Monday, April 25, 2016

Suffering With(out) Hope

Yesterday at physical therapy, I met a lady who is in a great deal of pain. She had a total hip and a total knee replacement a few years ago, and neither of them has proven to bring improvement in her pain. Not only that, but she also has neurological issues that cause painful burning and pins-and-needles in her arms. Back pain is also on the list of her chronic issues. This lady seemed very sad, and though I only overheard these facts as she told them to the therapist, I couldn’t help but express my sympathy to her. With tears welling up in her eyes, she said, “I’m just so tired of being in pain all the time.”

Can you relate, my suffering sisters? I certainly can! After making that statement, she turned the other way and her therapist started applying ice, so I didn’t get to respond. But, as I silently prayed for her, I began to think of what it would be like to have such pain without Christ. Now, I don’t know whether this lady is a believer or not. I hope to see her again and get a chance to find out. But meanwhile, my heart is heavy for those who suffer ongoing pain, day after day, without the hope of the Gospel to comfort them.

How does that hope comfort you? Today, I’d like to share a few things that are particularly encouraging to me in my pain, and I would love it if you would leave your input in the comments.

The first thing that comes to my mind when I think of the comfort I have in Christ is the truth that my pain is not without purpose. I cannot imagine being in constant pain without knowing that there is a greater purpose in it. I use my experience of suffering, and the ways He has come to my aid, with many of the counselees I see. It gives me a platform to speak to any kind of pain they may bring to counseling. This has enabled me to develop rapport, and a level of involvement that I would never have had without it. I also know that my pain develops my faith, and makes me more dependent on Christ. The more I draw near to Him, spending time in His Word and in prayer, the more like Him I will become, and the more glory I will bring to His name. Since God’s glory is the reason I was created, my pain helps me to fulfill the purpose of my life.

Secondly, I know that my pain is ordained by a holy, loving, merciful, compassionate God, who will not allow one twinge of pain more than is necessary to accomplish His purposes. Without Christ, pain is random and senseless but more than that, it is cruel. Without Christ, my botched surgeries would seem like a cruel trick, and I would be very fearful of what might be next for me in this senseless series of events. Instead, my loving God provides perfectly timed ups and downs in this journey, as He molds and shapes my heart to be conformed to His image. I can trust that he will send just the right relief, or just the right challenge, at just the right time, always accompanied by His dear presence.

Finally, I do not experience my pain in isolation. This suffering is experienced in the context of the Body of Christ. As I share honestly about my struggle, other believers come alongside to encourage me, and to lift up my struggle before the Lord for His help. There are many others in this body who also struggle with physical pain, and He arranges for us to interact, so that we might encourage one another. I cannot imagine dealing with this suffering alone, or even in the company of other suffering, hopeless, godless individuals. How demoralizing it would be simply to commiserate with others who are just as frustrated and weary as I, yet have no hope to offer. How easy it would be to become bitter and depressed!

Though our pain can be sorrowful and difficult, let’s praise the Lord together today that it has purpose; that it comes from the hand of the Author of Love; and that it happens in fellowship with others who also know Him. As I pray for this lady at physical therapy, I am so thankful that my Father has scooped me up out of darkness and brought me into His light, turning my pain to purpose, and my sorrow to hope. Hallelujah! What a Friend! What a Savior!


Monday, April 18, 2016

More Answered Prayer

Last week, I wrote about going back to therapy for more treatments on my leg, the bad memories and emotions I knew that would bring up, and my plan for thinking rightly about it. I walked into the clinic focused on Christ, with a prayer-stoked determination to resist taking my eyes off of my Healer, no matter what the therapist’s measurements showed. God was faithful, and he truly did help me to maintain that focus. I, however, failed to take advantage of that help, and I did become somewhat emotional after finding out that I have lost a significant measure of flexibility in the knee. While the extension (straightening) has stayed about the same as when I left, the flexion, or bend, has significantly decreased. This was a surprise to me, because the problem has always been the extension. This flexion issue kind of snuck up on me, and I wasn’t expecting it.

