When Jesus Gives You Something Different Than What You Asked

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Photo Credit: Loveinspiteofself.com

I had preached on the story of Jesus healing the paralytic before (cf. Matt. 9:2-8, Mk. 2:13-22, Lk. 5:17-26). But this time it struck a different chord. I have been preaching a series through Luke and particularly emphasizing the stories where extreme human need encountered Jesus Christ. The series is called “God in Need,” as in the God who had never known need taking on human need for us.

Anyway, I don’t think I had preached the story of the paralytic since my own struggle with chronic illness. And that struggle has changed the way I experience that story.

I am far from being paralyzed, but I can relate to the intense desire to want Jesus to heal me. I can imagine what it would be like to know that an accredited miracle worker was coming to my town and how a moment with Jesus could change my life forever. No disease was beneath Jesus’ notice. No illness was beyond his power.

Of course, getting to Jesus isn’t very easy for a man who is paralyzed, but his four good friends fought through the crowds and lowered him through a roof right in front of Jesus! Jesus was not annoyed, but instead interpreted their deed as an act of faith. Surely, Jesus would now make this man walk again. Instead he told him, “Friend, your sins are forgiven.”

I know all of us are aware that we are far from perfect. We have sins that need forgiving. I’m sure the paralytic knew that too. But that wasn’t why he came to Jesus. He wanted to walk again. Did he take Jesus’ pronouncement as a refusal to heal him?

We don’t know for sure, because the conversation shifts its focus to the internal thoughts of the Pharisees and Jesus’ surprising remarks (surprising, because Jesus was basically reading their minds!). Jesus does heal the paralytic to prove to the Pharisees (and to others) that he had the authority to forgive sins. The paralytic takes up his bed and goes home praising God! What was he most joyous about? The forgiveness of sins or being able to walk again?

What would I be more excited about? What about you? Our struggle with chronic pain and illness has often left us desperate for God to heal us. We have cried out to God for miraculous intervention, and have not received the answer we were looking for.

So, here’s my question. When Jesus gives you something other than what you have asked, can you trust him enough to know his answer is what you needed more than what you had requested?

The door is still open for Jesus to tell us “Get up, pick up your mat, and go home,” anytime. If he doesn’t do so on this earth, then he will in the world to come. In the meantime, are the words, “Friend, your sins are forgiven,” enough for you?

Your answer to that question illuminates just how much you think your sins really need to be forgiven. Can those words produce even greater joy and praise than “Get up and walk”? May we find in Jesus’ pronouncement of forgiveness the greatest healing we will ever experience!

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Judgment and Chronic Pain

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Photo Credit: 119 Ministries

Matthew 7:1-2 in the NLT reads thus, “Do not judge others, and you will not be judged. For you will be treated as you treat others. The standard you use in judging is the standard by which you will be judged.” This may be one of the most ignored commands of Jesus despite the warning Jesus attaches to it. I imagine Jesus gives such a strong warning, because he knew the stubbornness of human hearts. We judge others like we are addicted to it!

The homeless person is just lazy. The immigrant wants a free ride. The prostitute wanted that lifestyle. He’s fat because he has no self-control. She just has more children to take advantage of the system. On that last one, I saw a bumper sticker recently in my hometown of Woodward that said, “If you can’t feed ’em, don’t breed ’em!”

If you agree with sentiment of that last exclamation (or any of the above), then you likely have a judgment problem. By the way, I might have a judgment problem for judging you for having a judgment problem. It isn’t easy escaping the cycle of judging others.

Those dealing with chronic pain and illness are regularly judged by others. Most of the people I’ve talked to about their path to diagnoses have shared with me that they have been told some version of “it’s all in your head” by at least one medical provider. Countless friends and associates have told them or implied that they just want attention. Maybe some have even been called a hypochondriac. Others have been called a “drug addict.”

Sometimes people don’t mean to be this way. A statement like, “You don’t look sick,” may seem benign on its surface, but underneath it sounds like an accusation to the one who IS sick that there shouldn’t be anything wrong with them just because you can’t see it! (A lot of chronic illnesses are what we call invisible illnesses).

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I’ve heard judgmental statements from the chronic pain community as well. Out of bitterness, people with chronic pain can be dismissive of others’ pain, because they couldn’t possibly understand what “real” pain is like. None of these judgmental attitudes are helpful. That’s why Jesus told us not to do it!

We are all likely judgmental in ways that we haven’t previously detected. If you are saying things that demean large groups of people (like immigrants), then you are being judgmental. If you say things that dismiss other people’s experiences (like the chronically ill), then you likely have a judgment problem. Judging others hurts other people. It drowns out their voices, which is sometimes the point of the judgment.

When you begin a sentence about a group of people or an individual that is about to assign motives and cast blame, stop yourself and hear the words of Jesus again, “Do not judge others, and you will not be judged.”

