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Toward Wholeness Blog

On Receiving Difficulties well - the gift of Hormesis

"Consider it pure joy when you encounter various trials... " James 1

"...we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint..." Romans 5

"For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory..."

II Corinthians 4:17

Though I’m not a zealot or utterly devoted follower, I confess to you that I’m a Wim Hoff practitioner. He’s the Dutch guy a few years younger than me who teaches people to say “welcome cold” as they plunge into ice baths or “enjoy” cold showers. I’ve taken his basic class on breathing and cold showers and have been doing both for more than a year. I take a cold shower at least 29 days out of 30 and about half the summer days I’m at home I make sure to take a plunge in a cold mountain stream filled with snow melt.

The gains have been physical, certainly. Lower resting heart rate and a greater capacity to deal with stress are two positive changes but there are other benefits of even greater significance. Consistent cold showers have changed my posture towards all manner of suffering, a shift which has spiritual values as well. It’s these lessons I’d like to share with you, so please read on. Even if you only choose comfy hot showers in your future, these lessons apply to you too!

Make no mistake - short of soaking in a hot tub to the point of overheating, or working outside in most places in either the United States or Europe this summer, there’s no way for the initial shock of cold water to be pleasant. Your body is catapulted outside its comfort zone and creates a massive “What are you doing to us?” stress response; increased blood pressure; cortisol and adrenaline pouring into your system and an instinctive deep breath. (The curious among you can learn more about what happens via a cold shower here).

With a proper mindset though, and with experience, you learn to welcome the cold, even though it's still uncomfortable. When I began this journey I’d literally say “welcome cold” as I stepped into the water but by now I have a little prayer song I sing. Either way, the reality is that over time you learn to literally welcome cold as a gift into your life because you’ve come to experience its transformative power: lower resting pulse, lower baseline blood pressure, deeper sleep. I’m no doctor, and no doubt results do vary, but for me, the cold shower or cold plunge has been helpful physiologically. That help, though, is just the tip of the iceberg (pun intended). The real value is how it's changed my attitude toward suffering, aligning it more with how Christ invites us to view suffering: a gift that transforms!

One of the more famous verses in the Bible comes from James, who writes that we should, “…consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.” A similar famous saying was plastered on walls in the gyms of my youth: “No Pain No Gain.” There’s a sense in which both of these are saying the same two things:

Suffering, responded to properly, produces something good! “Hormesis” is a biological principle/thesis which demonstrates that something bad, in the right dose, while still stressful to a body, ultimately produces positive benefits. This is the ice bath. This is fasting. This is your 30 minute run, or cross fit workout, or kettlebell session. All these push your system out of its own stable and comfortable place. We adapt. When it's over we’ve come out stronger physically and often in other ways too.

What James the Apostle is saying when he declares trials should be welcomed as "pure joy" is that hormesis can also happen via the traffic jam, the meeting that feels like you’re living in an episode of “The Office,” the car that won’t start, the refrigerator that breaks, the overdraft, the layoff notice, the betrayal. There’s a long list of challenges/annoyances, and we’re invited to rejoice, not for the annoyance, but for the qualities that are produced in us as a result of the annoyance.

“Fine,” you say, “but what about the Ukrainian mom who looses her entire family, or the widow left alone to raise three small children, or the victim of abuse? What about fires and tornadoes that destroy a lifetime of saving, accumulation, and memories? What about Auschwitz? Don’t give me this pile of rubbish about ‘welcoming trails’ in the face of real suffering.”

I won’t. What’s offered here isn’t pastoral advice for those in the midst profound loss and injustice. People walking such roads need your listening ears, and perhaps permission to lament and be angry at God, not a primer on the value of suffering. God believes in lament, sorrow, tears, and grief, as the Psalms, Job, Ezekiel, and the life of Jesus himself testify. There’s some fist-shaking toward the heavens going on, and that’s OK, God can take it. Lament is highly under-rated in some sugar-coated evangelical circles. I’ve been with people who didn’t say nice things when they just stepped in cold water, let alone real suffering.

Lament, though, doesn’t negate the principle, and this is part of the gospel’s magic; what makes it good news indeed. Besides James, Paul the Apostle also says that our “…momentary light afflictions are producing in us a weight of eternal glory.” He’s not saying that the shock and pain of suffering feel good. He’s no masochist. He’s a radical optimist who believes in hormesis and so has confidence that whatever comes our way can contribute to our own upward evolution so that, no matter the circumstance, we have the opportunity to ultimately more clearly display the mercy, grace, joy, hope, and peace of Christ precisely because we went through the trial. God uses every situation to move us along on our journey toward maturity, or wants to.

Such movement, though, requires our participation. It requires belief in a couple of things:

We need to believe that God is still real and loving and with us, in spite of evidence tempting us to believe otherwise. I say this because, unlike the cold shower I take every morning, lots of the suffering we experience in life isn’t optional. We’re painted into a corner and there we are. No way out. We might even find ourselves there precisely because we sought to take the high road, to do the right thing. You say "no" to inappropriate sexual advances and find yourself accused of attempted rape (Joseph in the Bible). You do the king a favor and he becomes jealous of you and tries to kill you. (David in the Bible). You raise a man from the dead as a sign of your capacity to bring life where there was none, and the religious establishment is so threatened that they arrest you, convict you of blasphemy and treason, and you're hanging on a cross within a week (Jesus in the Bible).

“And God’s still good?” Yes, because as Paul said, what’s being created in us through these passing trials has eternal value. The capacity of Christ’s eternal spirit which dwells in you will find greater capacity for expression precisely because we’ve walked through the cold, the fog, the valleys, and endured the storms. That’s what Joseph, David, Jesus, St Francis, Hildegard, Dorothy Day, Harriet Tubman, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Sophie Scholl and a million other less famous names tell us. As one of them said, “In spite of everything, there’s still beauty, and hope, and love in the world. Thanks be to you, beloved Christ, for walking with me in the midst of the suffering, and giving me eyes to see your goodness.”

The 19th century German theologian Helmet Thielicke said, “The problem with the church in the west is that it has an inadequate view of suffering…” Whether you agree that this is the problem with the church in the west or not, I’m increasingly convinced that it’s a problem, a serious one that is not only robbing us of joy and maturity, but leading evangelicalism down a misguided path that is more Narcissistic than Christ-honoring.

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I secound Norms request!!!

I had been wondering when your latest posting would show up?

Thanks again!!


Norm Neufeld
Norm Neufeld
Jul 27, 2023

Thanks for sharing the good insights Richard. Perhaps being 60 something brings a greater awareness of the many avenues of suffering as age does seem to increase the potential to suffer loss of all sorts of things. I have a request: that you do a part 2 on ”The Fellowship of Suffering”. Not a call to self induced cold showers together but the depth of fellowship that can be found in co-suffering through life’s challenges etc. “Sumpascho”. Thanks again!

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