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I was tempted to complain yesterday that there aren’t enough hours in the day. I’ve made this complaint before, and I’ve heard others make it. We say this as though we’re the victims of some grand cosmic scheme to suck up all our free time. It’s a complaint we’re more likely to make when we don’t enjoy everything we’re doing, when we feel like the time we really want to do something more important – spend time with family, exercise, rest, read, etc. – has been stolen from us.

Yesterday was no worse than any typical Monday for me. But as I looked at my half-completed to-do list late that afternoon, I found myself wishing I simply had more time. But then it hit me: what an insult such a complaint must be to God, who appointed the lengths of days and seasons.  As Psalm 104 says, it was God who “made the moon for the seasons.” In other words, the lunar cycles bear witness to the fact that certain rhythms are embedded in the structure of creation. The daily rhythm of light and dark is another example. And God put these rhythms in place for a reason.

The Psalmist continues:

The sun knows the place of its setting. You appoint darkness and it becomes night, in which all the beasts of the forest prowl about. The young lions roar after their prey and seek their food from God. When the sun rises they withdraw and lie down in their dens. Man goes forth to his work and to his labor until evening (Psalm 104:19-23 NASB).

As Psalm 104 suggests, all of creation is meant to live according to certain rhythms. Sleep. Sabbath. The poet writing Psalm 104 sees these rhythms as gifts.  But I think today we’re more likely to perceive these rhythms as limits, instead of gifts. And this is dangerous thinking, because as soon as we think we’ve become limitless, we’ve made ourselves into gods.

This is one more place where I think the spiritual discipline of dedication to the truth can be liberating.  Dedication to the truth means accepting the limits that define our existence as creatures, including the number of hours in a day, but that liberates us from unrealistic demands, whether self-imposed or thrust upon us by others. The truth that we are creatures liberates us from our pride that expects to be able to accomplish more than is humanly possible. The truth that rhythms of work and rest are built into creation liberates us to work well when we should, and to stop when it’s time to stop. Thank God that there are 24 hours in a day.

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Today I have to deal with someone who I frankly do not like. This is unusual. There are very few people in the world who I simply dislike.  But for some reason, I’ve had an allergic reaction to Person-I-Don’t-Like ever since we first met.  It’s a visceral averse response: I get physically anxious, my heart rate jumps, my head starts to hurt.  When I consider the fact that Person-I-Don’t-Like has a history of not being honest with me, I become disproportionately angry at Person-I-Don’t-Like. I generally do not have enemies, but Person-I-Don’t-Like feels like my enemy.

This morning at Upper Room’s staff meeting, I even used the word “hate” to describe how I feel about Person-I-Don’t-Like.  Josh, our seminary intern, wisely responded by pointing to the passage of Scripture we’d just read together, and on which I’m preaching this Sunday: “Whoever does not love abides in death. Everyone who hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him” (1 John 3:14-15 ESV). Ouch. I’m as good as a murderer. Thanks be to God for seminarians who preach Truth to pastors. My irrational hatred of Person-I-Don’t-Like was a testimony to the sinfulness of my own heart. Lacking love, I abide in death. And, in Paul’s words, “Who will deliver me from this body of death?” (Romans 7:24).

Obviously, the answer to Paul’s question is Jesus. But how will Jesus deliver me from the hatred of my brother? A few verses later in 1 John, we read a line that I think answers that question.  “Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth. By this we shall know we are of the truth and reassure our heart before him” (3:18-19). Notice the repetition of truth in those verses. Jesus is Truth. Those who are “of the truth” in 1 John are those who are “of Jesus.” And those who follow Jesus display that they are “of the truth” by loving in truth. To love my enemy, I have to love him in truth. And I can only do that if I stop and ask, What really is true in this situation?

