January 29, 2013

To Do Hard Things

And what does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God.  - Micah 6:8
There are goals I want to accomplish in my life, and to achieve them, I need to exercise discipline and work hard.  Day after day, year after year, those things go undone -- from getting fit or finishing my novel to cleaning out the garage or learning to grow my own vegetables.

The pattern that describes my failure is consistent.  First, I get motivated, either by hope or by despair:  You can do it!  Or, will you ever do it?  Then I dive in.  My desk is soon piled with books on weight training or character development or getting organized or composting.  Before too long I become bored with it, or tired. It's new, so it's hard.  I want the destination without the trials of the journey.

The way I discipline -- or fail to discipline -- myself is exactly the same as the way I discipline -- or fail to discipline -- my kids.  I cannot teach what I do not know.

Every word of advice on disciplining children begins with the admonition to be consistent.  I am not, not with my kids, not with myself.  I vacillate between extremes of justice and mercy.

There is a dynamic between them, justice and mercy -- the angry, jealous God and the God of forgiveness and loving-kindness.  Mercy softens justice.  Justice keeps mercy honest.  Justice provides boundaries, which keep me and others safe.  Mercy keeps the bounds of justice from becoming a prison.

Justice looks like anger.  It strives to be righteous anger, but -- careful! -- or it will spill over into judgment and condemnation.  Mercy looks like love, but, untempered, it becomes coddling pity.

Too much mercy or too much justice, and I turn you or myself into an object.  Mercy can make me an object of pity; justice, of condemnation.  I condemn myself and feel sorry for myself, and those movements become a self-perpetuating cycle.  It's a way of keeping me stuck, spinning my wheels.  I can't move forward toward a goal.  I can't do hard things if judgment is the goad and pity the balm for the wound it inflicts.

But justice and mercy, rightly balanced, could become the drive-train for accomplishing the goals I want to achieve.

I wonder if the fulcrum of balance is in walking "humbly with your God."  Is it not pride that unsteadies the wheel and drives me into the ground instead of forward?  I want to be or to do right, and I want you to, not because it's right, but because it looks good.  My kids will have better grades.  I'll be a size 8.  The driver, the one who wields the goad, isn't setting the goal out of a love of righteousness, but out of pride.

And what about mercy?  Pity is the reaction to the goad.  Overreaction begets overreaction.  Now on the other side, I show you excessive mercy as a way of elevating myself.  If I am your judge, I am lording over you.  Likewise, if I have the power to pardon you, to remove your natural burden of responsibility, I must be superior to you.  I am the subject, and you are the object.  In some sense, I'm playing god.

Justice and mercy held in creative tension, respects "you" as subject.  You retain your autonomy.  I trust you to act, even as I hold you accountable and hold you in love.  Even when "you" are me.

I am ready to become the subject of my own life, not the author-god, not the audience, but the protagonist, the actor.  I want to do the hard things.

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