Buck up, Buttercup: On Running With Horses & Our Non-Coddling God

run with horses

If you have raced with men on foot and they have worn you out, how can you compete with horses?

Jeremiah 12:5a

Our culture is getting so soft. No one can handle criticism. People just wilt. I can’t tell you how many times that gist has come up in conversation lately.

I’m no expert on culture. So correct me Mom and Dad if you think I’m wrong: You weren’t much for coddling. And correct me sons if you think I lie: I’m not much for coddling.

Which is probably just fine. Here’s why.

I Thought I’d Be Wrecked

No bright pink line. Another stinging sign of my empty womb. I thought I’d be wrecked at the next fruitless month. Little did I know there would be more than two hundred empty months (and nine full months) ahead. But here I am. I’m not wrecked.

I was looking for dirty socks under his bed. But there it was, my clue that something was off. I thought I’d be wrecked if we didn’t fix this now. But the rascally habit grew. It got more entrenched and bore bitter fruit. But here I am. I’m not wrecked.

They walked out of our house in silence. We’d have to meet again and try again to patch things up. I thought I’d be wrecked by year’s end if we couldn’t mend. But it would be ten long years before hugs. But here I am. I’m not wrecked.

If anything I’m stronger. Because sufficient grace kept flowing as all those ruins fell.

God gave compassion and comfort and care. But there was not coddling.

Warm Mush & Helicopter Moms

So what is coddling?

To coddle means to overprotect. Not to protect, but to overprotect. As in helicopter mom. As in Ashley and her twelve year-old daughter Lacy, A girl was mean to Lacy at lunch, so I called her teacher and messaged the girl’s mom. As in, It’s 50 degrees so wear your hat and mittens and coat, Lacy, or you can’t go outside.

But I know many of you enjoy word study and a few love Latin. So here’s the quick etymology of coddling:

Coddle is probably a dialect variant of obsolete caudle: ‘administer invalids’ gruel’, based on Latin caldum: ‘hot drink’, from calidus: ‘warm’.

Oxford Languages

God protects us. It’s what my friend Kat calls life under the wing. She’s right. When God is our refuge, no evil will befall us.

But that doesn’t mean he spares us grief, trouble and pain. While God is absolutely compassionate and merciful and comforts us in our sorrows (2 Corinthians 1:3-4), our Heavenly Father does not coddle his children.

He doesn’t overprotect us or spoon feed his adult children mush. God wants us to grow up (Ephesians 4:13, Colossians 1:28). But solid food is for the mature.

Anti-fragile: Children Prepared For The Road

I probably wouldn’t have had coddling on my mind if our book club hadn’t just read The Coddling of the American Mind. In it, Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt take on some great cultural “untruths,” like human fragility: the untruth that what doesn’t kill us makes us weaker. The truth, they say, is that humans are anti-fragile.

While that is true now and then—the greater truth is that human beings need physical and mental challenges or we decline. Stress actually makes us stronger, not weaker. For example, muscles and joints need stressors to develop properly. Without stress, our muscles to atrophy, our joints to lose range of motion, our heart and lung function to decline, and blood clots may form.

This is not mere resilience as when when we bounce back from a fall like a rubber ball. It’s more. Anti-fragile means we actually get stronger, we move past baseline, because of the stress.

The foolishness of overprotection is clear as soon as you understand the concept of anti-fragility, Lukianoff and Haidt explain. Given that risks and stressors are natural, unavoidable parts of life, parents and teachers should be helping kids develop their innate abilities to grow and learn from such experiences. There’s an old saying: “Prepare the child for the road, not the road for the child.”

In other words, the trials you’re facing now will prepare you for bigger ones later. Running against men will get you ready to race horses.

Not the Exception, the Rule

Time to explain the horses. A little background might help.

I’ve been reading Jeremiah lately. It strikes me again that God doesn’t coddle his children. He doesn’t overprotect the ones he loves. Rather, he prepares them for the rocky road ahead with smaller bumps now.

The more I read the Bible the more I see this not as the exception, but as the rule. Job and Jeremiah and Elijah and Paul and 11 of 12 apostles who died martyrs deaths prove it. Recall Jesus’ words to Peter, What is it to you? You follow me. God often turns up the heat before he turns it down. He prepares his children for the road.

Here’s what I mean, spotlight on Jeremiah. As chapter 12 opens, the weeping prophet takes God to task.

You are always righteous, Lord,
    when I bring a case before you.
Yet I would speak with you about your justice:
    Why does the way of the wicked prosper?
    Why do all the faithless live at ease?

We get that, don’t we? How many of us would have a word with the Lord about his justice? Why is it bad guys thrive and honest, decent folks barely survive?

While it is grand to pour out our hearts to God, it doesn’t guarantee that we’ll like his reply. When Jeremiah inquires about the mistreatment he’s receiving in his own hometown (see 12:6), from his own brothers, God gives a shocking response.

You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet

So what is God’s answer to Jeremiah‘s questions? God comes back with a couple questions of his own:

If you have raced with men on foot, and they have wearied you, how will you compete with horses? And if in a safe land you are so trusting, what will you do in the thicket of the Jordan?

