After expe­ri­enc­ing its crip­pling effects, Esther Gokhale began her life­long cru­sade to van­quish the mod­ern epi­dem­ic of back pain.

She began study­ing prim­i­tive peo­ple groups, ones where back pain was almost entire­ly absent, even in elder­ly peo­ple whose lives had been spent in inten­sive phys­i­cal labor. A pat­tern emerged in the way these peo­ple nat­u­ral­ly walk, stand, sit and bend over. The pos­ture hand­ed down for gen­er­a­tions and unham­pered by mod­ern habits nat­u­ral­ly pro­vid­ed for a strong and pain-free back.

Peo­ple in the west once had good pos­ture, too, but the 1920s brought major social shifts which changed how we car­ried our bod­ies. Slouch­ing became fash­ion­able. Fam­i­lies became dis­persed and tra­di­tions were lost. Lit­tle by lit­tle we became a hunched over people. 

Any­one with back pain knows that it turns oth­er­wise thought­less activ­i­ty — walk­ing, stand­ing, sit­ting — into grit­ted-teeth acts of will. The pain makes us con­tort in ways that pro­vide tem­po­rary relief but in the end per­pet­u­ate the prob­lem. And while med­i­cine may qui­et the pain, it does noth­ing to address the source of the pain. Pos­ture isn’t the cause and cure of all back pain, but Gokhale’s research revealed it is a fac­tor more often than not.

What does it mean to be upright?

Scrip­ture uses the term upright dozens of times, par­tic­u­lar­ly in the Psalms. 

For the LORD is right­eous, He loves right­eous­ness; His coun­te­nance beholds the upright.” —Ps. 11:7 NKJV

Upright isn’t uptight. It’s walk­ing in right­eous­ness, not self-righteousness.

Right­eous­ness is a word hijacked by legal­ism. It means things work­ing as they should. An upright per­son walks in the whole­ness God intended.

The fall broke us and ever since we’ve had hunched-over hearts. Jesus, the Upright, came to heal hearts so we could walk in whole­ness, free from the inner inflam­ma­tion that makes every­day activ­i­ty painful and ene­my-love impos­si­ble. In the world we will have trou­ble, it’s true, but the trou­ble need not come from within. 

While human pain is noth­ing new, there is grow­ing evi­dence that in the last 20 years some­thing sig­nif­i­cant has changed. In mod­ern cul­tures men­tal ill­ness, espe­cial­ly depres­sion, is climb­ing at an unprece­dent­ed rate. There seems to be a new weight on our hearts caus­ing our inner pos­ture to be even more hunched over. What’s going on?

Good old days? 

Let’s first smash the rose-col­ored rearview. The good old days” weren’t that good. But they were slow­er. There was a time not long ago when an infi­nite infor­ma­tion machine — a.k.a. the smart­phone — didn’t weigh upon the pock­et and souls of most human beings. Many of life’s built-in oppor­tu­ni­ties for char­ac­ter and patience — like farm­ing or writ­ing let­ters — have been obliterated. 

Recent­ly I watched my dad, who grew up work­ing on a farm, build a patio on his house. A part of the patio had to be redone due to a mis­cal­cu­la­tion, and I mar­veled at his effort­less good atti­tude and work eth­ic. Farm life gave him a healthy inner-pos­ture which helps him face every­day challenges.

Years ago a cowork­er was one of the first to get a smart­phone. Now I can use my down­time like rid­ing in the ele­va­tor,” he gushed, for pro­duc­tive things like read­ing email.” My heart sunk. The nat­ur­al mar­gins in life — those spaces to think and pray be bored — were already thin; now they are near­ly erased. 

The weight of unlim­it­ed information

Every human inven­tion is bless­ing and curse, bring­ing con­ve­niences to the body and chal­lenges to the soul. The Inter­net is espe­cial­ly weighty. Its won­der is dulled by its ubiq­ui­ty, but pon­der it for a moment: nev­er before has humankind borne the weight of this much infor­ma­tion and connectivity. 

