Sunday Letter: The Discipline of Descent
There is no better discipline than an occasional descent from what we count wellbeing to a former despised or less happy condition.
Internal growth is hard to see. We can look at the past, but it is the present ‘us’ that is looking back. It is not just the benefit—or self-chastisement—of hindsight (e.g., What I wish I could tell myself back then! I worried about things that turned out to be so unimportant—or were unavoidable). But looking back often is disassociated from the “us” of then.
Someone who is single laments being single, looks for a partner, someone without community yearns for connection and support from someone, somewhere. Someone is poor, and just wants to be able to live a little above their current subsistence. But as these situations resolve—often by the fervent prayer under such stresses!—gradually one can become again grumpy. The now-attached person gets annoyed at their partner when it changes me/my plans for vacation into to we/us plans. The lonely community-seeker can’t handle this sort of people that are always making demands on him. The no-longer-poor middle-class person laments not having a nicer car, or being able to go out to nicer places.
It is in our nature—that is, our sin nature, called the flesh—to grumble. The whole history of Israel is one of a “stiff-necked people” grumbling as God provides (we miss Egypt!), again and again. As the people of God grow complacent, God sends prophets to jolt them. When the prophets don’t work, he sends discipline.
From discipline, often suddenly, the malaise that often accompanies extended comfort, the grumbling for more, one comes alive with attention to the one who has brought every good and perfect gift.
There are rhythms to this, there is Lament, earnest yearning for what good one had, as Israel was taken captive in discipline:
By the waters of Babylon we sat down and wept,
when we remembered thee, O Sion.
As for our harps, we hanged them up
upon the trees that are therein.
For they that led us away captive required of us then a song, and melody in our heaviness:
‘Sing us one of the songs of Sion.’1
Discipline is not punishment, but something to realign one’s attentions to the right point. It is training. To be a disciple is to be trained, and to be trained is to be brought to the best you.
As I said in a previous meditation:
There is no limbo between: we are growing in one way or we are devolving the other. Our health—muscles, nutrition, sleep—does not exist in stasis: we are either working to maintain health, or letting it decrease, whether by neglect or deliberate action. A good coach doesn’t let someone just coast: there is movement, and rest (sabbath), which is part of the cycle of growth.2
If we are comfortable, that is, not noticing the gifts we have, it may be good discipline— that is, training—to be challenged to have gratitude.
I think the thought-behind-the-thought, the training at work in bringing a soul to a less happy former state is not to make one miserable, but to call, to invite the person into gratitude through working through the grief. Sometimes the only way to encounter the grief is through the sorrow of encountering one’s past self, or self-state. Gratitude (as my wife has ably reminded me when I am grumbling) changes the brain, and forms pathways that make it easier to be grateful. The way around this discipline, of course, is sustained gratitude. “Rejoice always, pray constantly, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.”3
“For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation and brings no regret”
In the words of St Paul:
Now I rejoice, not because you were grieved, but because your grief led to repentance; for you felt a godly grief, so that you were not harmed in any way by us. For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation and brings no regret, but worldly grief produces death. For see what earnestness this godly grief has produced in you, what eagerness to clear yourselves, what indignation, what alarm, what longing, what zeal, what punishment! At every point you have proved yourselves guiltless in the matter. So although I wrote to you, it was not on account of the one who did the wrong, nor on account of the one who was wronged, but in order that your zeal for us might be made known to you before God. In this we find comfort. —(2 Cor 7:9-13 RSVCE, emphasis added)
It is in an occasional descent,4 encountering former selves, that we are invited to be more grateful for what we have when reconciliation is brought about, and it is in Godly lament that our priorities are known: In order that their zeal be made known to them before God.
If you turn to God when things break down, take heart, this shows that you desire God.
1 Thessalonians 5:16-18 RSVCE
This is not license to excuse the occasional descent as a good thing. Recall Romans 6: “What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means!” Rather, it is God using the circumstances that we find ourselves in, be it our own descent into former conditions, or former conditions being forced upon us, God is able to use all things towards good, as Joseph said to his brothers who forced horrible circumstances upon him: “Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good” (Gen 50:20 RSVCE). God intends all things that happen to us to move us towards good. See reflection on Irresistible Growth