Jeremiah 12:5

You ain’t seen nothin’ yet. It’s as if God takes Jeremiah down to a track meet and has him run the 400 meter, the 800 meter and the mile. Then, as he stands doubled over in the infield, God asks, Jeremiah, you all set to race in the derby? You’re in lane five, against Secretariat.

The second question is like asking, If you fall down in the Great Plains how are you ever going to make it over the Rocky Mountains? Things will get worse before they get better. If the hometown crowd is mean to you, get ready for the toughies in Jerusalem.

Buck up, Buttercup. How will you compete with horses?

Prepared For The Road Ahead

In a message on Jeremiah 11-12, Phil Ryken says, God did have great things in store for Jeremiah, but he could never achieve them unless he was willing to persevere in little things. There were greater challenges to come.

By analogy, Jeremiah could expect to run against horses in the future. He needed to learn how to trust God and to draw on His strength in his present challenge, in order to prepare him for the greater challenges in the future.

If Jeremiah was foundering at his mild mistreatment in Anathoth, how would he fare in big-hostile Jerusalem? Before long, he would be locked in stocks (Jeremiah 20:1-3), thrown into a muddy cistern (Jeremiah 38:6), and imprisoned in the court of the guard (Jeremiah 28:13). The troubles he was having in Anathoth, Ryken says, were nothing compared to the troubles he would have later in Jerusalem, Babylon, or Egypt.

In order to our preparation for further and greater trials, we are concerned to approve ourselves well in present smaller trials, to keep up our spirits, keep hold of the promise, with our eye upon the prize, so run that we may obtain it.”

That is 17th-century Bible teacher, Matthew Henry’s take on Jeremiah 12:5 and our non-coddling God. Our non-coddling, deeply-compassionate God who lovingly trains us for more difficult roads ahead.

Our Strength

So where’s the good news in this, Abigail? Good question.

Jeremiah never saw the hard road coming. But I want us to see it. I want you to learn what it’s taking me so long to learn. In the decades since that first negative pregnancy test and that wrapper under the bed and those hug-less years, I’m learning to feel God’s love in the trials, to know his purpose, that the Lord is compassionate and merciful (see James 5:11).

But believing that takes frequent reminders. Reminders about running with horses. Reminders that God is a loving Father but not a coddling grandfather.

Jeremiah’s little exchange with God reminds me again that our God is not safe— if safe means he keeps us from hardship and trouble. No, as Mr. Beaver said of Aslan, Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good.

Good parents prepare their children for the challenging roads ahead. Our Heavenly Father is doing just that. Which, I hope you’ll agree, is good news.

As I close, I ask, Who’s running against you? What troubles could wreck you? What is the long, hard road you’re on?

Now stop.

Just look at you. Here you are—running with horses, bucking up. You are strong.

And you are definitely not wrecked.

The LORD is the strength of His people, a stronghold of salvation for His anointed.

Proverbs 28:8

Less Magnet, More Plaid: How Polarity Hurts Humans

The line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either — but right through every human heart.

—Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, THE GULAG ARCHIPELAGO

That’s it. If you need the TLDR, it’s that. Your greatest enemy isn’t outside of you. Because like it or not, you’re primed for polarity.

Good and evil pass right through the core of you. You and every human.

Polar Opposites, Fully Charged

There is the moral dualism that sees good and evil as instincts within us between which we must choose. But there is also what I will call pathological dualism that sees humanity itself as radically…divided into the unimpeachably good and irredeemably bad. You are either one or the other.

—RABBI LORD JONATHAN SACKS, Not In God’s Name

The earth has poles, magnets have poles, and some molecules—if I remember my chemistry—bond because of polarity. There is north and there is south, there is positive and there is negative, proton and electron. The whole world, Hopkins wrote, is charged with the grandeur of God.

The earth is charged all right. But how ’bout all the people that on earth do dwell? Are people made like magnets, with poles to attract and repel?

There is a sort of bi-polarity to every one of us. We all have both + and -, both good and evil poles. Every one of us is both/and, not either/or. No one is good but God alone. Which means no one is all good—not one of our heroes or models or guides.

But the other side of polarity is harder to swallow. Think of that person whose views are opposite yours. Pick your most staunch anti-vax or all-vax, pro-gun or no-gun, conservative or progressive cousin. Now remember, she is not bad to the bone.

We are not unimpeachably good or irredeemably bad. We’ve all got both forces inside us.

Okay, you say. But why tell me now?

3 Polarity “Untruths”

Because when the same truth falls into my lap from three different sources in less than three hours, I take note. And because I know I’m not alone.

People we trust take polar opposite positions. I felt it last night when a close friend expressed an opinion that was 180-degrees different from other valued friends. It’s confusing and unsettling and sometimes even crazy-making. By the way, these three non-negotiables still stabilize.

The past 18 months have been the most polarizing months of our lives. Friendships suffer. Relationships break. Yes, the earth is charged and we humans are tried.

Here are the three polarity “untruths” that were dropped in my lap. Writing them down shows me how polarity hurts humans.

