Letters from a Hospital Bed is a series of reflections by Jim Houston, now entering his 100th year, in which Jim seeks to capture and reflect new insights of his ever-discoverable God, revealed through his own hospitalization, for the encouragement of all care givers.
August 4, 2022
In my interactions with my son Chris, in the preparation of these letters, we have been exploring in our conversations together the ways in which the Lord seeks to heal our emotions. Chris, whose training and professional experience is quite different from my own, has been encouraging me to write much more from my own experience and lived reality and not just from the lived experience of others. As an academic, this has been challenging for me, yet I have been quite amenable to his encouragement. And so, today, I want to explore an emotion that is close to the fear that we explored last time – an emotion I have known all too well in my life - that of faintheartedness.
Faintheartedness is an expression of character, so deeply imbedded in our behaviour, that it shapes and directs our other emotions. Like narcissism, or self-love, it is not subject to simple medical intervention. We can’t just take a pill and be done with it. Yet we can be changed dramatically by our conversion to Christ, to become a new being “in Christ”, and then, faintheartedness can literally melt away with our co-operation with the Holy Spirit.
In healthy families, there is competition among siblings to quietly compete with each other, the more siblings the better! I was the eldest of three, with two younger sisters. In my own timidity, I left the intense competition with my sister Ethel and moved to Oxford. My younger sister, Louie, sadly never really found her place in contrast to her very accomplished elder sister. I have watched my own four children navigate their own birth order dynamics, each one expressing some faintheartedness in some way or another that they have, by God’s Grace each found a way to overcome. I hope that in some way, I have encouraged each to find their own uniqueness and to celebrate that. The early Fathers saw faintheartedness as a vice, indeed as a form of madness, certainly a sickness of the soul. John Cassian taught that “If the plague of vice infects the irascible disposition, it will bring forth among other things, faintheartedness. As the apostle Paul assured Timothy, “God did not give us a spirit of timidity, but a spirit of power, and of love, and of a sound mind”. That is to affirm that God created us, as healthy human beings, to have confidence in God’s help, in the Holy Spirit that Jesus in the Upper Room, defined as “the Comforter", or ‘Paracletos’, an untranslatable word, because the ‘Paracletos' is the One who provides whatever need we have, in every circumstance of life. As a vice, faintheartedness was seen by the early church as really the work of the devil, to paralyze the conscience, allowing us to become vainglorious, thinking it is our right to be paid attention to, above all others. Then, we can become hypersensitive to anything negative we think others are doing, getting angry at the slightest negative thing. As a form of childishness, it is like the paralysis of a child that has never grown up. It is a terrible state of delusion.
So many have forgotten all about Jesus speaking to all His disciples, then and now, about this amazing prayer, and in reciting the Lord’s prayer each day. Indeed, it is like giving up being a Christian at all, living in a daily dungeon of fear. In fact, it is the most tragic of all fears, forgetting all about God’s love, “which casts out all fear". It is also a fear that leads to deception as we create stories to compensate for the truth that we fear will harm, rather than set us free.
In my own life journey, I can identify with the older lady that I used to see at our church, always at the back, always withdrawn from others, afraid to engage. Her much more engaged sister brought her each week, but she had not the capacity to will that for herself, lacking, it seemed to me, the courage and will to take initiative for herself without her sister as guide. As a young academic in Oxford, I knew this paralyzing fear for myself. I knew what it was to cross over the street so as not to encounter my more confident colleague as they marched along the pavement, oblivious to my crippling faintheartedness. I had not yet yielded to the extraordinary truth of Christ’s promise that when we have faith in God, we can see mountains move! Not only are our emotions paralyzed, but our mind is also paralyzed, and our God-given imaginations for what is possible with Him is silenced. We see only in the black and white of fear. All the colour of possibility is drained away.
Most of you will have known me in a very different stage of my life. As I watched God’s faithfulness through the early days of Regent, in securing our university affiliation in particular, my timidity was slowly changed to confidence, not in myself, but in the Living God. As I reflect back, I think three things were critical for me in this journey from ‘fear to faith’. First, I chose to confront my deep-rooted anxiety by pursuing transparency and truth. Second, I was not alone and though I felt like it, others walked beside me through it all. Third, I watched God do what only God can do and bring about changes in hearts and minds that I had no idea how to achieve. These formative events and years, though I was by then in what we might call ‘middle age’, totally changed me and I became expectant that God would act in surprising and good ways. Sadly, I know many for whom the trap of faintheartedness has lasted much of a lifetime.
While there is much, too much, that would make our hearts faint, whether in the journeys of our families or in the wider events of our fragile world, our call as God’s people, is to walk alongside others and let them walk with us, to pray and build one another up, in love. My prayer for you is that where there are faint hearts, that they might be much encouraged as you risk all to expect God to do what lies beyond your imagination.
Fondly and in friendship