Meditations on a Broken Foot

I broke my foot just over three weeks ago. I’m strapped into my accursed amazing AircastTM for another four weeks or so, probably at least three of those still on crutches. I’ve named my crutches, we’re on such good terms: Starsky and Hutch. (Starsky’s the one with the scratch about halfway down.)

Aircast, Starsky, and Hutch

Aircast, Starsky, and Hutch

As far as difficult life experiences go, this one doesn’t rank near the top. I’ve seen too much death, experienced too much loss, for a mere broken meta-something-or-other to even crack the top ten. (Okay, bad choice of words, “crack.”)

But a broken foot is still no small thing. It hurt like Hades when it happened, and also for the first four days whenever I walked on it before I saw a doctor (don’t ask). Even now I’m up to the daily maximum on extra-strength Advil, just to keep up with the constant, cramp-like ache and the occasional bout of throbbing.

Actually, my body aches in places that shouldn’t ache. My shoulders and the heels of my hands ache from all that hopping around with Starsky and Hutch (I’d forgotten that hands even had heels). My AircastTM-ed leg aches from stiffening in place. My other leg aches from bearing all my weight on every other step, turning on the spot, lifting me up and down.

Every trip is an adventure. (Actually, let’s not use the word “trip.”) A stray sock on the floor is now a perilous threat. A heavy door is an impenetrable barrier. A row of steep steps is a sheer cliff (one “bonus”: I’ve not watched as much TV, the TV being in the basement). Even small, routine actions—picking up that book, carrying it to the chair, sitting in the chair—involve numerous, awkward steps to accomplish. I literally think ahead through all the distinct actions needed just to get ready for bed.

And then there’s the restlessness, the feeling of antsy-ness I get from sitting around, from not being able to go and do. Good thing I’m not generally a “go-er” or a “do-er,” a Type A kind of personality, or this would be much worse. But still there’s a nagging feeling of uselessness, a desire to be useful beyond just emailing and phoning and reading and thinking and planning and sermonating and—oh, yes—praying.

I’ve made it to a few meetings. I’ve even served at a funeral and preached at two Sunday services and stayed upright for some other church events and community activities. But still, the feeling of antsy uselessness remains. I was all excited the other day when I could actually run a couple family errands (the bank in Winkler has a drive-thru, as does Tim Hortons).

But enough about my woes. What you really want to know is, what have I learned from all this? Isn’t that, after all, why these things happen to us, to teach us?

Well, in spite of my misgivings about the theology that is often behind that idea (more on that later), I think I am learning a thing or two as I ponder my broken foot.

I’m learning patience, for one thing.

Patience with the process of healing. Healing of any kind—outward or inward, of the body or of the heart or mind—takes time, and is impossible to rush. In fact, trying to hurry up the healing can often make it worse.

Patience with myself. Yes, there are 143 separate steps involved in getting ready for bed (give or take), but they all have to be done, and in order, and safely. Time is secondary.

The beach where I broke my foot while saving my family from the bear.

The beach where I broke my foot while saving my family from the bear.

Patience with others. I need to rely on others more than I’m used to (another thing I’m learning). That means that others are doing things for me that I normally do for myself. And, let’s just say, I can have very particular ways that I like to do those things (alright, I can be pretty anal about some things). So I’m learning to be patient with others, with the way they do things, and to accept their gracious gifts with humility (okay, another thing I’m learning).

Here’s something else I’m learning: empathy.

You know all that maneuvering around with Starsky and Hutch? All those impenetrable barriers (doors) and sheer cliffs (steps) and perilous threats everywhere (socks on the floor)? All that things-taking-extra-time and that needing-to-rely-on-others?

Imagine what it’s like for those who face these realities all the time.

Imagine what it’s like to never be able to get into that building, or up to that floor, or into that room, because you have a disability and the place is inaccessible.

Imagine what it’s like to be always dependent on the goodwill of other people, especially if you are living alone and the people you have to depend on are mostly strangers.

