The wellness continuum

Some people want to live. Other people want to die. This would seem as simple a choice as yes or no, as on or off. But (as is the case with so many things in life), the situation is not as cut and dried as it seemed. My post last Friday resulted, in part, from thoughts I’ve been developing for months about a continuum in wellness, one that includes two extremes, but also a broad middle area that touches neither extreme. As in any continuum, many possibilities and positions exist. I’ve labeled six positions on the wellness continuum, fully aware that many more could be identified and described.

One extreme to the continuum is the suicidal position. A person wants to die. Many options exist for this person: gunshot, strangulation, stabbing or slashing of veins and arteries, massive poison, deliberate car collision at high speed, jumping from a high place… the list goes on and on. My point is that some people are so depressed, so discouraged, so far from finding any meaning to life, that they simply want to end it all.

Less extreme is the risky position. Some people abuse alcohol and drugs, not because they want to die, but because they don’t care about the risk. Some people drive recklessly, not because they want to die, but because they simply don’t care what happens to them. Trying to reason with these people, to warn them that they are endangering their lives, is not helpful. They may not be suicidal—they may not be seeking death today—but they are unwilling to change their habits for the sake of having a longer, safer, or healthier life.

Then there are those who are apathetic. They don’t take drugs or drink to excess; they don’t seek death for themselves. Yet they also do not take care of themselves. They eat and sleep and work, but they get no exercise. They are as happy eating junk food as they are with a healthy diet. Frankly, if a doctor told them that they had incurable cancer, they would not be distraught. They would just as soon die as live, and sometimes they envy the people who have already died and are not facing the worries and troubles of the present world.

Other people are proactive. They pay attention to nutrition, to exercise, and to the right amounts of sleep. Their intake of coffee, chocolate candy, red wine, salt, sugar, and fats is moderate, within healthy limits. The follow the advice of their family doctors and of other health professionals. Yet maintaining a healthy body is only one of their interests, and it is never their primary interest.

Yet other people are obsessive. Their constant preoccupation is health and wellness. They carefully monitor what they eat and diligently avoid anything that might be even slightly hazardous to their health. They might even resent the weekly forty hours of work in their careers which limit the amount of time they can spend in the gym building and strengthening their bodies. Nothing matters more to them than health and wellness, and they are scornful of people who maintain healthy bodies while sometimes indulging in the luxuries that might pose a threat to perfect health.

Finally, a few people go beyond excessive to the point of being phobic. Fearful of germs, they avoid all human contact. They isolate themselves to protect themselves from a dangerous world. They sleep in tents that protect them from the outside air, even the air in their own houses. They do nothing with their lives, because their one and only interest is in preserving and protecting their lives.

Clearly, these six positions are merely landmarks along the wellness continuum. The extreme positions are obvious; the lines between the intervening positions are blurred. The same person in different positions can land in different points along this continuum. From day to day, the same person might shift toward one side or the other on this continuum.

For that matter, a second dimension exists for this continuum. A person might be proactive in some areas, apathetic in others, and even risky in still others. One person is careful about diet and exercise, yet is a heavy smoker. Another person is moderate in all other life choices but is a menace on the highways. Just as the conservative-liberal continuum in politics is limited in value (because most people are conservative about some issues and liberal about others), so this continuum offers a way of looking at ourselves and others in regard to wellness without completely explaining every person, every decision, and every action.

This understanding might improve communication between people with different perspectives on wellness. A medical professional might well say to a heavy drinker or heavy smoker, “You know, you are killing yourself with this bad habit,” and the sincere and honest communication has no effect. Someone might say to the body-builder, “Sure, you look great… but get a life!” and the sincere and honest communication has no effect. To those on the spectrum closer to death, reasons need to be offered to value and preserve life. To those trending toward obsession and phobia, reasons need to be offered to show that living is more than health and wellness. No ideal center point exists where all of us can meet and live happily ever after. We will all differ from one another in a number of ways, including the wellness spectrum. But knowing that more options exist on this spectrum beyond “I want to live” and “I want to die” might begin the process of making us able to talk to one another about health and wellness. J.

