My mouth dropped and my eyes filled with tears as the surgeon lifted my daughter’s spine x-ray up to the light box. As a former chiropractic assistant, I had seen my share of spine films twisting and coiling from scoliosis; I had no idea one day the film I saw would be my own eleven year old daughter’s. Four months earlier, a checkup as part of a school transfer had revealed that Sarah’s thoracic spine was beginning to curve into her right shoulder blade. Now, the x-ray showed that instead of stabilizing, the curve had nearly doubled in size. At her age, with the trajectory of progress her condition seemed to be on, it was no longer a question of if my daughter needed surgery, but what kind she should have, and how quickly she should have it.
Scoliosis is rarely fatal in and of itself, but left uncontrolled, an excessively curving spine can make everyday activities painful, give women difficulty during pregnancy, childbirth, and menopause, and restrict heart and lung function—not to mention the psychological trauma of disfigurement so distinctive that in earlier centuries it was associated with demon possession (and still is today in some countries). The surgical “gold standard” for progressing scoliosis in adolescents is spinal fusion, a complex surgery which sandwiches the spine between rods, and screws threaded through them, into the vertebrae. Fusion is usually corrective, but it renders parts of the spine permanently immobile, inhibits growth, and can stress the non-fused portion of the spine, causing pain, arthritis and the need for more surgeries later in life. Sarah would need to spend the formative years of junior high and high school in a shoulder to hip brace, which would hopefully squeeze her spine into submission until she was nearly done growing. Then she would have the fusion surgery and spend months recovering. It was a daunting, discouraging prospect. There had to be a different approach.
Common Grace and Scoliosis
Through the common grace of the Internet, we discovered a brand new type of spine surgery that leverages rapid adolescent growth to correct scoliosis curves. Similar in approach to orthodontic braces with teeth, vertebral body tethering involves inserting screws on the outside of a spinal curve, and a heavy polyethylene cable threaded through the heads of the screws, which are then tightened to straighten the spine part way. As an adolescent child continues to grow, the tension on the cord causes the spine to continue to straighten, often completely. With no fusion to restrict movement or inhibit growth unnecessarily, kids who receive this type of surgery are able to enjoy sports and all kinds of physical activity with no restrictions. With freedom of motion and growth maintained, and little to no risk of complications associated with fusion, kids are able to grow, play any sport, and generally return to just being growing kids.
One month of insurance drama, round the clock emailing and phone calling, and an eventual plane flight across the country later, I again looked at an x-ray of my daughter’s spine with eyes filled with tears, this time from inexpressible thankfulness as she slept nearby in a hospital bed. In less than five hours, the chief of surgery at Shriners Hospital in Philadelphia had done the tethering procedure, and taken a post-operative film to make sure everything was just right, and it was, beautifully so. Sarah’s curve was less than half of what it had been mere hours before.
Today, six months after her surgery, Sarah has dived, literally, back into all the water sports she loves, with several small scars her only visible reminder of the procedure, as the invisible tether helps her grow stronger and straighter every day. The experience itself was sanctifying for our entire family. But through it, I have given a profound, and profoundly helpful, picture of how the “tether” of the gospel, rather than the crushing of the law, empowers our life as believers in Jesus.
homo incurvatus in se
Martin Luther summarized our battle with sin with the Latin phrase homo incurvatus in se—humanity curved in toward self. My natural “bent” is away from God. Left to myself, I see only myself—my needs, my desires, my idols—and I am powerless to change.I need spiritual surgery.
The gospel, Paul reminds us in Romans 1, is that power. United with Christ through repentance and faith and made alive through the Holy Spirit; the power of the gospel tethers our hearts towards our heavenly Father, reducing the curving inwardness of our sin and lifting our hearts. In our times of struggle with temptation and discouragement, it is the tether of the gospel that keeps us from coiling back in on ourselves.
When my children seem determined to make Titus 3:3 their collective life verse, it is the tether of the gospel that helps me respond to them with the same goodness and kindness God showed in saving me (Ti 3:4).
When the administrivia of junior high homework and house projects “get in the way” of my plans for writing and study, the tether of the gospel reminds me of the One who emptied himself of his glory to become a servant for me (Phil 2:7).
When my husband does not utter the precise arrangements of words and phrases that would make me feel loved at the precise moment I want him to, the tether of the gospel reminds me that God exults over me with singing (Zeph. 3:17).
And when the weight of my sin and weaknesses and failures begin to curve my heart inward toward my wretched self, it is the tether of the gospel that reminds me that before the very foundation of the world, God had chosen me in Christ before the very foundation of the world and that redemption and forgiveness are mine in him, forever (Eph 1).
The law can only crush me into rigid, outer conformity. But the tether of the gospel empowers me to move freely, as a beloved child of God and a growing disciples of Jesus Christ by curving my affections towards the Triune God.
Rachael Starke (@RachaelStarke) lives with her husband and three daughters in San Jose, California. A graduate of The Master's College, she is now pursuing a master's degree in Nutritional Science, and writes about the intersection of spiritual and physical nutrition at What Food Is For. She also writes for and co-edits Gospel-Centered Woman, a newly repository of resources for for pastoral staff and lay leaders to support women’s discipleship through the local church. She and her family are members of West Hills Community Church in Morgan Hill.