Imagine what it’s like to be in constant pain or exhaustion, or to be utterly spent after doing just a few basic, household tasks.

Many people around us face these sorts of realities every day. My broken foot pales in comparison, but it does give me a small window onto the experience of those with these greater, ongoing challenges.

There’s one more thing I’m learning—or really, that I’ve had confirmed: God did not do this, nor did God allow it to happen.

I know there are many Christians who find deep comfort in the belief that “God allowed this to happen” whenever they face an illness or a death, a job loss or even a broken foot. I can understand this. It can help people cope with a difficult circumstance if they believe there is some larger purpose behind it, that God is in control of our lives and allows even the bad things to happen in our lives in order to accomplish that larger purpose.

But I don’t believe that to be true—at least, not in the way most people mean.

I don’t believe God does anything that causes harm. I don’t believe God even allows anything that causes harm, if by “allow” you mean “knows about it in advance, could do something about it, but either passively does nothing about it or even actively permits it to happen.”

I know, I know. I know all the Bible verses and theological rebuttals. More importantly, I’ve seen the comfort this belief brings to some people. I do not want to take that comfort away from you, if this belief brings you comfort.

But I can’t believe it for myself. I can’t believe in a God who would allow a child to be raped for some greater good. I can’t believe in a God who would permit millions of people to be slaughtered in genocide for some larger purpose. It’s obscene to put my broken foot in the same category, but the principle applies all the way down the line: God does not cause harm, or even allow harm, ever.

The biblical portrayal of God in all this is rather mixed—let’s be honest. But the biblical vision of God and God’s creation, at both the beginning and the end of the story, is that God brings flourishing life, not death. That which brings harm, which brings death, is decidedly not-God. Even more importantly, this is the biblical portrayal of God as shown in Jesus. God brings abundant life; it is the enemy who steals and kills and destroys.

But note—and this is really, really important—this is not the same thing as saying that God cannot work through our experiences of harm. God does not cause harm. God does not even sit by and give permission for harm to happen. But God can and does enter into our experiences of hardship and pain and craft those experiences toward good ends. This is in fact the story of Jesus, the story of the gospel: God enters into our human experience in Jesus, God enters into our human-induced experience of suffering and sorrow and even death, and God weaves that experience into something life-giving and good.

The Jesus I’m following. Even he stumbled and fell and needed help. (DeGrazia, Way of the Cross)

This I’m convinced of, sitting here with my AircastTM-ed foot, swallowing another extra-strength Advil: God didn’t do this, I did. But God is with me through the pain and healing, and God can use this experience to shape me more closely to the image of Jesus.

As long as I can avoid the stray socks.

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11 Responses to Meditations on a Broken Foot

  1. Ruth Derksen says:

    Those sentiments echo mine completely! Even though our situations are different, yours was an accident, mine a result of deliberate choice, the result is the same. I have experienced the same feeling of uselessness, a waste of a perfectly beautiful number of Fall weeks where I should be working on the yard and helping my son and daughter-in-law pass the last precious days before becoming parents for the first time. The omni-present pain and fitful nights it causes, relying on others when I would much rather do it myself but cannot. But an understanding or deeper appreciation for what many others endure each day has been a surprise by-product of this temporary (I hope) disability. The Lord works in mysterious ways! Thanks for sharing your reality during this setback in your busy life

  2. HJK says:

    I am very curious about your comments that God does not allow bad things to happen. Isn’t that what the whole story of Job is about? God allowing Satan to wield his evil – specifically on Job and his family. When God asks Satan to consider his servant Job the second time (Job 2) God even takes ownership (v.3) for the things he allowed Satan to do the Job earlier. In Job’s story God allowed some atrocious things to happen Job’s family, But in the end Satan could not pull way Job from God, in fact, the exact opposite happened; Job was drawn closer to God.
    I want to agree with you that God does allow rape or genocide or even broken feet, but how does that fit with his sovereignty? I do agree that God does permit atrocities to happen for some random greater good. But like Aslan told the children in C.S Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia, Aslan does not discuss another person story with no-one except the person himself. East story, each atrocity, each joy, each challenge, each broken foot, is part of a story and between a person and God. In the end, I like to believe that in all these things it is God desire to draw that person to himself.
    Happy Healing

    • Michael Pahl says:

      Hi, Henk John. Wow, it’s great to hear from you! I hope you’re well, and thanks for the comment.