When considered in that light, this situation provides a beautiful example of the healing power of dedication to the truth. By stopping to ask what is really true, I calmed the anxiety in my heart and body, increased my concern for my enemy, and articulated a way to move forward. Let me demonstrate:

First of all, what’s really true about Person-I-Don’t-Like? He’s never been deliberately malicious toward me. He has not always been honest with me, but that’s no excuse for me to respond with hatred or dishonesty in return.  I also know from past conversations with Person-I-Don’t-Like that his life is not easy. The stress of his own life adds a dimension to our relationship of which I’m normally unaware. As the adage goes, “Hurting people hurt people.” Of all people, I as a minister should know enough to look beneath the surface and ask why Person-I-Don’t-Like behaves the way he does.

Second, what’s really true about me in this situation? I don’t know what causes my averse response to Person-I-Don’t-Like.  It’s not entirely rational, happens with no one else, and that alone should give me pause. On top of that, my reaction toward the prospect of dealing with Person-I-Don’t-Like is always overblown. When it comes down to the real facts of our situation, there’s no good reason for me to respond the way I do to this person.  The truth here is that I’ve let my anxiety get the best of me. There’s nothing to fear.

Third, what’s true about the current situation of conflict? It was caused by miscommunications for which we’re both responsible. It’s also caused by neglect of certain duties, for which we’re also both responsible. Person-I-Don’t-Like may have been dishonest with me in the past, but I have no right to hold that against him, given my inability to love him in truth. If miscommunication, irresponsibility, and dishonest were the roots of this conflict, then I should seek restored communication, fulfillment of responsibility, and honesty as a way of resolving this conflict.

And finally, who is my true “enemy” in this situation? My own irrational anger, the anxiety I feel, and the negative consequences of destroying this relationship are all greater enemies than Person-I-Don’t-Like. If 1 John is right, my sin of hatred itself is an enemy of eternal proportion, while Person-I-Don’t-Like should be relatively innocuous.  Maybe this encounter with Person-I-Don’t-Like is actually an opportunity to learn to love? It’s already becoming an opportunity to learn to practice living in the truth, and for that I should be grateful.

In John 3:21, Jesus says his followers “practice the truth”. Practicing the truth means going deeper than the surface-level debates about who’s right and wrong.  It means living with an entire orientation toward truthfulness in life. And I believe a deeper practice of the truth can lead to genuine reconciliation and love between those who have been enemies. By calling us to practice the truth, the One who is Truth delivers us from this body of death into life and love. Thus John can say, “we know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love . . .” (1 John 3:14).

We’re now three weeks into this series of reflections on John Climacus’ Ladder of Divine Ascent. (For context, see previous posts from Week 1 and Week 2.) This reflection is on steps 14 to 21: (14) On Gluttony, (15) On Chastity, (16) On Avarice, (17) On Poverty, (18) On Insensitivity, (19) On Sleep, (20) On Alertness, and (21) On Fear. In these steps, Climacus starts to address the more tangible and worldly sins and vices with which we’re familiar: lust, greed, over-indulgence.  But Step 18 and those that follow it shift back to the inner life of the mind, and indication that for Climacus the discipline of the mind and discipline of the body are intimately related. Physical discipline is fruitless without mental discipline, and vice versa.

In Steps 14 and 15,  Climacus points out the mind-body connection which a number of ancient writers observed between hunger and our sexual appetites. He writes, “A stuffed belly produces fornication, while a mortified stomach leads to purity.  The man who pets a lion may tame it but the man who coddles the body makes it ravenous” (page 165). This may be a new concept to us, but even modern neurologists have observed this connection.  The hypothalamus is the part of the brain that controls our appetites for eating, drinking, and sex.  Because these drives are all processed in the same part of the brain, sexual desires can be experienced with the same intensity as hunger and thirst. Because food and water are essential for survival, the hypothalamus drives us to pursue these at all costs. Unfortunately, our brains naturally perceive sexual desires in the same way. But sex isn’t essential for a person’s survival.  So how does one teach their hypothalamus that? Climacus, in line with the rest of his monastic tradition, recommends fasting.  By cultivating self-control over one of these appetites (hunger) we can cultivate self-control over the other (sex).  And over time this practice enables one to rise above one’s natural appetites and desires:   “To have mastered one’s body is to have taken command of nature, which is surely to have risen above it. And the man who has done this is not much lower than the angels, if even that” (page 181).