Life and the Black Dog of depression

In the 1979 movie All That Jazz, Joe Gideon (like the movie’s director and co-writer Bob Fosse) is a successful Broadway and Hollywood choreographer and director who lives life on the edge. He drives himself at work, he drinks and takes drugs, he sleeps around, and he pushes himself to the limit. He both figuratively and literally flirts with death (the literal Death portrayed by Jessica Lange). All That Jazz can be viewed as a brutally analysis of Fosse’s own life, but it also speaks about the choices many other people make in their lives.

What drives people like Joe Gideon to live life on the edge? Often the cause is emptiness within. Stressed by life with its ups and downs, they embrace the downs and overlook the ups. They choose death over life, not suddenly and violently, but gradually, deliberately, and knowingly. The Black Dog of anxiety and depression has more power over them than they have over themselves, and it drives them over the cliffs of despair.

A Christian understands why unbelievers feel this way and act this way. A Christian might wonder why a fellow Christian feels this way and acts this way. Jesus tells us not to be anxious (Matthew 6:25). Paul identifies the greatest gifts of the spirit as faith, hope, and love. If a Christian has no hope, one may suppose, that Christian also has no faith.

I know a man—I’ll call him Martin. Like me, Martin has struggled for years with anxiety and depression. Like most people, this spring has been difficult for Martin: fear of the virus, fear of damage to the economy, fear of violence in the streets, fear of what might happen to himself, to his family, to his job, and to his neighborhood. Martin has not turned to all the wrong answers that Joe Gideon tried. Martin has been faithful in his marriage. He has taken no illegal drugs and abused no prescription drugs. Martin does try his best at his job, but he is not driven to work to the point of exhaustion. But Martin does consume alcohol. He calls himself a “heavy drinker.” That mistake recently put Martin in a very uncomfortable position.

Martin was sitting in church next to his wife when the preacher began the sermon. One of the first things the preacher mentioned was the distress felt by family members when one of them drinks too much. Martin wondered whether his wife had been talking to the preacher about his drinking. (She hadn’t.) The preacher went on to speak of other things, including the grace of God and His power to overcome all evils, even those we bring upon himself. Toward the end of the sermon, the preacher began to list the many idols people put in the place of God, and he dwelt particularly on the sins of alcohol and drug abuse.

As the sermon wound to a close, Martin felt as if things were going dark. It was not like entering a tunnel; it was more like on television when the picture fades to black. He heard the Amen to the sermon; he heard the congregation begin to sing the next hymn. The next thing Martin remembers is lying in the aisle of the church with an usher pounding his chest, performing CPR.

Martin was taken by ambulance to the hospital. He spent the afternoon in the emergency room; then he was in another room for observation for another twenty-four hours. The hospital workers paid closest attention to the working of Martin’s heart. (And, it appears, Martin’s heart is good.) But Martin admitted more than once to the hospital workers that he is a heavy drinker. One of those workers told Martin that he had been admitted with an elevated alcohol content in his blood. In her opinion, he had suffered an alcohol-related seizure. (Other hospital workers said it was not a seizure; aside from blacking out, the symptoms of seizure were absent.)

Martin went home after promising to quit drinking. He was given a drug to reduce the symptoms of alcohol withdrawal. Along with follow-up visits with his family doctor and with a cardiologist, Martin also followed up with his pastor. They discussed the sin of alcohol dependence, and they discussed God’s grace and forgiveness.

Depression is not a sin. Depression is a symptom that something is wrong—whether physical or emotional or physical. No one cure fits all kinds of depression. A great many factors need to be analyzed: diet, sleep, exercise, stress, fear, guilt, and chemical balances in the body. A depressed person—whether Christian or nonChristian—bears a strong feeling that life is not worth living. A depressed person—whether Christian or nonChristian—feels unneeded, unwanted, and unloved. A depressed person—whether Christian or nonChristian—will take risks with his or her life. Some risks are sudden and violent: a gunshot, a self-strangling, a strong poisoning, a deliberate car crash. Other risks are slower and less certain: drug and alcohol abuse, reckless driving, overeating or undereating (anorexia), and more.

