Tuesday, February 23, 2016

The Importance of Flexibility

When all kinds of trials and temptations crowd into your lives, my brothers, don’t resent them as intruders, but welcome them as friends.      
                                               James 1:2, Phillips                                                                                                                                                                   
Most of my physical challenges are due to the misalignment and flexion deformity of my knee replacement. One of the biggest problems with this knee is the very limited range of motion.  I do my daily PT routine, but the things that I can do on my own are not enough to keep the deformity of my knee joint from getting worse. So, every couple of weeks, I see a manual therapist to help stretch the soft tissues and break up fascial adhesions around the joint. This is very helpful, and together with my daily routines, keeps me walking and able to do steps.

These last couple of weeks, I wasn’t able to do my regular PT because I came down with a bad respiratory virus. Because of that, my most recent visit to the manual therapist was quite painful. (Hang in there, I’m really not just going to complain through this whole post!) He did a technique called “muscle stripping,” which is very effective for breaking up those adhesions and stretching out the soft tissues around the joint. It is a more intense kind of therapy than what I usually get. He’s had to do this a few times, and it is always very helpful, with lasting results. On the down side, it is also extremely painful, and although I knew this from experience, I was eager to receive the treatment.

I needed this treatment to address the stiffness of the leg that was partially caused by neglect of my daily routine. Now, let’s think about our spiritual “stiffness.” The above verse from James, from the Phillips paraphrase, tells us that we should welcome trials as friends. There is nothing like a difficult trial to show us our spiritual range of motion. Sometimes, when we get focused on the troubles of our lives, we can forget to seek wisdom in Scripture, to pray, and to cry out to God. Instead, we try to “fix” the situation ourselves. When this happens, we become weary and begin neglecting our spiritual disciplines. In the process, we can get worn out, worn down, and spiritually stiff.

James tells us a better way. Instead of resenting the trial and seeking to escape, which draws us away from Christ and toward self, we should look at them as friends sent to help us become more like Christ. Read the next part of the above passage in James:

Realize that they [trials] come to test your faith and to produce in you the quality of endurance. But let the process go on until that endurance is fully developed, and you will find you have become men of mature character, men of integrity with no weak spots.

While I don’t enjoy muscle stripping, I do call it my friend because I know that it will help me gain the flexibility I need in order to be able to strengthen the muscles around that joint. One of the biggest problems with an inflexible joint is muscle weakness. If you can’t bend the joint, you can’t challenge the muscle to grow. Trials are like muscle stripping. They are unpleasant and often painful, but they are necessary if we want to grow spiritually. Through trials, God strips away the stiffness that enters our hearts through sin, neglect of spiritual disciplines, emotional pain, or idolatry.  All of these things can cause us to turn from Him.

While I was suffering with the flu, I couldn’t muster the energy to make myself do the home therapy necessary to maintain my knee. I am so thankful that my therapist knows what to do! Through a painful process, helped me get back with the program and keep my mobility from spiraling downward. In the same way, I am very grateful to God for sending trials to accomplish the same things on a heart level. Don’t get me wrong—I’m not giddy with anticipatory glee when trials come. But I am very thankful that my God loves me and desires my growth in Him, and this is what enables me to be thankful for my trials. Thankful for the stripping away of the sin that sticks to my heart and makes me stiff. Thankful for the softening of stubbornly knotted rebellion, allowing humility to grow in my heart. Thankful, indeed, that my Therapist knows what to do. Hallelujah! What a Healer! What a Savior!

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Looking For Encouragement?

I’ve been preparing lately for a workshop I’m going to give at a BiblicalCounseling Conference in my area. As I am making my notes, I am planning to offer a disclaimer right at the start, and it’s going to go something like this:

“Most of you in this room are far more experienced counselors than I am, and could probably teach me much more about biblical counseling than I can teach you.  But I do believe that I have something to offer in the area I’m going to talk about, because of the many years of experience I have with it.  I’m going to talk today about self-pity, and my journey to break free of the bondage of feeling sorry for myself. I hope to offer a counselee’s perspective on this kind of thinking. What I have to offer is not a new technique, but a personal testimony of the work that Christ has done in my heart, and the people and things he’s used along the way.”

As I’ve been preparing for this talk, I keep going back to the books God used as sort of rungs of a ladder, if you will, as I climbed out of that sinkhole of self-pity. If you struggle with your thinking as you endure your physical affliction, then I know that any one of these titles would be an encouragement to you. Here are just a few of the books that have helped me. I hope they might do the same for you.

