Amidst the celebration and fireworks of Independence Day, 1986, Frank Cox leaned across the hospital bed of his 27-year-old wife, whose unsteady breathing signaled the approaching end of her mortal life. Gripping the one good hand left on a body ravaged by cancer, Cox whispered into Debbie's ear a thank you for being his wife and the mother of their 4-year-old son, Stephen. Within moments she was gone, and Cox, 30, was a widower.
"What do you do when you lose something that is precious to your life?" thought Cox, and it was a thought he would wrestle with for a long time as he sat and cried at the grave of his wife, telling God it hurt so bad that his life was spinning round and round. At one point, Cox demanded that God give him his wife back. "I want her back," he said. "With a full head of hair, and I don't want there to be a bum arm or a splint on her leg. I didn't bargain for this; I just want her back."
But Cox sensed God saying, "If I opened up Heaven and said, 'Okay, Debbie, you can go back,' she wouldn't want to come, Frank. She's enjoying everything I ever prepared for her. Now get up and get on with your life."
And sitting there, Cox remembered a quote from another whose wife was deathly ill during his ministry, "God is too good to be unkind, He is too wise to be mistaken, and when you can't trace His hand, that's when you must learn to trust His heart."
Cox, pastor of North Metro First Baptist Church in Lawrenceville, Ga., began to learn that God's sovereignty meant He could do whatever He pleases while always being pleased with whatever He does. "I thought about the last time I lifted Debbie out of bed and carried her to the car to drive her to the hospital for a CAT scan," said Cox. "That was the day we found out the tumor's growth had hopelessly expanded." Yet, God impressed upon Cox that omnipotence and omnipresence are more than just theological terms. He sensed God saying, "Frank, I was there before you put Debbie in that car. I was there before you placed her on the CAT scan table. I knew the length of Debbie's days before the world was formed, and before you ever met her."
It was an ironic lesson to learn because just two years before, on Easter Sunday, 1984, Cox had preached a Sunday night sermon on trusting God in the midst of suffering. "I preached that God would never put anything on you that He wouldn't give you the strength and the means to overcome," remembered Cox. "I didn't know that the next day I'd be sitting in a neurologist's office being told that my wife had a malignant brain tumor. Suddenly, this wasn't somebody else's wife or somebody else's life."
As Debbie and Frank struggled through the next two years of her illness, they began to see that nothing else mattered except a relationship with God in Jesus Christ. One day, as Cox was heading to a church service, Debbie, in tears, said that she wasn't really sure she was saved. "Now you have to understand, I had known Debbie since she was 15 years old. I had seen her active in church; I had watched her roll up her sleeves and serve people in the name of the Lord; I had discussed the things of God with her, and now she was having her doubts," said Cox, adding that there's precedence for such doubts in the Bible. "John the Baptist, just before he was beheaded, sent a message to Jesus, asking, 'Are you really the one?'" Cox led his wife through the Scriptures, showing her how to have the assurance of eternal life, and then she prayed, "God, if I was not sincere as a child, I want you to know that I am sincere today."
Later, Cox came into the room and found his wife glowing. "God has assured me that I am a child of His," she said. About a month later, during a revival at their church, Frank looked up to see Debbie struggling to get down the aisle. She was leaning on a cane, one leg and one arm in a splint, and once at the front, she told her husband, "God has convicted me that I am to be baptized as a witness to these people." Cox told the congregation what had happened a few weeks before and why Debbie was coming forward now, and thirty people came forward to receive Christ. The next night over twenty more came, and on Sunday, when Debbie was baptized, fifteen more came to know Jesus.
In February 1986, while Debbie was recuperating from her second brain surgery, she said, "God has impressed upon me that I'm not going to make it this year." Frank refused to accept that and told her, "Deb, we're going to beat this thing. We're going to go on together. One day we'll be sitting on a front porch together looking back on the ministry God gave us."
"No, I won't make it, but I want you to know — that's okay," Debbie said. "I've been praying about the woman who will come into your life, to take care of you and Stephen."
Debbie did get worse, eventually spending the last two weeks of her life in the hospital. "Each day I would watch the doctor test Debbie's eyesight by having her follow a small light, and each day I would see her eyes move less and less as the tumor expanded toward the base of her skull," said Cox. Barely able to see, Debbie asked Frank to read Psalm 62: "My soul waits in silence for Him only, from Him is my salvation. He only is my Rock and my Salvation, my stronghold. I shall not be shaken."
Frank's father, a preacher, and Debbie's father, a deacon, were in the room. "One of us would read a few verses and cry, then read a few more verses and cry some more," said Cox. "But the whole time Debbie had a smile on her face. She was at peace with her God."
Just before Debbie slipped into a coma, she took a Bible with her one good hand and ran her finger down a page until it stopped at Romans 8:18. Frank read it and cried some more: "For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed to us."
Frank Cox is pastor of North Metro First Baptist Church of Lawrenceville, Ga., one of the fastest growing churches in the SBC. Since 1980, the membership has grown from 500 to 3,100. Within a year after Debbie's death he met his new wife, Mary, and discovered she had been praying for a godly man to marry since February 1986, concurrent with Debbie's prayer for a new wife and mother for Frank and Stephen.