On April 26, 2003, Aron Ralston was trapped between a rock and a hard place. Hiking and rock climbing alone in Eastern Utah, his right hand was crushed between a shifting boulder and the rock wall. Over a period of five days he made various attempts to free himself. Nothing worked. When he ran out of his water supply, he was certain of death.
Since no one knew where he was, and they would not find him any time soon, he tried one final desperate plan. He broke both bones in his forearm. Then, using what was left of his dulled cutting tool, he amputated his own right arm. He repelled into the canyon and hiked out to meet searchers.
I have used this story, as have other preachers, to talk about Matthew 5:29-30. It vividly illustrates the picture of cutting off something that seems important but in comparison to life itself is not. That is a great lesson. But it is not the greatest lesson to learn from this illustration.
The Real Lesson
While the cutting off principle is profound, the more fundamental lesson I learn from Ralston’s experience is don’t take this trip alone.
Yes, his bravery and courage at making that amazing sacrifice is noteworthy. But it might have been unnecessary if he had gone with a partner or at least told someone where he was going. As it is, he took the trip alone and got himself caught in a life or death situation that demanded the amazing sacrifice.
I’m sure you already know I’m not really talking about Aron Ralston. I’m talking about you and me. I’m talking about most of the Christians I know. I’m talking about most of the people I’ve met in churches all over who meet on multiple occasions in a building to talk about the Bible and worship God, but are actually taking the trip alone. They bump into others on the same journey on a regular basis, but they never invite them to actually travel together.
The Preacher said that two are better than one because when one falls the other can lift him up (Ecclesiastes 4:10). “But woe to him who is alone when he falls and has not another to lift him up!” And I see this happen over and over and over again. Christians coming in contact with each other all the time, but not traveling together.
The Great Physician’s Hospital
Can you imagine walking into a hospital emergency room in which everyone whose name is called immediately begins to cover up their symptoms and protest that they aren’t really sick? You can see the blood trickling out of the sleeve of one potential patient, but he’s clamping it off and protesting that there is no problem. Another is coughing and hacking up blood, but claims that really she is alright and thinks she can go home now. Another has a slightly green hue about his face and keeps making trips to the restroom. You can hear him vomiting in there but when he comes out he is wearing a smile, sucking on a breath mint, and proclaiming that is all in the past and he’s okay.
I can imagine it because I see it every Sunday. Christ’s church is His hospital for the sin sick and death struck. He is providing the medicine that heals us. Yet, most Christians I know spend most of their time trying to prove to everyone how little they need the Great Physician. Oh, sure, we’ll admit that there are a few things that we just can’t handle, and Jesus will take care of those minor details in the judgment. But mostly, we’ve got it under control. In fact, it’s because we’ve got it under control that Jesus will take care of us (“unlike that tax collector over there,” we say under our breath).
I saw this happen with one of my best friends. It still breaks my heart. When I say one of my best friends, I mean it was a brother who I invited to travel with me. I shared with him my darkest confessions because I knew I needed help. My insides didn’t match his outsides. I couldn’t imagine that he had the kind of struggles I did and he never let me know that he did. But he was my friend and I wanted to invite him in. We talked. And we moved forward. Nothing much happened after that except I was open with my struggles. That is until about two years later when I received a call from a mutual friend (another one that I had invited on my journey). My friend, my brother in Christ, had been caught in an ongoing affair. Instead of repenting, he was leaving his wife. They are now divorced and my friend has never returned a single call I have made to him. I know this is not what he wants for his life. I know he has to be eaten up with the guilt and shame of it. But what really happened? He was taking the trip alone. And now he is caught between a rock and a hard place. Because he is alone, he can’t muster the courage to cut off his right arm. Sadly, he has been invited to have help, but he refuses.
I see it again and again. Christians who have shallow connections with their brethren, never actually sharing the journey. They have their struggles as we all do. But they want to keep up the charade of spiritual health. They don’t want to admit they’ve come to this hospital because they need treatment. They want to act like they are one of the Physician’s Assistants. So they stuff their own symptoms; they hide their own struggles. That is, until it has gotten so bad they can’t hide it anymore, but then it is too late (or, at least, so they think). The gaping wound is so large it can’t be covered up. Then, ashamed, they flee the hospital.