I cannot suggest much advice about how to help a nonbeliever in this situation, Perhaps persuade him or her that family and friends do care, and that he or she is contributing positive energy to them and to the world. Perhaps ask if they want to live to see their daughter’s wedding, meet their grandchildren, watch those grandchildren grow. Many things in life have meaning apart from God’s blessings; but God’s blessings are the greatest reason of all to keep on living.

The Christian is promised a better life in a better world. This promise is not motivation to end this life and start that new life as soon as possible. This promise is motivation to do our best in this lifetime as we prepare for the better life that is coming. “You will not kill”: this applies, not only to the lives of our neighbors, but also to our own lives. We are managers of the bodies God has made. He intends for us to take care of them. Christians who smoke, Christians who drink to excess, Christians who overeat or who starve themselves: these are not false Christians who have lost their faith. These are sinners who need a Savior and who already know their Savior. These our brothers and sisters who need and deserve our love and encouragement. These are part of the family of God, the body of Christ, whose struggles are more visible than the struggles faced by every Christian in this world.

Joe Gideon flirted with death. So did Martin. In a way, so does every sinner, even those sinners who are simultaneously saints. Viruses and terrorists are not the only dangers in this world; sometimes we are dangers to ourselves. But God says, to Martin and to all of us, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (II Corinthians 12:9). J.

I have a dream

It began at a gas station. I had just filled the gas tank of my car, and I was prepared for a long drive home. I had not been home for a while, and I was looking forward to returning.

The service road was crowded with traffic, so I had to wait a bit for a gap before I could leave. But soon I was on my way, merging onto the Interstate. Almost immediately I passed some construction, and some of the vehicles in front of me pulled over into the site, but I kept on driving.

The next thing I knew, I was on Washington Street in my childhood hometown. Some trees next to the street were in bloom, covered with flowers. I pulled a branch to my face and sniffed, but I smelled no odor.

After that I was home. I knew people were sleeping, so I was moving quietly from room to room. Suddenly, I heard the Beatles singing “Paperback Writer.” I knew that my alarm was going off, and my first thought was worry that the alarm had been playing every morning while I was away.

Then I woke. My alarm was playing “Paperback Writer,” as I had set it to do last night. I had not been away from home, and my alarm had not been disturbing my family during my absence.

Most of the dream makes sense: my returning home after an absence, my departure somewhat delayed by traffic, passing through construction—all that I understand. But I am trying to decipher the odorless flowers close to home.

Any suggestions? J.

A national tragedy

Yesterday, January 28, was the thirty-fourth anniversary of the space shuttle disaster. Seven astronauts died when their ship exploded seventy-three seconds after lift-off. The memory of this event gives poignant context to the tragic news from this past weekend, the death of Kobe Bryant, his daughter, and several friends in a helicopter crash.

The death of a celebrity is always major news, especially when that celebrity is still young and active. Whether it’s a shooting, a drug overdose, a suicide, or a vehicular crash, the shock of the sudden loss becomes an international event. People come together in their grief, even though they never met the deceased. These heroic figures have become part of our lives. Their mortality reminds us of our own mortality. And, I suspect, we transfer the grief of our personal losses onto the larger event. If we are privately mourning the loss of a family member or a friend, or if we are living surrounded by troubled lives, the chance to join with millions in sorrow over death brings a cathartic relief to our hearts.

I’m a little too young to remember the assassination of President Kennedy. Most people over sixty can tell you exactly what they were doing when they heard the news of his death. Many of today’s college students are too young to remember the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. For them, that event is merely one more episode in history, like Pearl Harbor and the Maine and the Alamo.

In my novel I Remember Amy, the main characters talk about national tragedy the night of the Challenger explosion. Here is an excerpt from that book:

“If only for a day or two, the world seems so different after something like that happens,” I commented.

“But it usually is only a day or two,” you reminded me. “Except for the family and the closest friends, most of us have gotten over it and gone back to life even by the day of the funeral. I promise you that, by the weekend, nothing will seem any different than it was yesterday or the day before.”

