What can we learn from a lost toenail?

A lost toenail

One night during college I looked down at my feet and realized that I had lost a toenail.

Not just part of the toenail, but the entire toenail.

My toenails are not that impressive – I haven’t done any foot modeling – but it felt like a pretty big loss to me.

Frightening questions ran through my mind: How would I wear sandals? Would I ever get married? 

I remember sitting in my dorm room completely forlorn. After all, I’d lost 10% of my toenails. 

I finally got the courage – after putting on socks and shoes, of course – to tell a friend about my medical condition. 

A few days later, I realized I’d lost something much more significant than the loss of the toenail. 

This tiny incident exposed how vain, self-absorbed, and self-pitying my heart had become. I was like Jonah, weeping over the loss of a little plant, wholly unconcerned with the far greater problems of my neighbors.

Even today, I cringe to recollect my collegiate immaturity and to share it with you. 

I’m so weak that the loss of one little toenail can send me into a state of despondency.

Inevitable loss

I’m slowly coming to terms with the recognition that we’re all vulnerable to losing what is most important to us. 

Perhaps you are of hardier stock: but in the past year, how many of us have unexpectedly found ourselves throwing up a prayer for a loved one who is struggling with a serious case of COVID? 

And we’re often unable to tell ourselves, much less another person, the truth about our hearts. If someone asks how I am doing – really doing – sometimes I feel like a cockroach scurrying for a corner. We wonder if our relationships can handle that much self-disclosure, and we’re afraid of a potential loss.

Yet another sense of vulnerability comes from politics. Our sense of safety — and our actual safety — can depend on who runs our government.

On the basis of hundreds of five-star reviews, I recently bought a fancy ‘ergonomic’ chair. But after I assembled it, I wondered if it was sold by a shady chiropractor network looking to drum up new clients. Thankfully, I bought it from a store with a good return policy, but it was another stabbing reminder (in my back, mainly) of how easily we can be misled into making decisions that aren’t in our best interests.

And for the past six months, I’ve had to face the reality that my need to trust other people made me vulnerable to a charismatic manipulator named Ravi Zacharias. When I shared my story this past December, I called it a catastrophic betrayal. 

The reality is that I am vulnerable. You are vulnerable. We are all vulnerable.

Though we can try to deny it or avoid it, there’s no way to escape our vulnerability.

But what if we could choose? 

While I can’t actually eat flourless chocolate cake for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, except on my birthday, I can visualize the experience for the rest of the year. 

And though I would (probably) die if someone shot me with a bullet, it is a pleasant escape to see how they casually bounce off Superman’s chest. 

Perhaps this gives us the context we need to be freshly shocked by Luke 2:7?

And Mary gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.

I can’t imagine anything more vulnerable than a little baby, born into a poor family, under an oppressive government. 

And this birth didn’t happen to Jesus. No, it was an intentional choice. 

Instead of the superhero approach to risk, from start to finish, the life of Jesus was one of intentional vulnerability.

He made himself vulnerable to severe hunger as he fasted for forty days and nights in the desert.

He made himself available to the sick, the demon-possessed, the poor, undervalued women, the racially despised, and the misfortunate.

The Apostle Paul even says that Jesus “emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:7-8).

If this is to help us, we need to think carefully — with precision — about what this means.

All alone

One option is that the Jesus story is just a sedative for the troubled soul.

As the author Will Storr states,

We know how this ends. You’re going to die and so will everyone you love. And then there will be heat death. All the change in the universe will cease, the stars will die, and there’ll be nothing left of anything but infinite, dead, freezing void. Human life, in all its noise and hubris, will be rendered meaningless for eternity.

The cure for the horror is story. Our brains distract us from this terrible truth by filling our lives with hopeful goals and encouraging us to strive for them. What we want, and the ups and downs of our struggle to get it, is the story of us all. It gives our existence the illusion of meaning and turns our gaze from the dread.

Storr candidly admits our vulnerability: he puts it in stark terms. We share the same problem however we attempt to resolve it. 

It seems Storr doesn’t find the religious approach sufficient to resolve the tension: “What is a modern religion if not an elaborate neocortical ‘theory and explanation about what’s happening in the world and why’?

I feel the allure of this perspective. I don’t know Storr’s motives, but if I were to adopt it, I could become the hero who sees through the mythologies of the millennia. Brave and courageous, strong and independent, I could honestly face up to the meaninglessness of life like a true man. I would be liberated and free – and certainly not the kind of weakling who needed a religious story to help me cope.

The Achilles heel, of course, is that the story I would then be telling myself – and you –­­ would lack any meaning. If my story is that all stories are fairy tales that keep us from being afraid of the dark, well, I’m still telling a story. What monsters am I running away from by telling you about my personal fairy tale? Only a rigid commitment to self-deception could keep the illusion at bay. 

A rescue

I don’t know what the first spoken word was, but I’ll bet it was “ow!” (If you imagine a caveman saying this, it sounds cooler). 

My point is that in every generation and culture, humans have experienced weakness. 

For instance, in Psalm 40 we read,

I waited patiently for the LORD;

he inclined to me and heard my cry.

He drew me up from the pit of destruction,

out of the miry bog,

and set my feet upon a rock,

making my steps secure.

He put a new song in my mouth,

a song of praise to our God.

Many will see and fear,

and put their trust in the LORD.

We are weak. And Jesus came to live among us — even suffered and died to pay the price for our sin.

But the good news is that the Bible tells us he did so not only as a fellow human being, but as the LORD, who has the eternal power to set our feet upon a rock, and to make our steps secure. 

I hear the accusation that religion is a crutch. But the truth is, I’m limping. Actually, I don’t need a crutch – it’s more like a wheelchair.

I don’t know where you’re trying to get today. But I hope that in reading this, you might come to terms with your vulnerability, and then decide to rely on the Lord to make your steps secure. 

The header photo is by 🇸🇮 Janko Ferlič on Unsplash