Put in Our Place

One of my goals for the New Year was to cope better with my chronic aches and pains. Now the phrase “be careful what you ask for” has new meaning for me. I injured my right shoulder a few months ago and was diagnosed with a torn rotator cuff, 50-50 chance that physical therapy would help me avoid surgery. I think those odds have gone down. I have reinjured it twice in last couple of weeks lifting things the wrong way. This is not the way I wanted to practice dealing better with pain.

My theologizing about pain seems to come around on a two year cycle. (cf. my post on 3/25/17 “Rejoicing When God says No,” and 5/19/15 “Encouraged and Inspired.”) As in both of those instances I keep coming back to St. Paul’s verses (II Corinthians 12:7-10) where he describes his repeated requests for God to remove an unidentified “thorn in the flesh.” I don’t know if this is an actual physical ailment, a metaphor for another kind of suffering, or both. Here’s what those verses say in the NRSV:

“Therefore, to keep me from being too elated, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me, to keep me from being too elated. Three times I appealed to the Lord about this, that it would leave me, but he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.”

If this was just about physical weakness I should be getting stronger by the minute, but of course it isn’t. The repetition of “not being too elated” indicates that’s important. The “slings and arrows” of life can serve to keep us humble, and when dealing with God’s power that’s the only realistic stance to take.

Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase of these verses in “The Message” helps reinforce that point:
“So I wouldn’t get a big head, I was given the gift of a handicap to keep me in constant touch with my limitations. Satan’s angel did his best to get me down; what he in fact did was push me to my knees. No danger then of walking around high and mighty! At first I didn’t think of it as a gift, and begged God to remove it. Three times I did that, and then he told me, ‘My grace is enough; it’s all you need. My strength comes into its own in your weakness.’”

I don’t like the word choice of “handicap” by Peterson. In no way do I want to tell anyone with a disability or handicap that it is a gift from God. But we all have challenges to cope with be they physical, emotional, or relational, and accepting those humbly as just the way things are is much better than either being resentful or conceited.

God is not a super being that we can call upon to intervene and pull out our thorns. That’s like complaining that roses come with thorns instead of rejoicing that thorns come with roses. For reasons that are above our pay grade to understand the human condition comes with pain. I am inclined to agree with Buddhism’s diagnosis of that pain as being caused by our “attachment” to things that are temporary. My physical limitations remind me constantly that aging is about letting go – letting go of things I can no longer do and humbly finding and celebrating things I can do, I hope with more wisdom gained through experience. Letting go is important practice for that inevitable letting go that comes with mortality.

And ultimately the feeling of being at home in the universe, my favorite definition of “Faith,” comes from letting go of our need to control or understand everything. As mere beings our humility/weakness makes room for the true majesty and mystery of Being itself, which we call God.

I don’t claim to have achieved Paul’s contentment with “with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities,” and no, Lord, I am not asking for those so I can learn to deal better with them!! But I do recognize that state of “being content with whatever I have” which Paul describes in Philippians 4:11 as the goal of faith.

Paul describes that feeling in different words that are very familiar: “I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” (Philippians 4:13) But I also like the way Peterson paraphrases that verse because it emphasizes the Creator/creature nature of our relationship with God which is the reason humility is our ultimate reality.

Peterson says, “Whatever I have, wherever I am, I can make it through anything in the One who makes me who I am.” That puts things in their proper perspective.

Rejoicing when God says No

Pity party alert. I am having a medical procedure next week that requires me to be off some of the meds I take for arthritic pain, and therefore I am experiencing more discomfort that usual. The result is that I’ve been a bigger pain than usual for my poor wife. I don’t like myself when I’m in this kind of state, and the fact that I know I’m making everything worse when I dwell on my problems doesn’t help.

As a student of communication I know very well how powerful words are, especially the self-talk kind. I went to the thesaurus to find another word for “pain” while writing the paragraph above so I didn’t keep repeating myself. The first three choices my Microsoft Word thesaurus gave me were a real revelation: “discomfort, agony and aching.” What a difference a simple word choice makes in describing the same sensation. To be in “agony” is certainly a whole different ball game than having “discomfort” or “aching.” The good news is I get to choose how I want to label what I’m feeling.

Mornings are the worst for my discomfort; so when I went back to my Lenten devotion of reading Psalm 90 sure enough there was relevant wisdom awaiting me: “Turn, O LORD! How long? Have compassion on your servants! Satisfy us in the morning with your steadfast love, so that we may rejoice and be glad all our days.” (vs. 13-14).
Pity-party Steve gravitates to the phrase “How long, O Lord? Have compassion on your servants. Satisfy us in the morning…” Yes, Lord, especially in the morning. But the compassion I’m asking for isn’t what I really need or what God provides. I want to feel like a 30 year-old again. I want the pain, ache, discomfort, agony to all go away with a Holy abracadabra!

But the Psalmist has a much more realistic and deeper request that we need at every age and stage of life. “Satisfy us in the morning with your steadfast love, so that we may rejoice and be glad all our days.” The pain meds modern science offers are never more than a temporary fix, and God knows we’re seeing an opioid epidemic that can lead to horrific addiction and death. There’s a reason we don’t say “In Big Pharma We Trust.” God’s solution to pain is as simple and illusive as unconditional steadfast love, and it doesn’t just last for a morning. It enables us to rejoice all our days because unconditional love doesn’t say “I love you if you are faithful and brave or if you don’t complain.” Steadfast love says, “I love you, period.”

These are not new thoughts for me or in Scripture, but they are words we need to really hear on a regular basis. I wrote about these same issues for me two years ago (May 2015) in a post entitled “Encouraged and Inspired: Signs of Resurrection Living” where I reflected on St. Paul’s request in II Corinthians for God to remove his “thorn in the flesh.” God’s answer to Paul not once but three times was “no” because like me Paul was praying for the wrong thing. He was asking for physical healing, but the answer Paul got was God’s reply that “My grace is sufficient for you.” (II Cor. 12:9). God’s grace is another way of talking about God’s steadfast love.

The words from the Psalm and from Paul are similar because they are trustworthy and true. Even though they were written in totally different circumstances about very different kinds of suffering some 600 years apart, the truth is the same then and now and forever. It is the truth we all need to hear early and often because God’s steadfast, unconditional love and grace are the only things that can truly sustain us and even empower us to rejoice in difficult times.

Thanks be to God.