While I think the strategy of Toy Jail has been much more effective at tilling the heart - our hearts as well as our kids' hearts - we also use this strategy to teach another important lesson. We chose to make Sunday our day of release for captured toys because we want Sundays to be a day our kids look forward to and celebrate. We want Sunday to be a day of joy. While discipline is vital for us all, discipline corrects unto a particular end. Discipline without an end in mind isn't really discipline, it's just punishment. It's simply punitive. Rather than using Toy Jail as a mere punitive measure, we wanted it to be a reminder of our ultimate end - the restoration of all things and our unity in community as we live perfectly in the Kingdom of God. When our kids have their toys taken away during the week, there is a recognition that the world - and especially our hearts - are not as they should be. But when their toys are restored, the kids are reminded that brokenness will one day be fixed.
Ending Toy Jail on Sundays adds to the long list of things we do to make Sundays special. We only indulge on chocolate cereal Sunday mornings (which also helps us to avoid fights about being late to church because breakfast took too long). Whoever had the bottom bunk for the last week now gets the top bunk. Our screen-time allotment for the week resets. Catalina and I open a bottle of wine. If we're on some sort of diet, we generally put it to the side on Sundays. If we ever have desserts, we generally have them on Sundays. We don't do work on Sundays and we try to use our time to focus on family. We do a lot to make Sundays the day we all look forward to. It's like a Jubilee Year. We let the land lay fallow, debts are forgiven, and we celebrate. All of these things go towards not only making Sundays anticipated, but it reminds us of the joy and rest God wants for us. It reminds us about why God instituted the Sabbath in the first place. We enjoy God, enjoy his blessings, rest in him, and trust in his future provisions. The Sabbath is a taste of God's goodness and a foretaste of the fulfillment of his promised restoration, the eternal Sabbath.
It's funny how while teaching truths to your children, you must often first learn the truths for yourself. Early in our married life we were content simply attempting to adhere to the 9 commandments of God rather than the 10, until children came along. Our children helped us to recognize how out of focus our own lives had become, and how we had put to the side notions of Sabbath rest God intended for our good. After children, we wanted them to learn to rest in God and to look to him for fulfillment, but that meant we had to model such a thing ourselves. Until we had kids, our lives looked just like they always had. They were lives that remained untransformed by God's teaching on rest. We were caught up in the rat race of life, pumping time, money, and effort into spinning the wheel. Our own participation in the system of materialism was all our kids would need in order to learn where they should themselves place their trust. But we didn't want that for our kids. We knew that wouldn't satisfy. We wanted our children to have godly desires. We wanted their ultimate desire to be the Kingdom of God.
That's really where the problem lies, isn't it? Our desires. We're driven by them. While our family's bent had been towards pursuing the desire of materialism, other's may be bent towards being fulfilled socially, sexually, or in some other way. Desires, along with our interpretation of where their fulfillment lies, push and pull us towards different ends. The reason we have such a hard time resting in God and enjoying his Sabbath is because we believe that following his prescriptions will actually prevent us from fulfilling our deepest desires. Our restlessness betrays our true belief that our own effort and pursuits are our only hope in having our desires fulfilled. We all have so many competing desires, to only desire the Kingdom seems like an impossible task. But is a desire to be fed, clothed, housed, loved, happy, comfortable, and accepted contrary to desiring the Kingdom? Or are those sorts of desires all components of what the Kingdom will entail? About a year ago I came across a perplexing but insightful idea about desires from Saint Gregory of Nyssa. In his book "On the Soul and the Resurrection," he says the following,
If then, the soul is purified of every vice...then, there will be no longer need of the impulse of Desire to lead the way to the Beautiful. Whoever passes his time in darkness, he it is who will be under the influence of a desire for the light; but whenever he comes into the light, then enjoyment takes the place of desire, and the power to enjoy renders desire useless and out of date. It will therefore be no detriment to our participation in the Good, that the soul should be free from such emotions, and turning back upon herself should know herself accurately what her actual nature is, and should behold the Original Beauty reflected in the mirror and in the figure of her own beauty
While desires may be a sign that the world is not as it should be, they aren't necessarily bad in and of themselves. Desires are often indicators of God's original intent. We desire food because God made our bodies to require nourishment. We desire water because God made our bodies to require hydration. We desire dialogue with others because God made us to be social beings. We desire sex because God created us to have intimacy and bear offspring. Certainly desires can be manipulated and misplaced, but they are generally good indicators of who we were created to be, and how the world was meant to be. These appropriate desires are meant to be fulfilled.