Refusing to judge others doesn’t mean we approve evil behavior (Actually, sometimes judging others is a way of justifying our own evil behavior toward the ones we are judging). It means we don’t pretend to know what we cannot know. It means we refuse to belittle a fellow human being just because their story or situation makes us uncomfortable. It means we see someone’s suffering and know that we too suffer, even if in different ways. It means we give full attention to voices of others and that we believe them as we would want to be believed.

This isn’t advice from Jesus; it is a command that comes with what should be a sobering warning. But what good news that we don’t have to be judged by the one who knows our hearts the most, the one who knows our own false motives even when we don’t! The is the one who promises not to judge us any harsher than we judge others.

Those of us in the chronic pain world, know what it is like to be judged. We also know what it is like to judge others, because we are all human. Asking God to help us eliminate our judgmental tendencies going forward will take serious prayer and self-reflection. Is it worth it? You can’t afford not to do it!

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Crying Out to God

It is not uncommon for me to hear from chronic pain sufferers who think that they are being selfish when they cry out to God. Because they are so selfless, it feels so wrong for them to pray for themselves instead of praying for others, even when they are in desperate pain.

However, the Bible paints a different picture. Crying out to God in your pain is the most natural thing you could do. This doesn’t mean that you forget to pray for others or fail to acknowledge their suffering. In the words of a now famous meme, “Why not both?”

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When you cry out to God, you are acknowledging he is your Redeemer. When God commissioned Moses from the burning bush he told Moses, “I have indeed seen the misery of my people in Egypt. I have heard them crying out because of their slave drivers, and I am concerned about their suffering” (Ex. 3:7, emphasis mine). The connection between the people’s cries and God’s concern is directly stated, leading to God’s dramatic rescue of his people.

Throughout the Old Testament are those who cry out to God, who are not answered, and others who cry out to God and are answered. Sometimes the oppressed and the suffering have to wait on God’s deliverance. On some occasions, God did not answer, because they had cried out to other gods instead of him at first.

In the New Testament, the theme of crying out to God is present. When Jesus told the story of the persistent widow, his encouragement was to keep praying to God. He concludes with this encouraging word, “And will not God bring about justice for his chosen ones, who cry out to him day and night? Will he keep putting them off?” (Lk. 18:7, emphasis mine).

When you want to cry out to God, please do! This is an act of faithfulness and acknowledgment of his status as Savior and Redeemer. To keep our pain within ourselves is to imply that we don’t need God to rescue us! Those in chronic pain may have to wait for deliverance, but we cry out to him because we know that eventually God will rescue us!

Don’t believe Christmas hymns that tell you Jesus was a baby who made no cry. Imagine in those first moments after Jesus was born, and his lungs were clear. How precious was the sound of his cries to his parents, but most importantly, to his heavenly Father. Thirty-three years later, he prayed in a garden, “Abba, Father!”

If the one who is God in the flesh cries out to God the Father, then we should as well. All the evidence proves that is what God wants from us, an authentic relationship that includes cries from the depth of our souls. He will hear, and he will answer.

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Chronic Pain and Mission

It was late October in 2015. I was traveling with my best friend, Chris Blair, and one of my church elders, Jim Chandler. I had always wanted to go to China, and the opportunity had come through the Let’s Start Talking ministry (LST). It was a dream come true. There was only one problem; I was in agonizing pain.

In Shanghai, these comfortable chairs were not so comfortable to me!

The flare had started back in June of that year and was unrelenting. The 15 hour plane ride to Shanghai was excruciating. By the time we landed, I struggled to walk. Our main activity, one-on-one conversation sessions, in a coffee shop hurt me every moment that I sat down. Another long flight loomed on the horizon.

When I got back, I began the process of radiofrequency ablation to relieve the pain in my lower back. The results were disappointing. In late 2016, I had a 2nd hip surgery, was in pain all the time, and was fighting my first battle with depression. Though my trip to Shanghai was my tenth overseas mission trip, I could not imagine boarding another plane for that length of time. If I did not improve, my overseas mission days were behind me.

I am writing this post because I just got back from an LST mission trip to Recife, Brazil. Obviously, I am feeling better. I was not pain free, but the pain was manageable enough that the trip was worth it (I’m not saying the Shanghai trip wasn’t worth it, but only that I couldn’t do it again under those circumstances). Part of the reason, I took advantage of the opportunity is because I don’t know how long I will feel good enough to do it. So, I would like to offer a few reflections on this recent experience as it relates to chronic pain:

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In Recife, Brazil after our Hawaiian Party

  • Do what you can when you.

I know that “carpe diem” is an overused phrase, but there is good reason for it! When you are feeling well enough to participate in something you love, don’t assume that your renewed health will last forever. Those of us dealing with chronic pain know better than most that good days and good seasons are fleeting.

