Esther Gokhale was determined to get the bottom of the modern back pain epidemic.

She began studying primitive people groups, ones where back pain is absent even in lifelong physical laborers. 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 used to have a similar posture. In the 1920s major social shifts were taking place, changing how we carried our bodies. Slouching became fashionable, dispersed families lost traditions. Little by little we became a hunched over people.

Anyone with back pain knows it turns what should be 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 quiets the messenger of pain, it does nothing to address the message.

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 isn’t walking in self-righteousness. It’s walking in righteousness.

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

The fall broke us and our hearts have been hunched over ever since. Jesus, the Unhunched One, came to heal hearts so we could walk upright, 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 flare up 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. There were no good ol’ days. But there were more inconvenient days. There were slower days. There were days when the weight of an infinite information machine didn’t burden the pocket of every teenager. Many of life’s built-in opportunities for character—like farming or writing letters—have been obliterated. First in the industrial revolution, then in the information revolution.

My dad grew up on a farm milking cows. Recently I found him nearing the completion of building a patio on his house. A part of the project had to be redone due to a miscalculation, and I marveled at his effortless good attitude and work ethic. “Dad,” I proffered, “I think you got something on the farm I didn’t get.”

Years ago a coworker was one of the first to get a smartphone. “Now I can use my downtime, like riding in the elevator, for productive things like reading email,” he explained. My heart sunk. The already thin natural margins in life were melting like morning dew.

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 think for a moment: never before has humankind moved so fast, nor borne the weight of so much information. 

We are a tap away from anyone we’ve ever known, a click away from an answer—be it a good one or not—to nearly any question.

Even when a device isn’t in our hands we’re haunted with an ambient sense of interruption and information.

The internet is of course a tool. Like any tool it is 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, Esther 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—though it can be. 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 needs similar exercise, but there’s more. While the will alone might be enough to transform posture in the body, the will is the starting place in the inner life. It’s there to surrender oneself to God, and God transforms the heart.

Isn’t that the pattern we see in Romans 12:1-2? Present your bodies as living sacrifices—and even that 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, saying and savoring the 23rd Psalm, visiting with openness the church of a different denomination or 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’re made upright—which makes for more enjoyable walks with God and less strained service to others.

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 uprightness for us 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.
  • Before diving into internet research, say a short prayer inviting Holy Spirit to work alongside you. Your time will be less hurried, more enjoyable 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 on that last part about misquoting 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.

Now Underway: The 2018-19 Renovaré Book Club

How do we read for transformation, not just information? First, choose books that stir the soul and have an enduring quality. Then read with God and others at an unhurried pace, attentive to what the Holy Spirit wants to teach. The Renovaré Book Club is designed for transformative reading. It runs October 2018—May 2019.

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