      I read Job as essentially a parable. It does have a larger point or impression it intends to convey, but we can’t focus too much on the details or we can miss that larger point or impression. So, for instance, we shouldn’t conclude from Job that there is actually a “council of sons of God” which includes a being called “the Satan/Accuser” and which meets periodically to discuss individual humans (among other matters). This would be akin to deriving a detailed personal eschatology from Jesus’ story of the rich man and Lazaraus—which, of course, many have done, but shouldn’t.

      The major point of Job, as I see it, is essentially to dismantle the common ancient Near Eastern idea of “we get what we deserve in this life”: that prosperity is a sign of divine blessing and destitution a sign of divine disfavour (okay, that’s not just an ancient idea!). The book of Job severs the link between material prosperity and divine favour: we cannot tell, from one’s social station or life circumstances, whether they have God’s approval or not.

      Another significant point of Job, I think, is that there are in fact no “answers” to the “problem of evil”—there is only God’s presence. In the end God comes near to Job: that is the most Job—or any of us, even Jesus, as his Gospel story shows—can expect from God in the midst of tragedy. And that should be enough for us.

  3. Otto Hamm says:

    Thanks for this personal sharing. Can identify with it. Would like to talk more about God’ control.

  4. Michael Pahl says:

    This has stirred up a few reactions, both here and in other venues – that’s good! I’d encourage everyone to read carefully what I’ve actually written, and then read also my response to Henk John above on the book of Job.

    Let me give a few addenda to all this, first an analogy I’ve found helpful:

    One of the biblical analogies for God I’ve found most helpful in thinking through questions surrounding suffering, sin, the problem of evil, and so on, is the analogy of God as a parent.

    When our children were younger we would regularly take them to a playground to play (hard to believe those days are gone!). We would let them play on a play structure that we deemed suitable for their physical abilities, even knowing that there was always the possibility that they could fall and break something. We gave them boundaries, we monitored them, but by and large we let them explore their world and test their limits. The risk of harm was small relative to the benefits of them playing on the play structure: enjoyment, outdoor physical activity, physical development, social interaction, and the like.

    But we would not have been good parents if we let them play on a play structure where falling and breaking their arm was a certainty, or even an unreasonably high risk. We would have been horrific parents if we directly broke their arm ourselves, or even allowed someone else to break their arm—despite knowing full well they might learn life lessons and build character by having a broken arm.

    This seems to me to be a good rule of thumb in doing theology: if our theology presents us with a god who is more immoral than we are, we should probably reconsider our theology.

    • lorajbraun says:

      Yes, oh yes! I especially agree with your last point above, but it’s all helpful. This is really what I meant when I said last night that God did not give Rowan Down Syndrome. Not that God can’t bring good out of it, or that Rowan isn’t part of God’s good creation. But just that God did not directly cause (or allow) a condition that will cause significant difficulties for Rowan throughout his life. This is not what any parent would choose for their child, and it is not what God chooses either.

  5. Michael Pahl says:

    Addendum #2, on the language of “harm”:

    Also helpful is to consider what is meant by “harm.” I use that word very specifically. It connects with a common English translation of Paul’s words in Romans 13, that “love does no harm (kakos) to its neighbour; therefore, love is the fulfillment of the Law.” It also recalls the popular version of the Hippocratic oath for doctors and those in medical professions: “First, do no harm.”

