The other day, I started thinking about my baptism. I’ve been a believer for most of my life, but it’s only in the last year–due to a major upending of my existence–that I’ve begun to learn what it means to follow Christ. (Hint: it’s very hard, and also very easy, and the fact that I have a difficult time wrapping my mind around anything simple is a large part of what makes it so hard.) I was never baptized as a baby, and seven months ago, while still in the swirl of “what the heck are You doing, God?” I decided to remedy that. At twenty-five-years-old, on a drizzly day in February, I was baptized, and I’m not talking “sprinkle some water on your forehead” baptized. I’m talking full-immersion, “step into the baptismal pool, and get dunked by the pastor” baptized. In the winter. Yes, it was cold.
Now, hold that thought, and backtrack with me a bit. In September of last year, I started suffering from plantar fasciitis in my left heel–which, if you don’t know, is an inflammation of the tissue on the bottom of your foot, and is as pleasant as it sounds. This was in addition to the Achilles tendonitis I’d been enduring on my right ankle for three years. Me being me, I continued to run after this new injury developed. Some days were bad, some days weren’t so bad, but I never had a day completely pain-free. I certainly never had a pain-free run, but I thought, As long as it doesn’t get any worse, I can live with it. And so, I did.
Five months later, it was baptism time. We lined up on the stage, and I was the second one to go. Throughout the Bible, you read of people being healed of their diseases and ailments when they’re baptized, and before I stepped into the pool, I prayed, God, please heal my foot when I walk into this water. I went in, I went under, I came up, and though I felt healed in ways I can’t fully explain, my foot pain didn’t go away. I waited a few days, remaining hopeful, thinking maybe it would get better, but it didn’t. I thought, Okay, this is just something I have to endure. And so, I did.
Five months after that, it was summer. I decided to increase the mileage of my runs, and within a few weeks, I started feeling pain in my knees (those of you who follow the blog have likely read my posts bemoaning this, so I’ll keep the whining to a minimum). At first, I lied to myself: It’s not that bad. I can keep running. And so, I did. When you already have two chronic injuries, what’s one more? But instead of staying the same, this pain got worse. And then it got worse again, until I knew I had to stop running. About two weeks later, I actually did stop, and in the days that followed, I began to seriously consider pitching myself into oncoming traffic.
But after the requisite moaning and feeling sorry for myself, I bucked up and decided if I was going to be down, I may as well make the most of it. Along with my knees, I started rehabbing my other injuries. I became conscious of the way I walked and worked to correct my tendency to roll onto the outside edges of my feet. I did many, many heel raises on the porch steps. I switched up my workouts and focused on strengthening the stabilizer muscles in my hips and legs. I also transitioned from girl push-ups to real push-ups, mostly because I was pissed about not being able to run, and I wanted at least one part of my body to be freakishly strong.
It should come as no surprise that I did all of this begrudgingly. Nothing makes me angrier than being told I can’t do something, even if it’s for my benefit, and while I was theoretically using this time to my advantage, I was in no way joyful about it. The truth is, I would’ve rather run in pain than live pain-free. You could chalk that up to masochism and stubbornness, and you would be right, in part. But it’s also that running is an integral component of how I’m wired, how I process things, how I experience the world and even God, and having that taken away is so much more than a physical deprivation. So you can imagine the kind of pain I had to be in–and how greatly I feared causing permanent damage to my knees–before I would force myself to take a break.
But after a few weeks, it seemed that my knees weren’t getting better, and I panicked, admitted self-diagnostic defeat, and sought out a physical therapist. I drove to my first appointment, bracing myself for the worst–to be told I’d done irreparable damage and that I would never run again. Thus, I was also preparing myself for a fight and summoning up the hutzpah to say, “I don’t accept this. What’s your next idea?” But after being examined and talking with the PT, he gave me some exercises to strengthen my knees and told me, “I think we can have you running by the end of the month.” Did I skip out of the office with proverbial birds singing all around me? I did not. I drove home in abject silence, then made myself a turkey sandwich, and tried to figure out what had just happened.
What happened was I’d come to expect bad things. Not to get all doom-and-gloom about it, but nothing has really been going my way lately. Consequently, not only did I no longer wait in hope for good things to happen, but I’d actually begun to anticipate misery and disappointment. I didn’t believe the PT when he told me I would run again. I thought for sure he was mistaken. I thought I would do his exercises to no avail and watch my body continue to atrophy into mush. I just couldn’t find it in me to trust him.
But guess what? I did his exercises, and I got better. When I went to see him again last week, he threw me on the treadmill, and before I left, he told me I could start easing back into running. “But my knees are still bothering me,” I said, giving him the slant-eye. He said, “At this point, you’re not going to do any more damage.” I thought, You don’t know me, but I didn’t say it. I drove home and went on a run.
