Lessons from the Edge

Former Adventist Review editor William G. Johnsson reflects on the year he looked death in the eye

William G. Johnsson
Lessons from the Edge

The year of 2014 was the worst of my life. It was the year the wheels came off; it became my annus horribilis—the horrible year. When at last it was over and I began to feel better, I put it out of my mind. I let it go, didn’t want to talk about it. Then, about a year ago, the Lord struck me between the eyes. As I sat with my wife, Noelene, in our favorite restaurant, He said to me, “You ought to be glad for your annus horribilis. Just think what you learned from it.” Glad—glad for that horrible year? Yes, yes, yes! Here’s why.

I’ve had a long, full, and healthy life. I’ve hardly missed a day of work in more than 50 years. I’ve run marathons and even climbed Mount Kilimanjaro. My heart numbers have always been great––resting heart rate at 42, blood pressure at 120/60, normal cholesterol and weight. I bragged, “Whatever else happens to me, I’ll never die from a heart attack. My heart is as strong as an ox.” Famous last words!

In March 2014, we were visiting family and friends in Australia. I had preached at the little church my father helped build and toward the close of the sermon, I began to feel ill. I struggled to finish. Greeting the members as they departed, I just wanted to lie down on one of the pews.

A pain on my left side became insistent, creeping to the top of my arm and down to the wrist. I told friends, “I need to see a doctor.” I was quite sure it was something that could easily be remedied with an antacid tablet.

Before long I was in an ambulance careening down the city streets, sirens blaring, lights flashing. Still in my church suit, I went straight into surgery. I struggled to comprehend what was happening. My “strong as an ox” heart had deceived me. It was sick, diseased with multiple blockages.

Doctors inserted a stent and confined me to the hospital bed for six days. They advised immediate bypass surgery, but Noelene and I wanted to get back home to Loma Linda, California for that. After a couple weeks, they cleared us to fly to the United States.

At the Loma Linda University Medical Center, cardiologists confirmed the diagnosis. A skilled heart surgeon inserted four grafts. The surgery went well; I was home again in three days, beginning to walk again. I was coming back.

Then the wheels came off. Nauseated day and night. No appetite. Struggling to keep down even a glass of water. I lost 40 pounds. I struggled to get out of bed, to stagger a few steps to the easy chair in my office. For the first time in my life, I could not pray. Not that I was angry with God, but I just couldn’t focus, couldn’t summon the will to pray. I felt like the Psalmist who made his bed in hell (Ps. 139:8).

But even then, something wonderful, something hard to describe, happened. Although I couldn’t pray, I felt enveloped in arms of love. I felt that Jesus was praying what I could not.

The doctors put me back into the hospital, the third time that horrific year. IV’s pumped in multiple chemicals to restore the electrolytic balance. Within two days I began to feel stronger, was able to drink a mug of hot broth—and actually enjoyed it. The tide had turned.

The road back was slow, but by the end of the horrible year I was clearly coming back. So what did I learn from my annus horribilis?

First, that as Jeremiah said, “the heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked” (Jer. 17:9). Physically, my heart deceived me. The trauma of the heart attack affected me as much in my head as it had in my body. It affected me spiritually. My deceitful heart always wants to appear better than I really am. What I condemn in others, my heart excuses in me.

Second, though I make my bed in hell, Jesus is there. Yes, even in hell. There is no place we can go, no depth to which we may fall. Jesus is there.

Third, I can see clearly now. Things that used to make me mad don’t count for anything. Every day is a gift; life is too precious and wonderful to fret and fume over matters that will seem trivial in the light of eternity. I would like others to applaud what I write or preach, but the only One whom I want to please is my Lord. It’s His “Well done!” that I crave.

Fourth, I’m not afraid to die. I have been to the edge, looked over into the abyss, and Jesus is there. So, it really isn’t so bad—not when you know that Jesus is with you.

And finally, and most important, Jesus is enough. Jesus is all that matters, now and eternally. Years ago, Adventist author and pioneer Ellen G. White wrote the following in a letter to a fellow church member: “You will come up from the grave without anything, but if you have Jesus you will have everything. He is all that you will require to stand the test of the day of God, and is not this enough for you?”

It’s enough for me.

Jesus, my Savior, Lord and Friend, is my Enough.

Story posted courtesy of Southwestern Union Conference Record.

William G. Johnsson