I did manage to hold it together till I got home, but by the time I pulled in my driveway, I could feel my resolve slipping, and those old despairing thoughts starting to circle the drain. Now, I know exactly the right thing to do in situations like this, and I suspect that you do, too. My biblical counselor brain kept saying, “Go get your Bible! Find those passages that have been so helpful to you, and read them and pray!” But my self-focused, self-pitying emotions were also shouting: “Oh, no! How could this have happened? What went wrong? I’ve done everything I can to keep this leg moving. This is surely a sign that the knee is going downhill, and I’m going to have to have another surgery! Who can I call and tell my sad news? I can’t handle this, Etc, Etc.”

Thankfully, the biblical counselor voice was shouting louder than my emotions, and I did go into my room, pray, and read those familiar passages, and guess what—As He always does when I obey Him, He led me to encouragement. The passage I turned to today was 2 Corinthians 4:17-18, in the Phillips paraphrase:

This is the reason why we never lose heart. The outward man does indeed suffer wear and tear, but every day the inward man receives fresh strength. These little troubles (which really are so transitory) are winning for us a permanent, glorious and solid reward out of all proportion to our pain. For we are looking all the time not at the visible things but at the invisible. The visible things are transitory; it is the invisible things that are really permanent.

There are so many bits of encouragement here! What a good reminder this was for me. Yes, my outward man is definitely suffering wear and tear, but I get fresh strength every day! These troubles really are very transitory. My stiff knee is not permanent, even though it is sunk in concrete! What is permanent is my reward, which will be far more glorious and wonderful than I can imagine.

I simply must do what I resolved to do before I went to that appointment: Look all the time at what is really permanent: Jesus Christ. His power, His love, His mercy, His omnipotence, His sovereignty, His heart. He loves me more than I could ever imagine, and this news today did not surprise Him or confound Him. He knows what I need better than I do, and if that is ten degrees less flexion than last year, then He has a purpose for it. I trust that He will use it for my good and His glory as I keep my focus on Him. Hallelujah! What a promise! What a Savior!

Monday, April 11, 2016

Answered Prayer, Revisited

A year or so ago, I wrote about a new therapy I had that was very successful in reducing the pain and immobility in my knee. In case you missed it, you can read about it here and here, and here too! In that first post, I talked about concerns I had that this therapy might not bring permanent change, and that my knee might revert back to how it was before. This is exactly what has happened. Over time, in spite of continuing to do the PT exercises and such, the knee has declined somewhat. It is still much better than before the therapy, but it is definitely not as good as when we first finished. So today, I will return to my therapist for a repeat of this series of treatments, in the hope that I will benefit from it as before.

As I began to think about getting more therapy, all of the old anxieties and worries began to resurface. Not that I’m worried that it will be painful or difficult, or even that it won’t work as I hope. I know that the Lord can use me for His glory no matter what condition my body is in, and I can rest in that. There is just something about physical therapy that brings up all kinds of emotional junk. Going to therapy brings back so many unpleasant memories, all of which are accompanied by the emotions of the early days after the surgery that started me on this journey.  There was a great deal of intense physical pain back then, and I had not yet had the benefit of this refining fire to strengthen me against despair, as I have now. I really have nothing to fear today, yet there is this gnawing dread.

Now, if I took my feelings to a psychologist, she would probably tell me that I have Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Any time that something really terrible, traumatic, or painful happens, there can be ongoing fear, depression, flashbacks, and other symptoms that would be categorized as PTSD. I don’t doubt the validity of this condition at all, as it seems to me that these feelings and symptoms would come naturally after a traumatic event. In other words, it seems like a normal, natural response. Where the psychologist and I would part ways, however, is when it comes to treatment.

I don’t know whether you could describe my problem as PTSD or not, but whatever it is, I know the solution: I have to change my thinking from self-focused, worldly thinking, to Christ-focused, biblical thinking. As I think about going to this appointment, I need to make sure my focus is on Christ, not on myself, my leg, or any other earthly thing. As bad memories and painful changes come to mind, I must take those thoughts captive to the obedience of Christ. Instead of allowing “flashbacks” to lead me into thoughts of pain, regret, and what-if’s, I must think on the many ways the Lord has provided for me and blessed me through those things I am remembering. But even more than thinking on His work in this trial, I need to think on Him.

The Hymn, Turn Your Eyes Upon Jesus came to mind as my friend and I talked about how thinking on Christ would quiet these fearful thoughts. One line of it especially echoed in my head:

Turn your eyes upon Jesus. Look full in His wonderful face; and the things of earth will grow strangely dim in the light of His glory and grace.

