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Let It Go

We have just witnessed the tremendous athletic ability of the “best of the best” in the summer Olympics in Rio.  The skills that all of these champions possess are beyond the average person’s ability to fathom.  We see them perform and marvel at their mastery over their bodies to do the things that they do to win gold medals.

In watching all of those that ran in various track competitions, none looked back while they ran the races.  When those in gymnastics, diving, or swimming failed in one event, they often did better in the next event because they did not focus on their past failure, but on their hope of future success in their next competition.  When we struggle most is when we refuse to learn from what is past and then put it away to face what is before us in the present and future.

Amputees often experience some sensation of a phantom limb. Somewhere, locked in their brains, a memory lingers of the nonexistent hand or leg. Invisible toes curl, imaginary hands grasp things, and a “leg” feels so sturdy a patient may try to stand on it. For a few, the experience includes pain. Doctors watch helplessly, for the part of the body screaming for attention does not exist. 

One such patient was my medical school administrator, Mr. Barwick, who had a serious and painful circulation problem in his leg but refused to allow the recommended amputation. As the pain grew worse, Barwick grew bitter. “I hate it! I hate it!” he would mutter about the leg. At last he relented and told the doctor, “I can’t stand it anymore. I’m through with that leg. Take it off.” Surgery was scheduled immediately. 

Before the operation, however, Barwick asked the doctor, “What do you do with legs after they’re removed?” 

“We may take a biopsy or explore them a bit, but afterwards we incinerate them,” the doctor replied. 

Barwick proceeded with a bizarre request: “I would like you to preserve my leg in a pickling jar. I will install it on my mantle shelf. Then, as I sit in my armchair, I will taunt that leg, ‘Hah! You can’t hurt me anymore!'” 

Ultimately, he got his wish. But the despised leg had the last laugh. Barwick suffered phantom limb pain of the worst degree. The wound healed, but he could feel the torturous pressure of the swelling as the muscles cramped, and he had no prospect of relief. He had hated the leg with such intensity that the pain had unaccountably lodged permanently in his brain. 

To me, phantom limb pain provides wonderful insight into the phenomenon of false guilt. Christians can be obsessed by the memory of some sin committed years ago. It never leaves them, crippling their ministry, their devotional life, and their relationships with others. They live in fear that someone will discover their past. They work overtime trying to prove to God they’re truly repentant. They erect barriers against the enveloping, loving grace of God. Unless they experience the truth in 1 John 3:19-20, then they become as pitiful as poor Mr. Barwick, shaking a fist in fury at the pickled leg on the mantle. 19 Our actions will show that we belong to the truth, so we will be confident when we stand before God. 20 Even if we feel guilty, God is greater than our feelings, and he knows everything.  (1 John 3:19-20).   (Copied from Dr. Paul Brand and Philip Yancey, Leadership, Vol. 5, number 3).