Amputees often experience some sensation of a phantom limb. Somewhere, locked in their
brains, a memory lingers of the nonexistent hand or leg. Invisible toes curl, imaginary
hands grasp things, a "leg" feels so sturdy a patient may try to stand on it.
For a few, the experience includes pain. Doctors watch helplessly, for the part of the
body screaming for attention does not exist. One such patient was my medical school
administrator, Mr. Barwick, who had a serious and painful circulation problem in his leg
but refused to allow the recommended amputation. As the pain grew worse, Barwick grew
bitter. "I hate it!" he would mutter about the leg. At last he relented and told
the doctor, "I can't stand it anymore. I"m through with that leg. Take it
off." Surgery was scheduled immediately. Before the operation, however, Barwick,
asked the doctor. "What do you do with legs after they're removed?" "We may
take a biopsy or explore them a bit, but afterwards we incinerate them," the doctor
replied. Barwick proceeded with a bizarre request: "I would like you to preserve my
leg in a pickling jar. I will install it on my mantle shelf. Then, as I sit in my
armchair, I will taunt that leg, 'Hah! You can't hurt me anymore!" Ultimately, he got
his wish. But the despised leg had the last laugh. Barwick suffered phantom limb pain of
the worst degree. The wound healed, but he could feel the torturous pressure of the
swelling as the muscles cramped, and he had no prospect of relief. He had hated the leg
with such intensity that the pain had unaccountably lodged permanently in his brain.
To me, phantom limb pain provides wonderful insight into the phenomenon of false guilt.
Christians can be obsessed by the memory of some sin committed years ago. It never leaves
them, crippling their ministry, their devotional life, their relationships with others.
They live in fear that someone will discover their past. They work overtime trying to
prove to God they're repentant. They erect barriers against the enveloping, loving grace
of God. Unless they experience the truth in I John 3:19-20 that "God is greater than
our conscience," they become as pitiful as poor Mr. Barwick, shaking his fist in fury
at the pickled leg on the mantle.
Dr. Paul Brand.