Personal Journey

A Rip-Your-Arm-Out Moment

I want to talk about the paralytic wake of failure, those moments right after we’ve been dealt a blow.

Failure is most bitter when we expect greatness. If I were to run a marathon tomorrow, I’d fail, but it wouldn’t be a blow because I expect a body that sputters through a 5K to have a hard time completing a 42K. I witnessed a runner who was on track for Boston qualification crumple to the ground twenty feet from the finish line. He had a reasonable expectation to finish. His would be a surprise fail, mine an expected one. I only deal in expected fails. This is what I tell God.

Example. My dog is huge and likes to walk me. I have a collar that drives two-inch spikes into his neck when he pulls too hard. Call in PETA, but it’s him or me or the poor little dog who happens to be getting walked in our vicinity. The only way I can exert any control over him is with that collar, and yet he pulls on it the whole time we walk. He missed his calling as an Alaskan sled dog.

I know, as I open the fence gate, he’ll charge out full-force in rampant delirium, collar bedamned. Every time I open that fence, it’s like the gun just went off, and he’s going for the gold. So I have learned to flex my arm and brace myself for the jolt. The jolt comes. It hurts. Life goes on.

Dog-walk-take-two: strolling along the neighborhood, zero threat level, feeling a Waldonian bliss when suddenly– bam! My arm, nearly ripped out of joint, my whole body jerked sideways in a blink. I had to use my leftover gymnastics prowess to save myself from splatting full-body-contact into the treelawn. I saved my hip, but it wasn’t graceful. Oh, and I screamed my bloody head off. I didn’t see it coming. The squirrel, my dog, his sudden irrational need to pounce on something he can usually care less about.

I have trouble standing when I’m broadsided by dogs or life.

Recently I had a rip-my-arm-out moment. It went something like this:

But as for me, my feet came close to stumbling; my steps had almost slipped. For I was envious of the boasters, as I saw the prosperity of the wicked…when my heart was embittered, and I was pierced within, then I was senseless and ignorant… (portions, Psalm 73).

As far as failing goes, I pride myself on being able to handle any failure I can see coming a mile away. My life is one long attempt at flexing my arm against whatever pulling the valleys of life are going to exert.

An illustration: You know that stormy boat ride, where Jesus napped while His followers went berserk? I would be the self-appointed lookout, the one to spot the storm. I tell you, I would be the one shaking Jesus awake while it was still a dark speck on the horizon. Lord, we might be in danger in the next hour or so… perhaps you should get up just in case… I make it my business to see the storms, the squirrels, the failures coming. Except when I don’t. And that makes me feel like this:

Reproach has broken my heart and I am so sick. And I looked for sympathy, but there was none. And for comforters, but I found none. Psalm 69:20

It makes me feel like that, but feelings do not equal truth. I can feel I’m on top of the world or pinned underneath it. The truth is a slippery fish, as Pontius Pilate put it to Jesus when he stared God in the face and with all the brazenness of the materialist asked, “And what is truth?” It’s possible to be looking into the eyes of truth and not recognize them.

In the moment I’m feeling pain, it’s hard not to think God doesn’t love me. How could He love me and allow this pain? I’ll go a step farther. How does a loving, righteous God allow suffering for anyone? That’s what it all boils down to for many people.  How can there be a God and be suffering at the same time? Either He isn’t capable of stepping in, or He doesn’t care to.

What am I asking of God when I challenge Him this way? I’m asking Him to be my winning slot machine, my sugar daddy, my happily-ever-after. I’m essentially demanding that everything go the way I think it ought to go. Otherwise, God doesn’t love me.

Take a race. I’m asking God for the win. So is my opponent. One of us has to lose. Is God incapable or unloving if one of us loses? It hurts to lose. My hurt doesn’t mean He doesn’t care. Just ask Jesus when he was on the cross because Jesus was hurting in those moments, and God, his father, still cared.

God never promised us an undefeated season. He promised to be with us in victory and defeat. In fact, He warned us we’d be defeated, because He knows the way we think: In this world you will have trouble. But take heart, I have overcome the world. (John 16:33).  In the middle of misery, it’s hard to believe God loves me. I don’t deny that. Any read-through of the Psalms shows just how much King David struggled with the same thoughts.

So in the paralytic wake of failure or despair when I’m tempted to rage against God or life (and sometimes after a fit of doing just that), I get out my Bible whether I feel like it or not, and cling to it rather desperately. That is not me being strong or righteous or faithful. That is me trusting my creator. It’s not always pretty.  Especially in those rip-my-arm-out moments, I usually let slip a scream or two. Then I grab onto verses like the one that follows…

Trust in the LORD with all your heart and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge Him, and He will make your paths straight. Proverbs 3:5,6