It’s funny to me how the good cheer of Christmas turns into the festering resentment of winter.
Everyone is irritable. On my neighborhood board, a bunch of commenters are castigating the state Department of Transportation for not clearing ice from the main roads – never mind that it’s too cold for salt to work, and that there’s not much plows can do about ice anyway. Half my students have the flu or the sort of lingering cough that makes me want to douse everything they touch in hand sanitizer. Everything is brown and dead. The groundhog promised us six more weeks of cold and snow. And the small talk everywhere I go consists of a weary, “Getting through the winter okay?”
I won’t lie and say I’m above it. Winter wreaks havoc on my school schedule and my ability to get to work. My car has long disappeared beneath caked-on layers of road salt. I know folks whose heating bills are on the way up and up and up. My husband practically had to ski to work last week.
These, I think, are the moments where Christian discipline is required.
I all too often have a tendency to relate “discipline” to punishment: to think of it as the thing that happens to you after you do something bad. And it can be. But “discipline” can also refer to the act of training oneself, a controlling of one’s own behavior. For me, especially in winter, Christian discipline becomes the fine art of training myself to behave and think in godly ways when everything about me wants to do everything to the contrary.
In winter, I train myself to be grateful in circumstances where I do not want to thank God for much of anything.
In winter, I train myself to be patient when what I really want is to get on with whatever the snow is keeping me from doing.
In winter, I train myself to be joyful in Christ without depending on external stimuli and happy causes to do it, finding that deep well of gladness in God alone.
In winter, I train myself to stop and pay attention and find beauty and evidence of God in the things around me when all my eye sees are things that are dead and brown.
In winter, I train myself to remember that the relationship with God is the reward in and of itself, and that the everything-else I am wanting and waiting-for is supplemental and complimentary to that.
Winter is a wonderful time for these practices because winter is the season of stripping-away. In the aftermath of Christmas, where all our joy is fueled by spectacle and reward and wonderful, happy things, winter is the testing season. It is not a time when growth is going to be handed to you or when it is going to come naturally or spontaneously. Winter is the time when growth is earned, sought, developed.
So this season, bare and bleak as it is, can be a blessing in its own way. I wrote the other day in my prayer journal that I felt as though I was in a time of “struggle-growth”: the kind of spiritual growth that does not come with effervescent natural ease, but the kind that feels like forging through thorny thickets with bare hands.
So if you’re in the middle of winter yourself – either literal or metaphorical – then perhaps you’re in a season of discipline, too. Maybe the path is there in front of you, but grown over with brambles. It’s time to turn inward, to start cultivating with determination and stubbornness the truths of God in your own life.
There is growth and green and color and light and life ahead. This is our time of preparation for it.