I looked up that hymn today with the intention of reminding myself of the rest of the words, and I stumbled across a brief biography of the author, Helen Lemmel. She got her inspiration for this song from the writings of Lillias Trotter, a brilliant artist who gave up her pursuit of art when she surrendered her life to become a missionary to the Muslims in Algeria.  The following is an excerpt from Trotter’s tract, Which Passion Will Prevail?

“Turn your soul's vision to Jesus, and look and look at Him, and a strange dimness will come over all that is apart from Him."

As I read these words, a light came on in my heart, and I realized that my soul’s vision has not been turned to Jesus, but to the things He does for me. As I’ve wrestled these last few weeks with the knowledge that I will have to do something about my knee soon, I’ve tried hard to change my focus to remember how God has provided, protected, healed, and helped me, and I’d thought that this was the path to peace about the situation. But, once again, the Lord must remind me that it’s not about me, even if it’s about Him and me. It has to be just about Him. I must die to myself and focus only on Christ if I am to overcome fear about this, or any circumstance in this world.

My dear friend, are you living in dread of an impending appointment with a doctor, therapist, or surgeon? Fearful of a procedure you know you must have, or depressed about a relentlessly painful condition? Turn your eyes upon Jesus. Look and look at Him. Read the red letters in the Gospels, and really soak your heart in Christ. I have to leave soon for my appointment, but first I’m going to open my Bible and look at Christ, His heart, His love and compassion for me. In other words, I will draw near to the Healer. As I do so, I know that the things of earth, including the fears that accompany this therapy, will grow strangely dim. I will look to the light of His glory and grace, and be healed.
I’ll leave you with a link to a video of the song. I hope you’ll listen, and turn your soul’s vision to Jesus today.

Monday, April 4, 2016

The Change

“This has changed who I am.” These words came out of my mouth the other day as I was talking to a friend, telling her how different things are for me since the Lord brought about this change in my physical condition. The inability to stand comfortably for more than a few minutes, along with the pain of  walking more than a few hundred feet at a time, has brought about major changes, particularly in my social activities. For instance, where before all of this, I would be likely to stand around visiting in groups after church or Bible study, now I pretty much make a beeline for the door because it is just too hard to stand. Also, when the call goes out for a cleaning day at the church, or to prepare meals for a family in need, I do not answer any more. It is really all I can do to keep my own house presentable and meals on the table for my family. There are other changes, but you get the general idea.

As I have declined many of these social and service opportunities, I have become a more introverted person in general. I was never the poster child for social butterflies, but I have definitely drawn more inward as I have struggled with these physical issues, and lately I’ve come to realize that, where I was once a somewhat extroverted, socially comfortable person, I am no longer so. However, I do believe I have given this crooked leg way too much power in my mind.

While it is true that much has changed about how I behave and what I am able to do, I knew the second I heard myself say that it had changed who I am, my thinking was off. My identity has not been changed, nor can it be changed by any external circumstance. The only thing that has ever—can ever—change my identity is Christ. Our identity is changed only once in the course of our lives, and that one time is when we receive Christ as our Savior. When we are in Christ, we become a new creation. The old has gone, and the new has come. From that point forward, our identity is solidly rooted in Christ. We are children of God, and that will never change no matter what happens to our bodies.

The problem with my thinking, as I spoke with my friend, was that I was finding my identity in my physical capability, my social activity, and my bodily strength—what I can do—instead of finding it in Christ, His love for me, and my position in Him. My dear suffering friends, you and I have to be so careful how we see ourselves! Disappointments and changes can make us begin to look inward for who we are, instead of upward. I’ll close with some verses about who you are in Christ. They’ve been helpful for me as I’ve wrestled through this identity issue these last few weeks. I know that these living, active words will help you, too.

In Christ, you are: A new creations (2 Corinthians 5:17) ; accepted (John 15:7); a child of God (John 1:12) ; christ’s friend (John 5:15) ;  god’s workmanship (Eph 2:10); free from sin’s power over you (Romans 6:7) ;  a saint (Philippians 1:1).

Best of all, God’s Word assures us that we are able to be content in any circumstance (Philippians 3:10-11), and that includes our broken bodies and the changes they sometimes impose on us. We are more than our bodies and what they can do, dear sisters. We are children of the living God, who loved us and gave His life for us, so that we could bring glory to Him. While our bodies may change, they can never change who we are. Halleluiah! what an Identity! What a Savior!