On the other hand, to do nothing because you are afraid you might hurt one day in the future is no way to live life! Pursue that career. Join that mission. Run the 5k. Go to church. Maybe you feel better for only a month, but why wait until you feel too bad to do what you want to do? Maybe that month stretches out to a year or longer. You will never regret living your life intentionally while you can. However, you will almost certainly regret passing up opportunities that were before you once your health brings those opportunities to a close.

  • Find a mission that even chronic pain cannot rob you of.

I love mission work. Every one of my eleven overseas trips have been meaningful for me. However, my identity and mission for life were not tied to my ability to pursue mission work. A couple of years ago, I worked through a mission statement with a ministry called Right On Mission. My mission is “to acknowledge the stardom of every person’s life.”

This means I help others to see their incredible worth before God. I help others to envision living their lives as God intends them to live. This mission can be lived out when I am hurting and when I am healthy. Even if I am confined to a bed, I can live this mission.

You may or may not ever go through a formal mission writing process, but you can choose to live for something greater than what your health allows you to do. I know people who have had to give up careers they were passionate about due to their health. This is a tragic loss worthy of profound grief. Even in facing such loss, some of those same people have found their purpose in living again.

  • Don’t give up on living a meaningful life.

This third reflection is perhaps just a way of restating the 2nd. I state it this way because there are times when the pain is so bad and the loss so draining that you cannot find any meaning in life. You are just focused on somehow surviving the day. But it is important that even in our worst of times, that we do not lose hope of having better and more meaningful days.

On our worst days, we often ask, “What does God want from me?” It might be better to rephrase the question, “What does God want for me?” God doesn’t need anything from you. In his love for us, he does want something for you. God intends for every person’s life to be meaningful. Chronic illness cannot rob us that meaning. Let’s end these reflections with a great reminder of God’s love from his word:

“No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 8:37-39).

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Why God Doesn’t Need Us And Why That’s a Good Thing

It is hard to get by a single day without using the word “need” in some context. Need is first associated with being in want. A baby needs to be fed. She needs her diaper changed. But even when we find ourselves in a position of authority, we use the word. A parent tell his child, “I need you to take out the trash.” A teacher tells a student, “I need you to sit down and be quiet.”

I wondered if the Bible ever said that God needed anything. As strange as it would be for the creator of the entire universe to have a need, I still wondered if I could find any verse with God as the subject and need as the verb. Did he ever tell Moses, “Moses, I need you to go to Egypt”?

I could not find a single verse where God was said to need anything. God commanded many people to do things. He even retrieved disobedient Jonah with a big fish to turn him around, but he never said, “Now, Jonah, I need you to go to Nineveh.” God doesn’t need anything, and he doesn’t need us.

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Messages like this are all around, but they do not reflect biblical truth.

Paul said in Acts 17:25, “And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything. Rather, he himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else” (NIV). My short paraphrase? God doesn’t need us; we need him.

We wouldn’t usually consider it flattering to tell a person we care about that we don’t need them. In fact, we do need others. We are co-dependent; God made us that way. God cannot be co-dependent on anyone, because he is always self-sufficient. But this is good news for us two ways:

  1. If God doesn’t need us, then his interest in us is based on his election, his loving and sovereign choice. God is not exploiting us because he is needy. He is not lonely, being in fellowship with each member of the Trinity, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. In short, God may not need us, but he does want us.
  2. Though God in his essence does not need anything, he chose to experience human need in the incarnation. The God who knew no need, was a completely helpless baby living with a peasant family! We can never imagine how far God stooped to leave the glories of heaven and without ever having known need to subject himself to the most extreme form of human need. He did this for us!

What does this have to do with us who are suffering with chronic pain? It means that God didn’t need you to hurt. You aren’t hurting because you are making up for some grand plan in the cosmic scheme of things that would be incomplete if you didn’t suffer. Now, I believe that God redeems and uses our suffering for his glory, but that is different than the idea that somehow God needed you to suffer. You are not suffering because he is somehow exploiting you. When others have told you this or you have believed it, you were subjected to bad theology.

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This is a better message…not surprising, considering the source!

It is rather in our suffering that our need for God is revealed. Had humanity never fallen into sin, then I suppose our need for God would not have needed to be revealed in suffering. But you can’t put the fruit back on tree, so to speak. Our world is full of suffering, of which the phenomenon of chronic pain is simply one way we experience it.

God has seen to it that one day we will no longer suffer. In the meantime, let your suffering remind you of one of life’s most important truths…you need God and he wants you!

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Pain In Middle Earth

I am a huge fan of Lord of the Rings and J.R.R. Tolkien. I know not everyone is and I promise not “geek out” too much about my Middle Earth fandom here where I spend most of time writing about faith in the midst of chronic pain, but some of you love this kind of stuff, so I am going to indulge a little bit today (and I’m still going to connect it to chronic pain)!