“You’re right, of course; and I guess that’s the way it should be. We can’t go on thinking about all the bad things that happen, or we’ll be overwhelmed by sorrow and loss. But it seems as though some of these things should change us more than they do.”

“Some of them are too big to change us. If they don’t happen to us, or to the people we love, they really don’t have any reason to change us, not even for a day or two. I think,” you added, with wisdom beyond your years, “that sometimes we save up the emotion of our big personal losses and hurts, and we let it pour out at a time like this, when everyone is shocked and hurting. Then we can hurt together; and then, after a day or two, we’re all allowed to feel better again. It’s our way of letting go of our personal pain, to be able to share it on a day like today.”

In 1986 I wrote a song—“Keep Flying High”—to commemorate the seven astronauts who died in the Challenger explosion. A few years ago, when my mother had just died, I found comfort in singing that song and dedicating it to her memory. However it happens, death remains the enemy. Even Jesus wept at the tomb of his friend Lazarus. But Jesus went on to conquer death and to share his victory with all who trust in him. Remembering Kobe Bryant, or any other celebrity we have lost to death, we find true comfort in the victory of Easter and in our guarantee of the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting. J.

Down dooby-do down down (semicolon)

Breaking up is hard to do. That’s not just a song from the Bubble Gum Era of rock music (the early 1960s); it’s also a fact, one that is hard to deny.

This summer would be a bad time to end a relationship. I say that because of the ubiquitous song “Be Alright,” written and sung by Dean Lewis. (“I know you love her, but it’s over, mate….”) If I were dealing with the aftermath of an ended relationship, I would probably want to destroy my radio the next time that song began.

That’s unfortunate, because most of that song contains good advice. Alright: the “bottoms up to forget” is bad advice, because drinking only increases the pain; it doesn’t make it go away. But the rest of the song is fitting: breaking up does hurt a bit for a while, and after a while things do get better.

I have experienced ended relationships, and I have not forgotten the pain. But I survived—life goes on, and new joys replace the old. I have encouraged others when they were grieving ended relationships. Being the supportive friend can be difficult—you see the light, but they only see the darkness. You know there is hope, but they don’t want to hear about hope. For a while, it seems that they want to cling to the pain, to coddle it, to make it the center of their lives, the meaning of their existence. For most people, that stage also ends, and life goes on.

What would I add to Dean Lewis’ words of wisdom? It doesn’t rhyme, but it’s still worth saying: love makes us vulnerable. When we love someone, our love makes it possible for us to be hurt. That is true of more than romantic love: family relationships can be painful, and even friendships can be painful. But the possibility of pain—even the reality of pain—is worth bearing because of the immense, immeasurable value of love itself.

Even the Almighty God has made himself vulnerable to the pain of rejection. He loves his fallen creatures. He grieves when any of us turn away from him and reject his gifts. The lover whose loved one chooses someone else has a taste of the holy, divine grief of God. The lover whose loved one wants to end the relationship knows how Christ felt when Judas betrayed him for money, when all the disciples ran away, and when Peter said three times that he did not know who Jesus is.

Love is central to God’s nature. Love flows among the Persons of the Holy Trinity outside of time and space. Creation happened as a gift of love from the Father to the Son. We are created in God’s image, meaning that we are created so we can love God and so we can love one another. When God speaks of our relationship with him in terms of family—even in terms of marriage and romantic love—he is not taking an experience we know and using it as a metaphor. He is speaking a truth that is not metaphor: he is saying that he loves us with all the passion of human romantic love.

The cross proves that God would do anything for us. Perhaps God allows us the pain of broken relationships in this lifetime so we can look at the cross in a new light. Our minds might not grasp the connection, but our hearts can feel the love of God that would bear a cross and accept its pain and suffering, all for the sake of love.

Breaking up is hard to do. God does not want to break up with his people. Through the message of the Bible and in the life of the Church, God nourishes our loving relationship with him—our faith—so we remain in a proper relationship with him and are not in danger of breaking up with him. For all the messy complicated problems of the Church on earth, it is valuable as a link to God, who pours his blessings into our lives through his Church. J.

