Atrophy – (noun) at·ro·phy: Wasting away or progressive decline, often from disuse

Published 11:50 am Saturday, February 6, 2016

by Andrew Book

Like most of you, there are many places I would rather spend a day than the doctor’s office, so when I began to notice a pain in my knee last year, I told myself, “it will get better.” As the year went along, I learned how to baby my sore knee so that I did not put too much strain on it. This meant I used my other leg whenever possible (especially when carrying loads up stairs or ladders!) so that my sore knee did not have to do the heavy lifting. This plan worked for a number of months (and kept me from scheduling that doctor’s appointment) until eventually my “good” knee started hurting and I was forced to realize that I might be hurting myself. So, finally, reluctantly, I made the appointment.

After a few x-rays and a physical examination, it turned out that there was nothing broken or torn. I did not need surgery. What I need, however, is therapy to strengthen my knees — especially my bad knee. When the doctor came in to read my x-ray results he told me that to his trained eye the difference in my two legs was obvious.

It was clear which leg was my “bad” leg. It was smaller, weaker and clearly had less muscle. I soon learned that, in order to take care of my knees, I need to strengthen that leg because over the course of a year my disuse of that leg had caused the muscle to shrink.

The term often used for something declining or wasting away from disuse is “atrophy.” I found myself being a bit embarrassed to discover that my actions had caused my muscles to atrophy. I realized that I was going to need to set aside time and effort to rebuild the strength in my weak leg. That effort includes therapy, learning (and using) new exercises, and moving away from my habit of favoring my weak knee.

As I have reflected on my diagnosis over the last few weeks, I have been struck by how much my struggle with my knee could be a parable or analogy for many struggles in our lives and our faith. As a pastor, I cannot count the number of times I have heard stories of genuine hurt and damage done to people by the church or people in it. The church is a community of imperfect people and it deeply saddens me to hear of the many ways we have wounded one another. I hate those stories because I know them to be true. I hate them even more because of what often comes next.

The stories often continue this way: “Because the church hurt me, I left and have never gone back.” Injury leads to disuse. Most of those injured by the church never intended to give up on Jesus — just the church.

However, when they leave the church they often quit using their faith muscle all together. Worship, prayer, service and spiritual relationships all fall into disuse and faith begins to atrophy.

Many of the people I talk with never really intended to walk away from faith, but they discover over the months and years that they are disconnected from the church (who helped them use their faith muscle) their faith in Jesus slowly weakens — eventually to the point that the muscle is no longer able to do much of anything.

The good news is that, just like I was able to realize I needed help with my knee, most of us are in a place where we can begin to exercise our faith muscles again. To begin this work, you need to find people who can help you to safely exercise your faith. Think about the people in your life who you trust who are also people whose faith matters to them. Give them a call and tell them that you are trying to recover from an injury and you want your faith to grow — but you need a safe place to begin that work. I would be happy to have that conversation with you, but many of you can think of someone you know and trust who would be a better person to start with.

Maybe you can find a small group to pray and study scripture with. Maybe you can find a church community to worship with. Maybe you can connect with a few friends who will encourage you as you try to reconnect with God. I don’t know what your exercises to strengthen that atrophied muscle will look like, but I do know that we all need them.

I am thankful for those who are helping me to strengthen my knee, and I know that I have some work to do — but I am committed to regaining what has been lost. I hope you are too.

I need to finish this column now. I have physical therapy soon. I hope you will join me!

ANDREW BOOK is the pastor of Courtland United Methodist Church. You may contact him at