Life in Focus

Where following Jesus and Every Day Life Intersect


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Productive Pain

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Cradling my broken arm in his hands, the physical therapist gently straightened it and bent it, testing for flexibility. I felt vulnerable without my wrist and elbow braces, but was motivated to do what was needed to help the healing process. After kneading the muscles and tendons around my elbow, he said, “I’m not gonna lie to you, this next exercise will hurt pretty bad.” With that, he began rotating my lower arm slowly back and forth. I squeezed my eyes shut as every muscle and tendon surrounding my fractured wrist and elbow reacted with searing pain.

I was relieved to put my braces back on when he finished; they made me feel less vulnerable and provided some stability and comfort. Before leaving, I asked the therapist how I could differentiate between “good” and “bad” pain. Knowing which motions would help the healing process would motivate me to push through the pain.  Almost as soon as I asked the question, I realized there was an obvious analogy in our spiritual lives. Just as there are good and bad kinds of pain in the physical realm, there are also good and bad kinds of pain in the spiritual realm.

Later that day I found the passage that I’d been thinking of as I winced on the table at the physical therapist. It focuses on the “good” kind of spiritual pain we sometimes experience:

 “Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as his children. For what children are not disciplined by their father? If you are not disciplined—and everyone undergoes discipline—then you are not legitimate, not true sons and daughters at all. Moreover, we have all had human fathers who disciplined us and we respected them for it. How much more should we submit to the Father of spirits and live! They disciplined us for a little while as they thought best; but God disciplines us for our good, in order that we may share in his holiness. No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it. Therefore, strengthen your feeble arms and weak knees. ‘Make level paths for your feet, so that the lame may not be disabled, but rather healed.’” (Hebrews 12:7-12, NIV)

The word “discipline” comes from two closely related Greek words: “Paideia” and ”Paideuo.” Both involve correcting, instructing and educating another person.   The words were originally used to describe rearing children, but were later used in reference to teaching those young in the faith. One word that was not part of either definition was “punishment.” There are nine different Greek words for punishment, but none of them includes these words. Discipline has nothing to do with revenge or seeking justice after someone has violated a moral code. Although our culture sometimes uses discipline and punishment interchangeably, they are two entirely different things.  Discipline is not for retribution, but for our benefit.

The Hebrews passage tells us that hardship is a form of discipline. This means the difficult experiences we face in life can all be used for good. Sometimes God allows painful circumstances to refine our faith or to build our trust. Other times, he wants to get our attention or to show us we’re putting our hope in something other than him. Occasionally he allows good things in our lives to be removed to make way for better ones. With our eyes on God, even the worst situations can make us spiritually stronger.

I’d never paid much attention to the last part of the Hebrews passage until breaking my arm. It says we should accept discipline to “strengthen our feeble arms” so that “the lame may not be disabled, but rather healed.” If I were unwilling to do the painful therapy required to restore strength and flexibility to my arm, I would ultimately be disabling myself. Although my fractured bones would heal, the stiff tendons and muscles would never become flexible again without some serious effort. The result would be limited mobility that would keep me from doing both daily tasks and fun activities that I love.

Similarly, submitting to God’s discipline heals and strengthens us so that we don’t go through life emotionally and spiritually stunted. Trusting God through challenging times keeps us from becoming bitter or from wallowing in self-pity. Instead, we lean into him through the pain, knowing that he is using it to produce a “harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.”

I’m learning anew the importance of letting God use difficult circumstances. The twinges of pain in my arm regularly prompt me to ask what he’s trying to teach me through this challenging time. My broken arm is an outward manifestation of something all of us experience inwardly. Each of us carries wounds, scars and memories that impact us daily, whether we realize it or not. When we let God use those painful things to draw us to him, we allow him to bring peace, healing and strength to our lives. You may not have a broken arm, but there may be some other hardship in your life that God wants to use to teach you. Will you let him do it?

Click on the link and be encouraged by Lauren Daigle’s song “Trust in You.” Let it be your prayer today.

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The Myth of Self-Sufficiency

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Setting the plate in front of me, the waitress smiled and offered a cheerful “Enjoy your meal!” before walking away. My salad looked delicious, but I frowned. The chicken breast displayed on top would be difficult to eat without using two hands to cut it into smaller pieces. I’d hoped what I ordered would be easy to eat one-handed since my right arm was tucked in a sling. Staring at the food and shifting with discomfort, I weighed my options. The women around me at the table were engrossed in conversation, unaware of my predicament. Finally I turned to a friend next to me and apologized for interrupting. “Um, do you mind cutting up my chicken?” Realizing my problem, she happily obliged while I tried to act casual.  There was no reason to feel embarrassed, but I still felt like a child.

I’ve had an independent streak since I was little. It might have been my position as the youngest of five. It might have been the four-year gap between the next sibling and me. My independence led me to a college far from home. And it led me to a job as a teacher where I was isolated in a classroom instead of regularly working alongside colleagues. “Capable” and “efficient” were good descriptions for me. I didn’t know much about being a team player or learning to work well with others. The idea of delegating responsibilities made me cringe with fear and mistrust—whether it was at work, at home or serving at church. I had friends and meaningful relationships, but tackled much of life as a Lone Ranger.

Getting married, raising children and gaining life experience have changed me incrementally over time.  I’ve begun to recognize that many things I thought I could handle on my own were actually better and more enjoyable when I shared them with others. Whether it was planning class reunions, leading Vacation Bible School or facilitating Bible studies, I’ve learned the value and joy of working with others.

