Philip Yancey, a popular evangelical author, was driving on a deserted road in New Mexico one Sunday morning when something went wrong.
His Ford Explorer hit a patch of black ice and fish-tailed. Yancey wrestled with the steering wheel, but his SUV tumbled over an embankment, shattering glass, plastic and metal - and much of Yancey’s thin body.
He was rushed to a hospital where he was strapped to a gurney for seven hours. A young doctor finally approached him with bad news: Yancey’s neck was broken and a bone fragment may have nicked a major artery.
“I must emphasize this is a life-threatening situation,” the doctor told Yancey. “Here’s a phone. You may want to contact your loved ones and tell them goodbye…”
Yancey lived to write another day. But the questions he asked himself as he made those phone calls three years ago hang over his latest book, “What Good is God?”
Yancey traveled to some of the grimmest locations in the world to ask people who had been broken in body and spirit the same question: Does belief in God really matter when life gets tough?
Their answers form the heart of his new book. The people Yancey profiled included former prostitutes trying to escape the sex trade in Thailand, leaders in the underground church in China, and members of Alcoholics Anonymous.
Yancey has sold an estimated 14 million books by asking tough questions. In books such as, “What’s So Amazing about Grace,” and “The Jesus I Never Knew,” he has appealed to people who have either been scarred by organized religion or are skeptical of it.
Yancey, who tells the story of his accident in his new book, recently talked to CNN. His comments were edited for brevity.
CNN: In your book, you say your near-death experience forced you to think of three questions: Who will I miss, how have I spent my life, and am I ready for what happens next? Are those questions still guiding your approach to life?
Yancey: I would like to report that I have since reordered my life around those three questions, but let’s be honest, many days it’s all I can do to answer email and check items off my to-do list. The ultimate questions get pushed aside.
I have made a deliberate effort, though, to spend time reflecting on those issues. I begin each day with a time of prayer and meditation, and ask myself how the tasks that await me that day stack up against those three questions.
Also, I have an enduring sense of gratitude—for life, for beauty, for simple things I used to take for granted. Two years after my accident my brother had a stroke, and I’m reminded constantly of what he can no longer do: walk without a cane, use his right hand on a computer keypad. I faced the possibility of permanent paralysis from my broken neck; how different my life would be.
CNN: You reported that one Thai prostitute said, “It’s not easy to be healed.” Why did her comment stay with you enough to write about it?
Yancey: I grew up in a Southern Gospel environment rife with testimonies of drunks, addicts, and atheists miraculously transformed by going forward at a tent revival meeting.
Yes, that does sometimes happen. Over time, though, I’ve learned that not everyone who needs healing—from addiction to sex or drugs, for instance—finds the strength and courage to seek it. And not everyone who claims healing sticks with it.
The comment by the Thai prostitute reminded me that the moral life, even for a person deeply connected to God, involves constant and ongoing struggle. Especially when you’ve lived a life of degradation like hers, how do you keep the past from invading the present?
CNN: How is the practice of Christianity different in China than in the U.S.?
Yancey: At my church, when something bad happens, people immediately ask God to fix it: get me a job, heal my aunt, whatever. I pray those same prayers, and I see nothing wrong with them. In China, though, I heard different prayers, not “God, take away this burden,” but “God, give me the strength to bear this burden.”
In a country like ours, which has freedom of religion, we can easily take it for granted, either by ignoring it or by going to church as a social habit.
In China, where you can be arrested and imprisoned for your faith, getting together with other Christians is a lifeline and you’ll risk anything for the privilege. No one attends church in China casually, or for a social advantage—quite the opposite.
I once heard someone from a former Soviet country say that Christians there are praying for the return of oppression because under Communist days the church was pure and refined.
CNN: What can churches learn from AA?
Yancey: Two lessons stand out sharply to me: radical honesty and radical dependence.
Alcoholics Anonymous members can spot a fraud, hypocrite, or liar the minute he or she walks in the door. They know the only path to healing begins with a frank self-assessment of failure.
When we go to church we like to look good and gain the respect of others. A married couple may fight all the way to church, but when they pull into the parking lot they’re all smiles, “We’re just fine, Mrs. Jones, how about you?” You’d never get away with that at AA.
AA also forces each person to admit their dependence on God (or at least a Higher Power) and on each other. Most AA members freely admit they could never make it on their own. People of faith believe that, too, yet how many of us practice it as passionately as those in a twelve-step group?