Working in a church means you have two times a year when you get to use a “naughty” word: preaching on Balaam and his ass (donkey) and at Christmas when at least two songs talk about asses being at the manger. Of course, I am a children’s minister, and so I have to chuckle a little inside as my inner 5-year-old finds this hysterical.
I read this passage a week or so ago and was reminded of the absolute absurdity of the whole ordeal. Balaam is hired out by a king named Balak to do some cursing of his own – against the Israelites, no less. He consults God and receives a stern rebuke not to go with the king’s men and after a couple more asks (and a substantial raise) Balaam agrees to go with the men. God, however, does the thing my parents used to do when they were sick of me asking about doing something, replying, “Fine… Just do it…” Implied in that statement is the dire warning of a parent who foresees danger, but is willing to let a child learn a harsh lesson.
So Balaam is riding down the road and three times his ass refuses to cooperate, veering off the road, crushing his leg against a wall, and finally stopping. Balaam absolutely beat that donkey senseless, which ironically cued God to allow the donkey enough sense to talk and ask, “Why are you beating me? Do I normally do this kind of thing?” Balaam responds curtly, but his outlook changes, literally, when God reveals the heavenly guardian with the gigantic sword barring Balaam’s path. The guardian then reminds Balaam to say nothing except what God would give him to say. The sword reminding us that God will protect His people.
So, isn’t the donkey the good guy in this story? Well, yes, but I’m talking about another ass. See, Francis of Assisi coined a lovely phrase when he referred to his own body as “brother ass.” In a sense, he understood that there were two dueling natures in us, the natural and supernatural, the sinful and the godly. St. Francis saw something of what Paul was getting at when Paul described beating his body into submission as if training for the Olympics – self-discipline would lead to a more godly life.
I learned recently that the male body is an odd thing. For around 3-6 weeks after receiving the announcement, “I’m pregnant,” from his partner, a man’s body begins to flood his system with the hormone cortisol. Cortisol is the “stress” hormone that triggers a human’s “fight-or-flight” response. So at the same moment a man is feeling pride, excitement, and joyful expectation, the man’s body reacts by screaming “Get out of there or punch something!”
And honestly, this is the Christian life. Jesus is continually calling and leading us closer to God, into becoming more like Christ,and therefore more like ourselves. At that same time, our sinful nature is screaming, “Get out or attack someone!” And all at once we realize that we have become the proud owner of an uncooperative ass.
And so, like Paul, St. Francis, and many others, we begin to apply discipline to our lives to bring brother ass into line with God’s new life and our baptismal vows. We work out our faith with fear and trembling, mostly because trying to move an uncooperative animal takes a lot of coaxing, pushing, muscle, and exertion. (Ever tried to lift something too heavy and find yourself shaking like a destabilized washing machine?)
So if you find yourself confused about how difficult following Jesus is, find comfort in the fact that everyone else is thinking the same thing. We are all on the same road, with similar struggles, trying to find the best way and disciplines in order to bring ourselves into alignment with God and His way of living. And Jesus sympathizes with that. Remember, he lived among us for a while, (and technically still does) and watched friends make fools of themselves, felt betrayal, watched as people stumbled and picked themselves back up again. God is rooting for us. He’s not like a spectator at a hockey match or a NASCAR event, hoping for a disaster. He’s a father, watching his child perform a balancing act, tensely hoping that she will make it all the way across this time without falling. And if she does, running over and picking her up.
How do you handle self-discipline in your own life? How do you model bringing yourself under Christ’s way of living? What habits are you developing in your children that will allow them to better evaluate and correct their lives?