Your Cross to Bear?

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Definitions matter, especially in theology and spiritual formation.

A common example of an incorrect definition and misuse of a term is in the phrase, “Well, that’s just my cross to bear.” When most people speak of “a cross to bear,” they are referring to suffering or a trial they have to endure: like an illness, or caring for a difficult relative, or putting up with a challenging supervisor at work.

This phrase is based on Jesus’ words in Luke 9:23, “Then [Jesus] said to them all: ‘Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.’”

A thoughtful examination of this passage reveals that the cross is not merely an affliction to be tolerated or endured. The cross is Jesus’ place of mission, the place of his ultimate purpose, the place of judgement and redemptive sacrifice. Read the passage again, this time with verse 24 “Then he said to them all: ‘Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. 24 For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will save it.’”

The cross is about losing your life– to save it. As Jesus’ followers, the cross is our place of mission where we open wide our arms as part of Jesus’ life-spending, life-giving mission in this world. The focus of the cross is always on others.

So what about suffering? What about that particular problem that nags you, wears on you and challenges your “cope”? The biblical image that best fits that situation is the “thorn.”

Paul spoke of his thorn in 2 Corinthians 12. After experiencing a vision of the third heaven and paradise, Paul wrote, “…. Therefore, in order to keep me from becoming conceited, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me” (2 Corinthians 12:7-8). Paul never specifically defined his thorn. Some scholars think it was a significant eye problem (based on Galatians 4:13-16), but the most important lesson is God’s message to Paul about the thorn.

But he [the Lord] said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong (2 Corinthians 12:9-10).

Spiritually speaking, a thorn is an affliction, weakness, struggle that drives us to depend on the Lord. (Don’t focus on the ‘messenger from Satan’ right now! That’s material for another time.) Paul spoke of the thorn in the context of weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions and other difficulties. A thorn humbles us, in the best sense of the word. It exposes our humanity so that our need for God becomes clearly inescapable and undeniable. We come to the end of our resources and make a new beginning with God’s strength.

Both the cross and the thorn express important, valid, yet different dimension of our calling in Christ.

Bear your cross as part of Jesus’ continuing mission in this world.

Take your thorn to the Lord and discover his strength in your weakness.

And remember, Jesus both bore the cross and endured the (crown of) thorns.

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!

 

Pain Check

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It felt like I’d been stabbed or cut across my back. Searing pain and a shot of burning that, literally, took my breath away. Like when I fell off the Monkey Bars in elementary school—that knocked-the-wind-out-of-you feeling. The word ‘excruciating’ seemed to be the best description—and this on the day after Palm Sunday, heading into Good Friday.

I had been reaching for a basket of dirty shirts from a small pantry off our laundry room, and that’s when the back spasm hit and wouldn’t let go. Ridiculous, right? Not a very brag-able injury…but it’s what happened.

And then something else happened. It’s what I’m calling the “Pain Check.” I became aware of an almost-instantaneous eruption of questions, concerns, fears, and anxieties that so often cluster around significant pain and illness. Pain triggers strong emotional dynamics. In addition to hurting the body, it can tear a hole in your soul—and it can offer opportunities for clarity and growth.

I’ll give my Pain Check List in a moment, but you might want to stop and make your own list. What do you tell yourself or ask yourself when you’re sick or hurting?

So here’s my basic list:

“What have I done to myself? How could I be so careless?”

“Is this my fault? Is there some reason this is happening to me?”

“Am I going to get better? Is this going to change my life big-time?”

“Lord, why did you let this happen? Especially now?!” (In this case, the back spasms continued unabated through Easter. I got through the Holy Week services with prayer, over-the-counter medication, rest, and adrenaline. Finally, I saw an orthopedic specialist—but that’s a story for the next blog).

And then there’s the “If only… If only… If only…”

You get the idea.

The “Pain Check” begins as a negative experience of self-accusation and usually moves into God-accusation. The physical pain often makes us turn against ourselves and even against God. But it doesn’t get stuck there.

We aren’t powerless. We don’t have to be victims or victimize ourselves. C. S. Lewis offered his famous insight into pain that “God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks to us in our conscience, but shouts in our pain: it is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world” (C. S. Lewis, in The Problem of Pain). We can use these experiences to identify and challenge our negative self-talk. We can “freeze” the eruption of questions and respond to them in ways that make us stronger, in ways that are more reasonable and accurate. One way to think of this process is to frame it as a conversation with a dear friend or loved one. How would you respond to a friend who asked these questions?

“What have I done to myself? How could I be so careless?”

My initial response can be pretty self-depreciating as I castigate myself for being inept, careless, thoughtless and so on. Actually, I wasn’t careless. I was simply doing something I needed to do and this happened. Things happen. No need wasting energy on self-blame. A more helpful response is: ‘I haven’t deliberately done anything to myself. This sort of thing happens. I need to use my energy figuring out how to cope and get better.’

“Is this my fault? Is there some reason this is happening to me?”

Now that’s a complex question! The “Why? Question” doesn’t help much because a particular problem can be the direct consequence of an action, and/or the indirect consequence of an action, and/or simply the consequence of living a fallen world with a failing, mortal body. And even if we could answer the question, that would not change our current predicament.

“Am I going to get better? Is this going to change my life big-time?”

Many of us tend to “catastrophize,” (as cognitive therapists call it) plunging into ‘worst-case scenario’ mode and forecasting a bleak future. In the vast majority of situations the phrase, “This, too, will pass,” may seem small solace, but can spark hope and perspective.

“Lord, why did you let this happen? Especially now?!”

I am just going to say that God gets far, far too much blame for what happens. We live in a world that has rejected God and surrendered to the powers of the world, the flesh and the forces of evil. God is not the source of the problem, but God is the key to the solution.

I offer the Pain Check as a modest remedy for your soul. The Pain Check is the practice of naming your questions, fears and anxieties so you can address them with a renewed mind.

“Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ… 3 Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, 4 and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, 5 and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us” (Romans 5:1-5 NLT).

Please understand I am not addressing the dynamics of chronic pain, nor the psychological depths of our reactions in crisis. It will often help to have the support of a wise, caring friend and even a skilled counselor and/ or spiritual director to relieve the soul distress in the midst of physical pain. But I hope the Pain Check can be a significant step to coping.