Untruth #1: “Us Versus Them”

“Parties have come to view each other not as legitimate rivals but as dangerous enemies.” That from New York Times Bestseller, The Coddling of the American Mind.

This is emotional polarization. It means that “people who identify with either of the two main political parties increasingly hate and fear the other party and the people in it” (141).

Identity politics, the authors explain, “can be mobilized in ways that amplify…tribalism and bind people together in shared hatred of a group that serves as the unifying common enemy” (p. 60). Interpretations of “intersectionality” that teach people to see bipolar dimensions of privilege and oppression everywhere also “have the potential to turn tribalism way up” (p. 68).

Not surprisingly, this is driving many of Americans to embrace what the authors call, “the Untruth of Us Versus Them.” We go in to tribal mode and let the tribe think for us. Even worse, we show less empathy for “them” and “their” suffering when we’re in tribal mode (p. 58). That hurts humans.

Truth #1: For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Jesus Christ (Romans 3:23-24). All. Not the heathen in the enemy tribe. Not the vaxxers. Or the anti-vaxxers. Not the oppressor, or the oppressed. All have sinned and all have need God’s grace.

Untruth #2: “Unconditional Affirmer Or Mortal Enemy”

After I read that, I heard this. There are two kinds of people: those who will give us unconditional affirmation and there are mortal enemies.

Pastor and Author Kevin DeYoung explains,

Some of us think there are only two kinds of relationships. There are people who will give me unconditional affirmation and there are mortal enemies. “If you do not give me unconditional affirmation—always agree with me, always like me, always tell me what I want to hear—then you are an enemy and you hate me.”

That sensitive is not that healthy. Tribalism cuts us off from hearing helpful, but uncomfortable information. So does “two-kinds of people” thinking.

If you have that mindset, you cannot understand who God is. That hurts humans. Because God does not unconditionally affirm everything about us. He said our sins are as scarlet and that they could be washed white as snow (Isaiah 1:18).

Healthy relationships are not polar. They don’t either affirm everything or oppose everything about you. Real friends, real brothers and real sisters and affirm and confront in love.

Truth #2: If you listen to constructive criticism, you will be at home among the wise. If you reject discipline, you only harm yourself; but if you listen to correction, you grow in understanding (Proverbs 15:31-32). Seeing relationships with polarity is cutting off your nose to spite your face. Criticism may not be agreeable, Winston Churchill said, but it is necessary. It fulfils the same function as pain in the human body; it calls attention to…an unhealthy state.

Untruth #3: “Good King Or Bad King”

The third strand came the same day, no kidding, when I dropped a book and an old paper fell out. It was a three column chart that listed the names of Judah’s kings, the dates of their reigns, and their “character.” That was in the last column where either “good” or “bad” was printed.

But scrawled in that right side column, I had added the word: mostly.

As in:
King Saul: “mostly bad.” Recall: Early pardon of his enemies AND those spears he thrust at David.

King David: “mostly good.”  Recall: Goliath, psalms galore, grace to bloodthirsty Saul AND Bathsheba.

King Solomon: “mostly good.” Recall: Prayer for wisdom, temple construction AND 1000 wives and concubines.

Fast forward to wicked king Ahab, who “did more to provoke the Lord, the God of Israel to anger than all the kings of Israel before him.” Who, with his long-lashed Jezebel knocked off righteous Naboth for a vineyard. But then the murderous thug, the evil King Ahab humbled himself. He repented. So again, I added “mostly” next to bad.

Three kings later: Jehu- zealous for God. He was so zealous that he executes wicked Jezebel and slaughters Ahab’s 70 sons. Not satisfied, Jehu gathers the Baal worshipers and wipes them out too. Such a righteous warrior! But still Jehu didn’t “turn aside from the sins of Jeroboam.” His zeal was incomplete; Jehu was not careful to walk in the law of the Lord with all his heart. This time, I had scratched “mostly” beside “good.”

Seeing polarity hurts humans because we write them off as static, as of the story is ✔️ and they’re either good or bad.

Truth #3: None is righteous, no, not one; … no one understands; no one seeks for God (Romans 3:10-12). One truth is inescapable in these royal annals of the kings: the good kings are not all good, and the bad are not all bad. Like Mom says,

No one good is all good,
Or bad is all bad.
We’re all shades
Of gray or plaid.

I don’t know about you, but in my home, in my town, and in my nation I need this truth front and center. I need to give people the benefit of the doubt as much as I want it extended to me. I need to look for the good in those who naturally repel and I need to remember that no one is good but God alone as I’m with those who naturally attract.

We’re All Gray And Plaid

God does not want this truth obscured. At least he didn’t want me to miss it this week. We’re all saints and sinners. We’re all needed and needy. If we’re honest, most of us have been both victims and victimizers, oppressors and oppressed.

Shared hatred forges fast bonds. We don’t have to think in tribes. Polarity is easy: She’s always doing this. He’s never like that. Nuance takes effort. The world is charged.

But God so loved a supercharged world and his children are called to love other humans in a world where only One was ever good.

And love, so far as I can tell on this charged earth, never writes people off.

For, in the words of a one-time polarized persecutor, Love always hopes.

And Jesus said to him,

“Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone.

Luke 18:19