The scriptures are full of challenges that cut both ways — Jesus said, “Let anyone who is without sin throw the first stone,” (John 8:7), and, “Go now and leave your life of sin,” (John 8:11).
Likewise, he said, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me,” (Luke 9:23), and, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly,” (John 10:10).
None of these apparent differences are opposed to each other. Both are true and point to the same reality. We should neither condemn others nor do what we believe is wrong. We need to practice self-denial and self-fulfillment. The deep truths of the Bible are often paradoxes, truths that seem contradictory, but point to a deeper reality.
Life is often too complex to be boiled down to only yes or no. How many parents, friends and couples find themselves needing to say, “I love you and I cannot permit you to do (fill in the blank)?”
Love has boundaries. Fields have fences. Life has limits.
As we have recently begun a new year, I want to explore the paradox of discipline in relation to happiness, because this is often the time we are considering making changes in our lives. How can we obtain abundance in a life when we are restricting ourselves? How can we take on fullness of life when we at the same time put limits on what we do?
Physiologically, if we restrict our diet we know our metabolism will slow down to compensate, because the body likes to maintain its current state. This is the dieting one-two punch: Without lowering caloric intake, the body will not lose weight; but if we lower the intake, the body tends to slow down the metabolism so that our current weight can be maintained. I will not pretend to be a doctor to solve this issue, so let’s move on to life practices I can safely talk about.
At one of my previous churches, I volunteered to visit the local jail for a two-hour Bible study once a week for nearly three years. I came to it because my Bible study group wanted to do it as a project, but when I tried to set it up, the jail did not like the idea of group visitation, so I went with a partner until he had to stop.
One day after I finished the study, a new inmate mentioned to me that he thought he had a call to pastoral ministry. He confided that he had been caught when he committed a serious crime against a juvenile female. I told him I was sure God had a call on his life, but he should consider working in other areas because he needed to learn discipline.
It is true that we are all sinners. To quote the passage Billy Graham made famous, “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” (Rom. 3:23). It is also true that Jesus forgave many whom the world thought unforgivable, and that he urged them to go and sin no more.
We can say with confidence, then, that a measure of abundant life is to recognize that we must practice self-discipline. We cannot keep ourselves from doing wrong all the time, but we can practice doing right — and doing right by the way we treat others — and build in practices that help us stay on a good path.
I have found there is no substitute for being accountable. I have a group I meet with regularly that requires me to report on the state of my spiritual life. I enjoy the camaraderie, and I helped create the group, but when it comes my time to answer how my soul is, I struggle every time. The question forces me to step outside of myself and admit to the thoughts of my heart I usually keep buried. Answering the question, which causes me to struggle, ultimately causes me to rejoice.
Putting it simply: Keep in communion with God and with others. Practice self-discipline. Discover that abundant life has become your life.
Brian Sixbey is the senior pastor at First United Methodist Church Fox Hill in Hampton.