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Elizabeth Glass Turner ~ The Pain of Misalignment: God and the Disordered Body

The statement on the website shouted loudly and clearly what many people instinctively know if they let themselves notice it: The Key to Relieving Pain Is Fixing Our Misalignment.

I was visiting a website that sells therapeutic insoles for people with aching feet. The promises of pain relief were backed up by “Science” and a compelling founder’s story from a man who just wanted his little boy to be able to play and run with his friends again. Most insoles give you cushioning, the site explained. But these insoles realign your ankles, counteracting the chain reaction that occurs when your ankles are misaligned. When your ankles are misaligned, your knees, hips, lower and upper back, and neck are all thrown out of alignment too. Align your ankles, though, and the other joints are restored to proper positioning.

The Key to Relieving Pain is Fixing Our Misalignment.

Look around, and you will find pain everywhere. An announcement goes out from a friend on social media who has just had five siblings placed in her foster home: clothing, car seats, basic toys are needed. What pain preceded the moment they arrived on her doorstep, children walking into a stranger’s home?

A regional newspaper announces a workshop on how to administer Narcan, a drug that can halt an opioid overdose, potentially saving the life of an unconscious drug addict. Deaths have skyrocketed, and people beyond EMTs and first responders are learning how to stock and use the medication.

There is, Mother Teresa said, a poverty of love. “The poverty in the West is a different kind of poverty — it is not only a poverty of loneliness but also of spirituality. There’s a hunger for love, as there is a hunger for God.”

We think we do not love each other enough. In part, we are right. Why can we not welcome each other? How has the tone of our words become so strained, sudden, explosive? Most people in North America do not buy a semiautomatic rifle and hundreds of rounds of ammunition and drive to a nightclub to shoot and kill people; but our words are high-caliber. Accusations are unloaded, pop, pop, pop. We hear someone’s words and take aim at their character instead of their reasoning, like a trainee on a shooting course who pulls the trigger at a pop-up of a civilian instead of a combatant.

We need love, we think. We need more love. We need to be more loving as people, toward other people. But this is like saying that we need more cushioning; we need more support. And while we do need more cushioning, the key to relieving pain is fixing our misalignment. Because we are not only impoverished in love; our loves are disordered, out of alignment. We can attempt to cushion them as much as we want; only realigning misplaced joints will relieve the pain, though.

There is misalignment in all our lives. Over a millenium and a half ago, a North African Christian thinker named Augustine diagnosed the nature of human disorder by thoroughly handling our propensity for disordered loves. The essence of virtue, wrote Augustine, is rightly ordered love. For Augustine, the problem is not that we don’t love each other enough; it is that we don’t love God enough:

“But living a just and holy life requires one to be capable of an objective and impartial evaluation of things: to love things, that is to say, in the right order, so that you do not love what is not to be loved, or fail to love what is to be loved, or have a greater love for what should be loved less, or an equal love for things that should be loved less or more, or a lesser or greater love for things that should be loved equally.”

Centuries later, C.S. Lewis parsed this out: “You cannot love a fellow-creature fully till you love God.” Cushion the stride as much as you want: beginning with love for others does not address the fundamental misalignment. The right ordering of loves is essential for an aligned Body.

But you cannot love whom you cannot know.

To love means to know: not to know comprehensively – what finite mortal can comprehend God – but to know truly, truthfully, in reality, even if it is a tiny sliver of reality. If God is so transcendent as to be genuinely unknowable, then we cannot love God: God is too other to interact with. If God is so imminent as to be the same as all created matter, then we cannot love God: God is as finite as a summer dandelion. If all is only mystery, or if all is accessible and comprehensible, then we have the same problem: a God unknowable, or a God not worth knowing.

John 1 throws open a window on the Great Realigning. The universe was created in alignment, we read. But it did not recognize the one who created it, through the depth of its own injurious misalignment.

“The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth… No one has ever seen God, but the one and only Son, who is himself God and is in closest relationship with the Father, has made him known.”

A God we can know is a God we can love. In loving God as the highest, greatest good, as Augustine would say, we find alignment: here, there is relief from pain. Here, where the sequence is adjusted. Here, the alignment of creation stands in sound wholeness. Here, we can now love our fellow-creature fully: because we love the Creator first. Our joints are rightly ordered, and our stride is sure and strong.

But what mercy is there in observing someone with a dislocated shoulder and offering ice for the rest of their lives? The agony of being out of socket is considerable. The arm is useless. The pain is blinding. We can place a cushion behind the joint that is out of socket, but we know that ultimately the key to relieving pain is fixing the misalignment. The short-term gasp of agony at resetting a dislocated shoulder is a mercy compared to the long-term pain and loss of use.

The right ordering of what has been out of alignment, dislocated, or out of whack is strange and painful at first. We have become accustomed to low-level pain that slowly increased until more and more energy was spent ignoring it; there is disequilibrium in the corrected stride. Proper alignment feels odd when we had learned to cope around dysfunction.

There was a time in my twenties when I attempted to jog around an indoor track while holding my then-boyfriend’s hand, a sweet but silly attempt. It became more challenging as I became aware that he was limping from a knee strain, and the limp made it impossible to match his uneven stride. If I continued to hold his hand, in order to match strides and not have our arms bang into each other, I had to adopt a limping stride too – but that was not good for my own legs. If we wanted to jog while holding hands, our strides would have to match; I would have to adopt the dysfunction of his knee, or else continue to abruptly bump into each other. Needless to say, we stopped the attempt at holding hands: our strides could not align unless I adopted an unhealthy one to match his injury.

We know there is misalignment in our world; everywhere we look, we see pain.

Where, today, is there misalignment in the Body of Christ? Where is the Body exhibiting a limp? What misalignment in an ankle is sending a cascade of disorder through the whole?

Each tradition must answer for itself; across the Body of Christ around the world, there are places of solid health and wholeness, and there are places of systemic dysfunction and injury. Places where limps were being concealed have been revealed in spectacular dismay, like a runner whose hamstring snaps in front of millions.

Christians believe that we cannot fix our misalignment ourselves, as much as we humans like to try to grit our teeth and force a bulging shoulder back into socket. We believe that rightly ordered love only results from God first loving us and making the heart of the Trinity known to us through Christ, the Word Made Flesh. We believe that the power of the Holy Spirit aligns our unstable hearts that are “bent toward sinning” – “prone to wander, Lord I feel it – prone to leave the God I love.” We believe that in Christ, we find the great aligner, who can reset what is out of joint in our lives, in our world, in our universe. There is pain in the reset, but peace in our steps as we look forward to a day when entropy – decline into disorder – is halted, and sound wholeness prevails.

“But, speaking the truth in love, may [we] grow up in all things into him who is the head—Christ—  from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by what every joint supplies, according to the effective working by which every part does its share, causes growth of the body for the edifying of itself in love. This I say, therefore, and testify in the Lord, that you should no longer walk as the rest of the Gentiles walk, in the futility of their mind, having their understanding darkened, being alienated from the life of God…”

Gently, the Apostle Paul says, disentangle yourselves from a stride which causes you to limp. The Body of Christ is not meant to adopt misalignment or to be a means of dysfunction in a world of entropy: rather, it is meant to grow up in all things into Christ, by whom the whole body causes growth when joined and knit together by what every joint supplies.

Christ, in your mercy, fix our misalignment; Christ, in your mercy, fix our misalignment, order our loves by centering our hearts on you, and relieve our pain.

Featured image: Sketch of a Foot, Vincent van Gogh