Last week, as I sat on my front porch with a new friend, I was suffering injury: broken bones and a broken heart.
Before my mishap, she and I had planned a a girl’s night out: a walk on the beach, then eating out at one of her favorite restaurants nearby. My physical injury made our plans impossible, as I was no longer able to drive myself and just felt bad. Instead of rescheduling though, she generously offered to bring the party right to my front porch.
She is a flaming extrovert with a zeal for life, a passion to pour herself out for others, and a lavish love for the world, both near and far.
The light of her presence warmed me. It also moved me to examine myself.
She suffers with a chronic and mysterious sickness and pain and has been on a bewildering healthcare odyssey, as have I, yet she fights with ferocity for joy. She describes herself as the “happiest sick person my doctors have ever met.” Strange and serious symptoms continue to manifest—such that teams of aspiring medical students are called into her exam room to see the specimen (her)—yet doctors have yet to produce a cure. Even so, she forces her body through the motions of living, bringing comfort to others less able than herself.
On my front porch that night, she described a paraplegic woman she takes cares of, a woman who loves to go to the movies and sometimes laughs so hard she flops out of her wheelchair. When this woman feels herself getting tickled, she begs my friend to strap her into the chair. Commenting on how other people look at the woman, my friend said, “She’s just a person.”
Just a person. That’s what we all are: just people. Souls.
Gender, body type, ability or disabilities, age, mental strengths or weaknesses, or ethnicity all matter because they affect us and can shape us, but beautiful is the person who can see past them, into the soul.
That’s exactly how my new friend treats me: like a person. My physical appearance is altered at the moment, but she looked right past that, into me as she spoke. This power to see souls is quite remarkable.
I suppose it’s natural to look on visibly broken people with pity. We certainly all need pity, both Divine and human, which Dallas Willard says is just a modern word for mercy (The Divine Conspiracy).
But when pity clouds our vision of a person and keeps us from seeing the soul within the frame, we are the poorer for it. What treasure might that soul impart dare we draw close enough to engage? What deep wisdom born of suffering, might become ours through listening, or even just nearness to it? What eternal perspective might be ours, borrowed from those who in this life lean forward toward Heaven where their sure hope for bodily wholeness will be fulfilled? What surprising joy might we catch from those whose bodies have failed them here, but whose spirits are quite alive, rejuvenated from the Unseen, Eternal Source of Life?
Perhaps the strong and able-bodied are missing out on something here. If souls were laid bare and eternity laid open before us, what would have the most value even on earth: physical or spiritual wholeness? The two aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive—not at all!—but Jesus said something both striking and bizarre from this earth’s vantage point: if a body part, an eye or a hand or a foot, causes us to sin and lose entrance into the Kingdom of God, it would be better to pluck them out or cut them off (Mark 9). We must take his words as hyperbole, but in them is eternal perspective regarding our bodies here on earth.
When Jacob wrestled with the angel until daybreak, he left the encounter with a wrenched hip and a limp (Gen. 32), inflicted by the angel. He also got the blessing he sought. God’s perspective on our bodies in the here and now is different than our own. Their maiming and flaws may serve a greater purpose, as in the biblical passages above: to save us from ourselves, to give us something greater than bodily wholeness, or to display God’s glory, as in the case of the man born blind that Jesus healed, revealing his divine power.
Of course, we hope we might be the ones in whom God displays His healing power, that He would put in our mouths a testimony of His healing power—and one day all believers will receive their new, perfect bodies—but in the meantime, as we wait and wonder about God’s purpose for our weakness and suffering, we can trust that He is good, that He is with us, and that nothing, especially our suffering, will be wasted when returned to Him to be used for His purposes.
Our bodies are not our identities. Their brokenness, or our shape or color or sex, though they all affect who we become, are not the essence of our personhood. We are all souls made in the image of God. As such, we have much more in common than whatever might separate us.
“Everyone is suffering,” my friend noted, “Though that suffering takes different forms.”
Amid my own struggle with mysterious symptoms and physical pain in particular, her model of living has inspired me to:
- See suffering souls as a potential source of wisdom, and even of inspiration, as their sight may be supernaturally extended beyond the physical, and beyond even the timeline of our lives on this planet.
- Focus on what I have to give others right now in the midst of my own suffering: a word of encouragement, a passionate prayer, or just the comfort of my presence, as my friend did when she sat on the porch with me for awhile.