few years later, watching the 1978 movie Invasion of the Body Snatchers, when I realized in the final scene that Donald Sutherland’s character had been snatched by the aliens and replaced by a clone. Even at the age of seven I refuse to surrender control of myself to someone or something else, and I resist with all my being.
My stubbornness will likely result in a thrashing from my mother when we leave church, but that prospect is less onerous than walking to the altar under the dumb gaze of the congregation and falling to my knees to ask Jesus to save my soul. At this moment, I can’t imagine anything worse.
The preacher gives up and moves forward in the aisle with Misti. My mother glares at me, but she gives up, too, and turns away to watch Misti’s salvation. With the danger past, the adrenaline that flooded my system leaves me deliciously sleepy, but I fight its downward pull. I’m afraid I’ll awaken, sputtering, with my head held beneath the healing waters of the baptismal font.
I was terrified, then as now, by the thought of sensing the direct presence of God, of having the barrier between us torn away so that I’m stripped bare before the Holy Spirit — a gross invasion of privacy coupled with crippling fear.
I’ve never submitted control of my ego to a higher power, the experience that others call being saved. I find it impossible to surrender to a force in the universe that terrifies me even though I’m not sure I really believe in it.
I remember feeling scared when I first heard the story of Job from the Old Testament Bible, at roughly the same time in my childhood. Having now read Job’s story a few times as an adult, I believe it was the ancients’ attempt to explain why bad things happen to good people. God’s answer — that mere mortals shouldn’t question Him because they can’t fathom the nature of suffering and of the universe — is not especially satisfying. But the older I get, the more I like the story, and even the moral of the story, because it seems honest in suggesting that some things are beyond our comprehension.
But when I was seven, the takeaway from the Book of Job was simple: Better stay out of God’s way and attract as little of His attention as possible. If this is how He treats Job, His most devout servant, imagine what He’ll do to the little sinner Sonny, who shoplifts and steals cartons of cigarettes from delivery trucks while walking home from elementary school.
For those of you who aren’t familiar with Job’s story, allow me to summarize it:
Job was the most devout and humble of God’s servants. One day God and the Devil were watching him from wherever they had gotten together — somewhere in the sky, I’m guessing.
The Devil said, “Sure, Job worships You like crazy now, but what if he didn’t have that nice house and beautiful family and all the material trappings of the good life? What if all that was taken away from him? I bet he wouldn’t be Your best boy then.”
God said, “Are you kidding Me? You can throw your worst at Job, and he’d still worship Me. You can’t shake that dude’s faith. He’s the real article.”
“Why don’t we find out?” the Devil said.
“Sure,” God said. “Do your worst. Job will still be My boy.”
That’s just what the Devil did. He killed all of Job’s sons and daughters. He cast Job out of his swanky house and left his skin covered in boils. All that money Job had earned to support his nice lifestyle was gone in an instant. Job was left to sit outside on a pile of ashes, covered in boils, alone and penniless. Then his old friends started coming by, saying, “Job, what the hell? What happened to you?”
Job said, “That’s what I want to know. Why God? What did I do? Haven’t I been Your most devoted servant? Haven’t I done everything You asked, and more? Why are You punishing me like this?”
Job’s so-called buddies had some ideas about what had happened. They told Job that he obviously wasn’t as good as everybody thought he was, and this proved it. He must have been sinning, otherwise God wouldn’t have done what He did. Job had been brought low because he had fallen short in God’s eyes, they said.
Undaunted, Job went about his rat-killing, doing his daily devotionals and prayers while trying to keep the sores that covered his body from becoming even more painfully infected. He continued worshiping God and giving thanks for all the blessings he’d known.
God and the Devil, watching from their secret perch, were impressed.
“What did I tell you?” God said. The Devil had to admit that Job was a righteous dude whose faith had been unshaken. “I guess You won the bet,” the Devil said, handing over fifty bucks.
“Damn right I did,” God said.
Just then He heard Job crying out, “Why God? Why me?” and it got His dander up a bit, so He pocketed the fifty bucks, looked at the Devil, and said, “Watch this.”
In a fury, God swept down to where Job sat on his pile of ashes and thundered, “Job, you dare to question Me? Where were you when I made the heavens and the mountains? When I made the light, and the water, and the earth, wind, and fire? Where were you when I wrote, through Lionel Richie, the Commodores’ disco smash Brick House?”
God was fired up: “Who do you think you are with these ignorant questions? Yours is not to understand My ways! You couldn’t begin to fathom what I know and the reasons for the way I conduct this universe. You are a lucky man, Job — today I’m going to give you your life back. Because you are a devout man who never lost faith in My greatness, even when you lost everything, I’m going to restore your beautiful children, your house, your riches, and everything you lost. But don’t even think about asking Me Why. You can’t handle the truth!”
With a terrible clap of thunder, God was gone, Job’s old life was back, and the boils had disappeared.
So, Kel, thank you for asking God to take care of me. But if it’s all the same to you, I think I’d rather just fly under the radar and not have Him think about me too much. Our God is an awesome God, sure, but He’s pretty vengeful, too, and His vanity makes Him kind of a sucker for a bet with the Devil.
Or at least that’s what the Bible says.