Once upon a time I attended a tiny two room school in Gazeley, England. There was big class and little class. I was there from the time I was 5 until I was 8. I stayed in little class the entire time. It was our village primary school. We had a headmaster and a couple of teachers and the cooks in the lunch room. The cooks wore the most amazing multi-hued platform shoes (it was the 1970s). Our Headmaster, Mr Bouldrey, was a tall thin man of Ichabod Crane proportions. He was spindly and had a chronic scowl on his pinched face. He was not kind. He did not like me. He was the villain in my school world. If he had a theme song it would be dark and ominous with creepy minor chord undertones.
I seemed to be the focus of his hatred towards all things American. "Since when did the Americans decide to replace the letter 't' for the letter 'd' in the word 'water'?" He sneered in my general direction one day whilst my mother stood by. He then proceeded to mimic a very bad American accent pronouncing the afore mentioned word, "Waadder." To which my mother, the heroine of my everyday, immediately quipped back, "Oh about the same time the British replaced the letter 'a' with 'oo', and the 'er' with 'ah', and with a sardonic smile she said in her best British accent, 'Wootah'."
However much I detested this man he did teach me a valuable lesson one day while he droned on in class one day. There in class He suddenly exclaimed the most bizarre thing I had ever heard in my less than 10 years on the planet. He said pain was a gift. He said imagine one day you are walking along the sea shore and you step on a thick shard of glass and it deeply pierces one of your sandy bare feet. He said if you felt no pain you would go on walking not realizing your food was bleeding badly. "You might even develop a bad infection or worse bleed to death right there walking along the sea shore on holiday." Yikes this man was nutso! Yet it made sense in my primary school mind. We do need pain to alert us that something has gone wrong and needs immediate attention.
I came across a book a few years ago called, "Where is God when it Hurts" by Philip Yancey. This brilliant book amazingly laid out how pain is a gift from our Creator. Paul Brand is a doctor who has studied and treated patients afflicted with Leprosy and he lends to the book his considerable research in pain. It is resplendent with science and studies and all manor of smart stuff. Lest this blog become a book report I will continue on with my point.
This idea of pain being a gift rocked my world when I was in primary school and it rocked it again as an adult. Our loving God placed within us a complex system to alert us to injury and infection. It is very effective. In the book they site studies that have tried to replicate external systems to convey the pain message to our brains without actual pain. It fails miserably. Read the book. It's truly remarkable how delicate and intricate the pain system is that God has designed within us. Especially when the absence of pain is presented.
Leprosy is a disease which numbs the body in ever widening degrees. The shriveled limbs and scaly skin and eventual blindness was thought to be the disease itself until one brilliant doctor realized it was the lack of being able to feel pain that enabled the patient to continually injure oneself without treatment that led to infection which led to gangrene which led to loss of limb, etc. The very lack of pain was the crux of the matter which led to the eventual destruction of the physical body.
This book explores pain both physically and emotionally. It studies our interaction with pain and pleasure. It is much more complex than just a scientific study of pain and Leprosy. I found reading the book challenging and inspiring. But to take it a step further or even many steps deep within to our very souls I am stuck on this notion of numbness that creeps in and spreads deep in our hearts and souls. When we harden our hearts we numb the pain so to speak. It seems to do the trick in the moment but what damage will result from closing down and hardening in the face of injury?
I have always adopted the lines of the poem by the British poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson, "...to have love and lost is better than to have never loved at all" to my life. I was shaken a few years ago when a friend I thought was close and I loved dearly simply walked out of my life with hardly a backwards glance. This loss of friendship happened during a very personally painful time which seemed to add insult to injury. I was tempted to harden my heart. I wanted to swallow the pain and shove it deep down and never allow myself to repeat such a time. I was tempted to wall up and never let another friend get close again.
What's worse is I was tempted to do the same with God. I felt confused and frustrated as things were not going the way I thought they should. I wondered if God was paying attention or if we had just misread the signs. I felt my heart start to harden, my spirit start to shrivel. Thankfully I did not "go gentle into that good night" as Dylan Thomas advised in his famous poem. All would have been the beginning of leprosy of the spirit. I would begin to distance my feelings and gradually numb my heart to God and people. Ultimately it would have led to a gangrenous bitter spirit, amputated compassion and vision. I would have become scaly with dry brittle skin becoming so easily offended and eventually my vision would cloud with suspicion and block the golden light of wisdom. It would be tragic and yet I think it happens entirely too frequently among us Christians. We flicker and sputter and eventually burn out due to our own hardened hearts.
With hardened hearts we endure cancerous relationships inflicting damage that batters and bruises our spirit but we stuff it and in our numb state don't realize infection has set in. We die just a little bit day by day until we end up sleep walking through life. Leprosy of the spirit becomes the new normal. The disease does it's damage yet we don't seek treatment because we've lost sensitivity. We walk along the sea shore on holiday bleeding out. The medicine so desperately needed can reverse damage and restore feeling.
"I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols. I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh." Ezekiel 36:25-26
"Indeed, in their case the prophecy of Isaiah is fulfilled that says: ‘You will indeed hear but never understand, and you will indeed see but never perceive. For this people's heart has grown dull, and with their ears they can barely hear, and their eyes they have closed, lest they should see with their eyes and hear with their ears and understand with their heart and turn, and I would heal them.’" Matthew 13:14-15
"Do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion, on the day of testing in the wilderness," Hebrews 3:8
"The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?" Jeremiah 17:9
"For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart." Hebrews 4:12
"For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened." Romans 1:21
"Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding" Proverbs 3:5
"The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise" Psalm 51:17
"Because, if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved." Romans 10:9-10
"Light is sown for the righteous, and joy for the upright in heart." Psalm 97:11
"Let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water." Hebrews 10:22
"Having purified your souls by your obedience to the truth for a sincere brotherly love, love one another earnestly from a pure heart," 1 Peter 1:22
"Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls." Matthew 29:11
Did you know there is a scale to measure sensitivity? It's called the "absolute threshold of touch", and is measured in grams (per square millimeter of skin surface). In Yancey's book he lists measurements in various parts of the body:
Tip of tongue sensitive to 2 grams of pressure
Fingers sensitive to 3 grams of pressure
Back of hand sensitive to 12 grams of pressure
Back of forearm sensitive to 33 grams of pressure
Sole of foot sensitive to 250 grams of pressure
Another test assesses the "absolute threshold of pain". It measures how much pressure must be applied to a very sharp needle before the subject begins to experience pain:
Cornea 0.2 grams produces a painful sensation
Forearm 20 grams produces a painful sensation
Back of hand 100 grams produces a painful sensation
Sole of foot 200 grams produces a painful sensation
Fingertip 300 grams produces a painful sensation
Can you imagine what an "absolute threshold of pain" might measure in our hearts and spirits? And if we silence the warning system of pain within us we will unwittingly destroy our very hearts. Not all pain is helpful as in debilitating chronic illnesses but for the most part it is a gift says Yancy that no one wants.
I will close with a quote from Dr. Brand:
"At one time, I thought of pain as the opposite of happiness. I would have illustrated life by drawing a graph with a peak at each end and a trough in the middle. The peak at the left would represent the experience of pain or acute unhappiness. The peak at the right would represent pure happiness or ecstasy. In between is quiet, normal living. My goal, I thought, was to face firmly toward happiness and away from pain. But now I see things differently. If I drew such a graph today, it would have a single, central peak with a surrounding plain, The peak would be Life with a capital L, at the point at which pain and pleasure meet. The surrounding plain would be sleep or apathy or death."