Posts Tagged ‘wrestling with the angel’

The Purpose of Scars

February 17, 2012

The question came up in a recent online conversation: “Does a man lose his limp of ‘stammer’ after he’s healed?” This thought led me to mulling over the purpose of scars—and a limp or ‘stammer’ can be a sort of scarring, the result of some trauma or wounding. Jacob carried the limp from his wrestling with the angel the rest of his life (Gen. 32:24 ff.), and his descendents even memorialized the fact by not eating the tendon attached to the hip socket in animals. Jesus still had his scars in his resurrected body, so much so that he was able to tell Thomas that he was welcome to check them out to satisfy his doubting (John 20:24 ff.).

So what IS the purpose of scars, of limps, of signs of our wounding that remain after our healing? I can see at least three distinct purposes:

1) SCARS IDENTIFY US CLEARLY. We have already mentioned the story about Thomas. Often bulletins are put out by authorities mentioning particular scars as identifiers for criminals or missing persons, and they are sometimes used to identify corpses. (Tattoos may actually be a way for some to try to create a sort of scarring, something to show off—haven’t you heard someone ask, “Did it hurt?”) Brands and tags have been used throughout history on animals (and unfortunately, people in some cases) to identify them as property, to mark them for some other identification purposes (usually negative).

2) SCARS MEMORIALIZE OUR VICTORIES. Jacob’s limp and Jesus’s scars indicated that they had not lost the battle. They were survivors. Sometimes, of course, the scarring is so horrendous in appearance that it becomes debilitating in our psyches, but nonetheless, it does indicate survival, even in cases where we might wish we hadn’t survived. Somehow the will to live is so strong that our bodies refuse to give up. Paul was able to say in essence, “Don’t mess with me—I bear in my body the marks of my sufferings for preaching Jesus.” (Gal. 6:17)

3) SCARS ENABLE US TO RELATE. When we see someone who has severe scars, there is a tendency to cringe as we imagine how it might have felt. Daniel Ariely was able to find his life’s calling doing behavioral economic experiments because he endured 5 years of recovery from injuries from a phosphorous grenade. His personal interest in whether it hurt more to rip bandages off quickly (as the nurses claimed) led him to a field that has resulted in some interesting conclusions about why we act the way we do. (See his story in the intro to the book Predictably Irrational.)

When we see someone who has severe scars, we can relate to the fact that they are survivors, and sometimes we overlay that fact onto our stories, because most of us have scars, sometimes very deep, that no one sees. We can draw the conclusion, “Hey, they survived; maybe I can too.” Their pain and suffering can thus become an encouragement, a sign of hope for us. Obviously it is a choice to see it that way, but it does happen. Scars draw us into relationship.

Obviously scars are not usually something we seek out or pursue passionately. They almost always occur in the battles of life. But it is possible to come to view them positively, as sources of finding our identity, of learning how to survive and actually doing it, and of coming into relationship with others who have suffered and are scarred. Often we are commanded in Scripture to identify with those in prison and in pain. Paul even said—after all he had been through—“I want to know Christ, and the power of his resurrection, AND THE FELLOWSHIP OF SHARING IN HIS SUFFERINGS, becoming like him in his death and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead.” (Phil. 3:10)

Jesus “set [his] face like a flint” (Isa. 50:17) and pursued the course of the Cross, knowing there would be scarring. He calls us to do the same. Paul often encouraged his readers, “Follow me as I follow Christ.” (1 Cor. 11:1; see also 2 Thes. 3:7,9; Phil. 3:17; 4:9, among others) There will be pain. When we survive, there may well be scars, even if they don’t show. Our goal should be to use them, as everything else, as something encouraging and instructive, a source of life for ourselves and for others. It may well be that how well we do this determines the level of our rewards. Perhaps we might even modify the old hymn and, with a wry smile and a twinkle in our eyes, ask, “Will there be any SCARS in my crown?”