As many readers are aware, I had a collision with an automobile in June (while riding my bicycle) that could easily have resulted in my death. I wrote about it here not long after it happened, before I fully realized what I was dealing with. Of course, I knew the medical facts: two broken ribs, a herniated disc in my back, and unspecified head trauma that was bad enough to erase a substantial part of my memory of the incident. The last thing I remember was the moment I realized there was going to be a collision. Then I woke up in the emergency room around an hour later.
After I got my mobility back, I figured I could put the accident behind me and bounce back quickly. I had plans, and none of them involved spending a great deal of time recuperating. The accident itself had been bad enough ― there was the immediate trauma, feelings of dismay over financial repercussions to come, and of course the physical pain and immobility.
Then there was the introduction of narcotics into my system, which was disagreeable for many reasons. For two weeks, I let myself slouch into a listless space, praying in snatches, skipping my Bible reading and feeling melancholy. It was far too easy, not only because of the pain medication but because I was still addled in so many other ways from the accident. Maybe I wasn’t sure how I felt about God. After all, he had stood there and watched the thing happen to me. He had the perfect right, of course, but at some point I had to either interpret it in light of Romans 8:28 (“God is doing something worthwhile here. I’m going to trust him.”) or go in the other direction (“So much for his watchful care. This is a disaster.”).
I tried to avoid committing myself to either position, but my feelings curdled into an unspoken petulance about the whole thing. I was vaguely aware that I longed to “fast forward” to a full resumption of productive activity ― to skip right over this ordeal as though it had never happened. But I couldn’t. Pain was a constant, even with pills in my system. I had to move about like a sloth to keep from hurting myself. Narcotics provided more than relief from physical pain; they offered relief from the other stuff too ― all the anxiety and restlessness I would otherwise have had to deal with in my immobilized state. The hard part was that I had a legitimate need for them; even with them, I woke 20-30 times each night because of the pain in my side.
I spent two weeks zoning out on pain pills, watching DVDs by the stack and waiting for the lousy part to be over. My attitude was abysmal about the whole thing. I figured that since I was being forced to hobble around like an invalid, I would be absent mentally as well, at least as much as possible. In a way that didn’t even occur to me at the time, I considered these days of affliction meaningless because of the absence of work, play, writing, socializing, and zipping around on my bicycle. For as long as I can remember, I have lived with anxiety and constant unrest. The best form of relief I have found is productive activity. My accident had taken this away, and I knew instinctively that, just on the other side of the pharmaceutical fog, that terrible restlessness was waiting for me. I had no desire to sit around while it clawed at the inside of my skull like some deranged bird.
I have known for a long time that I am supposed to seek relief through prayer, but I have seldom managed to find the patience to tolerate that clawing bird in my head long enough to pray through it. I have come to assume that most of the time, prayer and uttering Scripture won’t make much immediate difference in the way I feel. And in a sense, I shouldn’t expect it to. It’s not as if God is some sort of cosmic valium dispenser.
The two-week season of apathy and veiled resentment may have been worse than everything else combined. When I realized what was happening to me, I launched myself decisively back into prayer and Scripture reading and resumed speaking my favorite Bible verses aloud. I expressed remorse to God for not trusting him during the worst part of my ordeal. I quickly regained a sense of being anchored and had some unbelievably sublime prayer sessions ― joy such as I have rarely felt, and a sense of knowing the utter truth of Scripture and how much God loves and cares for me.
Then, just a few days after emerging from my self-imposed confinement, the sense of being reconnected with God vanished. I continued with my daily disciplines, but more often than not, my time in the Word was dry and hardly took the edge off the day’s anxiety and drudgery. I noticed that by the middle of the day or even late morning, I was steeped in feelings of irritability, sadness, rage and hopelessness such as I had not felt for a long time. I was scattered and disjointed most of the time with low energy and mood. I felt like a dated version of myself, without prospects and without purpose ― a waste of oxygen. My realization that it was probably just the PTSD (or maybe the bump on the head) didn’t help.
Worst of all, there were endless frustrations. On a daily basis, I encountered bizarre mishaps, failures of technology, scuttled progress, broken devices, and on one occasion, cash dropped on the ground and lost. The mental fog was especially troubling; I had just started a new job and needed my wits about me.