Dealing kindly with toxic personalities

He was gloomy and gruff, but no one ever told him to “cheer up.” He was pessimistic about everything and had a negative outlook on life, but no one ever told him to change his way of thinking. He spent his days in an emotional cloud of depression and despair, but his friends were kind and supportive, never treating him as a toxic person, never complaining that he drained all the life out of their party.

His name was Eeyore. He lived in the Hundred Acre Wood, a neighbor to Winnie the Pooh and Piglet, Owl, Tigger, Kanga and Roo, and—of course—Christopher Robin. Each of them had his or her own quirks, a unique personality that had failings as well as higher qualities. In fact, you can search the Internet and find pages that diagnose each character in the stories with a different psychological disorder. A. A. Milne was not writing a textbook about disorders, though; Milne was experimenting with various personality types to show how they function within a caring and compassionate community.

In a society that preaches tolerance for a number of aberrations, it seems that some personality types are still less acceptable than others. Introverts are expected to act like extraverts. People battling anxiety and depression are told that “its all in your head,” and they are expected to act as if everything is fine. They are told to have more faith in God, as if faithful believers (including Job and Elijah) were never depressed. They are told that God’s blessings bring joy and peace, that if they are lacking the feelings of joy and peace there is something wrong in their relationship with God. (That’s exactly what Job’s friends said to him, but God said they were wrong.) They are told to take it to the Lord in prayer, with the suggestion that if that does not lift their gloomy cloud, there must be something wrong with their prayers.

This month I re-read the books Milne wrote about the residents of the Hundred Acre Wood. I found it interesting to observe how his friends treated Eeyore. When he was moping because his tail was missing, Winnie the Pooh took it upon himself to hunt until he found Eeyore’s tail. When Eeyore was grumpy because it was his birthday and no one had noticed, Pooh and Piglet found gifts to celebrate the occasion. Even though the gifts fell short of their intentions—Pooh emptied the honey pot on his way to Eeyore’s house, and Piglet popped the balloon—still, the gifts meant a great deal to Eeyore.

The closest anyone approached trying to correct Eeyore’s attitude was the time that Eeyore complained that he had few visitors, and Owl pointed out that Eeyore could be a visitor in other people’s houses rather than waiting at home for a visitor to arrive. That’s helpful advice and rather mild criticism for a character that would be described in many families, workplaces, and gatherings as a toxic personality, always complaining, never happy, and taxing the happiness of others.

Pooh may have been a Bear of Very Little Brain, but the size of his heart more than compensated for his lack of a brain. Somehow he knew how to treat Eeyore and the rest of his neighbors—never with complaining or criticism, but always with acceptance, helpfulness, and good cheer. Good friends are a blessing from the Lord. Pooh sensed without thinking it through that the best way to have friends was to be a friend, even to negative and gloomy neighbors. J.

Feelings (something more than feelings)

When I was younger (so much younger than today), I was drawn toward Stoic philosophy. Logic and reason were guides to life; feelings were to be ignored. After all, the great virtues all involve working against one’s feelings. Courage is not lack of fear: courage is doing the right thing in spite of fear. True love is not feeling good because of someone else; true love is caring more about the other person than about one’s self. Victory over evil does not come from never being tempted; victory over evil comes from resisting temptation, from saying no to temptation.

Yes, I was Mr. Spock, but with a better script-writer than Spock had. I did not prattle about logic, because logic consists of the rules that govern reason. Loving logic rather than reason is like loving the rules of football rather than the game of football. The rules make the game possible, but the game is the thing. Reason, of course, has limits; there are things that are beyond reason, and those things are of vast importance. Having learned of the reality that lies beyond reason, though, does not diminish reason. In fact, reason can be used to study and understand even those messages that come from the world beyond reason.

But in the last few years I have learned that feelings are not to be ignored. A human being consists of body and mind and spirit, and feelings happen at the intersection of body and mind and spirit. Many feelings come from the body, warning the mind and spirit of the body’s needs. Other feelings can come from the mind or the spirit, guiding the whole being along a certain course of action or turning away from a different course of action.

