I’m continuing to reflect on the concept of barrenness this week, a theme that came to the fore during last week’s church lectionary readings. God so often speaks new life into our barrenness, superseding even our wildest imaginations to create exciting things out of nothingness. He turns death into life and He renews old bodies to do things they had not done in decades. Last week’s most prominent example was how barren Sarah conceived a son, Isaac, in her old age and Abraham’s seemingly-dead legacy lived on.
I think that the term “barrennness” can be applied to many different difficult aspects of our lives. The word for “barren” means unfruitful or unproductive. Much like a garden that does not produce flowers or fruit or, going even deeper, soil that cannot sustain plant life, to be barren means to be unproductive — an unwelcome contrast to how you and I were meant to live.
Perhaps the closest that barrenness can get to one’s soul is when it affects your own body. Our bodies are personal. They are closer to us than any living thing on earth. They are the vessels in which we navigate life, from conception to death. Even God sees our bodies as personal. So important are our bodies to us that they will be resurrected one day, given new life, and reunited with our souls! They are amazingly important and personal.
My story is one of physical barrenness. For those who do not know me well, you may not have heard about my various health struggles over the past decade. Basically, I’m 40 years young and physically disabled from two diseases, one that comes from my curved spine and one inside my inner ears. I live each day in varying levels of pain and discomfort. I cannot work a normal job. Sounds fun, right? I know! And yet I don’t enjoy telling people about my struggles. I even hesitated in telling you this much!
The reason for my hesitation is this: Long ago I resolved that my disability may be a barrenness but it is not my identity. I don’t want to be known as “that young guy with a cane.” (Though I am trying to make canes cool again!) Instead, it is my soul’s deepest hope that God will bring new life into my physical struggle and make me fruitful. How will He do that? I’m never quite sure! One day I hope to look back on my life and see the fruitfulness of God woven into my story.
Like most people who struggle with barrenness, I’ve hurt very deeply emotionally as cracks have deepened in my jar of clay. I remember one night in January of 2014 during which I sat on the floor of my bedroom, leaning against my bed, simply sobbing. I had just suffered for a week from an ailment most people routinely battle — the flu — but instead of claiming complete victory via modern medicine, I found myself utterly defeated. The flu had somehow sent my inner ear disease into a downward spiral. I couldn’t walk straight. I couldn’t see straight. My ears rang with a noise that is still with me. My already-disabling condition was worse than before and I was hopeless, save for a miracle of God. Like it is for many people, that miracle never came. I was even more barren than before. Unfruitful. Unproductive.
It was at that moment that I had to decide how I was going to live in this even-more-barren body of mine. Modern medicine can only do so much to help me. My attitude of my heart mattered more than the prescriptions I took. Could I be all right if… if… if I never recover? Could I still live out a life of faith in a God who did not grant me a miracle? I prayed deeply that night. This verse came to mind:
I pleaded with the Lord three times to take it away from me. But He said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness.” Therefore, I will most gladly boast all the more about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may reside in me. (2 Corinthians 12:8-9)
Like me, Paul lived with a physical barrenness. Commentators speculate wildly at what ailed Paul, but it was bad enough for him to plead emotionally with God to take it away. “A thorn in the flesh” the apostle called it. God gave it to Paul so that he would not boast about the great things he got to experience as an apostle. I wonder if my ailments are a way of humbling me, too. Lord knows I have needed it over my adult life.
Paul’s conclusion is one I have adopted for my own life of physical barrenness. My weakness is an opportunity for God’s grace to sustain me. The Greek word for “sufficient grace” here in verse 9 is harkei, which means that grace is “adequate in providing contentment.” Contentment. As a disabled man? God’s grace allows it. To the Philippians, Paul said he has learned to be content in all circumstances, from plenty to poverty. The key to his contentment is entrusting himself to God’s grace for his daily needs, casting stresses and anxieties on God, and living in the peace of Christ that comes as a result of his trust. While I do still deeply long for healing and wholeness, I equally long for the power of Christ to reside in me and to work mightily through me. If anything comes from my health struggles, I pray that it is at least a tiny enriching of the Kingdom of heaven through the grace of God and the power of Christ in my weakened life.
How are you doing when facing physical barrenness? What is your attitude towards God, towards your body, towards your life? Are you allowing God’s grace, strength and power to be on display in your weakened condition? Are you seeking a graceful contentment (even while longing for healing, seeing doctors, taking medicines, etc.)? If not, what can you change in order to bear witness of the power of Christ to sustain you?
P.S. — As my wife and I chatted about this blog on the back patio, a few things came to mind about the godly response to bodily barrenness. For those people who are healed completely of their illness, the right response is to praise God and tell others about what He has done for them. We see this response time and again when Jesus healed people in the Gospels. But most people who suffer from ailments are not healed by God in a miraculous way. Millions have pleaded with Him, like Paul, to take their affliction away. But isn’t the biblical response nearly the same as those who are healed? Glorify God. Show in your body the power of Christ. If not His healing power, certainly His power to sustain you. Also the strength that He gives you. The hope. The faith. The love. Rest in His grace.