Helplessness Reminds Us…

As human beings, we are prone to forget.

Even before the advance of age starts its insidious leaching of memory, we forget.

We grow comfortable…and forget. We get busy…and forget. We try to learn…but still we forget.

And so we need reminders.

Zack Eswine, in his little book called Spurgeon’s Sorrows, says this:

“Perhaps, nothing in life reminds us that we are not God, and that this earth is not heaven, like an indescribable distress that sometimes defies cause and has no immediate cure, or no cure at all.”

The specific “indescribable distress” that Eswine refers to is depression, and though I in no way mean to minimize the distress of depression, I would venture to say that there are other dire straits which also serve as reminders that we are indeed human and not-yet-home.

For me, that reminder is the daily battle with my daughter to undo patterns of thinking and living that were entrenched in her during her formative years in an orphanage. And it is the daily battle in my heart to balance training with mercy and replace impatience with love. There is no end in sight for either of those battles–maybe that is something I will carry all my life. Yet even that is a gracious reminder that all my life here is only a dot on the unending line of eternity.

“And now, O Lord, for what do I wait? My hope is in You.” Psalm 39:7

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A Sinner’s Prayer

While I’m sure there is much good that has come from people prayImageing a “sinner’s prayer” when an altar call or invitation to receive Christ is given, I also know that our human tendency is to trust in a prayer or trust in what we have done in saying that prayer, rather than truly trusting in what Christ has done to save us. When I hear people share their testimony of salvation, I often hear them say “I prayed the prayer” as a way of describing their experience of salvation, which makes it seem like it rests more on what that person has done to bring about salvation than on what God has done to pour out His mercy on a helpless sinful soul.

So I was intrigued when I was reading through The Pilgrim’s Progress and found that Bunyan (the author) included a “sinner’s prayer” when he depicts Hopeful sharing his testimony with Christian, toward the end of the allegory. But it is quite a different-sounding prayer than what I usually hear spoken by pastors or evangelists. Hopeful says:

“I told him that I didn’t know what to say when I came. Then Faithful told me to say words to this effect: ‘God, be merciful to me a sinner, and make me to know and believe in Jesus Christ. For I see that if His righteousness had not been offered, or if I have no faith in that righteousness, I am utterly cast away. Lord, I have heard that You are a merciful God and have ordained that Your Son Jesus Christ should be the Savior of the world. Moreover, You are willing to give Him for a poor sinner like me (and I am a sinner indeed). Lord, take therefore this opportunity, and magnify Your grace in the salvation of my soul, through Your Son Jesus Christ. Amen.'”

This is truly the plea of an undeserving sinner crying out for the mercy of God, recognizing that God alone chooses to save, therefore he cannot demand salvation from God or even expect it, but he must cast himself upon the mercy of God. Oh that I, like Hopeful, would have such a big view of God’s mercy and a (rightfully) small view of myself.

Waiting in Rest & Hope

For my personal retreat this month, I was privileged to stay at The Haven, a family-owned retreat center in Orange County. They had an interesting message board right inside the entry door, which said “Take what you need” and then had a set of tear-off tabs along the bottom with various words or phrases. The ones that God drew my attention toward were Imagethe words “Rest” and “Hope.”
As I sat and thought about the significance of those desires for rest and for hope in my life, God showed me how connected they are. When hope is alive and strong, I more readily receive the gift of rest; but when I am feeling hopeless, rest goes out the window in my feverish attempts to make things happen on my own.

I was reminded of a verse that I had memorized way back, that says “Find rest, O my soul, in God alone; my hope comes from Him.” That was the old NIV translation of Psalm 62:5, but in the ESV, the first part reads “For God alone, O my soul, wait in silence…” So apparently waiting quietly is synonymous with finding rest. Certainly not all waiting is restful, but true rest certainly does involve waiting. Waiting–and resting–require us to release control of outcomes.

Isaiah 40 was another passage that came to mind that puts these concepts of rest and hope together. Verses 30-31 (in NIV) say “Even youths grow tired and weary, and young men stumble and fall; but those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength.” But again here, ESV puts the word “wait” in place of “hope” (“they who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength”). So apparently waiting for the Lord is synonymous with hoping in Him. And again, not all waiting is hopeful, but true hope does involve a measure of waiting. Waiting–and hoping–require us to release control of the timing.

God challenged me with these realizations, because I certainly desire rest and hope, but I usually don’t want to wait for it. I would prefer to maintain my sense of control over the outcomes and over the timing, but when I try to hang on to that control, I cannot rest and hope does not last.

Weakness & Belonging Go Together

I’ve been listening to the audio of CCEF’s Living for Approval 2016 Conference, and I was struck by something that Ed Welch said in the final session on shame. He said essentially that the weakness and brokenness and inability that tend to make us ashamed are the very things that can give us confidence that we belong to Christ.

Referring to Paul’s teaching about weakness in his letters to the Corinthians (I Cor. 1:26-2:5, 2 Cor. 1:8-11, 2 Cor. 12:7-10, etc), and specifically about what he says in I Corinthians 1:26-31, Welch said:

“You’re just weak, ordinary people…and those are the people that God chooses to be His own. [Jesus] was crucified in weakness and He was raised in power. If you feel weak, that is a certain amount of confirmation that you are with Him. And it makes sense, because the weak ones are the ones who say “Help!” The ones who have the resume and have the power, they don’t want any help, they don’t need any help—they’re concerned that another King might somehow take away their prestige. They don’t want to live for Somebody else.”

In human relationships, I tend to believe that my weakness will push others away from me, and therefore I feel like I have to be strong and put-together in order to belong. But God says it is actually my weakness that identifies me with Christ, and that He delights to choose those who are weak and needy.

Peter–who knew something of weakness and shame–summed up this reality in his letter to persecuted, scattered believers:

“But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.”    – I Peter 2:9-10

Oh, what mercy we have received, that we should be called children of the King! And what mercy we receive day by day, that our King would delight to use such weak and shame-filled people to carry out His good purposes!

 

An Aversion to Mercy

Agree or disagree? All human beings have an aversion to mercy.

If we have made an honest mistake, or are caught in a sin red-handed, we hope that others will be merciful to us. We are not averse to receiving mercy when we know that we really deserve punishment.

Typically we are not averse to giving mercy to someone who is clearly hurt or grieving. A little child crying over a scraped knee or a friend weeping over a broken relationship elicits genuine concern and mercy from our hearts.

Despite those realities, though, I would argue that more often than not, all of us have a deep aversion to mercy. Why? Because mercy implies–even requires–helplessness, and no one wants to be helpless. A convicted murderer is “at the mercy” of the judge–and his life hangs on what that judge decides. A mountain climber caught in a sudden storm is “at the mercy” of that storm–all his well-laid plans are overturned by the urgency of getting out alive. To be “at the mercy” of someone or something means that we have no power to bring about what we most desire.

To need mercy is to need help, and that admission of need goes against our most basic bent of autonomy from God and from others. Thus we push against it–we are averse to it. If we can somehow prove that we deserve the help, then we can live with that…but that’s merit, not mercy. Or if we could figure out how to help ourselves, we would be comfortable with that…but that’s competency, not mercy either.

We tend to be much more comfortable listing off all the reasons why God should give us what we desire, than we are with crying out “God be merciful to me, a sinner!” (Luke 18:13). It seems we need God’s mercy even to call out for mercy from Him.