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Discipline in the Midst of Despair

Discipline in the Midst of Despair

Often it can seem our lives are falling apart in front of us.

I saw a very bizarre movie recently: Richard Linklater’s adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s paranoia-inducing novel A Scanner Darkly. In the film, Keanu Reeves plays an undercover narcotics officer whose job has destroyed his life and left him addicted to the very drug he’s trying to fight. At one point in the movie, he muses about his former life as a domesticated husband and father, juxtaposed with his current condition: living in a flophouse, coasting through life with two other addicts (Robert Downey Jr. and Woody Harrelson, appropriately enough). It’s a jarring dichotomy to see what Reeves’ life had been compared to the hopeless state he finds himself in.

It seems there are times in all of our lives when we find ourselves faced with harsh trials. Often it can seem our lives are falling apart in front of us, and the situation we find ourselves in seems hopeless in comparison to what we’ve grown accustomed to. Trials like these can make us feel that we’ve sunk beyond the point of no return. Life has definitely thrown me some of these curveballs of late. I’ve found myself in a situation that has forced me to re-examine my priorities, my future, even my most fundamental identity. I don’t mind being gut-level honest with you in saying these have been the most difficult circumstances I have ever faced.

It is in these times that we’re presented with a unique opportunity: We can decide who we really are. Allow me to explain. When things are going well, we all know who we think we are. But it’s in the midst of adversity that we’re faced with the decision to either be sucked into a downward spiral of despair and self-pity, or act with character.
The spiritual disciplines are key in this decision. At no time do we want to run from the disciplines more than when the tragedies of life come upon us—but at no time are they more crucial. The disciplines are a mooring that holds us fast to God in the middle of a raging storm. Moreover, they deepen in significance. Community becomes a network of support for our healing and restoration. Prayer becomes more steadfast and earnest than we could have imagined. Scripture comes alive as it speaks its universal truths to us in our time of need, and we share solidarity with the people in its pages who knew what it was to suffer.

The disciplines are also important in that they bring about a heartfelt experience with God at a time when our hearts are often ill-prepared to receive it. Proper emotion often follows proper actions. In times of suffering, we often don’t feel the emotional connection to God we wish we did. He feels distant, perhaps even inattentive. But the disciplines are practices we follow because they make us stronger and conform us more into Christ’s image. The happy byproduct is that we do eventually feel good. The emotional experience with God follows when we are faithful to seek Him. And—here’s the hard part—even if the emotional experience never comes, the disciplines are still vital to our lives. We must practice these disciplines because it is the right thing to do.

The right thing to do is seldom the easy thing to do. It will always be easier to take the path of least resistance and let our character fall by the wayside when we are faced with hardship. The disciplines don’t come naturally for anybody. But without the foundation they provide, we would find ourselves becoming people we never wanted to be. The path of least resistance almost always ends in destruction. The disciplines may be a harder road to walk, but they lead to a healthier outcome.

The secret, of course, to living out the spiritual disciplines in trying circumstances is living them out when all is well. Make the disciplines a part of the fabric of your day-to-day life. Make them a part of your community’s DNA. Then, when tragedy comes your way, you will have an anchor when everything around you seems to be in chaos.

Oh, and if Robert Downey Jr. ever wants to share a house with you, my advice would be to gently tell him no.

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