Collateral Damage

December 9, 2013

The treatment for a lung cancer like mine is aggressive and hard-hitting. In my case, it involves both chemotherapy and radiation, designed first to shrink the tumor to a size that can be excised safely and also to kill any rogue cells that might be tempted to migrate through my body to make more mischief. The medicines in my chemo infusions have a proven track record, and the treatment protocol between now and surgery is non-controversial. But the regimen is tough on the body because of a reality known as collateral damage.

Collateral damage is the harm done to healthy tissues and structures that are not the primary target. The term is perhaps familiar in a military context, where collateral damage is the sterile way of referring to the death or injury of innocent bystanders in a war or crime incident. Medically, it refers to the potential damage radiation can cause to my skin and esophagus (through which radiation beams must travel to get to the tumor). Chemo puts a strain on the kidneys, nerves, and blood-forming processes, which is why my immunities eventually will be suppressed.

The calculated risk of side effects is worth taking, however, because the primary objective (killing the Beast) is necessary and achievable in order to sustain my life. God in answer to your prayers, by the way, has minimized the side effects so far, for which I am grateful. But that is not to say things won’t get rough as the weeks go by. What makes them rough is the collateral damage, from which I will also have to recover after treatment is completed.

All this points to one personal reality of the Christian life: there is collateral damage to be reckoned with when one resists temptation and forsakes sin. The writer of Hebrews very honestly addresses this dynamic and presents us with a challenge:

“Consider [Jesus] who endured such hostility against himself from sinners, so that you may not grow weary or lose heart. In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood” (Hebrews 12:3f).

The implication here is that forsaking sin might make one bleed. I can think of some scenarios in which removing oneself from tempting situations might require leaving friends closely associated with that habit or practice. What could be more painful than that? Only the spiritual death associated with the sinful practice! And yet, how often are we deceived into thinking it is more important (or loving) to keep a friend or a job or a habit than to finally wriggle free of the immoral trap that has been set for us? More likely, how often are we lulled into thinking that continuing in sin really isn’t hurting us (or anybody else) and it isn’t worth the pain and suffering to extricate ourselves from it.

And yet, if Jesus had thought that way, he would have given up the idea of carrying the Cross, suffering the pain and shame of execution. He could have said, in the flesh, this dying is just too much trouble; and for what? To redeem hopeless sinful people who have forsaken their Heavenly Father? But no, Jesus willingly took on the one and only remedy for our hopelessness and sin, his own death on our behalf. Again, in Hebrews 12: “[look] to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame . . .” (12:2)

Jesus spilled his own blood, and by that action poured out his forgiveness for our sin and empowered us to forsake the sinful actions that entangle us in unholy living. Nobody said this forsaking would be pretty; in fact we are promised it would be painful. And yet, “to those who are trained by [that discipline], later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness” (12:11). The collateral damage to our pride and our wayward relationships and habits is a necessary part of our repentance. If we remain strong in the Lord and healthy in our faith, we can withstand the side effects of deep and true repentance, as painful as they are.

The concept extends to our life in the church, in which pastors and elders are required at times to make tough decisions that produce collateral damage. I remember a critical decision to preach the Word, which I did systematically for years, alienated a couple who felt that other topics were more worthy of our attention. They left the church. If I had chased after them or preached sermons to tickle their ears, it would have put the whole Body in jeopardy, because we all then would not have been taking our spiritual medicine. But doing so hurt, because we lost two people we had loved to another gospel. Collateral damage.

So though it may be very difficult for us to follow Jesus this day, we must keep our eyes on him and not be diverted off the path of righteousness. Saying “yes” to Jesus today will involve saying “no” to temptation or sin that has already entangled us. May God give us all the wisdom to choose rightly and courageously, despite the relatively short-term pain, in order that we might fully enjoy fellowship with our Heavenly Father and demonstrate the power of his Kingdom to the world around us!

 TOMORROW: Serendipity, the flip side of this coin.

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One Response to “Collateral Damage”

  1. emd5542 Says:

    Congratulations, Mary, on keeping your body in tune [e.g., recent hike] while you anticipate the next hit of chemo as well as absorption of ongoing radiation. Our prayers continue. Your preaching from Hebrews in today’s blog is truly on the mark for me as I seek God’s will in relationships large and small. Thanks be to God for the gifts God has entrusted to you.

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