Thursday, February 02, 2012

Pus and Pollution: Christian Thoughts on Yucky Things

On Tuesday I had a sebaceous cyst removed. It appeared a year ago on my back, and I hated it, but the doctor said it was harmless and I should just accept it. But then it abscessed a few weeks ago, so it had to be removed. Now I have three stitches where the cyst had been.

I drove home from the surgeon's office feeling light and free. It's gone, it's gone, it's gone, I almost sang to myself. I had hated that thing. I hated knowing it was there, gross and permanent, even though I could not see it. It had felt like more than a flaw. It had felt like a pollution.

As I was driving home, congratulating myself on finally being free of the thing, I remembered the Bible passage I had read to the kids this week. Every night we read aloud a chapter of a novel, a chapter of the Bible and several picture books, and lately our Bible reading has come from Acts. We had just finished Acts 10, in which Peter has his vision of the animals.  A sheet descends from heaven, holding all sorts of ritually unclean animals, and the voice of God commands him to kill and eat. When Peter objects because the food is "impure" or "unclean" according Jewish dietary laws, God responds, “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.”

The trouble with my attitude toward my cyst - an attitude I struggled to resist when I thought it was going to be permanent - was that I viewed a harmless thing as an impurity, something with the power to make me dirty. I didn't say that out loud, of course (I'm proud and I knew it would sound ridiculous), but I felt it all the same.

Lately I have stumbled across more and more "thinspiration" material from pro-anorexics (this is mostly on Pinterest, which is glutted with the stuff). Pro-anorexics are people who advocate their eating disorder as a superior way of life. There is a consistent theme in "pro-ana" commentary: a desire to be pure and light, free and clean. They see not just certain kinds of food as unclean, but all food. Eating itself is the pollution, and purity and freedom are achieved by depriving oneself to skeletal proportions. There is an almost medieval asceticism to it. Self-abnegation to the point of death, it is hoped, brings cleansing.

But the words of Peter's vision echo. "Do not call impure anything that God has made clean." The Christian perspective (especially the Reformed theology in which I participate) is that purity, freedom, wholeness - whatever word you want to use for joyful goodness and freedom from regret - is not accomplished by our efforts, but is accomplished for us by God. God makes us clean. God through Christ declares what we are: beautiful, cherished, free. Our difficult task is not to purify ourselves; our difficult task is faith, believing that we really are the clean and free beings he has turned us into.

One of my favorite pulp novels (anyone who has read my blog for a long time knows what book I am about to mention) is Robin McKinley's Sunshine. In the climactic battle of the book, the heroine Sunshine fights evil victoriously, but is convinced that by doing so, she has been polluted by it. Her friend Con tries to convince her that the evil she fought has no power to taint her. Evil is only a powerful idea, he says. Reject the idea and you have conquered it.

McKinley has captured, in a mirror image (and possibly unintentionally), the challenge of Christian faith. We are challenged to believe that good has triumphed over evil, not only cosmically, but personally. The struggle is to believe that neither our inconsequential flaws nor our deeper moral failings have the power to change what God has done. We do not determine who we are; we receive it, and grace is God's persistent patience and aid in our struggle to believe it.

So I was wrong to view my cyst as a pollution, just as the anorexics are wrong to see sustenance as a defilement. We cannot be made unclean by those things. God has made me clean. 

I just have to believe it.


  1. It is amazing the power certain things have that encourages us to feel unclean. (I almost wrote "make us feel unclean" and then realized that no thing has the power to make us feel anything, but still....) There are family dynamics that do it, because they have been inculcated at such an early age.

    Nevertheless, I am happy for you that the cyst has been removed.

  2. Oh my. I love you. Thank you for being who you are, for listening to God, and for SHARING your experience in such a considered way.

    Love. You.

  3. Very much enjoyed your journey in this post. I do prickle at any thoughts of anorexics being weak in faith, but understand that is not what you are saying. The hardest case I ever worked with was an anorexic woman who was struggling so deeply with her faith, trying to come to terms with her mental illness & her God. It was nearly impossible for her to process a crisis in faith & a crisis in health simultaneously & it almost killed her.

    It is funny how something becomes so big in our minds. You are not alone in "making a mountain out of a molehill." We all have something that we let us define us.

    Again, enjoyed this post!

  4. Eryn, thanks for commenting. No, I wasn't trying to say anorexics have "weak" faith. Everyone has their own battle. Just like me.

  5. Awesome.

    (I know--thoughtful analysis and response! . . . How about this: Understanding the power mind games have over our lives, and even the fate of nations, makes the old saw about renewing our minds (Romans 12) that much more applicable. So now I just have to do it . . .)