One day, I had a training shift in southwest Portland. On each leg of the three-hour trip, the bus was late, causing me to miss my connecting ride. I called the facility to tell them I was going to be late, only to have to call again each time another delay occurred, pushing my arrival further back. After finally arriving at the last stop, I was still half a mile from the house. I pulled up Google Maps on my phone, which kept telling me to turn onto non-existent streets. In desperation, I called the house to ask for directions (I was more than an hour late at this point). The facility manager drove out and picked me up.
The accident ― and all the ensuing difficulties ― had struck after an almost unprecedented period of personal growth. For an entire year, I had enjoyed success and improvement in every area of my life. In spite of certain obstructions in my prayer life, my Scripture reading increased, and my spiritual life blossomed. My health and diet had improved as well, and I started bicycling 10-25 miles nearly every day (mostly commuting to work). I had energy and stamina to spare. New opportunities for ministry emerged. I landed two new jobs, which, compared with my experiences over the last few years, put me in the unfamiliar position of having to turn down work. All the while, I went around grinning like a lunatic. I hadn’t known it was possible for a person to have so much joy. But then, in a single afternoon, everything changed. A hundred wide-open doors slammed shut and locked, leaving me standing in a dingy hallway with burned-out bulbs.
I tried to keep pushing forward, even as all the applicable Sunday-school lessons on adversity came into my mind: God is testing my faith; I’m being separated from my material idols; my pride is being stripped away; God is taking me through intense training for something mind-blowing. I even thought of an excerpt from the famous Oswald Chambers devotional, My Utmost for His Highest: “We must live in the grey day according to what we saw on the mountain-top.” None of it could shake the suspicion that my sins were coming home to roost. I was just another hard-driving, self-centered jerk who’d gotten lucky for a year, but the law of averages had caught up to me at last. This was the world as I had once known it ― cold, desolate and miserable, with sublime moments sprinkled around apparently for the purpose of catching me off-guard when the violence resumed. This was the dark world I had lived in for most of my life.
I related all this to a close friend not long ago. I unloaded everything on him, including the few days of mind-blowing joy I experienced just before the bottom came out. I told him how assured I was during those times of prayer, how confident of God’s love. Unlike my usual prayers, which were often rushed and perfunctory, these prayers went up in the absence of stress and distractions. I was able to forget about the day’s chores and settle peacefully into a posture of worship and grateful reflection. I thanked God with tears on my cheeks for all his kindnesses. I recited his own promises back to him and told him I believed him and was counting on him to fulfill every one of them for me. While all this was going on, I was completely at peace, with joy so intense it felt as if my insides were burning.
“God did that for you,” my friend insisted. “It could be that God allowed the accident to happen so you could see that things are on a totally different footing for you now.”
He had a point. My response to the trauma was completely out of character, in terms of the person I used to be. Even as I suffered through the emotional turmoil and questioned God’s provision, I couldn’t ignore the calm voice underneath the exasperation: “God is refining you. You can fight it, or you can submit to it.”
God showed me something several months ago as I went through a book called How People Change, in which the author challenged the reader to meet life’s difficulties, no matter how great, with an attitude of surrender. I recall reflecting at the time how difficult it is to really change when circumstances are pleasant and calm. Calamity, on the other hand, produces critical mass (or heat, as the book described it), which God uses to “nudge” people in the direction he wants to take them ― for their own good. I was reminded of the numerous times I have prayed for God to bring whatever circumstances needed to be brought to help me truly change. Now God was honoring my request, and, instead of thanking him, I was hurling disjointed complaints at him.
So I decided to welcome the whole ugly mess, along with all the personal losses that came as a result (which, thus far, have been minimal). It was a resolution I had to reaffirm a dozen times a day as Murphy’s Law on steroids continued unabated. It was more than a test of my faith; I was being separated from all my human devices and everything I had ever relied on. My memory failed, devices failed, circumstances took bizarre turns against all odds. At times, I was so anxious and frustrated that my hands were literally useless slabs of flesh at the ends of my arms. It was so bad that only all-out surrender to God could possibly get me through.
I don’t know if all Christ followers have to go through this kind of training. And it doesn’t really matter. God’s dealings with us are highly individual. His approach may seem downright cruel at times, but only when I compare myself with others, which is a senseless exercise. People are complex and idiosyncratic. They make irrational choices. God alone knows what each of us needs and where he plans to take us.
When I look back (all the way back) and think about everything I’ve been through, I’m not sore at all. What I’m like today, where I am and what I have, my relationship with God ― it all seems like a miracle.
And you know what? It is.