Even so, total victory over lust is not within human control. Physical discipline is helpful and beneficial, but ultimate submission of such powerful natural appetites is not achieved by merely natural means. So, Climacus reminds us that purity and chastity are God-given gifts:

When nature is overcome it should be admitted that this is due to Him Who is above nature. . . .. The truth is that unless the Lord overturns the house of the flesh and builds the house of the soul, the man wishing to overcome it has watched and fasted for nothing.  Offer up to the Lord the weakness of your nature.  Admit your incapacity and, without your knowing it, you will win for yourself the gift of chastity (pages 172-173).

In Steps 16 (Avarice) and 17 (Poverty), Climacus encourages us to cultivate detachment from possessions to free our hearts from greed. Climacus doesn’t prescribe a physical discipline here because the appropriate physical discipline for greed has already been completed by his monks: they had sold what they owned and given to the poor.  But the physical discipline means nothing if one has not cultivated mental freedom from greed. And as with lust, this freedom requires divine assistance. Climacus writes that the virtue of detachment  “grows from an experience and taste of the knowledge of God” (page 190). Taste and see that the Lord is indeed good and you will trust Him to provide for your every need. Experience God’s provision, and you won’t worry as much about possessions and money.  If you want to be free from greed, seek an experience of God’s goodness and provision.

In contrast to complete trust in God’s provision, Step 18 discusses Insensitivity.   The insensitive person is hard-hearted, hypocritical and judgmental.  Climacus confesses that he himself wrestles with insensitivity, and that it is a common problem among the devout.  In one passage in this step, I could have thought he was describing me:

Detachment he praises, and he shamelessly fights over a rag.  When he is angry he gets bitter, and then his bitterness makes him angry, so that having suffered one defeat he fails to notice that he has suffered another.  He gorges himself, is sorry, and a little later is at it again.  He blesses silence and cannot stop talking about it.  He teaches meekness and frequently gets angry when he is teaching it (page 192).

Climacus says that the cause of insensitivity is different for each person and in each case, but the only way to free oneself from it is to discover the cause.  So I’m praying for the Lord to reveal the causes of my insensitivity. I’m still listening for an answer. Pray for me.

Lastly, the steps concerning Sleep, Alertness, and Fear are all related, and together display the mind-body connection discussed earlier.  Keeping vigil, or going without sleep, is like fasting in that it deprives the body of a need in order to train the body in holiness.  But Climacus says it yields fruit in prayer, as well:  “The farmer collects his wealth on the threshing floor and in the winepress. Monks collect their wealth and knowledge during the hours of evening and night when they are standing at prayer and contemplation” (page 197).  The goal is to cultivate watchfulness over one’s thoughts so that one can recognized where thoughts are coming from and discern between good and evil, true and untrue thoughts. If one can learn to do this even when tired, one will have greater clarity of mind when awake.  And so prayer and contemplation during times when we would normally be sleeping prepare us for alert and attentive prayer at all times.

In the ancient world, nighttime was also regarded as unsafe. Both physical and spiritual enemies attacked at night, and apparently monks were not immune to fears of such attacks. Accordingly, Climacus takes step 21 to remind his monks and readers that, “The servant of the Lord will be afraid only of his Master” (page 200).  Trust in God means there’s no need to fear anyone but God.  As Jesus says, “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body and after that can do no more. But I will show you whom you should fear: Fear him who, after your body has been killed, has authority to throw you into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him” (Luke 12:4-6 TNIV).  As Jesus’ words suggest, fear reveals a preoccupation with bodily concerns over spiritual.  Fear of those who can harm the body reveals the same concern for the body’s comfort that results in lust and gluttony.  In contrast, the virtue of courage reveals that one’s mind is set not on earthly things, but on heavenly.  And as Climacus says, “The man who has tasted the things of heaven easily thinks nothing of what is below . . .” (page 189).