We are a tap away from any­one we’ve ever known and an answer to near­ly any question.

Even when a device is out of hand but with­in reach, we’re haunt­ed with an ambi­ent sense of inter­rup­tion — like the feel­ing of being in a wait­ing room where our name might be called at any moment.

The Inter­net is a tool, of course. Like any tool it can be used for great evil and great good. But I’ve noticed some­thing with this tool. It gives us a sense of know­ing things we don’t know, of being con­nect­ed to oth­ers with­out con­nect­ing deeply. Unchecked it tends to increase wor­ry and hur­ry, painful symp­toms sig­nal­ing there is some­thing heavy weigh­ing down our inner posture.

A pain free back, a pain-free heart

In her book, Gokhale lays out a way back to prim­i­tive pos­ture: exer­cis­es designed to become habits. The book isn’t main­ly pre­scrip­tive — when in pain do this exer­cise to feel bet­ter. It’s a way of walk­ing, a way of stand­ing, a way to sit and lie down. I’ve seen it work first hand in a dra­mat­ic way. 

The heart has its exer­cis­es, too, but the anal­o­gy needs an aster­isk. While the will alone might be enough to trans­form pos­ture in the body, the will is the start­ing place in the inner life. The will is best used to sur­ren­der one­self to God, then it’s God who trans­forms the heart.

That’s the pat­tern in Romans 12:1 – 2. Present your bod­ies as liv­ing sac­ri­fices — and even that is by the mer­cy of God — that you may be trans­formed by God through the renew­al of your mind.

Spir­i­tu­al exer­cis­es — think sit­ting qui­et­ly with Jesus, being with the poor, savor­ing the 23rd Psalm, receiv­ing prayer from a Chris­t­ian who thinks dif­fer­ent­ly from you — are a means of pre­sent­ing our bod­ies to God. They are a way of work­ing out the sal­va­tion God pro­vid­ed for us. God comes along­side us in the work­out so that the results far out­pace the effort we put in. Grad­u­al­ly, ever more lean­ing on God, we are made upright — which makes life more enjoy­able and serv­ing oth­ers less strained.

Prac­ti­cal ideas and a prayer

God eager­ly desires to dis­place our anx­i­ety with peace, dis­trac­tion with pres­ence, our heav­i­ness with his light bur­den. He wants us to be upright not because he is a per­fec­tion­ist, but because He loves to see his chil­dren walk­ing and wor­ship­ping in freedom. 

Some prac­ti­cal ideas:

  • Start the first half hour of your day device-free. Instead, try pray­ing out loud, read­ing a Psalm out loud, or singing. I empha­size these ver­bal activ­i­ties because spo­ken truth is espe­cial­ly effec­tive in root­ing us in the real­i­ty of God.
  • Google with God. Before div­ing into research or shop­ping on the Inter­net, say a short prayer invit­ing the Holy Spir­it to guide you. Your time will be less dis­tract­ed and more productive.
  • Sched­ule a time to jour­nal with God. Think of a recent occa­sion when you felt anx­ious, angry or wor­ried. Write out your thoughts, emo­tions, and your hon­est feel­ings toward God. Maybe you felt like God left you alone. Write out a prayer of repen­tance — less I’m sor­ry” and more I turn now and agree with You in the truth that You will nev­er leave or for­sake me.” Then, write what you imag­ine God would say back. If you’re con­cerned about mis­hear­ing God, share what you write with a spir­i­tu­al friend or pastor.

And a prayer:

Father, you alone have infi­nite knowl­edge and wis­dom. For­give me for try­ing to fig­ure things out on my own. When con­nect­ed­ness makes me dis­con­nect­ed from you, help me respond to your gen­tle voice which invites me back to being present to you. For in your pres­ence is full­ness of joy. Heal my inner pos­ture that I may walk upright in the Spir­it: unhunched, unhur­ried, present to my fam­i­ly, and pro­duc­tive in my work. Amen.

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Originally published April 2016