Unfortunately, humanity has done a wonderful job of mucking up our pursuit of fulfillment. In the first place, we have stumbled in a like manner to those ancients we scoffingly critique as ignorant barbarians. The ancients turned rivers, trees, and celestial bodies - these created, inanimate, mechanistic endities - into deities they worshipped. That admittedly sounds absurd to our modern ears. Yet we moderns do the same thing with desires. We worshipers of humanity have turned human desire - a created function or feeling - into something we must worship, bow down to, and follow religiously. If one is a materialist, this problem is even worse, as desires much more closely resemble rivers, trees, and celestial bodies in their mechanistic trajectories. Most of us, rather than recognizing desires as general indicators of the ultimate, fulfilled good, have turned each person's desires into their own good pursuits - their own ultimate ends. Rather than a desire for sex guiding us to discover that a loving, monogamous relationship is good, we encourage worshipping the gods of polyamory, promiscuity, and the likes. Rather than a desire for financial provision guiding us to a moderate lifestyle, we worship the gods of accrued wealth, selfishness, work, security, and pragmatism. We not only worship these gods - they become our identity. We are slaves of desire who increasingly become conformed to the image of that which our urgings dictate. Our desires have run amuck.
C.S. Lewis, in his book "Mere Christianity," delves a little into the irrationality and despicability of where our desires often lead us in our sinful state. I think his insight sheds some light on the situation at hand. Lewis says,
You can get a large audience together for a strip-tease act—that is, to watch a girl undress on the stage. Now suppose you came to a country where you could fill a theatre by simply bringing a covered plate on to the stage and then slowly lifting the cover so as to let every one see, just before the lights went out, that it contained a mutton chop or a bit of bacon, would you not think that in that country something had gone wrong with the appetite for food? And would not anyone who had grown up in a different world think there was something equally queer about the state of the sex instinct among us?
Unfortunately, like the world, we Christians pursue the same fleeting vanity of desires. How strange it is for us to look on the prospect of a restored Kingdom - a desire steeped in a yearning for the ultimate good - yet so infrequently seek to experience its fulfillment as was intended. How exactly are we to experience this Kingdom? By living it out. Matthew 5-6 give us some explicit ideas as to what this looks like, as Jesus preaches the Sermon on the Mount, calls believers to be salt and light, and then tells them how to live in the Kingdom. We experience the Kingdom when we forego not only murder, but hatred as well. We experience the Kingdom when we forego not only adultery, but lust. We experience the Kingdom when we speak truth and when we love everyone - even our enemies. We experience the Kingdom of God when we generously give to others, when we fast, and when we pray without seeking recognition. We experience the Kingdom of God as we seek to live our lives in right relationship to others, and in right relationship to God.
We Western Christians, however, are so coddled and conditioned that rarely do we tangibly feel the joy of a Kingdom undergoing restoration. What do we need restored? We have all good things and all fulfillment at our fingertips! Rather than giving generously, we horde, accumulate, and indulge for ourselves. What is capital and material for, anyway? Rather than love enemies, we hold grudges against them and seek their harm. Isn’t that why litigation and social media exist? If I don't exact justice, then who will? Like the depraved persons at Lewis's strip-tease, we "ooh" and "aah" over the Kingdom Christ brought, yet fail to seek the fulfillment of this Kingdom desire in appropriate ways. We use the Bible and religion to accomplish and justify our wayward desires rather than use our appropriate desire for a restored Kingdom to guide our actions and begin to experience true fulfillment even now, in the Kingdom Christ established and currently rules over.
I think it is for this reason that difficulties, illnesses, deaths of loved ones, wars, and the like tend to bring people closer to God. Such events are the best tools to expose our wayward desires as frauds. The desire to accrue wealth may seem legitimate in our society, but when wealth is stripped, so is it's facade of fulfillment. The same goes with any of our other desires we make ultimate. But the good news is that we can evaluate our desires and refine them. We can implement practices which help us to truly seek and experience the Kingdom of God. I have already explained how my family has begun to do this through tradition, as we remind ourselves of certain truths each week, looking forward to Sunday. We also try to seek the Kingdom through the way we give, through the way we love those who have offended us, etc. The leadership at our church has also helped us to grow in this area, as they fast before our monthly communion. We have come to recognize the importance of purposefully implementing practices which remind us of our want and imperfection here - practices which amplify our desires - while focusing us on the restored Kingdom where our relationships with God and others are central. We cause our desires and yearnings to grow through giving, fasting, and forgiving enemies, but we simultaneously kill the lie that wealth, food, and self-justice are the ends which will fulfill these desires. We seek to only fulfill our desires in ways which point us to the true source of fulfillment, God. Daily we fail to seek the Kingdom, yet through the lessons God is teaching us, he keeps the vision ever before us. And as our inability, failure, and humiliation grow, so does our desire for ultimate restoration.
