Growing older is not for the young, or the feint of heart. It will test the resolve of even the strongest of men and bring him to his knees. And no matter how hard we try to delay the aging process through exercise, diet, supplements or even surgery, our bodies seem destined to decay. I have never been more aware of my own battle with time than over the last half-dozen years as I have had to struggle with a bad back. When I was younger, I never would have dreamed that the day would come when just bending over to tie my shoes would be a challenge, and on some days, an impossibility. Having a bad back has been a humbling experience. It has been a frustrating experience. Countless trips to the therapist, chiropractor, and back specialist have done little to alleviate my pain. A series of epidural spine injections produced no relief. Two MRI scans have revealed no substantive physical anomalies. No bulging disks, bad vertebrae, or other spinal issues. There is simply the pain and no apparent means to address or alleviate it. So I am having to learn to live with it.
Some weeks are better than others. This past week was an especially painful and frustrating one. But I am slowly learning to view my back pain with a different perspective. When it goes out and the pain flairs up, I can’t help but think about Paul’s discussions of his “thorn in the flesh” in his letter to the Corinthians believers. We don’t know what his ailment was, but Paul described it as “a messenger from Satan to torment me and keep me from becoming proud” (2 Corinthians 12:7b NLT). And believe me, there have been days when I have felt as if I was under spiritual attack from the enemy, even though my pain is purely physical in nature. It almost always seems that my pain increases when I can least afford it to do so. I have no doubt that much of my pain is stress-related. When I find myself under pressure and needing to be at my best physically, mentally and emotionally, that is when my back seems to want to go out. And like Paul, I have prayed repeatedly for healing and deliverance, asking God to mercifully take away my pain. But I seem to be getting the same answer Paul received from the Lord. “My grace is all you need. My power works best in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9 NLT). I have to be honest. That is a difficult answer to hear and even harder to accept. To think that my pain will always be with me is not something I want to think about. I find it the pain debilitating, limiting, frustrating, demoralizing, and at times, demotivating. I struggle with my inability to do the things I used to do. I hate feeling weak and incapable of performing even the easiest of tasks. I am a natural do-it-yourselfer, but a bad back makes even the simplest DYI project practically impossible to do. So my pride usually takes a huge hit when my back keeps me from doing those things I have always been able to do.
I have always been amazed at Paul’s response to his thorn in the flesh. He boldly proclaimed, “So now I am glad to boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ can work through me (2 Corinthians 12:9b NLT). I don’t think I am quite there yet. I don’t know if I’m ready to boast about my weaknesses, but I have no problem complaining about them. The word Paul used for boast can actually mean to rejoice in or to take pride in. He used the same word when describing his reaction to trials. “We can rejoice (boast), too, when we run into problems and trials, for we know that they help us develop endurance. And endurance develops strength of character, and character strengthens our confident hope of salvation. And this hope will not lead to disappointment. For we know how dearly God loves us, because he has given us the Holy Spirit to fill our hearts with his love” (Romans 5:3-5 NLT). Paul knew that his physical weaknesses produced a dependence on God that he would not have experienced any other way. He knew that his trials and troubles drove him to God, for strength, endurance, deliverance, and hope. So his weaknesses actually made him stronger, because he became more reliant on God, and less dependent on himself. That is the reason pride plays such a role in all this. When we are self-reliant, we can become prideful and arrogant. We can tend to leave God out of the equation, because we see ourselves as fully capable of doing what needs to be done without His help. But that is a dangerous place for any child of God to find themselves. Self-reliance is self-destructive. It is sin. So God, in His mercy, sometimes allows us to learn just how much we need Him. And the older I get, the more vivid that lesson becomes. My back pain can truly be a source of great gain, if I look at it from the right perspective. If I view my weakness as an opportunity to lean on God and less on myself, I will grow in maturity and faith. I will learn to say as Paul did, “I take pleasure in my weaknesses, and in the insults, hardships, persecutions, and troubles that I suffer for Christ. For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:10 NLT). Now am I saying that my back pain is a result of my faithful service to God? No. But as a believer, I know that every thing that happens in my life is used by God to transform me into the likeness of His Son. That includes physical illness. Every person on this planet is undergoing the same aging process that I am. Each of us is subject to the affects of the fall and the reality of its impact on the human body and the rest of creation. But as believers, we can respond differently to what is happening to us and around us. I can see my back pain as an opportunity to trust and grow, rather than to whine and complain. I have a God who loves me and has my best interest at heart. He can and does use anything and everything to accomplish His will in my life. My weakness should not surprise me. It is going to increase with time. But as a child of God, my weakness should remind me of my constant need for God’s power, love, grace, mercy, intervention, and ongoing redemption of my life from the affects of sin and death. I don’t enjoy my back pain, but I know that God is using it to mold me and make me into the likeness of His Son. He is slowly giving me a different perspective and a more joyful outlook on my weakness. I am learning that His grace is all that I need. His power really does work best in my weakness.