Our Christian faith teaches that we are spiritual beings and that our bodies are temples for the Holy Spirit. It also teaches that God created us in God’s image and declared His creation to be good. We derive much of our sense of identity from our physical body and what we are able to do: work, play watch a sunset over Lake Michigan, listen to Beethoven’s Ode to Joy, sing the Hallelujah Chorus, write a poem, hug our loved ones and feel the joy of simply being able to move. So who are we when our bodies fail us? Who am I? Am I still me?
My childhood health problems gave me many opportunities to try to answer that question. Severe asthma made it hard to breathe and limited my strength and energy. Often I was unable to keep up with my friends or play sports. These physical limitations affected my confidence and my self-image; my self-esteem suffered. Fortunately, I had moral support from family members and my church family. Sunday school, youth group and church activities were a big part of my life. My faith provided me comfort and strength in coping with my physical limitations.
The next phase of my life brought many changes. As a teenager I learned to manage the asthma and gained physical strength, ability and confidence. As a college student and young adult, I became very active in sports and enjoyed tennis, skiing, hiking, and aerobic exercise. I loved the exhilaration of feeling strong, healthy and physically capable. My new positive self-image was based on what I could do. I saw myself as independent and self-sufficient, and I decided I didn’t need help from other people or from God. I wandered away from my childhood faith. In my ignorance and pride, I told a religious friend, “Religion is a crutch and I don’t need it.” While my body grew strong, my faith in God grew weak.
As it turned out God had other plans for my spiritual health. I soon learned that pride really does go before a fall. When I turned 40, a series of health crises led to a serious back injury which left me in severe pain, unable to walk or work. It turned out I did need a crutch! My body had betrayed me, and my identity as an active achiever and “doer” was stripped away. I was angry and depressed at this new disability which required a long and difficult year of recovery. My self-image based on my physical achievements was suddenly gone when my body failed me.
Fortunately, God’s opinion of us is not based on our achievements or what we do, but on who we are inside. God created us in God’s image and God loves us for who we are, not what we do. We are human beings, not human “doings” and so I needed to learn to just be.
“Be still and know that I am God,” says Psalm 46:10. It was only when injury forced me to be still that I came back to know God and back to faith. When I couldn’t rely on my own strength, I turned to God for strength, and God welcomed my return from my long detour off the path of my faith. I began to attend church again, take Bible study classes, and join small groups.
Before my injury, my active life was an obstacle to finding my true identity as a child of God, a spiritual being who needs to be part of a “good and beautiful community.” Even when our bodies fail us, God never fails us. God can redeem our suffering and teach us valuable lessons from our pain and weakness. Then we can say,”Whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to say, ‘It is well, it is well with my soul.'”