Grace Notes, By Nancy Kennedy
A month or so ago, I met a man with part of his right arm missing – he was a tree trimmer and had an accident involving a chain saw.
I asked him if the missing part ever hurt. He said as a matter of fact, it was bothering him as we were talking.
Doctors call it “phantom pain.” The limb or body part is no longer there, but the person may still feel as if it is. Sometimes an amputated foot tickles or gets that “pins and needles” sensation of having fallen asleep. Sometimes a missing arm or leg aches or itches – or hurts like heck.
Sometimes the pain is unbearable.
Years ago I wrote a story for the newspaper about a woman who was going nearly insane from the pain in her leg that wasn’t there. She had lost it in a motorcycle accident 20-plus years earlier.
I met her while she was undergoing something called mirror therapy, developed by a neuroscientist at the University of California at San Diego. He used mirrors so amputees could “see” and “move” their missing limbs. It tricks the brain into thinking the limb is really there.
Because phantom pain is a brain thing – the brain somehow thinks the limb is still there – the “cure,” as the neurologist discovered, is a brain thing, too. It happens when amputees watch their intact limbs move and imagine the missing limb making the movements. Somehow, it tricks the brain into making the pain go away.
The late Dr. Paul Brand, a Christian physician, once wrote about a patient with serious and painful circulation problems but refused an amputation. As his pain increased, so did his bitterness. When he couldn’t stand the pain any longer he told Brand, “Cut it off!”
Then he said he wanted to keep the amputated leg in a pickling jar on the mantle where he could taunt it, “Ha! You can’t hurt me anymore!”
However, after the amputation the man experienced excruciating phantom pain. Brand said the man hated his leg with such intensity that the pain had lodged permanently in his brain.
Brand said watching his patient’s unbearable pain over something that was no longer there made him think about how some Christians suffer with guilt and the memory of past sin that’s been long forgiven. He noted that they obsess over it and let it cripple their ministry and their relationships and rob them of their joy.
“They live in fear that someone will discover their past,” he wrote. “So, they work overtime trying to prove to God that they’re repentant. They erect barriers against the enveloping, loving grace of God…and become as pitiful as (the man) shaking his fist in fury at the pickled leg on the mantle.”
I confess I’ve got a few pickled legs on my mantle, things I return to, closing my eyes in pain at the memory, cringing as I beg God to forgive me.
Even though I know he already has, sometimes the pain of guilt is still there, haunting me, taunting me.
If I hadn’t done that, I think. If I hadn’t been so selfish, if I had been more loving. If I had been more forgiving, less condemning. If I had prayed more, been more obedient.
The list goes on, but it always ends with the same pain-filled plea: “Please forgive me, God! Please?”
But he has forgiven me. It’s my phantom pain that makes me think he hasn’t.
Physical phantom limb pain is cured with mirrors. When the amputee fixes his or her eyes on the reflection of the remaining limb, on what’s really there, only then does the brain say, “Oh yeah. The source of pain is gone. I don’t have to hurt anymore.”
I watched the woman who had lost her leg some 20 years earlier as the therapist placed a mirror against her leg, which made it look as if she had two legs. As she fixed her eyes on the mirror, she cried, not from the pain she had been in, but because the pain was gone.
Similarly, Christians suffering from the pain of guilt for sin already forgiven, the cure is fixing our eyes on Jesus and the cross and hearing him say, “It is finished.”
Our guilt is gone. It’s a phantom. It’s no longer there. It can’t hurt us anymore.
Nancy Kennedy is the author of “Move Over, Victoria - I Know the Real Secret,” “Girl on a Swing,” and her latest book, “Lipstick Grace.” She can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.