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I recently finished a book by Daniel Day about Tolkien’s inspirations for his dark villains of Middle Earth. It was a short and fascinating read with incredible artwork throughout. Though I had read all of Tolkien’s Middle Earth books twice, I had never looked more deeply into the world of myth that inspired him. I was so inspired that the next book I bought was a book about Norse mythology.

Tolkien weaved together so many stories, peoples, and characters from mythology, one would be tempted to view his Lord of the Rings work as derivative. But the genius of Tolkien is that he made a better mythology than his source material, and he made it his own. Of course, as a devout Catholic, he also weaved in biblical themes and symbolism, because he believed that all stories were ultimately derivative of the greatest story.

Lately, I’ve found myself wanting to be lost in the world of fantasy, yes, even the world of myth. Is fantasy, as Tolkien conceived it, simply a world to which we can retreat to escape our pain? No, I don’t think so. Tolkien’s Middle Earth was full of pain, suffering, and death, just like ours. Heroes risked and experienced suffering and death in their battle against evil. In fact, even characters (like Frodo) who did not meet their ultimate demise, accepted death as inevitable to complete their quest.

I don’t think it is escapism that draws me into Tolkien’s world. I think it is meaning that pulls me in. I see something of our own struggle against the pain and evil of this world in the heroic stories of Frodo, Sam, Bilbo, Aragorn, et al. I am inspired that Tolkien’s characters saw their world was worth fighting for even in the midst of their darkest threats.

And maybe you think that doesn’t matter because it is a fictional world, but the best works of fiction echo the real world. We are caught up in an epic battle between good and evil. Everyday people decide where they will stand. Everyday people decide what they are willing to die for. Everyday people look doggedly for the meaning in their existence and in their world.

Who needs the belief in the reality of meaning and the story of good ultimately prevailing more than those who suffer with chronic pain? I need all the stories I can get that remind of the ultimate story. A story in which God himself heroically offered his life over to the forces of evil in what seemed like certain defeat for all goodness and truth. A story where even death itself could not hold down the Son of God.

That story is not a myth. But Tolkien’s mythological world helps me see that ultimate story in new ways. I will never tire of hanging out in Middle Earth. On my darkest days, it is still a place where I can find light. It is a place where I am reminded that pain and suffering are not things in themselves. They are simply the absence of good. Since good will prevail, pain and suffering will disappear when evil is vanquished. I will embrace every opportunity to be reminded of that glorious truth, even in the literary world of fantasy.

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Thoughts on the Loss of a Loved One For the Chronically Ill

I haven’t blogged in over a month and part of the reason is that I’ve been processing some thoughts during a difficult time. My best friend was killed in a motorcycle accident on July 12th and we didn’t have his memorial service until July 26th. I found that I lost my voice, so to speak, for a while. I had no words to offer anyone. Even preaching–my regular job–was difficult.

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Chris Blair, Jim Chandler, and David Heflin during a training weekend for a mission trip to Shanghai.

I didn’t prefer the long delay between Chris’ death and the service, but it might have given me a chance to find my voice again. I was asked to be the emcee for the service. I had the honor of opening the service and then facilitating the process of many others sharing their thoughts. By God’s grace, all went well.

Still, I didn’t have anything new to say to the chronically ill/chronic pain community. I was dealing with a very different kind of pain and I couldn’t find the common ground between the grief of the loss of a loved one and the kind of pain I usually address here. I’ve come to the conclusion that that is the point. They are two totally different experiences and one does not inform the other very much at all.

If I had never known chronic pain, the death of my friend would not have hurt any more or any less. And the experience of chronic pain did not necessarily prepare me for the type of pain related to losing a loved one. And that’s okay. I don’t expect that somehow going through one kind of pain makes you stronger for another type of pain.

The lesson is that grief and loss visit all people. We are not different because we hurt physically. Life is still life, and death is still death. This brings me an odd sense of comfort. Having chronic pain is a different kind of experience than what most people have to endure. It makes us different enough.

When I came together with Chris’ family and our mutual friends, I wasn’t thinking about my physical pain (To be honest, it has been much less lately anyway). I was thinking about how much we all lost when Chris left us. Just this day, I had some heavy things on my heart, the exact kinds of things that I used to always call Chris about. I couldn’t call him and it made me grieve all over again.

I do not grieve like those who have no hope. I know I will see Chris again. I believe in the resurrected Jesus and the complete victory he gives us his people over death. But deep inside me is a void created by the absence of a brother I will always cherish. And in this way, we (those of us with chronic pain/illness) are just like everyone else. I’m not glad for our losses, but I am thankful that we aren’t so different after all.

P.S.: Chris was a graphic designer and he is the one who created the Broken and Mended logo.

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