While we have put into practice a number of Kingdom reminders over the past few years, fasting before communion is the newest practice for me. Admittedly, I am a lover of food who finds it difficult to fast. But this past year, as I was going through a New Testament survey class put on by an Orthodox priest, I learned about their practice of fasting. As the Orthodox take communion each Sunday, they fast the full day prior to communion, having the Eucharist be the first morsel of sustenance to touch their lips when they break their fast. In this way, not only does the Eucharist figuratively commemorate Christ’s work, but its meaning is made more tangible to the practitioner as they experience joy, fulfillment, and nourishment in a way they wouldn’t otherwise experience apart from fasting. The beauty of this practice, along with the encouragement of our church leadership, have lead me to discover the joy that lies in this practice. This self-infliction of pain, or this denial of pleasure, is a way in which I remind my body that it is imperfect and that this world can only provide momentary fulfillment. Having my fast broken with the Eucharist, in the presence of the church, fulfills my desire to taste food, and at the same time, through the symbol and real presence of Christ, reminds me that true fulfillment comes only through God. Jesus is the bread of life. This Eucharist is intended to be a tangible experience of a spiritual reality now, brought about by a past work, providing a future hope. All too often the Eucharist has been only a past event for me, merely commemorative. It has mostly been a ritual, not an experience. But that is beginning to change as I reflect on spiritual disciplines, joy, and the work of Christ.
True Christianity imposes God onto us. Jesus refuses to allow us to shape God into our own image. That's why we find so many of Christ's commands and ideas of spiritual discipline repulsive or metaphoric. They would require us to comport to God. Stanley Haurwas said that sentimentality, not atheism, is the biggest threat to Christianity. I think he was right. While the atheist may believe that God does not exist at all, the sentimentalist believes that it is his God which exists - the god in his own image and of his own making. Yet Jesus undermines such idolatry when he tells us to be perfect as God is perfect, and immediately follows that statement up by detailing a number of spiritual disciplines (giving, prayer, fasting, and faith). I used to think that spiritual disciplines were just empty and rote practices adhered to by legalists. Jesus seemed to think that too, because as he described true spiritual disciplines, he went well beyond the practice which easily propped up human ego and image, instead emphasizing the heart. It is unfortunate that the goal of many practitioners who implement spiritual disciplines is humanistic. Many use spiritual disciplines to prove that they can obtain something - usually God’s favor, self-control, a blessed life, etc. But the true practice of spiritual disciplines - emptying oneself and foregoing the vapid pleasures of life - are not about overcoming. They are about being overcome. Overcome by the realization that we are frail and finite beings. The realization that we lack willpower. The realization that the world outside ourselves is much bigger than the one we’ve created in which we make ourselves the center. True spiritual disciplines are not practiced by atheists or Christian sentimentalists. They're practiced by Christian realists - those who live in and look forward to the completion of the Kingdom of God.
To most, it seems like the incarceration of joy - the stymying of fulfilled desires through spiritual disciplines - would lead to depression and a poor view on life. To many, it likely seems overly ascetic. That might be true, were we reliable at appropriately defining what true joys are. But as the toys in our house are jailed each week, as the sweets and wine are shelved until the Sabbath, as the Eucharist actually nourishes our deprived bodies and souls after a fast, and as we desperately try (and usually fail) to give to others while maintaining a right heart - I am reminded of what true joy really is. I have come to realize that all along it hasn't been desires which are wrong. How strange would it be not to have desires in an imperfect world? No. Instead, it's been my joys which have been misplaced. I have desires, and these desires are good. They are indicators that the world is not as it should be, and that something better exists. But all too often I seek to fulfill those desires in the wrong places. My body is learning that food doesn't ultimately satisfy. My materialistic side is learning that more money in the bank doesn't really make me more secure. Since my family has begun to increase our desires and withhold the fulfillment of our joys, I have found that my joy is ironically more full than it ever was. Perhaps that's because through spiritual disciplines, I'm not really putting my joy in jail, but rather God is finally teaching me how to set true joy free.