When a small airplane goes into a spin, the worst thing for the pilot to do is to try to muscle it back on course. The harder you grip the stick and the more you wrestle against the spin the worse it gets. Or so I’ve been told.
Pilots know that stopping a spin is counterintuitive. You have to power down and point the nose of the plane toward the ground. Yikes.
So too when our lives spin out of control.
In my last blog I asked how you fight spiritual entropy, that state all of us fall into where, no matter how hard we grip the controls of our lives, the slow spin begins and takes our spiritual breath away.
The Fallacy of Self-discipline
At one time severe self-punishment was considered a mark of spirituality or godliness. Famous are the men and women of faith who starved, beat, and even mutilated themselves as a form of discipline, as a way to fight off the creep–and sometimes even the tidal wave–of sin and shame and guilt in their lives. The belief behind this was that they could flagellate the disobedience or evil out of themselves.
Martin Luther, before his “Tower Experience,” practiced such discipline fiercely. He felt God’s justice demanded he punish himself to pay for his sins. No matter that Jesus had already paid his–and our–bill. But Luther discovered that no amount of shivering in the snow all night long in February, nor climbing up and down the Scala Santa (Holy Steps) on his knees in Rome reduced his shame and guilt.
Luther wrote, “I was myself more than once driven to the very depths of despair so that I wished I had never been created. Love God? I hated him! … I lost touch with Christ the Savior and Comforter, and made of him the jailor and hangman of my poor soul.
The real goal of all this pain was not mere punishment, but rather self-discipline. And maybe even to get God to love them. Luther–and others–wanted to better themselves and believed self-punishment and deprivation would help. It didn’t.
How Do You Punish Yourself?
Spiritual self-punishment is not as popular today, nor as severe, as it once was, thank God. But still many of us practice mild forms of it, maybe subliminally. Today we may only force ourselves to watch several hours of the TV show Jersey Shore, or watch one of television evangelist Benny Hinn’s “Miracle Crusades,” or–if we have really sinned–relive any of the New England Patriot’s Super Bowl wins.
But seriously, now that I’ve probably offended you, how do you punish yourself? In the extreme, self-cutting and eating disorders are well documented problems in the modern world. These painful, heartbreaking disorders are, in part, echoes of those ancient, ubiquitous drives for perfection. And they are just as ineffective at producing perfection.
The other extreme is quitting. Maybe you have just quit trying to grow spiritually.
Many of us, however, simply grab the stick tighter. We work harder. If at first you don’t succeed try harder. That works when cleaning a floor or driving a nail. It does not work so well in matters of the soul.
Rest: The Counterintuitive Answer
What do you do when your life spins out of control? Neither a tighter grip nor giving up is the answer. Irish poet and singer-song writer Thomas Moore wrote, “It’s important to be heroic, ambitious, productive, efficient, creative, and progressive, but these qualities don’t necessarily nurture the soul. The soul has different concerns, of equal value: downtime for reflection, conversation, and reverie; beauty that is captivating and pleasuring; relatedness to the environs and to people; and any animal’s rhythm of rest and activity.”
In the Christian world we call this Sabbath. “Sabbath is that uncluttered time and space in which we can distance ourselves from our own activities enough to see what God is doing,” says Eugene Peterson.
Without planning it, my recent backpacking trip with my son, Brendan, and some close friends from Oklahoma, turned into just such a Sabbath. On the mountain there was not even a control stick much less an opportunity to grab it tighter. No cell coverage, no internet, no bad political news. Only eating and sleeping and fishing and talking and praying and stars. There was work to be sure. Pumping water, gathering firewood, cooking, the constant watch against the weather. But it is a different kind of work. Work sans worry. It is the work of letting go.
And in so doing the small plane of my life righted, pulled out of its spin, and leveled off.
Sabbath, I’ve rediscovered is powering down and letting go of the stick. But more than that, it’s releasing control of life to a bigger, more capable hand.
We’d love to hear about places and times you have found rest.