“I’ve got a bad feeling about this” most of the time. It is rare for me to start a trip, long or short, without the feeling that I have forgotten something important back at home. If someone at home or at work is in a bad mood, I often feel that I am responsible—I must have done something wrong to annoy him or her. In shopping malls and large stores I often feel threatened and overwhelmed. I feel an eerie sense of doom, and I want to make my purchase and leave as quickly as I can. (And I am grateful for self-serve registers, so I do not have to interact with another person while in the store.)

Negative feelings have their silver linings. I never leave my keys locked in the car, because my feelings of anxiety cause me to clutch the keys in one hand while I close the car door with the other hand. In a similar vein, I never leave my magnetic pass key on my desk at work; I’m always touching it as I go through the secure door of the work area. I am probably kinder to my co-workers than I would otherwise be because of my false sense that their unhappiness is my fault. If bad feelings make me a better person, who am I to complain?

A therapist has helped me to be mindful of my feelings, to look at them and ask myself what they are telling me. Why am I especially jittery on Saturdays? Is it because of the change in routine, the one day that I don’t jump out of bed to head to work or to church? Is it anticipation of the coming Sunday morning responsibilities at church? Or is it awareness that, unless the weather is bad, I will be exposed to the noise of neighbors working in their lawns and gardens with the racket of power tools of various kinds?

In short, I’ve learned that feelings are not to be ignored. They have their place, even if they are not reliable guides for decisions to be made or actions to be taken. Feelings are part of being human. Much as I may have wanted to be a Vulcan, both my parents were human, and I am human too. And that’s not a bad thing—the Lord created humans and said that they made creation “very good.” When sin and evil entered creation, the Lord entered creation as a human to ransom and redeem humans. And the Lord has experienced the full range of human feelings, even as I do, without sinning in the process. Being human, having feelings, is good. J.

Training and discipline from the Lord’s hand: part five

Training and discipline must have a purpose. Earthly fathers, teachers, and coaches do not put children into difficult situations for no purpose. They seek to develop good characteristics, preparing the children for life’s upcoming events. If God permitted Satan to test Job, God was not being arbitrary toward Job or using Job to win a bet. God had a good reason to allow the testing, and Job somehow was improved by the experience. If God permits you and me to struggle in our lives, he is not being arbitrary toward us. He has a good reason to allow the testing, and we somehow are improved by the experience.

God’s training and discipline are not responses to our sins, because God has forgiven our sins and remembers them no longer. What, then, is God seeking to accomplish by our hardships? The answer can perhaps be found in the way Jesus reacted to his chosen apostles. He chose them—they belonged to him—they were covered by his forgiveness as surely as any Christian is covered by his forgiveness. But it appears that Jesus sometimes lost patience with his apostles. As God he is all-knowing and all-powerful, eternal and unchanging. At the same time, Jesus is human. He is like us every way, except that he never sinned. The sins of others angered him. He cleared the Temple of those who were misusing it. He lectured about the shortcomings of the scribes and Pharisees. Jesus taught God’s Law clearly to all who would listen. But what about times when his chosen and forgiven apostles aggravated Jesus? Here are five examples:

“Behold, there arose a great storm on the sea, so that the boat was being swamped by the waves; but [Jesus] was asleep. And they went and woke him, saying, ‘Save us, Lord; we are perishing.’ And he said to them, ‘Why are you afraid, O you of little faith?’” (Matthew 8:24-26)

“Peter answered him, ‘Lord, if is you, command me to come to you on the water.’ [Jesus] said, ‘Come.’ So Peter got out of the boat and walked on the water and came to Jesus. But when he saw the wind, he was afraid, and beginning to sink he cried out, ‘Lord, save me.’ Jesus immediately reached out his hand and took hold of him, saying to him, ‘O you of little faith, why did you doubt?’” (Matthew 14:28-31)

