An operation is an extremely painful and uncomfortable life event. My older daughters both had open heart surgery at age 2. It was a deeply challenging experience. The first night after surgery was the most difficult. I spent the night awake at their bedside that I might comfort and calm them when they awoke with screams of pain. They would move in and out of sleep in various stages of grogginess due to the side-effects of the painkillers. One moment they appeared to be in peace, sleeping soundly, seemingly unaware of their pain. But in an instant, usually accompanied by a flailing of hands and arms mimicking fierce convulsions, screams of pain would erupt. The next few minutes were spent trying to soothe them back to sleep before they pulled out any of the multitude of cords, wires, and tubes protruding from and attached to their small, frail bodies.
I’m told by the surgeons that children often have a higher pain tolerance than the adults who might undergo a similar operation. One reason is physical. The body deteriorates as we age and the healing process takes longer. The other is psychological. Adults often have been accustomed to a lifetime of using medication to ease the physical and mental pains in life, an experience children don’t have. Thus, the adults tend to react to the pain more severely. Therefore, where it might take a small child a couple days to get out of bed and regain mobility, it might take an adult a week to reach the same level of mobility; they just don’t want to get up.
Heart surgery is painful.
In Ezekial 36:26, God said that He would give His people a heart of flesh and remove their heart of stone from their body. Sounds like heart surgery to me. I’m not sure why anyone would think that ease should accompany such a transition.
Spiritually speaking, the heart of stone represented something dead, unresponsive, unmovable. The heart of stone (that dwelt within every person) was unable to respond to external stimuli. It was dead. Hard, cold, perverse, impenetrable, unbreakable.
Paul says in Ephesians 2:1 that we all were dead in our sins. Dead. Unable to do anything. Unable to respond to God. Unable to be righteous. Unable to be alive. Dying with a heart of stone. God wanted to change that.
In Christ, He accomplished His surgery. His redemption. He took the heart of stone from us and gave us a heart of flesh. At the moment of salvation, instantaneously, we have been redeemed, regenerated, made alive in the Spirit, adopted into God’s family in Christ’s lineage, inherited every spiritual blessing, and have been given the eternal, future hope of life in God’s presence.
He has fitted us with a new, spiritual heart of flesh that is alive to Him, free to live in hope and joy, not knowing the former despair. With divine precision and a razor-sharp scalpel, God has removed the cancerous heart, plaguing our soul.
Though God has removed the heart of stone and given a heart of flesh to those in Christ, the experience and outworking of such an operation is far from simple and painless. In fact, it is the opposite. Even the most masterful, precise surgeon will still inflict tremendous pain upon the patient due to the nature of the operation.
Post-surgery, Paul talks of life in Christ consisting of “afflictions (2 Cor. 4:17).” He calls us to work out salvation with fear and trembling (Phil. 2:12). The writer of Hebrews describes the daily walk of a believer as running a race with endurance and experiencing the pain of discipline.
Hebrews 12:1-3, 10-13 (ESV) Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, 2 looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. 3 Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted…10 For they disciplined us for a short time as it seemed best to them, but he disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness.11 For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it. 12 Therefore lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees, 13 and make straight paths for your feet, so that what is lame may not be put out of joint but rather be healed.
This is only one passage, but it bears witness to a theme that permeates the entire canon of Scripture, namely that the normal Christian experience will be one of affliction, pain, suffering, perseverance (if things were easy, we wouldn’t have words like perseverance in the dictionary) as God conforms us to the image of Christ Jesus and fulfills his will of holiness and sanctification in us. This does not mean that every passing minute in life will be an experience of pain as God promises His glory as our strength, Christ’s joy as our own, and the peace of the Spirit as our balm (but that’s for another article).
This should reconfigure our expectations for this life. Instead of seeing God as offering a solely therapeutic “salvation”, that is, healing from our aches and pains (a very Western conception), we should see Him as offering freedom from root of all pain, sin. Full and complete healing comes only in the day of Jesus Christ’s return so we should adjust our expectations accordingly. This should also re-frame how we view the afflictions, doubts, struggles, and tribulations in this life. Rather than see them as something to overcome or as foreign, we ought to see them as opportunities to find our rest in God. As Charles Spurgeon has said, “I have learned to kiss the wave which tosses me against the Rock of Ages.”
The maladies, malaise, and misery in life are not the enemy. As Paul continues in 2 Cor. 4:18 these “afflictions are producing for us an eternal weight of glory.” Nothing you endure in life is meaningless. It all holds a purpose. Learn to embrace them and let God do His work of perfection in your life.
If this reality resets our expectations in life, then it should also form our understanding for what the Church is and does. Without going into a full ecclesiology (theology of what the church is and does), knowing how God works in us to give us a new heart means the church should be a gathering that works in alignment with the Master Physician.
This means the church cannot be the place that overlooks sin or preaches “easy believism.” It cannot offer the promise of a pain-free heart surgery. The church cannot be a place that preaches physical prosperity over and against spiritual blessing. The church cannot be the place that hands out painkillers but avoids bringing people to the Master Physician. The church cannot be the place spiritual realities are ignored because they are difficult or painful. The Church must offer sinners to the surgeon and provide a place of healing to those who have had a transformation of heart.
Perhaps sinners don’t want to believe they are sinners. Perhaps the righteous want to believe they aren’t sinners. But the church must be the place that speaks the truth of the spiritual condition of humanity; no one else will. It is not love to leave a sinner in their sin. It is not love to fail to share of a heart surgeon that can remove a dead heart. The church can only be the church to the extent that the body chooses to submit itself to the surgeon and say, “let your scalpel do its work.” Oh that we would be people and churches that find their comfort in the healing hand of the Master Physician.