Today I celebrated my 43rd birthday. Nine years ago, when those numbers were reversed into a 34, I remember finally beginning to think of myself as a full grown adult. This year I celebrate the birthday that’s finally got me thinking that I’m gettin old. For the most part that doesn’t bother me much. Those that know me know that I’m still quite young at heart. And aging has its benefits. Now more than ever my faith is quite authentic. Doubts no longer shake me but rather add mystery to the things that I believe. My priorities are almost always Christocentric. And I’ve learned to love work as much as I love leisure. All that came at the hands of father time…

And God my Father

Still sometimes, some things hurt. For example; every morning (and whenever the weather changes abruptly), my wrists and knuckles burn and ache. The same is true of my shoulders. Of course that’s arthritis. Arthritis is an autoimmune disorder that inflames the tissue that surrounds overused joints. In my case, 25 years of disciplined practice on the guitar has deteriorated the connective cushion between the bones in my wrists and hands. My shoulders were damaged by years of heavy lifting. The deterioration caused by those activities now often results in inflammation; and inflammation causes pain.

I think most of us are at risk of the same sort of thing with regard to emotional maturation. As we age and apply spiritual disciplines to the human experience, over time, overuse of those disciplines can result in inflamed, painful emotions. For example, all of us endure petty cruelties throughout the course of our lives. But the discipline of forgiveness requires that we turn the other cheek and make peace with those that hurt us. But as we get older, a lifetime of disciplined ‘cheek turning’ can result in so much scar tissue, that even the slightest offence can inflame our emotions. Which begs a difficult question; what are we to do when practicing a spiritual discipline causes us emotional pain? To be frank, because it’s not a simple problem, there is no easy answer. But it’s a problem worth solving, and I think this is how that works.

When I play guitar my hands hurt… sometimes a great deal. If they don’t ache while I am playing, they are bound to burn and pinch the next day. Yet, never in my life has there been a single day when the fear of that pain has caused me to put down my guitar. In fact, when I first learned to play, I would practice two chords, over and over, until each finger was dented with a blood stained, string shaped callus. And when my fingers hurt I was happy, because the pain I experienced was caused by something I love, In fact, the pain wasn’t a problem, it was evidence that I was improving.

I can’t say the same about my feelings for heavy lifting. Be it furniture, or weights or anything in between, I do not love picking things up. As a result, when I am forced to carry something that’s painful to lift, I either put the thing down, or resent the whole experience. But it’s not the pain that causes me umbrage; it’s the lack of love for the thing to begin with. This means that the only cure for the pain that practicing forgiveness can cause, is love. If we practice forgiveness as a spiritual discipline, merely because Jesus told us to, we will eventually be awash with deep-seated bitterness. Christians are not called to be disciplined; we are called to be disciples. And disciples of Jesus do not love the discipline of forgiveness; they love the people they are forgiving.

Discipleship to Jesus is not something that you can be born into; it is something that you claim by repenting and pledging allegiance. When Jesus called this community together he gave its members a new way to live. He gave us a new way to deal with offenders – by forgiving them, a new way to deal with violence – by suffering, a new way to deal with money – by sharing it. He gave us new patterns of relationships between man and woman, parent and child, employer and employee, and made concrete a radical new vision of what it means to be a healthy, godly person. But we are only capable of living this way if we love (agape) our enemies as well as our friends. We cannot merely love the religious discipline of forgiveness, or church attendance, or service, or honesty, or anything other than the people that Jesus was born to love, and died to save. It is love that transforms our suffering into joy.