: Theology

Theological Reflections on a Kidney Stone

I had a kidney stone a few days ago. More specifically, my right kidney rebelled against the rest of my body and impaled itself on a kidney stone six days ago. And in its infinite kidney wisdom the kidney decided to do this at 2:00 in the morning.

By 3:30 a.m., Caffy was driving me to the nearest emergency room. And I do mean nearest. If Mayo Clinic had been but a mile further, I would have interrupted my groaning long enough to jab my finger toward the first ER and screamed, “No! There!”

It’s been almost twenty years to the day since my last kidney stone. I have to say that I’ve not missed the experience one bit. Prior to that I’d had several.

My kidney stone autobiography

I was sixteen when I entered the joy-filled world of kidney stone alumni. My doctor told me that to his knowledge I was the youngest person in the history of our town of 8,000 ever to become a member of that fraternity. I remember him saying, “It’s all downhill from here. You won’t feel pain like this when you die.”

Another memorable appearance of the accursed stone occurred one Sunday morning in my mid-30s while I was pastoring in the Chicago area. I doubled-over in pain during a prayer meeting with the deacons just before the beginning of the worship service. They shoveled me prone into the back of a station wagon and took me to the hospital. I was in agony, but I had the satisfaction of being the best-dressed man in the ER.

My most recent one—the one twenty years ago—hit me with body blows on and off for several days before delivering the knockout punch that landed me in the emergency room. One wave of dull pain struck while I was teaching a classroom of seminary students. It wasn’t yet severe enough to go to the hospital, but I had to lie on the floor to complete my lecture. I’d like to see the class notes of the students from that day.

My nurse at the ER last week confirmed what every woman who’s endured both experiences has told me: having a kidney stone is more painful than having a baby.

A doctor once likened the movement of a kidney stone to that of a hard, jagged beach ball passing through a drinking straw. At first you are afraid you are going to die; then you are afraid you aren’t going to die.

If fully human, could Adam and Eve have had kidney stones in the Garden of Eden?

All this has made me ponder the age-old question I’m sure every theologian wrestles with: Before the Fall, could Adam and Eve have had kidney stones?

I’m inclined to say no, because the Bible gives no indication of suffering in the Garden of Eden before the entrance of sin. But my question is more of potentiality: since Adam and Eve were fully human, was it possible for them to have a kidney stone?

[Okay, so in the aftermath of a kidney stone when you’re pumped full of drugs, you think about weird things. But if you weren’t similarly interested in such things you wouldn’t still be reading this!]

It seems to me that if there could have been no kidney stones in the Garden of Eden, at least one of three things had to be true.

  • External factors were different

First, the external factors leading to kidney stones may have been absent. Food and stress, for example, would not have led to the formation of stones. Whether it’s certain types of food we eat today, additives to the food, and/or the processing of the food that contributes to kidney stones, these would not have been a part of Adam and Eve’s diet. And as to stress, it hadn’t been invented yet.

  • Internal factors were different

A second possibility is that the bodily processes that produce kidney stones nowadays were different before sin changed everything. In other words, on the microscopic level our first parents’ kidneys may not have functioned in every way as ours do today.

For instance, suppose that we know that a particular fruit presumably present in the Garden of Eden causes kidney stones in people today. Even so, in this scenario the way Adam and Eve’s bodies interacted with that fruit then would be different than the way people’s bodies did after the Fall. The fruit would have passed harmlessly through their bodies though the same fruit produces kidney stones in our bodies, similar to the way some people can eat peanuts with no problems while others will die if they swallow just a handful.

  • God protected them

Finally, it may be that while Adam and Eve, with the right combination of factors, could have developed and suffered kidney stones, they did not simply because God protected them from those factors. He ensured that they did not become excessively dehydrated, eat anything harmful, etc.

Kidney stones and eternity

Whatever may have been true about the absence of kidney stones back in the Garden of Eden, they are very present in the present. Theological speculation about Adam and Eve’s potential for this urological torture does nothing to ease the pain of someone writhing in an emergency room with it. In this fallen world and in these sin-spoiled bodies, the plain fact is that many of us will groan with the stones.

But what about the future? On the dark side, while in agony I did have moments when I thought, “What if I had to suffer like this forever, with no hope of relief?” More unbearable than the kidney stone pain was the thought of repeating forever what one man was described by Jesus as crying, “I am in anguish in this flame” (Lk. 16:24). That’s not to say that I think there will be kidney stones in Hell, but to say that if I could barely withstand three hours of non-stop pain, I cannot conceive of an agony that endures forever.

On the other hand, my thrashing on the ER bed was occasionally punctuated by thoughts of the hope that because of the Gospel of Jesus Christ I will someday have a new body that will never experience pain again and will live in an eternal world of joy.

Jesus, who had lived in that world and had never known pain, willingly became a man with a body that could experience pain and lived in a world full of pain. He accepted the unspeakable agony of the Cross so that we might be delivered from this body and world of pain, and enter the indescribable joy of His presence in glorious, pain-free new bodies.

Thank You, Jesus. Maranatha.

Who Could Sin After Seeing the Transfiguration?

One of my favorite stories in the Gospels is the Transfiguration of Jesus. I sometimes imagine that if I could go back in time and be present for any event in the Gospels prior to the crucifixion, I would choose the Transfiguration.

