The Text Says:
Today’s scripture passage is the opening of Paul’s second epistle to Timothy, which characteristically involves a greeting, thanksgiving, and an appeal. He points out how faith is passed down from one generation to another. Timothy was taught Christianity by his mother Eunice and his grandmother Lois. In his appeal for courage and endurance, his concern is that Timothy would overcome his fear, with “the spirit of love and power and a sound mind.” It might seem odd to some to juxtapose love with power and clear thinking. But it serves as a useful reminder that love need not be spineless or undisciplined. It is clear that Paul believed faith in God is the antidote to fear. And that the gift of God’s spirit is not ecstatic emotion, but makes available to us the resources to meet life effectively, with practical helpfulness and healthy mindedness.
The Preacher Says:
So many irrational things are happening today at an alarming rate that serve as painful reminders of our capacity for barbaric behavior. Violence so deranged, the only plausible explanation is: mental illness! Whether it’s genetic flaws or drugs or plain ol’ meanness, the most sensible thing I’ve heard about coping with the pressures of living today, is a renewed emphasis on mental health.
For those who still respect the scriptures there is this hopeful New Testament word: “For God hath not given us the spirit of fear, but of power and love and a sound mind.” A sound mind! Now that’s something valuable to which our religion can contribute! Even though it dates back to the First century, it indicates there’s never been a time when mental health is easy. Our modern civilization is so complicated that the strain is just too much for some. I suspect it’s more of an excuse than a reason. But either way, we’re still left with the insanity of unprovoked deadly outbursts and senseless deaths, that practicing our faith might’ve prevented.
There’s another side to this. If our times have in many ways increased the difficulties of healthy-mindedness, in other ways it has decreased them; especially from a historical perspective. Thanks to progress, we’re free from the superstitions that haunted our forebears, the mystery of the plagues, the demented dread of demons, the horrifying fear of hell, or the terror of torture for heresy. As hard as it seems to keep our sanity today, never in history has it been easier to develop a sound mind.
So why all the crazy behavior? Poor Self-image? Publicity? Power? Instant fame? Probably all of that and then some. But St. Paul’s confidence in Christianity’s contribution to healthy-mindedness is amazing, when you consider the things he endured for his faith. But none of that made him a nut! He faced constant disappointment: the limitations of physical health. He was brutally beaten in public by his opponents. He knew poverty; long periods of jail-time; and finally, ended up as a martyr in Rome, when his greatest desire was to take the gospel to Spain.
But through all that, and in spite of it, he somehow kept a sound mind and high morale, so that his last word was one of an unembittered soul: “I have fought a good fight, I finished my course, I kept the faith!” What an undefeatable spirit! Something gave him “the power to see it through.” Might not his words to Timothy also apply to us? “God has not given us a spirit of fear but of power and love and a sound mind.”
I guess it’s unusual to hear about sanity from the pulpit. We expect to hear about morality, like “sin” and “righteousness.” Granted those are good “preaching” words. And as mean as we are, they have a long future ahead of them. But they cloud the issue. Take the ambiguity of pride for instance. When everything is “I, me, myself” is pride a sin? Or is a conceited egotist, infected with an unbalanced mental condition? Somebody suffering from too much You Tube and not enough church?
Albert Einstein was held in scientific opinion as an equal among immortals like Newton and Galileo. How did that affect him? In his own words: “Many times I realize how my own achievements are built upon the labors of others, both living and dead, and how I long to give in return as much as I’ve received.” Whew! Those are the words of a healthy man! To give back in return? His heart was as big as his mind!
When Jesus spoke of himself, it was: “The good shepherd; the great physician.” He saw himself as a healer, “They that are whole need no physician, but they that are sick.” Body, mind, and spirit. If our religion doesn’t do something for our character then it isn’t worth having. Perhaps the most feared disease today is Alzheimer’s, the loss of the mind. St. Paul believed our faith enhances our mental health.
Let’s look at it. When he mentioned “a spirit of power,” he’s not referring to calculating, political force, but inner spiritual power. Having a healthy mind provides us with the interior resources to meet life’s ambushes that can strike anybody at any time. The one thing that makes belief in God hardest to come by is when cruel things happen to innocent ones. Nobody has ever laid that one to rest. When life pounds us to pieces, it kicks up “a spirit of fear,” and feelings of inadequacy to stand up to life. People respond to their inadequacies in several ways. Some try to boast their way around them. Other attempt to cover-up their feelings of inferiority. Some blame others for their deficiency, especially those who make them look bad. Some revert to day-dreaming themselves into an illusory world of make-believe. The most pathetic go on a shooting binge that ends in self-destruction, taking as many as they can with them.
The Apostle’s remedy is spiritual power, inner resources like prayer and possibility-thinking. That can be tapped, even in prison when he said: “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” Paul believed in self-sufficiency and would have no part of victimhood! His religion made his only dependency a healthy one, on God. We too come to church to pray. How important is having a time when we open our lives to Divine resources, so we can experience what the prophet said: “They that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength?” Who doesn’t need to “renew their strength?” The church offers power that is renewable! If you have a little of it, you can deepen your reservoir. If you have none of it, then you can meet the conditions to get it. For life being what it is and us being what we are, you’re gonna run into something bigger than you are sooner or later. Then what?
