On Nov. 21, 2013 a skilled orthopedic surgeon fixed my badly injured left shoulder. He gifted me with two hours and a lifetime of his skills to fix a rotator cuff, three muscles, tendons, ligaments, and a bone spur. Modern technology allowed him to show me before-and-after pictures of the tears and repairs. He fixed it! But I wasn’t well yet. In fact, my shoulder was new-born and in a sling to support it. My shoulder was pained and weaker than I knew.
“Coming back stronger.” Like New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees, who came back stronger after what seemed a career-ending shoulder injury, I was determined to come back stronger too. My journey involved rehab sessions in a large therapy room with other injured souls who were fixed but not well.
At my first rehab appointment, three smiling physical therapists beguiled me into their torture chamber and began inflicting pain on me twice a week for three months. Their name wasn’t sympathy, and their game wasn’t empathy. I could have thought of them as sadists and myself as an unwilling masochist. But that would have been wrong. The doctor had given me the gift of fixing my shoulder. But these three professionally-trained PT experts knew they couldn’t give me what I would have to do for myself: namely, grow stronger through my struggling and their demanding and unrelenting guidance. I gritted my teeth, struggled, and obeyed. I faithfully did my own rehab twice-a-day at home. And I have graduated! But I have not yet arrived. My conditioning will be my lifetime.
A spiritual parallel for you and yours. My story has a spiritual parallel you, your kin, and others need to hear and commit to. If you’re reading this, chances are you’ve already got the “fix of eternal life by grace through faith in Jesus as Lord and Savior (Ephesians 2:8-10). You didn’t get saved by works but for works. And that’s where the parallel gets even stronger.
Spiritually, a world of Christians are “fixed” but not well. How old were you when you got saved? How much have you grown since then spiritually? How strong are you spiritually? How many times in life have you gotten broken, let God mend your already-saved but broken life with His enabling strength? Saved by grace! But Paul also wrote about working out your salvation with fear and trembling (see Philippians 2:12, NIV). Paul was talking about the purpose of God in the Christian’s walk for all of life.
Back to my rehab experience. Over three months of therapy, I saw all kinds of getting stronger or not. Most rehab patients — but not all — cooperated with the therapists. The sign over the door said, “No Whining!” Still, I did hear a lot of whining, groaning, griping, and complaining. Kind of natural. But it surprised me that a number of patients would report back for their next session and admit they hadn’t done a single home assignment since their last office visit. They were backsliders and worse off than when they left the time before. The PT professionals couldn’t give patients what they wouldn’t do for themselves. So the backslidden patients got another painful start at rehab. The new start would only do lasting good if the patients did similar assigned therapy at home — between rehab center visits.
“Fixed” Christians face the challenge of growing stronger themselves. Paul’s letter to the Philippians is somewhat a physical therapy spiritual parallel. The Philippians had always done well when Paul was present. He challenged them to do even better in his absence and to continue to work out their salvation (Philippians 3:12-14). Paul would go on to say he had not spiritually arrived but was pursuing the course for the prize (Philippians 3:12-14). He got enabled because of God in Christ who strengthened Him (Philippians 4:13). Finally, he would write Timothy that he was about to die and would receive a crown of glory (II Timothy 4:7-8). Paul told Timothy, “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved by him” (II Timothy 2:15).
Growing stronger beyond your pastor’s best Sunday shot. Many of us on the pew side show up at church on Sunday morning and expect the pastor to give us his best shot. Then we judge how well he did — whether he hit a home run, bombed, or struck out trying to stretch a single to a double. But we probably feel pretty good about ourselves for going to church. But we may leave and not open a Bible, pray, or minister a time until the next Sunday’s “pastoral therapy session.”
The Bible has counsel for us if we’re folks like that. In Isaiah, drunken leaders indignantly ask, “Who is it he is trying to teach? To whom is he explaining his message? To children weaned from their milk, to those just taken from the breast?” (Isaiah 28:8-9, NIV). Some think they’ve heard it all before and are insulted with God’s A, B, Cs they disobey.
Paul wrote similarly about milk-Christians: “Brothers, … I gave you milk, not solid food, for you were not yet ready for it. Indeed, you are still not ready” (I Corinthians 3:1-2). The Hebrews writer said he had a lot more to teach, but the listeners had become dull of hearing and understanding —when they themselves should have become teachers. They too still hadn’t learned God’s A, B, Cs (see Hebrews 5:11-14). Well, like Peter counseled, start with the pure milk like a newborn babe (I Peter 2:2, NASB). And move on to meat to grow stronger.
Struggle like an Olympian with eyes upon the prize. Paul wrote like an Olympian. To paraphrase him, I would say, “Run the race of the Christian life with your soul set on winning the gold! All Olympians discipline themselves and exercise self-control in all things for all life to win a perishable crown. But we run a race for the crown that will last forever. I don’t run aimlessly; I’m focused. I beat my body with discipline and enslave it so that I won’t be disqualified for the prize I’ve preached about to others” (1 Corinthians 9:24-17; Philippians 3:12-14). Or grow stronger through struggling!
Finally, the struggle to become stronger is worth it (I Timothy 4:7-8). You don’t get stronger in life without testing, trials, and struggles; growing in endurance, character, and peaking into maturity (James 1:2-4). Nor do you grow stronger if you just get spoon-fed or get things given to you. You yourself have to pay the cost of discipleship for spiritual maturity and strength for a lifetime. Struggling for Christ brings that through His Spirit. That’s the challenge!
By the way, my physical therapists broke form upon my day of graduation. After one last time of putting me through my paces and measuring my progress, they graduated me. Then they all hugged me with compassion and invited me back to visit them. God surely is waiting to do something similar.
— Copyright 2014 by Johnnie C. Godwin. Write the author: firstname.lastname@example.org.