A guest post from Victoria about some of the struggles of life with chronic pain. Her story can be found here.
"Don’t start something you can’t finish” we are taught. We will teach our children the same. “Finishing what you started” is a hallmark of good character. Planning and perseverance makes a good employee, a good student, a good parent. “Stick-to-it-iveness,” as my mother says, is undoubtedly a desirable character trait. When we know that a person will finish what he began we feel free to trust in his proven integrity.
Well, I don’t know about you, but there are little things every day that I start…and then cannot finish. The idea for this post began as I was hunched over my kitchen counter, floury fingers using a rolling pin to work out a piecrust dough, remembering very keenly why it is that I haven’t made an apple pie in a good long while. For the most part I have abandoned my passion for cooking in order to keep my joint pain in check. Since my chronic pain has become more intense and pervasive, I frequently start tasks that I find I can’t finish. So what does that say about my character, according to our American idiom? It is an admirable goal to “finish what you started,” but how do you feel when you just…can’t?
I feel like I am failing at small things every day because of my pain. In my home, I feel like I’m letting down the team because I am a stay-at-home mom, but often cannot complete even minimal house work. At church, I feel like a free-loader since I’ve quit volunteering in the nursery because I can barely pick up my own children anymore. My character comes in to question – in my own mind - every time I get out a project to work on, but leave it half-done because of my pain. I enjoy making homemade cards for friends and family, but some days just getting out my crafting supplies puts me in so much pain that I can’t actually make a card. Not only do I not finish what I started, but once I start hurting, the last thing I’m capable of is cleaning up the mess. So there is my dining room table, covered in scrapbooking paper, ribbon, glue, and stamps, but no beautiful card to show for it.
Some of the things I’ve started and had to “quit” are much bigger than a birthday card.
There is probably something in your life that you started, and now cannot finish because of your illness or pain. Maybe it was just the dishes today. You wanted to have the kitchen clean in time to make dinner, but your pain wouldn’t allow it and you find yourself apologizing when your husband comes home to the mess. Maybe it’s a school degree you set out to achieve, but now you cannot attend class. Perhaps your family had a plan to move to a new location, get ahead in the workplace, or do volunteer work, and you’ve had to stop short because of your physical limitations. I’ve dealt with all of these in some form or another since my chronic pain moved in to stay.
Our American mindset tells us that we’re unworthy of our goals if we set out to achieve them, but then cannot finish. We feel that our integrity is called into question when we cannot carry our plans through. But friends, these attitudes come from a dangerous lie that is ubiquitous in our culture: the world tells us, you are only as good as the things you can do.
Isn’t that the root of our disappointment with ourselves when we can’t execute our own plans? Isn’t that the source of my frustration with not being able to bake a pie from scratch, or wash and put away the laundry in one day (it usually takes me five)? Do you see beneath the surface of your daily plans a hope that your worth will be validated, if only you can finish those tasks?
It is good and honorable to finish the things you have started and to be true to your word, but you must not forget: you are not the things that you can do. Your character and your worth are not defined by your accomplishments and your ability to carry out your own plans in your own strength. I think those of us living with chronic illness have a special advantage in being sanctified in this area of our lives; because we are forced to “quit” our work on many good things, God can till the soil of our hearts, frequently and painfully, to remind us that our works do nothing to accomplish our salvation or add to our worth. Through our pain and disabilities God can cultivate in us a greater knowledge of our identity and value in Christ’s work, not our own.
Your worth before God is determined by your relationship with Him. If you are a believer, you are a beautiful creation made in the image of God, and more than that you are a child of God and an heir with Christ. It is God’s plans for your life and His ability to carry them out that matter.
Sure, I have started many things that I cannot finish. This evening I began cleaning up the kitchen, then picked up the baby and injured the nerves in my shoulder. That was the end of that. But God’s plans always come to pass. No one can thwart His hand. He is the only one who can direct history. He is the only one who can fulfill all His purposes. Even when I am unable to get out of bed, God is accomplishing His purpose through my pain. That divine purpose will come to pass, whether or not my own plans do.
Whenever I am tempted to despair, or frustration, or even anger that I have once again had to leave a task unfinished to go lay down with ice, I can say, “I am sure of this, that He who began a good work in [me] will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ” (Phil 1:6).
The greatest task that ever needed to be accomplished in my life is DONE. It was completed at the cross, and it will be proven through my life as God molds me more and more into the image of His Son.
When we meet God on judgment day, He will not ask us if we were able to finish the things we started, as though eternity rested on our strength and plans. What He will ask is if we trusted in the work that He began and He finished on the cross. Hallelujah!