This little book is just over 100 pages, but it packs a great deal of truth, compassion and encouragement in that small space. It is somewhat of a journaling book, in that it includes several “grief and growth workbooks,” with questions for the reader to answer. By the time I’d finished this book, I’d written over 40 tear-stained pages as I poured out my heart to the Lord. Kelleman has a way of blending truth with compassion in a way that produces repentance and relief for the sufferer. This book taught me that it is perfectly acceptable to God that I am grieving the loss that I suffered. It challenged me to see my loss as a type of death, and to grieve it biblically. My biggest takeaway from this book was that there are many “deaths” in this life besides the final one, and that it is right to grieve them. Reading and journaling through this book helped me stop stuffing my sadness and denying the pain I felt, so that I could look at it clearly through the lens of Scripture, grieve it rightly, and think about it biblically.

Pain: The Gift NobodyWants, by Dr. Paul Brand with Philip Yancey
This is a book that I read with the book group that I attend weekly. It is the story of a surgeon who worked among the Lepers in India. I hadn’t known this before, but true leprosy is characterized by a gradual loss of sensation in the extremities. The basic premise of the book is that pain, though it is often seen as the enemy, is really a friend to us. It signals that something is wrong, so that it can be addressed. Sadly, Brand acknowledges, with some kinds of pain, there is no solution. Woven in among stories of leprous patients and other pain narratives is information about how the mind perceives pain, and helpful modalities for minimizing pain without medication. I have put some of these things into practice, and have found them to be quite helpful. This is a book that is inspiring, but not necessarily inspired. There is not a lot of doctrinal content, but the overall tone is quite encouraging, and the selfless and loving way that Dr. Brand offers his skill to his patients taught me much about how to offer compassion when the pain can’t be stopped.

The Attributes of God, by AW Pink 
This book is, of course, not about pain, but about the sovereign, good, loving, merciful, patient God who has ordained it. This book, more than any other, solidified for me who God is. This is the book that convinced me of my favorite (though unoriginal) saying: “God is God, and He is who He says He is, regardless of my circumstances.” One of the key questions my biblical counselor asked me was, “How would God be different if your surgery had gone as planned?” Though I wanted to answer, “If God had done things my way, then he would be good and merciful,” I knew that was not right. This book firmly planted my view of God in Scripture, and it has become deeply rooted as I routinely review the attributes of God with my counselees, to help them line up their view of God with Scripture, not their circumstances. (This one is also available in PDF format, free of charge, here.

Pain: The Plight ofFallen Man, by Dr. James Halla
Dr. Halla is a rheumatologist who is also an ACBC certified biblical counselor. The information on the back cover says that it is a book on pain management from a Christian perspective, and that’s true. But it is more than that. What I got from reading this book is a great deal of help with how to think about my pain. The beginning part of the book gets into facts about the anatomy of pain, and is quite technical yet written in a way that a lay person can understand it. After laying that foundation, Dr. Halla talks about how our thinking either magnifies or shrinks our pain. I have found this to be very true as I have worked on thinking biblically about my pain. I know for a fact that I have the ability to make my pain better or worse, just by how I think about it, and this light dawned for me as I read this book. It is packed with facts, information, and encouragement that will change the way you think about your suffering, always directing those thoughts through a biblical filter. This book was another turning point for me in my thinking.

There are many other books and articles I’ve read that helped to change my perspective. Almost any book by Joni Earickson Tada will convict and encourage your heart. Spiritual Depression: Its Causes and Cure, by D. Martin Lloyd-Jones will help you to turn around the sadness and despair that often accompany chronic pain and disability. Surrender, by Nancy Leigh DeMoss is another very short book that is long on encouragement, and will help you to release your desire to control your circumstances into the hands of the loving God who ordained them.

Do you have a book or author that has been especially encouraging to you? If so, will you share it in the comments below? One thing I have always wanted this blog to be about is mutual encouragement among sufferers. Let’s share together the things that have helped us!

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

My Strong Weakness

As, therefore, God’s picked representatives, purified and beloved, put on that nature which is merciful in action, kindly in heart, and humble in mind. Accept life, and be most patient and tolerant with one another, always ready to forgive if you have a difference with anyone. Forgive as freely as the Lord has forgiven you. And, above everything else, be truly loving, for love binds all the virtues together in perfection. (Colossians 3:12-14, JB Phillips Paraphrase)

I have really been enjoying reading through the New Testament in the JB Phillips paraphrase. I love the way he words some of my favorite passages in a way that helps me to better understand what they mean. The above passage is no exception. I got such joy from reading it that I wanted to share it with you, and tell you how it spoke to my heart in this season when the pain I experience is more intense and limiting.

First of all, this passage tells me that, regardless of how physically able I am, God still picked me to be His representative. So, that means that I can honor and glorify God even if I can’t leave my bed! I am able to fulfill my God-given purpose, which is to glorify Him (Is 43:7) regardless of my physical condition, and this encourages me to persevere. Since I have been purified, and because He loves me, I can be merciful, kind and humble. I don’t have to give in to irritability and the tendency to be short-tempered when I am hurting. He has given me a new nature so I can overcome these things.