Paul continues: “God hasn’t given us a spirit of fear, but of power, and love.” He advised the church at Corinth: “Make love your aim” (14:1). That, more than anything is what leads to a sound mind. It is the antidote for the rampages over the hand life has dealt us. It’s not “make bitterness your aim.” That only leads to getting even; the ugliest sin. Lesser souls lash out in vengeance. Somebody’s gotta pay for my misery! Now that’s a mental case! Just not a crime.
If ever any man deserved to be bitter it was the Christ on Calvary. But life’s unfairness only made him better. Suspended between two thieves, that’s life: the best and the worst nailed together, with no justice anywhere in sight. Truth on the scaffold; wrong on the throne. Yet it was that “old rugged cross” that swayed the future, with God holding the bandages over in the shadows, keeping watch over it all. When all God does is “hold our bandages,” how easy to walk thru life accumulating stings.
Nothing contributes more to an unsound mind. And there stands Paul and Jesus, two of the most unembittered souls who ever lived. How could they continue to be magnanimous, full of goodwill, in spite of the injustice? That comes from a sound mind. Both believed the church could augment it. And this church is blessed with an admirable record in that regard: having been around going on 400 years, attempting the same. I like being a part of that! It is an uncontested truth: bitterness imprisons life; love releases it. Bitterness paralyzes the spirit; love empowers it. Bitterness sours life; love makes life worth living. Bitterness sickens the soul; love heals it. Anybody who’s lived awhile knows that’s so.
Finally Paul says: “God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power, and love and a sound mind.” The Gospel of John says Jesus made his enemies angry because he “made a whole man healthy” (7:23). The word is the same as “hygiene.” Jesus had a healthy mind that could blend the opposites of a serpent and a dove. Sharp-minded, warm-hearted. That is the makings of a sound mind that won’t be going loony on somebody!
Religion in the extreme can push folks over the edge. Control freaks, out of control, characterized by cynicism, disillusionment, trapped, guilty, despairing. Allergic to sacrifice. All are diseases of the mind. And they either have no time or too much time for the church. Imagine there’s no heaven! That makes a burlesque of reality. Above us only sky! Nothing in life to live by; no meaning in the universe to live for. And no religion too! Even though it is the Christian faith that offers purpose and hope. I don’t see how a soul can get a sound mind till it develops a religious faith. Whole persons are those who avoid aimlessness, who make it their aim to leave the world better than it found it.
You may be interested to know it has been substantiated by scientific studies that meaningful church involvement has been shown to improve mental health, that makes individuals more law abiding and productive and less destructive. Improved mental health benefits individuals and directly aids the communities where they live. Well boy hidy! Where’ve they been? It only took science two thousand years to catch- up with the Bible! (http://erlc.com/article/some‑positive‑benefits‑churches‑bring‑to‑communities/).
Look at what we’ve done to God’s creation today. If we’re to have any semblance of a world worth living in tomorrow; if our homes are worth living in, our schools worth attending, if, out of the chaos comes a more decent world for those who come after us, who will build that better day? It’ll be somebody with a sound mind! I know who it won’t be — the skeptics, or the resentful, discouraged fatalists. Or the victimized or the vindictive, power-hungry reprobates who think only of themselves. Never! If the world survives another century, it will fall to those of a sound mind to make it happen.
I have lived long enough now to have seen many appalling tragedies that befall people. As well as some of my own. Some caused by others; most self-inflicted; some by nature. Or just being at the wrong place at the wrong time. The luck of the draw. But I’ve also seen how deeply indebted we should be to the gift of religious faith, even if somebody has only a little of it by indirect contagion. These are the ones who developed the blessing of mental health; “wise as serpents; harmless as doves.”
We thank Thee Lord for all who contribute, even in the smallest ways, to making this world a more fit place to live, because so many are unfit to live with. Too many things happen that horrify us but no longer shock us because of the frequency. Especially we remember those who weary of the unending struggle and are tempted to give up. Forgive our eagerness to take the shortcuts that often lead to detours. For craving easy answers to complexity; our unhealthy desire for instant everything: from coffee to credit, to news, connections — all while inwardly longing for instant resolution to the ills that plague us and our world.
Renew our strength in this hour, that we may “mount up on eagle’s wings, to walk and not be weary, to run and not faint.” Grant us the spiritual resources that enable us to stand up to life; to be bigger than what happens to us, to get ourselves off our hands, so we can be of help to others less fortunate.
Amidst all the fierce changes of our world, Thou art the “same yesterday, today, and forever.” Abide with us, above the changes and chances of our hurrying years. Be near to all who need Thee as we all attempt to adjust to the unfamiliar invasions in our lives, and let the good news of Christ provide direction and hope. Bless us with the poise of our Lord in his most trying time, and the persistence of St. Paul, that leads to “the peace of God, which passes all understanding.” Through Christ our Lord.