    By harm I don’t mean just “anything difficult.” I mean that which hinders or keeps us from having our basic human needs met, e.g. air, water, food, clothing, and shelter; health and security; belonging, intimacy, respect, significance, etc.

    This, for me, is essentially a definition of “sin”: thinking, saying, or doing something, or not saying or doing something, which causes this kind of harm to others. God does not sin; God does not do harm.

    Again, all this is not to say that God cannot or does not work in and through the harms that have happened and use those experiences in our lives to help shape our character or bring about other good ends—that’s the good news story of Jesus. But rather it’s to say that God is neither the direct nor the ultimate cause of harm in our lives.

  6. Michael Pahl says:

    And a third addendum, this on God’s “sovereignty”:

    Of course this raises questions about God’s meticulous control over everything that happens. I don’t believe that either. When the Bible talks about God’s sovereignty, or says things like God is “King” or “Lord,” it is not to say God controls everything—no one in the ancient world would say that of a king or lord! Rather, it is to say that (like a human king or lord) all things fall under God’s jurisdiction, and we owe our ultimate allegiance to God, to follow God’s ways.

    As for God’s control of events, I see God’s power and freedom as constrained by God’s love. God has created us and all things as contingently free creations (that is, we are free to act, but within all the expected and rather numerous constraints of genetics, environment, history, etc.). God knows all the possibilities of the future, and thus is able to anticipate whatever might happen—but God doesn’t know the immediate future as if it were a single, certain thing. The immediate future cannot be certain, because there are so many free persons shaping it, including God.

    So God doesn’t meticulously control all things. God acts and interacts and reacts within the present, in light of the past and anticipating the future, always for the good of creation and never for its harm. The ultimate future is certain, because God is patient and persistent, and ultimately God will bring all things to justice and peace and flourishing life.

    • HJK says:

      Response to addenda

      I am trying to understand your perspective in light of the many stories in the OT; especially in light of the story of Job and the book of Judges. Whether Job is an actual true story, parable or a mixture thereof, it does portray God as directly allowing harm to Job and his family. I still see God’s sovereignty as underlying theme in Job (must be my Calvinist roots :-). It is evidenced in the first two chapters, declared in God’s response to Job and repented in Job’s confession to God’s questioning. However, in light of what you are saying, God would not have known Job’s response and must have had a lot trust in Job’s faith.
      Also, in light of the many stories in Judges where God allowed other tribes of people to harm (sin) his people for a period until his people would returned to him. Then God would raise up a deliverer to free his people from the harm caused by the pagan tribe. This theme is portrayed throughout the OT beginning judges, throughout the reign of the many kings, right up to the to the exile. It is the continual story of God using the atrocities of warring tribes to draw his people back to himself. (Do we dare to wonder why a small tribe like Isis has been able to bring the powers of western free world to its knees – Maybe, just maybe, God has a greater purpose in it all) It seems what we deemed okay for God to do for his chosen people in the OT we have no appetite for now.

      When Paul declares the supremacy of Christ in Colossians 1 (16) “All things whether visible or invisible, whether thrones or dominions, whether principalities or powers – all things were created through him and for him, (17) He himself is before all things and all things are held together in him.” (NET) Paul is saying that all things, not just the good, were created by and for him. (I know, I should know better than to quote Paul to you 🙂

      In your first addendum I have trouble making the jump from comparing God to a loving parent, to understanding where the atrocities of war and genocide fit in the parent/child relationship. What happens in war and genocide no parent would ever want happen to their children. I also struggle to understand what is happening with-in Syria could be within in God’s control, yet at the same time, could be out of God’s control – there are no easy answers. Yet in the small scale, things like broken foots, I have seen how God has used (allowed) harm to draw me closer to himself – Admittedly, most of the times these.insights come well after the fact.

      Take care.

      • Michael Pahl says:

        Thanks again, Henk John. There’s a lot in what you’ve just written! I’ll try to focus in on a few thoughts in response.

