Theological Reflections on Going Under for Nose Surgery Tomorrow
Last February I broke my nose in the Wal-Mart parking lot. It’s a funny story that maybe I will tell sometime. Tomorrow I have to go in for surgery to get it fixed. (Complicated insurance reasons are driving me to get it done before the end of the year!)
They knock you out entirely for this surgery, which in one sense I am glad about. (But, in another sense, I’m not looking forward to it because it means you are having things done to you over which you will be entirely helpless about yourself!).
The surgery is not a huge deal (and all the damage is on the inside — you can’t tell by looking at it that it was broke), and I’ve talked to a lot of people who have had this done. But in light of being knocked out entirely, there are two doctrines, or truths about God, that particularly come to mind and which I will be relying on as I go under.
1. The Doctrine of Vocation
I don’t know if the doctor who will be performing the surgery is a believer or not, and he doesn’t have to be in order to be a good and effective doctor. And that’s because of the doctrine of vocation.
The doctrine of vocation teaches us that when each of us are operating in our vocations, it is ultimately God who is at work. God is “hidden” in vocation — including those of non-Christians.
Gene Veith does the best so far of articulating this doctrine for us today (see his excellent book God at Work). Veith points out that the doctrine of vocation is why, in the Lord’s Prayer for example, we can pray “give us this day our daily bread” even though the bread comes to us through the work of a thousand different people (the farmer who planted the seeds and harvested the wheat, the people that used the wheat to make the bread, the people that designed the company’s process for making the bread, the people that built the machines used in making the bread, the marketing department that enables people to know about the bread, the truck drivers that delivered the bread to the grocery store, the stock people who stock the shelves with the bread, and so forth).
The reason we pray to God to give us our daily bread, even though it comes through the actions of humans, is because God is at work through each person’s vocation to serve us and his creation.
As Veith puts it:
Though he could give it to us directly, by a miraculous provision, as He once did for the children of Israel when He fed them daily with manna, God has chosen to work through human beings, who, in their different capacities and according to their different talents, serve one another. This is the doctrine of vocation.
Luther goes so far as to say that vocation is a mask of God. That is, God hides Himself in the workplace, the family, the Church, and the seemingly secular society. To speak of God being hidden is a way of describing His presence, as when a child hiding in the room is there, just not seen. To realize that the mundane activities that take up most of our lives. . . are hiding-places for God can be a revelation in itself.
As it is with our daily bread, so also it is with this surgery: ultimately it is not the doctor at work to produce this outcome of a repaired nose, but God. The doctrine of vocation enables me to acknowledge and even admire what the doctor is able to do, while ultimately looking up to God as the one who is himself bringing this about and fixing my nose. (I only wish he wanted to do this one through a miracle!)
We might normally think, “If God is going to fix my nose, then a fixed nose will miraculously appear.” But no. The doctrine of vocation teaches us that tomorrow, when the surgeon repairs my nose, that itself is God giving me the gift of a fixed nose. God is fixing my nose tomorrow — not through a miracle or instant fix, but through the work of the surgeon. And the outcome will be just as much from God as if He had done it directly.
This gives both comfort and significance to the experience of something like surgery, let alone all the other things that we do and experience in our daily lives. As Veith goes on to say:
Most people seek God in mystical experiences, spectacular miracles, and extraordinary acts they have to do. [But] to find Him in vocation brings Him, literally, down to earth, makes us see how close He really is to us, and transfigures everyday life.
2. God’s Providence for Believers
The doctrine of vocation is obviously very related to the doctrine of providence. When it comes to providence, there are two main types that theologians distinguish: God’s general providence, which is his governance and care over all creation, and God’s special providence in redemptive history, such as his special work to preserve the Scriptures and lead the church to recognize the correct books of the canon.
There’s also a third category worth thinking of, which is simply God’s providence over his church and the lives of believers. I think it is warranted to think of this distinct from God’s general providence over creation because of all the promises that he makes to his people. Things such as:
God causes all things to work together for good for those who love God and are called according to his purpose. (Romans 8:28)
Cast all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you. (1 Peter 5:7)
Therefore do not be anxious, saying, “What shall we eat?” or “What shall we drink?” or “What shall we wear?” For the Gentiles eagerly seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. (Matthew 6:31-32)
And he put all things under his feet and gave him as head over all things to the church. (Ephesians 1:22 — in other words, Jesus rules all things for the sake of the church)
Now here’s what I find very remarkable in this experience. In many ways, we are able to attend to our more immediate needs. Or, more accurately, God meets these needs through our actions. When we are hungry, we can go get some food. If a driver seems to be coming into our lane, we slow down or move over. If a baseball is flying right at our head, we can knock it down or move. We are able, to a certain degree, to work and do stuff to provide for our needs and safety.
But tomorrow when I go under the anesthesia for the nose surgery, apparently I won’t even be able to breathe for myself unaided (they have to put a tube in). I will go from having some role and involvement in the meeting of my needs to none.
That feels strange. As I look ahead to this, because of his providence and care, what stands out to me is that God will be watching over me in this time. It’s not that he isn’t just as much watching over us when we are awake and have all of our abilities. But there is something unique about the fact that my involvement in the process will be gone. I will be trusting him to keep watch over me and do so entirely independent of me. I will have to stop taking care of myself for a time, and trust that God will do so now not just partly through my actions, but now entirely apart from them.
I know the surgeon will do a great job. But, because of the doctrine of vocation and doctrine of providence, my ultimate trust is not in the surgeon or medical knowledge, but in God working in and through and, in some sense, above those things.
I know this is just nose surgery, they do this all the time, and it’s really simple to think of going under, and then waking up on the other side in the recovery room. But we shouldn’t take God’s provision in these things for granted, any more than we should take his more everyday provisions for granted. We should be thinking about and consciously grateful for God’s provision in all areas of our lives at all times; and having to go through the unpleasant experience of something like nose surgery is, to me at least, a good reminder of this.