The last time I took a break from running was five years ago, when I sprained my ankle. At that time, getting back into running was a painful, arduous process. I could barely jog in thirty-second intervals, and it took me forever to work up to my old pace. This was likely due to the fact that I was trying to run on an ankle that hadn’t fully healed, but still. Here’s the crazy thing–when I ran last week, it wasn’t hard. At all. I thought it was some sort of weird first-run high, but I’ve gone on three more since then, increasing my intervals each time, and those haven’t been hard either. Quite the opposite–I’ve felt better on these few runs than I have in years.
As I said, before I hurt my knees, I’d been increasing the length of my intervals, which was part of what caused the injury. Now I’m running intervals it’d previously taken me months to work up to. Not only that, but my plantar fasciitis isn’t bothering me, nor is my tendonitis. I feel more stable when I move, when I land, and my entire body feels sturdier and less jerky. Sure, my knees aren’t entirely healed, and sure, I still have to stretch my feet and ankles and everything else before and after I run. But the point is, I’ve gotten better, and I’m getting better still. I’m healing in ways I didn’t even know I was hurt.
Funny thing–when I got baptized, I asked God to heal my foot. He, in turn, decided to heal my entire body because fixing only my foot wasn’t good enough. In order to do that, He first had to let me suffer. There’s a quote by Tozer that’s always struck me: “Before God can use a man greatly, He must wound him deeply.” I would’ve gone for years–probably the rest of my life–running with injuries, just because I wouldn’t admit that something was wrong. It’s not that bad, I kept thinking. I can live with this. We are willing to take so much less than God is ready and able to give us.
People throw around the term “blessing in disguise” all the time, but I wonder how many of us actually consider what that means. If my knees hadn’t been injured, I never would’ve stopped running, never would’ve done the exercises that strengthened my whole body, and I never would’ve healed. I think back on these past weeks, all the times I’ve cried to God, asking why He’s doing this to me, on top of everything else, and being met with silence. Not cruel silence, but a silence that told me to wait, be patient, I couldn’t yet understand. But being a stubborn, impatient sort, I responded with more crying, with anger, with doubt and a loss of hope that God knew I would fall prey to before any of this had even begun. He anticipated every word. He knew what I would suffer, He knew how I would curse Him, He knew that He would have to watch me struggle in pain, and yet, He let me endure it anyway because He knew I needed to heal. When I realized this last week, I just kept thinking, What kind of love is that? A greater love than I can fully comprehend.
Another saying people are fond of is, “God doesn’t always answer prayer how we expect.” Embedded within these trite words are truths: 1) He often doesn’t answer prayer as quickly as we expect, 2) His answer almost never looks the way we think it should, at least at first, and in fact, it often looks like the exact opposite of what we asked for, and 3) He wants us to be active participants in answering our own prayers. Just because God didn’t bring me instant healing didn’t mean He had no intention of answering my prayer. Just because He allowed me to become injured to the point that I had to stop running for a time didn’t mean He intended to keep me from running forever. Finally, had I chosen to sit around like a lump, waiting for my knees to heal instead of doing exercises to help them (and the rest of my injuries), I wouldn’t have gotten better. Simple, and at the same time, very complex.
Months ago, I came across Isaiah 32:19-20, which says, “Though hail flattens the forest and the city is leveled completely, how blessed you will be.” It’s been on a post-it on my desk ever since. What that verse tells me, in essence, is that even though outside forces barrel in, and my whole world is falling apart, I will be blessed. When I first read those words, I was struck by their stark contrast and thought, How does that work? I’m beginning to get it. Sometimes, desolation has to occur before renewal can happen. It’s like the controlled burnings they do in forests, to encourage seeds to germinate and new trees to grow. Those who start the fires know exactly what they’ll burn and how long they’ll let it go on. But if the trees could talk, I imagine you’d hear a different story. It would be one of anguish and confusion, of lives that believe they’re being ended, when in fact, they’re being restored.
So it goes for the times of burning in our own lives. What’s taking place is so much bigger than we can comprehend while we’re in the flames. Does knowing that on an intellectual level make it any easier to endure? No. Heaven knows, I haven’t behaved admirably during this trial. But my hope is that, the next time something like this happens, I’ll remember what I went through–and what came out of it–and instead of looking at the chaos all around me, I’ll look up and think, “Though hail flattens the forest and the city is leveled completely, how blessed you will be.” I don’t expect that outlook to make the flames hurt any less. I only hope it changes my perspective on suffering.
One thing my pastor often says is this: “The greatest evidence that Christianity is real is not that Christians live without pain, but how they live with pain.” We are not ambassadors for Christ when we stand in the fire and claim we don’t feel the heat singe our skin. We’re ambassadors when we stand in the fire, speak openly and honestly about the pain we’re experiencing, and still choose to trust and believe in a loving God who will use this suffering for our good. This is what it all comes down to: perspective, and a choice. You can look at the flattened forest, the leveled city, and believe your life is over. Or you can choose to see it as a cleared field, a fresh start, a chance to make room for and cultivate new life that couldn’t come in before.