PAIN CHECK Part 2: When pain stops – it’s not back to normal.

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What does it take to get your attention? What does it take to motivate change? What’s your wake-up call?

I left myself in pain at the conclusion of my last blog, so let me briefly share the second chapter of the “Pain Check.”

The back spasms continued through the weekend. I preached three services Easter morning and crawled into my bed-sheet grave as soon as I got home. The next morning, I sent a text to an orthopedic surgeon in our congregation. He put me in touch with the “spine guy” in his group. By God’s grace, I saw him Tuesday morning. The course of treatment included a shot and a round of medication over the next six days. Within a few hours, the relief was amazing. Oh, thank the Lord! After 8 and a-half days of dreading every movement, I could walk, sit and move with minimal discomfort. So, off I went, doing a few projects that had been on hold… (You can see where this is going, right?).

That night, feeling so much better, I was getting ready for bed and moved my leg just the wrong way and– Wham!–that familiar shot of pain went up my back and took my breath away. I cannot express the fear, the anxiety, the regret that overwhelmed me: How could I be so careless? Had I just undone all the relief the initial dose of medication had provided? (More “Pain Check” questions).

I went to bed, fuming at myself for my carelessness, and prayed and prayed.

The next morning there was a measure of relief again. Mercy! I got a call from one of our sons, Peter, who is a Doctor of Physical Therapy, asking how I was doing. I shared the story of the relief and the relapse. And that’s when he “corrected me gently” (1 Timothy 5:1) as only an adult child can do with a parent. “Dad, he treated the pain so you could rest and get relief,” Peter said, “not so you could just ‘go back to normal.’ You need to begin to rebuild your foundation with core-strengthening exercise and learning proper body mechanics so this will be less likely to happen again.”

So now I’m in the process of developing a “new normal.” I don’t want to go back to the way things were. I don’t want to be sidelined by pain and immobility again.

Pain is most often the body’s warning system. In many cases, it signals a need for attention, and often a need for change. For a “new normal:” like proper body mechanics in movement, or a healthier diet, rest, and exercise. And that’s where I make the connection to soul distress. Soul pain is often a signal to pay attention to God, to my inner life, my priorities and perspective. It’s often a call to pursue a “new normal” spiritually.

There are several images for this in spiritual formation. One is “putting off” the old nature and “putting on” our new nature in Christ, as we read in Colossians 3:5-10:

5 So put to death the sinful, earthly things lurking within you… 10 Put on your new nature, and be renewed as you learn to know your Creator and become like him. (NLT)

A second metaphor is moving out of bondage/ slavery into freedom, as we read in Galatians 5:1-13.

So Christ has truly set us free. Now make sure that you stay free, and don’t get tied up again in slavery to the law… 13 For you have been called to live in freedom, my brothers and sisters. But don’t use your freedom to satisfy your sinful nature. (NLT)

When pain comes, be ready to consider the possibility that it is signaling a call to a “new normal.” Put on the new thing– and be free!

 

Strength Comes With The Doing

“Be wise at what is good…” Romans 16:19

God deepens our experience of faith through our action.

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Photo by Jason Briscoe from Unsplash.com

Many of us don’t try something because, at that time, we don’t feel strong enough, wise enough, talented enough, or just-about-anything enough. So we wait—and miss so many opportunities. Life opens up for us when we learn that strength doesn’t come before we begin a task. Strength actually comes with the doing of the task.

Think about exercise: It seems foolish to say it, but you cannot wait until you “get strong” to begin to exercise. Strength is the product of exercise. And it’s important to realize progress in physical exercise is not noticeable immediately. At first, we will feel tired. And then things will change. According to Kenneth H. Cooper, M.D., author of Aerobics, after about six weeks of consistent effort a series of changes happen “all at once” in the body.

In my book, SoulShaping: Taking Care of your Spiritual Life, I tell one of the most famous and amusing experiments demonstrating this. A researcher in exercise and human physiology set a weight on the floor, tied a rope to it, ran the rope over a pulley fastened to the edge of a table, then sat on the other side of the table and looped the rope over the middle finger of his right hand. Then, in time to a metronome, he began lifting the weight. The first time and for many weeks thereafter, the best he could do was 25 lifts before his finger became fatigued. To expand the experiment, he had a mechanic in the building lift the weight occasionally, in the same manner, and the mechanic always beat him. One day, about two months later, the researcher began his usual lifts, but found his finger wasn’t tired at 25. He kept going and ultimately reached 100. He suspected what had happened, and brought the experiment to a rather unorthodox conclusion. He invited the mechanic in again and made a small bet that he could best him. The mechanic accepted—and lost.

What the researcher suspected was the vascularization of his finger muscles–more blood vessels had opened up, creating new routes for delivering more oxygen. What was most interesting was that they apparently didn’t open up one at a time but a network at a time. Physiologists call this “the training effect.”

Athletes report similar “plateaus of progress,” improving not only day by day, but in quantum jumps. This vascularization is the most essential factor in building endurance. It reduces fatigue in the skeletal muscles, saturating the tissue with oxygen and carrying away more wastes. It is a vital factor in the health of the heart, the most important muscle of all.  More or larger blood vessels supplying the heart tissue with energy-producing oxygen considerably reduce the chances of any cardiac failure.  And even if a heart attack were to occur, the improved blood supply would help to keep the surrounding tissue healthy and improve chances for a speedy recovery.

Consider an analogy in the spiritual realm. Spiritual experience shows a similar correlation to physical conditioning.  After sustained discipline, our spiritual lives respond and deepen with increased vitality and sensitivity to God’s presence and direction. Likewise, when we step out in faith, only then do we experience the reality of faith. When we make a commitment to sacrificial giving or to serving or to regular discipleship—only then do our hopes turn into reality.

For “physical exercise has some value, but godliness is valuable in every way. It holds promise for the present life and for the life to come” (1 Timothy 4:8)

Here’s the principle: Strength comes with the doing. If no demand is made, no strength is supplied! Paul wrote,

“Do you not know that all the runners in a stadium compete, but only one receives the prize? So run to win. Each competitor must exercise self-control in everything. They do it to receive a perishable crown, but we an imperishable one. 26 So I do not run uncertainly or box like one who hits only air. Instead I subdue my body and make it my slave, so that after preaching to others I myself will not be disqualified” (1 Corinthians 9:24-27 New English Translation).

If you want to experience spiritual vitality, put yourself in a place where a demand is made upon you. Bring Jesus Christ into your conversation. Say yes to mentoring a child or young person who has just begun walking with Jesus. Reach out to a neighbor in need. Pray with a person for a problem they have.

When we step out in faith, our faith grows. When we step out, we will be amazed at our experience of God’s presence. It may not–in fact usually does not–come in a dramatic way. It may not happen all at once– remember the training effect. But there will be a sense of peace and confidence that you’ve done the right thing, and God is pleased.

Achieving strength and competence takes time. But that time brings a huge return on investment.

“Your obedience is known to all and thus I rejoice over you. But I want you to be wise in what is good and innocent in what is evil. The God of peace will quickly crush Satan under your feet. The grace of our Lord Jesus be with you” (Romans 16:19-20).