Tethered to the Gospel

Common Grace and Scoliosis

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.

Partner—GCD—450x300Through 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, it is the power of the gospel that “tethers” our hearts and minds, reducing the curving inwardness of our sin and lifting our hearts towards our heavenly Father. 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.

Christians Can Be Terrible

Christians can be terrible. As a reader of the New Testament, this doesn’t surprise me. One of the major premises of the Christian faith is that humans are so flawed, so broken, so rebellious, and so unable to redeem themselves that the eternal Son had to incarnate himself, live, die, and rise again in order to fix them (Romans 1-8). I suppose what does shock me is that Christians are still surprised when other Christians are terrible. For instance, every time some news report comes out about a pastoral failure, or a fiasco in Evangelical culture, or abuse in the Church, it’s common to see Christians of various stripes updating and bewailing said fiasco. While that’s fine, and probably necessary to some degree, the one attitude I find myself chafing at rather regularly is the “I don’t know if I can call myself a Christian” anymore impulse.

It’s as if this person were introduced to Christianity by having them read bits of Acts, without reading Paul, the Gospels, or heck, even the rest of Acts. As if they were promised a Christianity with nice, cleaned up people, with perfectly cleaned up story arcs where all the sin is “back there” in the past, never to rear its ugly head, so that you don’t have the bear the ignominy of being associated with such foul stupidity and wickedness. Then when they meet real Christians–you know, the sinning kind–they suffer a sort of whiplash on contact.

Wickedness in the New Testament Church

Well, in order to prevent the kind of whiplash I’m talking about, I’d like to present an incomplete list of sins, wicked behaviors, or assorted troubling phenomena that the New Testament notes happening in the early years—in just 1 Corinthians alone:

  • Arguments about personality cults (ch. 1-4)
  • Lawsuits between believers (ch. 5)
  • Incest, or sexual immorality so gross that even the pagans are shocked (ch. 5-6)
  • Visiting prostitutes, or sexuality that’s basically just pagan (ch. 6)
  • Bizarre confusion about the church’s teaching on marriage and sexuality (ch. 7)
  • Confusion on gender issues in relation to culture (ch. 11)\
  • Inequality and pride based on social and economic distinction (ch. 11)
  • People getting drunk at church before communion (ch. 11)
  • Gross spiritual pride related to the gifts (ch. 12-14)
  • Confusion on eschatology and core theological issues like the resurrection of Christ (ch. 15)

How about some other Pauline epistles?

  • Syncretism and mix and match spirituality (Col 1)
  • Legalism and false ascetic restrictions (Col 2; Rom 14)
  • Ethnic particularism and pride (Galatians)
  • Arguments between solid, believing Christians (Phil 4)
  • False teachers perverting doctrine and lying about godly pastors (2 Cor 10)
  • Free-loaders who won’t work, but leach off the community (1-2 Thes)

Honestly, we could just keep going for a while here. These are the kinds of things that the authors of the New Testament, the Apostles who regularly performed miracles and such, had to warn their congregations about.

Partner—GCD—450x300Now, there is a real sense in which these things “don’t happen” among Christians. D.A. Carson, when talking about the statement in 1 John 3:9 “no one who is born of God will continue to sin,” told a story about an old teacher he had. The teacher would say in class, “We do not chew gum here.” Now, the force of the statement is such to say that, “as a rule, gum-chewing is forbidden and we take it seriously.” Still, he wouldn’t have said it if it weren’t for the fact that people regularly tried, and occasionally did, end up chewing gum in class. In the same way, Christians do not, and should not sin in the various ways I listed above. At the same time, though, if Paul, or John, or Jesus, are warning about them, clearly they have happened in church. What’s more, apparently these are the kinds of warnings they expected might come in handy for future believers as well, otherwise they wouldn’t be in Scripture (1 Cor 10).

He Saves All Sorts

All that said, I suppose I want to say a few things.

First, yes, sin in the life of the believer is many senses shocking. It’s shocking in its flagrance. It’s shocking in its ingratitude towards the Savior. It’s shocking in its resistance to the Holy Spirit who now empowers the believer to a life of obedience. It’s shocking because sin, at core, makes no sense. Yet should it be surprising? Not to anyone who has taken the time to read the New Testament it shouldn’t be.

Second, keep in mind Jesus tends to save all sorts. He saves people from healthy family situations that predisposes them towards basic, moral, sociability that we enjoy. He also saves people out of broken social situations, drugs, prostitution. He saves them out of hyper-religious legalism. He saves them out of sexual addiction and rage. Given all the different pits Jesus manages to drag people out of, don’t be surprised to see varieties of dirt and muck still clinging to them as he sets himself to the slow task of cleaning them up again.

Finally, have a care for your own pride. As Paul says,

For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption, so that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.” (1 Corinthians 1:26-31)

Remember where you came from. You weren’t on the spiritual a-team either. You’re still not. And yet you don’t want to be “associated” with those people because you’re name is such a big deal? Paul says to us here, “if your name is anything, it’s only because ‘in Christ’ you have gained wisdom, righteousness, and so forth. It is because holy Jesus was willing to identify himself with what is low, foolish, sinful and broken”–you know, you and I. If you have any great shame, any great disgust at the sin of your fellow believer, make sure it is because you care about his Name, not yours.

And then praise his Name when you remember he’s willing to share it with all sorts.

Derek Rishmawy is the Director of College and Young Adult ministries at Trinity United Presbyterian Church in Orange County, CA. He got his B.A. in Philosophy at UCI and his M.A.T.S. (Biblical Studies) at APU. He also contributes at the Gospel Coalition, Mere Orthodoxy, and Leadership Journal, as well as his own Reformedish blog.

Original posted at Used with permission.