I didn’t fit the profile.
Back in 1981, I was a fit young guy, just out of the Army. I went to the doctor to complain about out-of-the-blue attacks that felt like a rope being pulled tight around my ribs.
Don’t eat after 7:00 pm.
The attacks continued. Back to the doctor.
Lay off of spicy foods.
The attacks were more frequent and severe. Back to the clinic again.
Finally, a doctor ordered an ultrasound. The techs squinted and said Looks like you’ve got gall stones, and thought I was nuts when I said, Thank God. I was relieved, because diagnosis meant treatment.
Because I didn’t fit their profile for acute cholecystitis (an overweight woman over 60), none of the first doctors looked for gall stones. Now I needed surgery.
Today an inflamed gall bladder is removed lapriscopically, leaving only small marks on the body. But when I went in, it was an old school surgery. I have a nasty diagonal scar across my midsection to this day.
I share this grim tale because of what the surgeon told me. Surgery is a controlled injury. That idea stuck with me. The means of my healing was to injure my body, but in a controlled process.
His words came back to me when I started my current job in a hospital sterile processing department. I decontaminate, repack and sterilize surgical implement sets.
When the sets come down from the surgical floor, some implements are covered with blood, tissue or bone fragments. They testify to the injuries inflicted toward a patient’s healing.
Another evidence of the healing violence is the implements themselves. Except for their well kept stainless steel, many of the implements are little different from things you might pull out of a drawer or tool box at home. Stuff you wield with pushing, twisting, sweating and cussing to fix a broken appliance or put up curtain rods.
Literal injury accompanied the progress of the Old Covenant – circumcision marked the males of the chosen people; Jacob won the victorious name and heritage of Israel but went forward with a literal, permanent limp. The Prophets announced the fulfillment of the Covenant, the healing of the fallen world, through a figure purposely injured by the hand of God,
Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed. (Isaiah 53:4-5)
While Christians believe that Jesus underwent the successful controlled injury on our behalf, we also hear him tell us that our progress toward God will be marked by spiritual surgical interventions.
Overcoming our inclination to sin is likened to amputation:
If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell. (Matthew 5:29-30)
Christ transformed his enemy Saul of Tarsus into his great witness Paul the Apostle by temporarily blinding him and then teaching him to rely on divine grace by inflicting a chronic “thorn in the flesh.”
Christ is indeed a healer, but his methods include surgery – controlled injury of those in his care. This is difficult imagery; it goes against our delight in his gentleness, it is open to distortions like romanticizing or making a fetish of suffering, and it can contribute to self justification should we display our wounds as marks of spiritual superiority.
Identifying God’s controlled injuries in our lives requires prayer and counsel informed by Scripture. Some life injuries – indeed, many – are inflicted by the evil of a fallen world, which includes our own sin. The world, the flesh and the devil beat on all people – saved or lost – from conception to death.
But those God is calling will receive the controlled injuries as well. Some bring pain in exquisite excess compared to life’s other owies. But what the Holy Spirit performs on us transforms us in unity with the One who suffered, died and rose for our healing to eternal life:
O sweet cautery,
O delightful wound!
O gentle hand! O delicate touch
that tastes of eternal life
and pays every debt!
In killing you changed death to life.
(John of the Cross, The Living Flame of Love, Stanza 2)