One thing I’ve struggled with, however, is asking for help or receiving it when it’s offered. This changed drastically when a bike accident left me with a broken right wrist and elbow recently. “Capable” and “efficient” are no longer words used to describe me. Instead, they characterize the many people who have stepped in to help me during this challenging season. I’ve been blessed and humbled by the numerous ways friends and family members have come alongside me.

Self-sufficiency has its place, but when it is over emphasized, it leads to isolationism and a lack of community.   It’s also a breeding ground for pride. Although it’s been humbling, the outpouring of support I’ve received since my accident has provided clear evidence of God’s love. It’s also reinforced the blessing of Christian fellowship. I’ve learned to accept help when it’s offered and to ask for it even when it isn’t (which is not easy to do). I’m depending on my family more. And I’m learning to let them do things their way instead of mine (which is also not easy to do). My lack of self-sufficiency has blessed my marriage in ways a book or couples’ seminar never could.

This experience is enabling me to understand an old familiar passage in a new light. King Solomon, perhaps the wisest man that ever lived, wrote these words:

“Two are better than one, because they have a good return for their labor:

If either of them falls down, one can help the other up.

But pity anyone who falls and has no one to help them up.

Also, if two lie down together, they will keep warm.

But how can one keep warm alone?

Though one may be overpowered, two can defend themselves.

A cord of three strands is not quickly broken.” (Ecclesiastes 4:9-12, NIV)

Solomon was rich and powerful, yet he understood the value of relationship and community. He knew life was better when shared with others.

Self-sufficiency only works when things are going smoothly. Although we like to think that “normal” life equates with the absence of trouble, we are only fooling ourselves. Jesus assures us in John’s gospel: “In this world you will have trouble.” Fortunately he follows this with this assurance, But take heart! I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33b, NIV)

Here is the truth: only God is sufficient. Thankfully, he never intended for us to be on life’s journey solo. He’s given us the blessings of fellowship and community as tangible ways to meet our needs.  They also remind us that we are never alone.

If you can relate to my struggles with pride and self-sufficiency, I invite you to pray and ask God to show you one area you can surrender to him by letting someone meet a need you have. Maybe you won’t have to break your arm to recognize that sufficiency in anything other than God is just a myth.

The song ‘”Brother” by the band NEEDTOBREATHE celebrates that life is better when we’re in it together. (Ladies, don’t get too hung up on the title, just substitute “sister” if it makes you feel better). Click on the link to enjoy this inspiring song.

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When I Am Weak, Then I Am Strong

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Turning my head for the briefest moment, I realized my carelessness just in time to see my front wheel colliding with the curb. The pavement seemed to rise up to meet my face as I crashed in a heap. Before I’d had a chance to react, I was sprawled on the side of the road, tangled in my bike and still clipped into the pedals. Rushing back to help me, my husband gently pulled the bike off me and surveyed my injuries.

The road rash on my swollen cheek and shoulder looked bad, but were minor injuries compared to the pain radiating down my right arm. A trip to the ER confirmed I’d fractured my elbow. Wrapping my arm from shoulder to fingers, the nurses listened sympathetically as I lamented that I didn’t have time to slow down at such a busy time of year.

Initially I didn’t realize that even my most common activities would be impacted by this injury.   I knew I could forget about getting exercise for a while. The effort required for simple tasks like bathing and dressing was hard enough. What I didn’t anticipate was that holding a book, writing and typing with two hands would also be extremely challenging. Suddenly, the main things I sought for spiritual and mental health were no longer available to me.

Lying in bed the morning after my accident, I realized I needed to find some new ways to connect with God that were outside of my usual practices. I thought of the many people who constantly share their life happenings on social media—it almost seems as if events don’t really “count” unless they’re posted. It turns out I can be the same way with my spiritual disciplines. If I don’t write prayers in my journal or fill in answers in a Bible study workbook, I feel like I haven’t done an actual “quiet time” like a dutiful and faithful Christian “should.”

I’ve written and thought a lot about the idea of abiding—of remaining present and engaged with God throughout each day. With the limitations created by my injury, God is challenging me to find new ways to do this consistently. My broken elbow has caused me to be a lot less productive and a lot more introspective. Holding an ice pack to my face with my left hand and having a nearly unusable right hand prevents me from multitasking like I usually would. It’s hard to grasp a book or even scroll through my phone. In those idle moments I’m trying to focus on God instead of letting my thoughts just ramble. My injury is teaching me to settle into the quiet and just be in God’s presence.

As much as I’ve grown over the years, I’m realizing God still has many things to teach me (or re-teach me). I am learning to trust him in the midst of my physical weakness and to be attentive to what he wants me to learn during the season of forced rest. And with each passing day, I’m learning to be thankful for the ways life has been simplified to accommodate my injury. I’m learning things I would be too busy to recognize in the usual fast pace of my life.

I’m taking comfort from Paul’s letter to the church at Corinth when he writes about an unnamed physical problem that challenged him:

Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me.  But he 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 12:8-10, NIV)

God’s grace was sufficient for Paul. I pray the same will be true of me as I learn to let his power be made perfect in my weakness. With every task I am unable to do with one hand, I’m being prompted to thank him for something- whether it is the patience I’m learning or the people he’s using to help me.

When I completed my last Bible study workbook by Kelly Minter, I started praying God would provide new sources of inspiration for my writing, but I never anticipated it being something like this. I hope you’ll join me over the next few weeks as God teaches and blesses me through this unexpected season of physical challenges. And as you read, I hope you’ll consider the new places he wants to take you on your faith journey this summer. Sometimes you don’t even have to leave home to do it!

I couldn’t resist sharing a song that feels like it was written just for me in the midst of this crazy time.

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