And after six days Jesus took with him Peter and James, and John his brother, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became white as light. And behold, there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. And Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good that we are here. If you wish, I will make three tents here, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah.” He was still speaking when, behold, a bright cloud overshadowed them, and a voice from the cloud said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.” When the disciples heard this, they fell on their faces and were terrified. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Rise, and have no fear.” And when they lifted up their eyes, they saw no one but Jesus only. And as they were coming down the mountain, Jesus commanded them, “Tell no one the vision, until the Son of Man is raised from the dead.” (Matthew 17:1-9, ESV)

What actually happened here? Of course, there’s no way we can fully understand it this side of Heaven. But did Jesus “simply” reveal the glory of some of His divinity as Moses and Elijah arrived on Earth (having momentarily departed Heaven), while the omnipresent Father spoke so as to be heard in that geographic location?

Or did Heaven and Earth overlap in such a way so that the place where Jesus stood was at that moment neither fully Heaven nor fully Earth, but rather He and His two visitors conversed in a temporary nexus between the earthly world and the spiritual world?

Or third, and applying the terminology of our three-dimensional world to a spiritual realm, did Heaven press so closely to Earth at this point that although Moses and Elijah were still in Heaven they were literally at the “edge” of it, and God’s voice came from across the border of Heaven to Earth, and Jesus’s face and clothing shone because of His immediate proximity to the heavenly realm and the glory of God? Or is there a better analogy? Only God knows.

In any case, a short time after this incomparable experience, possibly less than a week after the Transfiguration we read where Jesus’s disciples “argued with one another about who was the greatest” (Mark 9:34).

Think of that. Peter, James, and John saw—not in a dream or a vision, but with their eyes—Jesus transfigured. “His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became white as light.” Have you considered how He must have looked? His appearance surely took their breath away.

Then they saw Moses and Elijah—men in the front rank of Jewish history; heroes they’d heard about heard all their lives—appear out of thin air, as if beamed down from Heaven. And they heard Moses and Elijah talking with Jesus, speaking with voices more real than those you hear on your television when White House reporters ask questions of the president. We can only wonder at the specifics of what the disciples heard this heavenly duo say to the Man with the sunlike face.

And then they heard the voice of God. This alone would shake a person to the core, stunning their senses. They see the face of Jesus suddenly begin to radiate a brilliant light, they see Moses and Elijah appear from the past (imagine how it would affect you if Jonathan Edwards and Charles Spurgeon suddenly stood before you), then God in Heaven speaks directly to them in an audible voice.

Despite all this, in a matter of days they join with the other disciples in arguing about which of them is the greatest. If I’m Peter, I’m saying things like, “Ha! You wouldn’t think you’re the greatest disciple, Matthew, if you knew what I saw the other day.”

In other words, after this unearthly, next-worldly, never-to-be-forgotten experience, they still sinned. And of course, biblical theology tells us that this Transfiguration-watching trio didn’t wait several days until that argument arose before they sinned again.

At first, it’s almost hard to believe that a person could sin after such an experience. And yet, it’s just like every other encounter with a glimpse of God’s glory in Scripture. From the appearance of the pillar of fire in the Exodus, to the consuming blaze and heart-melting sounds atop Sinai, to Isaiah’s vision in the temple, to Paul’s pre-death visit to Heaven, to the revelation of Christ, Heaven, and the future to John on Patmos—they were experienced by sinners who nevertheless remained sinners after the experiences, despite “the surpassing greatness of the revelations” (2 Corinthians 12:7).

Though many observations could be made, two stand out to me as I think on these things.

First, the depth of human depravity. Nothing we experience in this body, no matter how frightening or glorious, can stop us from sinning. We could visit Hell or Heaven, and though the experience would doubtless have some indelible impact, no amount of terror or beauty could wring all the sin out of us. We could behold something that would take our breath away, but soon we’d breathe again. Just as surely, we could see something that would cause us in the moment to resolve never sin again, but soon we’d sin again.

Second, the greatness of the grace of God that He would still love and save creatures who are such sin factories that even after He allows them to glimpse the most glorious things in the universe they still choose to sin. When we come to Jesus for rescue from the sin that saturates us, God immediately forgives every sin we ever have or will commit. After that, though, we still do sin, even though He sends the Holy Spirit who causes us to loathe it and to fight it and to long for release from it. Knowing every sin we will commit after He forgives us, He loves us still and determines to keep us forever.

There’s only one experience that can cleanse us from all traces of the cancer of sin’s presence forever. It’s what the Bible calls “the redemption of our bodies” (Romans 8:23). This is the final, everlasting, freedom from sin that those “who have the firstfruits of the Spirit” (that is, the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit given to all the followers of Jesus) “groan inwardly” and “wait eagerly” for (Romans 8:23). And whether in the grave or alive when Jesus returns, He will transform the bodies of all His people to be fit to live forever with Him in a sinless, perfect, and glorious Heaven.

That’s because, as Philippians 3:20-21 puts it, “our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself.”

In other words, one day all we who are in Christ will experience our own transfiguration, changed suddenly by the power of God from “our lowly body to be like his glorious body.”

“He who testifies to these things says, ‘Surely I am coming soon.” Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!” (Revelation 22:20)


Coming in July, 2015 from Crossway Books and available for pre-order now: Praying the Bible