I recently returned home from the Academy for Spiritual Formation. This last session we discussed the effects of things like stress and anxiety on the body. We practiced breathing techniques, experienced some meditative practices, and looked at various ways that we live our lives.
At one point during the week, I found myself pondering the concept of challenge and the spiritual life. I have always believed that a healthy spiritual life is one that does not shirk from challenge or adversity. There are lessons in the struggles.
The scripture teaches of this reality in Hebrews 12. Comparing our relationship with God to our parents on earth, the writer of Hebrews invites us to consider difficulties in light of the fruit it produces. The author of Hebrews wrote: (Hebrews 12:7-11, NRSV)
“Endure trials for the sake of discipline. God is treating you as children; for what child is there whom a parent does not discipline? If you do not have that discipline in which all children share, then you are illegitimate and not his children. Moreover, we had human parents to discipline us, and we respected them. Should we not be even more willing to be subject to the Father of spirits and live? For they disciplined us for a short time as seemed best to them, but he disciplines us for our good, in order that we may share his holiness. Now, discipline always seems painful rather than pleasant at the time, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.”
I will admit that it can be hard to face the challenges of life. Sometimes the disciplining of God can be painful, even if it does correct broken or misaligned parts of us. Occasionally, challenges are legitimately less about correction and more about building up strength, but in general, I think the same response is necessary. If God is working for good in us, then we are called to either work alongside God or to willingly let God work in us.
Now, of all places the where I could find inspiration to understand this relationship with God, I found myself inspired in my reflection by a book that I am reading in my spare time. Unsurprisingly, it is a book about cooking. The book is “On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen” by Harold McGee. I was reading through the section on dairy that morning and working through the science of yogurt making, which my wife and I have done off and on over the years.
Effectively there are two parts to the making of yogurt. First, the milk being used is heated to a certain level for a certain period of time. McGee describes this process on page 48 of “On Food and Cooking.” Traditionally, this heating process helped to concentrate the number of proteins and to remove some of the liquid, which created.a firmer texture. This process also has the effect of pasteurizing the milk which become yogurt as milk is pasteurized when it crosses 145℉ for 30 minutes during the heating process. (On Food and Cooking, 22)
Even with the advent of the modern technique of adding dried milk powder to increase protein content, yogurt makers still raise the temperature of milk to 185℉ in order to denature the “whey protein lactoglobulin” in order to help the milk keep from coagulating. How? Well, “In boiling milk, unfolded lactoglobulin binds not to itself but to the capping-casein on the casein micelles, which remain separate; so denatured lactoglobulin doesn’t coagulate.” (On Food and Cooking, 20) Caseins, by the way, are the protein molecules that coagulate together to make cheese curd. (Under the right conditions, cheese can still be made from denatured milk. Indeed, almost all cheese is made from pasteurized milk)
What’s needed to move the milk from a pasteurized milk with denatured lactoglobulin is time and fermentation. Bacteria increases the acid content of the yogurt, which allows the casein to coagulate in particular patterns (as the lactoglobulin is blocking some of the connection points). Over time, the yogurt forms together, setting into a gelled mass with pockets for the moisture of the milk.
There’s a challenge in the process here. You may have noticed the milk’s lactoglobulin is denatured nearly 40℉ above the temperature required to kill off bacteria. In fact, yogurt bacteria can only survive temperatures up to between 104-113℉. There needs to be a cooling of the milk before yogurt can begin to be created.
So, here’s where I came to a realization the other day. I am often a lot like the milk I work to turn into yogurt. There are parts in my life that are filled with all kinds of nasty things. Sometimes the only way God can help me to break free of my own stubbornness is to turn up the heat. God knows what I can handle and like a careful cook, I believe there are times when my life is intentionally and carefully brought to a place where I can both begin to be free of the nasty stuff and begin to be prepared for new good things. In challenge I am both freed and given a chance for transformation.
When I am ready, the heat turns down, I am brought into a place where God’s goodness can begin to transform the parts of me that have been prepared. In those moments, there are a couple of things I can do to help the process.
First, I can be careful about my surroundings. Just as a dirty spoon could spoil the pasteurized and prepared milk, I can cause a world of trouble by diving back into the places where I no longer belong. There are behaviors in this life which are not helpful. It is good to move away from them and to stay away from them.
Second, I can practice humility. A lot of things in life can go in ways I do not prefer. Does that mean all of those challenging situations are bad for me? Sometimes humility requires me to be willing to accept circumstances I would not prefer or choose on my own. It can be very difficult to admit that I do not always know what is best for me, but in reality, most of us have blind spots and areas where we do not see things clearly. If I practice humility, there is a stronger chance I can work my way through situations that normally would be inescapable.
None of this means that I would necessarily prefer to face such challenges, but there is something to be said for realizing that there are moments when challenge becomes both inevitable and beneficial. May we all have the wisdom to know when such situations are before us.