As I accept what is happening, the patience and tolerance that follows will make my relationships more peaceful. Because I have been freely and fully forgiven, I can practice that same forgiveness with others, even when I am in pain. I don’t have to be unhappy or discontented. I am loved by God, and He has enabled me to love Him and others. As I love God and others, those virtues of patience and tolerance that are available to me will flow into and out of my heart, because of the perfection that He conveys on me.

The best thing about all of this is that these qualities and actions of God enable me to join with Him in making something good out of my pain. As Joseph said in Genesis 50, though spiritual forces of evil would try to use our pain in their favor, God intends for our pain to do us good. I believe that our enemy knows about our pain, and is crouching at the door, waiting for us to give in to the impatience, irritability, and strained relationships that can come so easily when we are hurting. But God has ordained this pain for me, and he has also chosen me before the foundation of the world to be His!

So, as I am determined to represent Him well, I gain strength for the battle against my flesh. I put on that nature which is “merciful in action, kindly in heart and humble in mind,” and I wear it into the battle. It is my joy to remember that physical strength is not what is needed in this particular war . Spiritual strength is what is needed here, and the very weakness that would disqualify me for a physical battle is the key to my spiritual strength!

So, for the most important battles of my life—the ones that involve my relationship with God and with the people that I love—I am fully equipped. Second Peter 1:3 tells me that I have everything that I will ever need for life and godliness, so I can be sure that no circumstantial limitation will ever change that. Only the One True God could orchestrate such a mercy. He makes all things work together in such a way that even on our most painful and difficult days, when we feel old, wretched and useless, what we really are is brand new, purified, and chosen! Hallelujah! What a Reality! What a Savior!

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Fear of the Unknown

Anxiety in the heart of man causes depression,
But a good word makes it glad.
Proverbs 12:25

I’m so glad that this verse is in the Bible! I have always believed that there is a link between anxiety and depression, and who better than our all-wise and loving God to provide this verification? Those of us who suffer with chronic pain or other health issues are all too aware of this link. While it is true that anxiety in general, about almost anything, can lead to depression, there is a unique kind of link between the two when that anxiety is about our physical bodies.

Think about the last time you experienced a new or unfamiliar symptom. If you were already struggling with the “normal” pain and disability to which you'd become accustomed, then this new pain or problem probably struck fear or panic in your mind. Maybe it went something like this: “Oh, no! What could that be? Is this my disease process ramping up? Am I going to have yet another source of pain to deal with? How will I cope? How will this new thing affect the other things I’m dealing with?” The questions and worries come faster than you can address them, and soon anxiety is in full swing and depression is close behind.

But does it really have to be this way? Well, that depends on what your peace is planted in. If you believe that you can have peace only when there are no unknown or unexpected problems, then peace will be elusive during these times. However, if your peace is rooted and grounded in the all-sufficient grace of Christ, then it is not going to be shaken no matter what symptoms pop up, or what test results change.

Many Bible scholars believe that the thorn in the flesh, of which Paul speaks in 2 Corinthians 12, was a physical ailment. I think so, too. Paul says that He asked the Lord three times to take it away. I have prayed this prayer many times myself, and it is usually when my pain is particularly bad or something new pops up. Perhaps the apostle was in a similar place each of the three times he asked for relief. I can imagine Paul struggling with a recurrence  of malaria, or perhaps worsening eyesight, and pleading with the Lord to take it away.  

Implied in God’s answer are Paul’s unspoken fears: “How will I cope? How will I continue this ministry if my body won’t cooperate? How will I serve and glorify God if I can’t physically do the things I need to do?” God’s answer, if I may paraphrase: “By my grace you will do all that I’ve called you to do. By My grace you will be able to endure the pain. By My grace you will encourage, love, and lead the churches. By My grace you will preach the Gospel and reach the lost. Because My grace is sufficient. Your weakness makes My strength perfect: Perfect for your need. Perfect for those you are ministering to. Perfect for My glory.”

God is calling Paul to take his thoughts away from the thorn in his flesh and put them on God. This is our solution too, my friend. When new pain, worsening symptoms, or frightening diagnoses come, we must respond as Paul did: Ask the Lord for healing. If the answer is no, then trust in His grace to strengthen you in your weakness. It was indeed sufficient for Paul, as you will see if you read the rest of the New Testament. 

It is also sufficient for you. The key is to take your mind off of yourself and your pain, and put it on God. Trust Him to give you the strength to fulfill your God-given responsibilities, whether those involve ministry in the body of Christ or making dinner for your family. Whatever He has called you to do, whatever pain He allows, His grace is sufficient for you. This good word will make your heart glad, and the anxiety that was trying to weigh it down will lift as find your peace firmly rooted in the all-sufficient grace of God. Hallelujah! What a Sustainer! What a Savior!