Jul 30, 2021
What’s the worse injury you’ve ever suffered? I’ve been pretty lucky. No major broken bones, concussions, or life-threatening loss of blood. But I have had some pretty nasty burns.
This happened back when I was seven years old. A friend and I had just been camping in my parents’ backyard. We’d built a fire and roasted marshmallows, and the flames had died down into a nondescript pile of ashes. My friend left the next day, and I was out wandering through the yard chasing grasshoppers. That was me at seven. One of them hopped or flew over the pile of ashes and I followed, assuming in my seven-year-old way that the pile would long since have cooled. It definitely had not.
I immediately sank several inches into the hot coals beneath the ashes. I was wearing sandals, so the embers poured in and got stuck. I ran inside screaming and my mother immediately ran cold bath water over my feet. But the damage was done. My toes, soles, and heels started to bubble up with angry blisters.
A few hours later, we were at the emergency room. The doctor explained that he would have to “debride” my blisters to prevent scarring and infection. I had no idea what that meant. My dad must have had some idea what was coming as the doctor instructed him to hold me down. The doctor then soaked a rag in hot water, grabbed an ankle, and began removing the blisters with quick twisting motions. And man, did I scream.
For at least a couple of weeks after that, I had to wear bandages on my feet and couldn’t do much walking. My parents pushed me around in a stroller and helped me clean my feet. They had to wrap gauze around each of my toes so they didn’t grow together and turn me into a duck, as they explained to me. Eventually, I healed, amazingly with no scars. And I can look back on that doctor with thankfulness for what he did, despite how much it hurt at the time.
This incident is still what I think of when I consider the body’s amazing ability to repair itself. In my conversation this week with pediatrician and author Jennie McLaurin, she described the body as a system that’s “designed” to heal. It’s fascinating to think about what that means: our bodies were created with the possibility of injuries already foreseen, and the power to weave cells, sinew, and bones back together already built-in. It wasn’t enough that God knit us together in our mothers’ wombs the first time; through the near-miraculous choreography of wound-healing, He knits us back together again and again throughout our lives.
It’s an awe-inspiring testimony to the power of life over death—one which recalls the story of life’s ultimate victory over death in Christ’s resurrection and which presages our own rebirth from the dead when He returns.
In some ways, all good stories—historical and fictional—are about wounding and healing. They’re about people who are called out of their ordinary lives by some destructive or evil force they must overcome that adversity to restore order. And just as our bodies often heal with stronger bones, skin, and muscles after an injury, the heroes who emerge out of their conflicts are often stronger in spirit and will for having overcome the forces of destruction that invaded their lives.
This immemorial plotline of life stubbornly undoing death—even in a world where it can seem death gets the last word—reminds me that suffering and healing aren’t experiences to which only the protagonists in novels and movies are called. They’re a cycle to which each of us is constantly summoned, and which we can either embrace with courage and gratitude, or reject with fear and bitterness. We are all responsible for becoming the healing hero of our own personal story, in the stories of our families, and in the stories of our communities. Each of us, upon experiencing a spiritual or relational wound, must choose whether it will overcome us and turn us into a force of destruction and death to those around us, or whether we will overcome it and be the instrument by which God knits the lives of everyone around us back together.
This can seem futile at times. Wounds are inevitable, and they always seem to recur. And no matter how doggedly we fight to maintain life and order, eventually we will wear out physically and mentally, and some other hero will have to take our place.
In much of pagan mythology, this endless cycle is the end of the story. The “corn kings” of the stories die and resurrect, the sun sets and rises, the spring disappears and returns. Evil and good, wounding and healing, order and chaos, death and life are equals, locked in an eternal struggle. But this is not how the Christian story ends.
In Jesus, the apparently interminable return of suffering and bloodshed reaches its terminus in a hero so good, who is wounded so severely, that He exhausts and overcomes suffering, itself. Christ’s mission was to “take up our infirmities,” to be “pierced for our transgressions,” and to become the sacrifice by whose “wounds we are healed.”
But if this is the case, it raises a difficult question: Why do we still suffer? If Christ received the ultimate wound and His suffering broke the cycle forever, why does Paul write that he and we must “fill up what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ?” (Colossians 1:24) Writing at First Things a few years ago, theologian Peter Leithart offered a surprising answer:
“[Paul] didn’t believe that Jesus’s sufferings relieve him of the need to suffer. Jesus didn’t die so that we wouldn’t have to go through the messy inconvenience of dying ourselves. The opposite is true. Jesus died and rose so that we might share in his death and resurrection. The head suffered so that his body and each member could participate in his sufferings…Christ’s death is sufficient for all time, but time goes on, and until the end of time the Spirit will inscribe Christ’s one sufficient death into more
and more lives; the Spirit will keep dealing out shares in Christ’s sufferings. The Spirit will work his way into the flesh of countless future disciples to mold them into the shape of a cross. What is lacking in Christ’s afflictions is filled as believers suffer for Jesus and for his Church.”
According to Leithart, we suffer not because Christ’s sacrifice was insufficient, but because as Christ’s brothers and sisters, we reenact and participate in His suffering. We are each part of a continually-afflicted, wound-enduring, perpetually healing Body, a living corporate testimony of the stubborn power of life over death and of renewal over destruction.
Yet as the mystical Body of the resurrected Christ, we share not only in His redemptive suffering but in His resurrection. The power that raised Christ resides in each of His people, and that Spirit of life will have the final word in each our stories—not only over the suffering that recasts us in the image of our Savior, but over death itself, which has no power over those who have already died (Romans 6:8).
We can choose to be healing heroes in the here and now because there’s nothing futile about our efforts. Our very suffering and wounds take on new meaning, so that even the bodies whose blood, bruises, (and occasionally) burns remind us of our vulnerability will at last become invulnerable. Though I wonder if, like Jesus, a few of us might retain our scars to go with our stories.