Life is challenging. As a new year begins we resolve to overcome challenges, to “be a better me”. Some of us boldly buy new pens to use in our new journal. Well, at least we know Karla does that. But why is she so confident in her resolution?
The inside scoop is this: she has built habits of journaling. Habits can be painful to establish, but they are essential to suffering well enough to overcome.
No Pain? No Gain!
Pain, the signal to pull back from something, is a gift from God. When our desire for something runs into painful complications we naturally want to pull back. That is not a lack of “willpower” as much as a sign of a normal system functioning as designed.
People with leprosy lose their sense of pain and don’t pull back when something is hurting them. That is where the disease damages them; not directly, but through disruption of pleasure/pain systems.
The slogan in a gym “No Pain No Gain” confronts the simple view of “If it hurts when you do that… then don’t do that.” Pain is meant to be a signal that what we are going through might not be worth suffering. If I am picking up a pan that is hot enough to burn I feel pain alert me that it’s not worth it, that I should drop the pan. But at other times pain warns me about the damage being done and I don’t drop what I am doing. I acknowledge the pain, refocus on the gain, and suffer well.
Just like it would be foolish to walk into a gym and drop a dumbbell on my foot to fulfill the pain/gain slogan, we do not want to pursue suffering for suffering’s sake. The pain that gives gain is enduring something that is contributing to something else. Working out makes us tired and sore, but done properly it increases strength and energy over time.
Likewise, our character is tested with very real emotional and mental pains all the time. The call to “Suffer well!” is not about maxing our pain experiences, it is about overcoming pains that would keep us from meaningful gains.
Faithfulness > Compromise
The Revelation encourages Christians enduring painful pressure to compromise that remaining faithful is a greater gain than the cost of the pains. The prophetic book uses startling imagery from ancient prophecies to do a couple of things.
The drama is meant to empathize with those suffering. Dragons and beasts and flames and blood and horrors fill the pages of The Revelation saying that the author is not unaware of how painful faithfulness can be. But the author is also using those images to root the costly pain in the old, old story of God’s ethos of love and integrity standing up to, and ultimately overcoming, the beastly ways of worldly selfishness and cruelty.
The Beasts < The Lamb
The first few chapters are a loving rebuke from Jesus, not unlike that of a trainer in a gym. Yes, you are tired and sore and want to quit. But I am here with you and I’m not going to let you quit.
“Those whom I love I rebuke and discipline. Rethink, therefore, and I will come feast with you.”
n then spends the rest of the book emphasizing that what we need to Rethink is the Way of the Lamb. Lion of the Tribe of Judah, surely he will overcome the beasts as a tougher beast, right? No.
The Lion turns out to be a Lamb who was slain. This surprise theme of Lamb>Beasts keeps showing up throughout the book.
Sacrificial love, though painful, is worth it when it is done as part of God’s Story. The promise is that one day God, and those shaped by habits formed through repetition, will abide in rich delight with God and others.
But what habits? How much repetition?
This is where we can get confused. The habit we need most is to break the power of shame and fear. When we habitually receive God’s grace in the form of mercy we grow in the ability to be merciful. When we habitually receive God’s grace in the form of justice, God lovingly developing our character from the inside out, we grow in the ability to maintain courage with integrity in the world.
Love will never invoke fear. Perfect(telosed) love expels fear, particularly the fear of punishment. The one who fears punishment has not been completed through love. (1 John 4:18)
Be the Church
What do we do? Resolve to be a recipient of God’s grace alongside God’s people. Gather locally and be fully engaged, with God and those around you. Overcome fear and share. Overcome fear and listen to what others share. Overcome with sacrificial love empowered by God’s grace. It is more than worth making it a habit.
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