Invite Someone on Your Journey
We’ve all read, and some of us fear, James 5:16–“Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another so that you may be healed. The effective prayer of a righteous man can accomplish much” (NASU).
What is James really saying? Invite someone on your journey. Invite them to look into your closets and see the skeletons. Invite them to pray with you about them. Invite them to know the real you, to walk with you, to love you anyway.
Let’s get rid of that common invitation plea: “If you have a private sin take care of it between you and God, but if you have brought shame and reproach upon the congregation make it known while we stand and sing.” Hogwash! There isn’t a Bible verse that says this, and it is destroying our brothers and sisters right and left. Certainly, if everyone knows you’ve been in sin, coming forward at the end of a sermon is a great way to let everyone know you want to do right. But I’ve learned that keeping my private sins between me and God is a good way to just keep hanging on to my private sins. If you have a private sin, I’m not saying you have to “go forward.” But if you really want to overcome, you have to find someone to walk the journey with you. The more you try to hide your wounds, the bigger they get. Don’t take the trip alone. Invite someone along.
I Invite You on My Journey
Let me be perfectly clear. I’m not the Great Physician. Sometimes I like to think that I am. Sometimes I envision myself as the one who has all the answers. But I’ve faced enough in my life to disillusion me of that notion (though at times I do forget and that part of me rises back to the surface).
Not only that, I’m not even the Great Physician’s Assistant. I’m not even a nurse for the Great Physician. I’m a patient. I’m a registered, admitted, wrist-band wearing patient. I’m walking around with the gown open in the back, my back pressed up against the ice-cold, ceramic tile wall so no one can see my shame. Every once in a while I sneak into the locker room and try to put on a doctor’s white coat so I’ll seem more important than I really am. But in the end, I’m just a patient who has to be led back to his room, patted on the hand indulgently, and reminded that I still have a long way to go.
A week ago, someone expressed to my wife, Marita, that they could never be as good as her because she is a preacher’s wife. I asked my wife, “Did you tell her about me? Or did you just let her keep believing that?” Oh how I wish that simply because I’ve decided to be a PR guy for the Great Physician that meant I was really all that great. But I’m the guy who plans on having a conversation with Paul about that not-quite-truth he expressed in I Timothy 1:15. (With me on the list there is no way he is the foremost of sinners. Though since I wasn’t around when he wrote that, I guess this small mistake can be overlooked.)
There was a time when I was sure I would be the perfect husband, the perfect father, raising the perfect kids, being the perfect preacher, producing the perfect congregations, writing the perfect blog, because I was the perfect Christian. There was a time when even though I knew it wasn’t true, I tried to get others to believe it. But no more.
In every aspect of my life, I’ve blown it. I’ve sinned as a husband, as a father, as a friend, as a brother, as a son. I’ve sinned as a preacher, as a counselor, as a teacher, as a brother in Christ. I struggle with covetousness, lust, materialism, pride, outbursts of wrath, gluttony, arrogance, selfishness. Marita and I have fights. I’ve had to crawl back to my kids begging forgiveness for not responding to them appropriately. I’ve been full-on involved in the competition for who is the best preacher. I wish I could say that was all before I was baptized or before I became a preacher, but I’m really just talking to you about the litany of things I did last week.
Hello, my name is Edwin and I am a patient.
But I’m in the right hospital. I’ve come to the Great Physician. He is healing me. He is giving me progressive victory over all my sins. He promised that I shall know the truth and the truth shall set me free. And it is. Jesus didn’t flip a switch. He invited me on a journey of growth. A really hard part of that journey was to invite others along. And I’m glad to say that I do have some real friends and brothers on that journey (you guys know who you are…THANK YOU!). I’d love for you to be on that journey too.
Trust me, no matter how great things seem today, you are going to fall at some point and you’ll need someone else beside you. Invite someone on your journey. Don’t be like Aron Ralston. Don’t take this trip alone.