On the pain of misalignment

The greatest moments of physical pain I’ve ever experienced have come from dislocation and misalignment.

Last year, as I was youthfully* bounding up the stairs at my church, I tripped over the lip of the next step. The ring finger on my left hand caught my fall. I got up, looked at it, and thought, something doesn’t look right. It was pointing in an unnaturally bizarre direction. I had dislocated it. After a trip to the ER, and a fair amount of pain later, it has been reset in its joint.

Earlier that same year I tore a muscle in my shoulder painting the ceiling of my house. I didn’t realize it at the time but a few days later I was lying on my back in a conference room at work in utter agony. The muscle had become inflamed and had knocked my back way out of alignment. I had a pinched nerve in my neck. The right side of my left hand was completely numb. A coworker drove me to an urgent care center. I was prescribed pain killers and muscle relaxers. For a few months, I went to the chiropractor three times a week.

Have you ever experienced the physical pain that comes from your body being misaligned? From a joint being dislocated?

Have you ever experienced the spiritual pain that comes from spiritual misalignment and dislocation?

Spiritual Misalignment

Sin is at the root of all spiritual misalignment. God created us to live in union with him, our wills, desires, motives, and actions, all aligned with his, acting in creative freedom, in a way that coincided with his own creative freedom. When sin entered the world, the alignment was broken. Our wills were severed from his. We became dislocated. That dislocation causes spiritual pain which we can (often successfully!) find ways to numb or to dull, but which continues to gnaw at the back of our minds.

Coming to faith in Jesus causes significant healing. Our sins are forgiven and we receive power from God to live new lives. In repentance, our wills align to God’s. We say “yes” to his way, are set free from the power of sin, and begin to walk in creative freedom.

But even Christians continue to experience the pain of dislocation and misalignment.

The misalignment between desires and actions. Paul complained about this: “What I want to do I don’t want to do and what I don’t want to do, I do!” His spirit within him, guided by the Holy Spirit, desired to follow God. But his sinful nature still held sway, and sometimes won. “Who will deliver me from this body of death?” he asked. Christians in every generation can relate.

The misalignment between motives and actions. In some ways, this is the reverse of Paul’s experience, and it’s one I’ve experienced. As a pastor, almost everything I do, or at least everything I’m judged for, is public. It is seen by others who either approve or disapprove There have been times when that approval/disapproval has become more than just the natural outcome, but the motivation for my work. In those instances, I can still preach a good sermon, but my motivations are misaligned with the very sermon I’m preaching. I have found that often my actions are a lot easier to manage than my motivations.

Other misalignments. The list is long: The misalignment between the “ideal” Christian community and the actual physical church. The misalignment between the hope we know we should experience and the sadness we feel. The misalignment between our faith in God and the doubts we nevertheless experience (what James calls being double-minded.) The misalignment that comes from following God in private, but fearing to do so in public, or from boldly following him in public but turning away from him in the “privacy” of our own minds or rooms. These misalignments are always painful. They need healing.

Healing

Is healing from misalignment possible? Yes, by the grace of God and the sacrifice of Jesus. “By his stripes we are healed.” God is faithful to continue the work in us.

In many ways, spiritual formation is the process of recognizing and then healing misalignments. We don’t always feel the pain of spiritual misalignment, not because it’s not there but because our hearts are too callous to feel it. We don’t feel it, but it’s sapping the life from us. When the Spirit convicts us of sin we feel the pain, but in feeling it, we are opened to the work of the great Physician.

Sometimes misalignments come from painful circumstances. Sometimes these circumstances cause misalignments, though I suspect that usually they just reveal them. This is one of the reasons why suffering often produces spiritual growth. When we heal, we heal stronger.

But some wounds don’t heal all the way. That’s the lesson from my two injuries from last year. My ring finger still has an unnatural bulge. My pointer finger, the occasional tingle. Maybe this is true for spiritual wounds and misalignments as well. I’m pretty sure it is. This side of heaven, the healing will ever be slow and jerky. But we look forward to the day, not only to the final redemption of our bodies, but the final redemption of our souls, once again free to walk in create, aligned, freedom with God.

‘* I’m gratuitously including that word here because the rest of this post is going to make me sound old.

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