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.)
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.
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.
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.
Cross-posted from www.mordenmennonitechurch.wordpress.com. © Michael W. Pahl
Thank you for this. I live with significant disabilities and rely on help to do all manner of daily things. I don’t believe at all that God has brought this on me for a purpose – but I am in awe of all the good things he has brought from it!
I wrote a little about my experiences in Walking with God when you can hardly walk, should you be interested. I’d been sick with CFS/ME for 4-5 years at the time of writing, 13 now.
PS I came across your blog through several recommendations from Tim Bulkeley’s blog in recent months, and have been finding your reflections helpful. Thank you.