“When the disciples reached the other side, they had forgotten to bring any bread. Jesus said to them, ‘Watch and beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees.’ And they began discussing it among themselves, saying, ‘We brought no bread.’ But Jesus, aware of this, said, ‘O you of little faith, why are you discussing among yourselves the fact that you have no bread? Do you not perceive?’” (Matthew 16:5-9)

“From that time Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, ‘Far be it from you, Lord! This shall never happen to you.’ But he turned and said to Peter, ‘Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me. For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.’” (Matthew 16:21-23)

And when they came to the crowd, a man came up to him and kneeling before him, said, ‘Lord, have mercy on my son, for he is an epileptic and he suffers terribly. For often he falls into the fire, and often into the water. And I brought him to your disciples, and they could not heal him.’ And Jesus answered, ‘O faithless and twisted generation, how long am I to be with you? How long am I to bear with you? Bring him here to me.’ And Jesus rebuked him, and the demon came out of him, and the boy was healed instantly. Then the disciples came to Jesus privately and said, ‘Why could we not cast it out?’ He said to them, ‘Because of your little faith.’” (Matthew 17:14-20)

If anything frustrates Jesus, he is frustrated to see his own chosen people fail to exercise their faith. Jesus grants faith to his people, but he also expects us to exercise that faith. When we fear and doubt, when we lose sight of the cross and try to belong to Jesus without it, when we try to serve him by our own power rather than his power, then we fail. We do not lose our forgiveness—not unless we completely lose our faith. But Jesus wants us to be focused on him, not on ourselves. He wants us to measure his power, not our faith.

This is not to say that the wrath of God falls upon Christians when our faith is too small. Just the opposite: we are saved from God’s wrath by even the smallest faith, provided that our faith is in Jesus Christ, who drank from the cup of his Father’s wrath toward sinners until the cup was empty. But God, in loving discipline and training, gives us faith-lifting exercises even as coaches assign weight-lifting exercises to athletes. Even if Jesus is frustrated by our little faith, he also loves us and wants to see that faith grow—not for his benefit, but for our benefit.

God trains us through adversity, because “suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us” (Romans 5:3-5). For this reason we rejoice, because our sufferings draw us to the cross of Christ, where all our sins are forgiven, and all our enemies are defeated, and we are claimed as God’s people forever. J.

Training and discipline from the Lord’s hand: part four

Hebrews 11 is often called the Honor Roll of Faith. Great believers of the Old Testament are mentioned along with the obstacles they faced and overcame through their faith in the coming Savior. Verses 35 to 38 particularly focus on believers who were tortured, imprisoned, and killed because of their faith. All these faithful believers are summarized in Hebrews 12:1 as a great cloud of witnesses watching us run the face, and the culmination of this list is Jesus himself, “the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.”

The transition to God’s discipline follows from this mention of Jesus and the cross: “Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted. In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood” (Hebrews 12:3-4). Notice the progression: the saints of the Old Testament suffered, sometimes violently, from the attacks of enemies to their faith. Jesus suffered and died at the hand of such enemies also. We can expect opposition of the same kind, even if it has not yet become as violent as that which Jesus and other servants of God faced.

From this perspective it appears that the discipline of God comes through the enemies of God, which are also our enemies—namely, the devil, the sinful world, and the sin still within each of us. Job was tested by Satan, even though he did not deserve to suffer. God permitted the testing but also limited it. Paul’s thorn in the flesh was “a messenger of Satan to harass me” (II Corinthians 12:7). Jesus once said, “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you” (Matthew 5:11-12).

Every setback and disappointment that a Christian faces is not discipline from the hand of God. Some burdens we bear in common with all people, believers and unbelievers alike. Colds, allergies, diabetes, cancer, anxiety, depression: these are not crosses we bear for Christ, nor are they discipline from God. They are part of the result of living in a sin-polluted world. When the car stalls in traffic, when rain falls on our picnic, when an unexpected bill comes in the mail, God is not calling us to examine our lives and determine which sin he wants us to quit. God does not want us to sin at all, but our sins are forgiven. Christ was beaten as he did not deserve to rescue us from discipline we deserve.