        The Old Testament is difficult to interpret as a Christian regardless of our perspective on this! You’re right that there are many things in the OT (and some in the NT, actually) which can seem to go against this basic idea I’m proposing, that God neither harms nor allows harm, yet God can work with us through our experiences of harm to bring about good things.

        I’ve found a few things helpful over the past few years in my interpretation of the Bible generally. One is letting go of the need for the Bible to speak with a single voice on any given theme. There’s a reason why Calvinists can list one set of verses, Arminians list another set, and each thinks they have proven their point. The Bible isn’t univocal on God’s sovereignty, or God’s foreknowledge, or the meaning of suffering, or so on.

        A second helpful idea for me (and this is related to the first) has been truly coming to terms with the reality that the various biblical writings were written from different worldviews. Judges was written from within a thoroughly tribalistic worldview: each tribe of humans has their own god(s), their own rituals and cultural practices, and every interaction between tribes is a clash of cultures and an honour contest between their gods. For various reasons (some below) I can’t accept that worldview.

        Overall (and this has been brewing since my early days teaching at Prairie), I am much more comfortable with the humanness of the Bible, and seeing that God speaks through that humanness (not in spite of it). This is along the analogy of the incarnation: God appears to us in the man Jesus, not in spite of Jesus’ humanity. (This “incarnational” analogy for Scripture comes from Peter Enns, who has some helpful things to say about the other things I’ve said above.)

        A final thought on interpreting the Bible: I am more and more convinced that we as Christians need to interpret the Bible centred on Jesus: Jesus is its goal, and the lens through which we read it. This means we can’t simply say, “This is how God is revealed in Judges or Job, and this needs to be weighed equally against how God is revealed in Jesus in the Gospel of Luke.” No, Jesus is the eternal Word from God (John 1), the very image of God (Col 1), the exact representation of God (Heb 1)—all others are as shadows of the reality, which is Christ (again, read Col and Heb, among others). So we must give greater weight to the way God is revealed in Jesus (not just in the Gospels, of course, but throughout the NT). And this means there are times when we must follow Jesus in saying, “You have heard that it was said, but I say to you.”

        For more of my thoughts on all this, and what it means to claim the Bible is “inspired by God” through all this, see my lengthy blog post on “What is Scripture, and How do we Read It?”

        This response is already getting too long, so I’ll just leave you with one more thought. You keep returning to the idea that God works through harm to bring about good things, specifically drawing us closer to God’s self. I absolutely agree. None of what I’ve said denies that. Remember, my basic point is still that God neither harms nor allows harm, yet God can work with us through our experiences of harm to bring about good things. On that last point we can both say “Amen!”

  7. Michael Pahl says:

    Another addendum!

    Someone pointed to C. S. Lewis’ quote: “What do people mean when they say, ‘I am not afraid of God because I know He is good’? Have they never even been to a dentist?”

    It hints at a good question: Is all “harm” bad? Can God not do short-term harm in order to bring about long-term good, like a dentist drilling or a surgeon cutting in order to bring about better health?

    Sure, I’d say—but let’s think more carefully about that analogy. First, remember I’m not just talking about “harm” as “something difficult,” or even “something that hurts.” See an earlier addendum for what I mean by “harm.”

    But second—and this is the crucial point—a surgeon will only amputate a leg, say, if there is a specific greater harm that faces the patient if the leg is not amputated. Surgeons don’t amputate a leg so the patient can build character or learn a life lesson. Surgeons don’t amputate a leg so that some time down the road the patient will join a support group for disabled persons, meet their future spouse, get married, and have three wonderful children. Any of those things might happen, but we would consider it criminal for a surgeon to amputate a leg for any of those reasons.

    Again, I go back to my “rule of thumb” for doing theology: if our theology presents us with a god who is more immoral than we are, we should probably reconsider our theology. And again, I would highlight my basic point: God neither harms nor allows harm, yet God can work with us through our experiences of harm to bring about good things.

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