On the other hand, we are being trained to live as God’s people. When our faith and obedience annoys God’s enemies, we must be doing something right. God allows us to experience their resistance to strengthen our faith. Whatever difficulties we face are good for us, as they direct our attention to the price Christ paid to redeem us. The devil wants us to struggle so he can convince us that God does not love us or is not taking care of us. When our struggles remind us of the cross of Christ, of all that he paid to make us his people, then the devil loses in his opposition and we share once again in the victory Christ has won.

Guilt is good when it brings us to the cross. Guilt is bad when it drives us to examine our sins and try to fix our own lives to please God. The devil uses our sense of guilt as a weapon against us. When trouble strikes and the question arises: “What did I do to deserve this?” we usually can think of answers to that question. But no discipline from God is a response to our sins. God has blotted out all our sins with the blood of his Son. He sees each of us now through his Son’s righteousness. God does not want us to sin, but he also does not want us to focus all our attention on our sins. He wants us to set our eyes on Jesus and to find strength and comfort and hope in him.

To be continued…. J.

Training and discipline from the Lord’s hand: part three

How do Christians apply Hebrews 12:5-11 to our lives? “Have you forgotten the exhortation that addresses you as sons? ‘My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, nor be weary when reproved by him. For the Lord disciplines the one he loves and chastises every son whom he receives.’ It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons. For what son is there whom his father does not discipline? If you are left without discipline, in which all have participated, then you are illegitimate children and not sons. Besides this, we have had earthly fathers who disciplined us, and we respected them. Shall we not much more be subject to the Father of spirits and live? For they disciplined us for a short time as seemed good to them, but he disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness. For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.”

If God sees no sin in us, how can he discipline us for our sins? If he sees our sins and responds to them, how can we be sure that we are forgiven? To answer these questions, it is necessary to do three things. First, we must look at the word translated “discipline” and be sure we understand what it means generally and especially in these verses. Second, we must see this passage in its context within the letter to the Hebrews. Third, we must view this verse in context of the entire Bible and its message to God’s people.

Both the NIV and the ESV translate the Greek word used in Hebrews 12 as “discipline.” Working only from the English, it is tempting to make a connection here to discipleship, but the actual Greek word does not suit that connection. In fact, the Greek work is derived from the noun for a young child and refers to teaching or training that child. Depending upon its context, it sometimes describes violent training, such as a spanking. We might compare the word to an English sentence—“I’m going to teach you a lesson”—which could mean anything from an offer to tutor someone to a threat to beat someone.

Other books in the New Testament use this word with the full range of possible meanings. On the one hand, when Pontius Pilate wanted to have Christ beaten and then released, he chose that word to describe the beating (Luke 23:16). On the other hand, when Stephen described Moses being raised in the household of Pharaoh, he used the same word to describe Moses’ lessons (Acts 7:22). Paul used the same word to describe his lessons as he studied under the Pharisees (Acts 22:3). Other instances of the word fall between these two extremes of tutoring and beating. In I Corinthians 11:32, Paul speaks of God’s discipline upon Christians who receive the Lord’s Supper without discerning the body of the Lord, “which is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died.” In II Corinthians 6:9 Paul declares that the apostles are “punished, and yet not killed.” In I Timothy 1:20, Paul mentions two Christians who are handed over to Satan to train them not to blaspheme. But in II Timothy 2:25, Paul counsels Timothy to train his opponents with gentleness, leading to repentance and a knowledge of the truth. In Titus 2:11-12, Paul speaks of the grace of God and his salvation “training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions.” Finally, in Revelation 3:19 Jesus echoes the thought of Hebrews 12 as he says, “Those whom I love, I reprove and discipline.” In each of these verses, the same word is used.

How then can we know whether the letter to the Hebrews speaks of training/discipline in the sense of gentle teaching or in the sense of violent treatment? Verse 11 describes the experience as painful rather than pleasant. But to fully understand the repeated use of this word in Hebrews 12:5-11, we need to study the entire flow of Hebrews 11 and 12.

To be continued…. J.