I Can’t Do This!

God intends that our everyday struggles and suffering as Christians would first highlight, then annihilate our self-sufficiency.

The Biblical concept of “the flesh” is the natural human bent toward autonomy from God, or in other words, our bent toward self-sufficiency. It’s not just a tendency toward bad behavior (that is, toward sinful actions), but it’s a tendency toward doing even good and Godly things in our own strength or wisdom–depending on our own resources rather than on relationship with God. And that pretty much sums up self-sufficiency!

So when suffering knocks on my door, what is my automatic response to the pain? Do I immediately or primarily look to my own resources to resolve the difficulty? Do I throw a pity-party for myself because I can’t figure out how to relieve the pain? Suffering highlights our self-sufficiency when it reveals that our automatic response to pain is to turn inward to our own resources.

And when suffering pulls up a chair and settles in to stay for awhile, how do I respond? Do I sink into despair when every solution I’ve tried comes up empty? Do I explode in anger toward God’s unfairness in allowing me to experience this? Or can I pray as the psalmist “Help me O God!” or say with the Apostle Paul “that I may share in Christ’s sufferings”? Suffering not only highlights our self-sufficiency but then works to annihilate our self-sufficiency by ushering us into situations that are clearly beyond our ability to control or resolve–situations that force us to depend more deeply on Christ’s resources alone.

So when I find myself complaining to God in exasperation “I can’t do this!” what is actually being revealed in my heart is a fleshly expectation that I should be able to figure this out on my own. Of course I can’t do this. I was never meant to do this on my own. But as long as life runs fairly smoothly and I succeed in managing the bumps and bruises that come my way, I deceive myself into thinking I can do life on my own. Therefore if God is to grow my character toward greater maturity in Christ, my self-sufficiency must die–and suffering is most often the instrument that He uses to bring that painful but good purpose about.

 

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Savoring Weakness

How do you typically respond when what is expected (or required) of you is way beyond your capacity? How do you react when you feel worn out and weak, but life doesn’t let up? What do you do when you are at your wits end, but the problem isn’t going away?

Even when we come to God in our weakness and need (which, if we’re honest, we don’t always do–often we seek to handle it on our own), even then we usually ask God to remove the problem, to make us strong. We get discouraged over our weakness, thinking that if only we were stronger maybe this wouldn’t be happening. So what would it look like to actually savor the weakness rather than trying to overcome it?

Paul teaches that God’s way of exhibiting power is altogether different from man’s way. Man tries to overcome his weakness; God is satisfied to use weakness for his own special purposes. Too many Christians become disheartened over their infirmities, thinking that only if they were stronger in themselves they could accomplish more for God. But this point of view, despite its popularity, is altogether a fallacy. God’s means of working, rightly understood, is not by making us stronger, but by making us weaker and weaker until the divine power alone is clearly manifested.  [David Alan Black, “Paulus Infirmus: The Pauline Concept of Weakness,” Grace Theological Journal, 92.]

The Apostle Paul spoke of “rejoicing in our sufferings” (Romans 5:3), “boasting in our weaknesses” (2 Corinthians 12:9), and even being “content with weaknesses” (2 Corinthians 12:10). How does that happen? For those of us who have been Christians for a long time, we may be able to say the right words–even force a smile–in the midst of suffering, but to actually be internally content in weakness seems impossible!

J.I. Packer writes of how this “way of weakness” produces perseverance and eventually character within us:

It works like this. Comes the pain and the grief and the sense that this is too much for us, it is swamping us, we can’t handle it. What does the Christian then do? The Christian looks to the Lord, praying, “Lord, give me strength, give me wisdom, give me resources to handle this”–and the Lord does. So Christians who thought that they could never cope with what the Puritans called the losses and crosses that come their way find that they have in fact got through the trials, by the strength that the Lord supplies. Then the memory of that experience gives confidence for the next round of pain and grief and distress. Sufferings produce perseverance as our confidence in God grows through experience after experience of his upholding grace. The sufferings, the pains, the griefs, the time spent in hard places, are so many experiences of testing; over and over we pass the tests through the strength that the Lord gives us, and the habit of doing that is character–tested character, approved character, strong character.  [Packer, Keep in Step with the Spirit, 217-218.]

So if you find yourself overwhelmed and swamped, and your continual lament is “God, I can’t handle this!” then take heart–God is bringing you into weakness in order to make it abundantly obvious that His strength alone carries you. And as you walk–weakly, but with God–into that impossible situation, He will bring you through and grow your faith and form your character.

Unexpected Remodeling

Resurrection cannot come to one who is alive, only to one who has died. But dying is never fun or easy.

In 2 Corinthians 3:14-16, we read of a veil over our hearts that keeps us from seeing the glory of God, a veil that can only be removed through Christ. A.W. Tozer writes that this veil over our hearts is “the veil of our fleshly, fallen nature living on, unjudged within us, uncrucified and unrepudiated. It is the close-woven veil of the self-life which we have never truly acknowledged…self-righteousness, self-pity, self-confidence, self-sufficiency, self-admiration, self-love… Self is the opaque veil that hides the face of God from us.” [The Pursuit of God, pg. 41-43]

Tozer goes on to say that when we speak of “rending the veil” as a figure of speech, the thought of it is “poetical, almost pleasant,” but the actual experience of dying to our flesh and to the self-life is quite the opposite:

In human experience that veil is made of living spiritual tissue; it is composed of the sentient, quivering stuff of which our whole beings consist, and to touch it is to touch us where we feel pain. To tear it away is to injure us, to hurt us and make us bleed. To say otherwise is to make the cross no cross and death no death at all. It is never fun to die. To rip through the dear and tender stuff of which life is made can never be anything but deeply painful. Yet that is what the cross did to Jesus and it is what the cross would do to every man to set him free. [The Pursuit of God, pg. 44]

Die we must, if we would hope for resurrection. Therefore it should not surprise us when trouble and suffering come our way–God is at work, mercifully rending the veil of our flesh in order to awaken us to his glory. C.S. Lewis describes it this way:

Imagine yourself as a living house. God comes in to rebuild that house. At first, perhaps, you can understand what He is doing. He is getting the drains right and stopping the leaks in the roof and so on; you knew that those jobs needed doing and so you are not surprised. But presently He starts knocking the house about in a way that hurts abominably and does not seem to make sense. What on earth is He up to? The explanation is that He is building quite a different house from the one you thought of–throwing out a new wing here, putting on an extra floor there, running up towers, making courtyards. You thought you were going to be made into a decent little cottage; but He is building a palace. He intends to come and live in it Himself. [Mere Christianity, pg. 176]

If there is unexpected remodeling happening in your life (as there is in mine), may you hold on to the certain hope that you are being built into a palace fit for your King. And as the veil of your flesh is torn away, may the glimpses of glory that peek through the rips in the veil give you the courage to enter another daily death, trusting that resurrection is indeed coming.

Acquainted with Grief

Art can give us a window into the soul in a deeper way than words alone can do. For that reason, I’m tremendously grateful for my daughter’s recent photography exhibition–it allowed those who viewed it to understand our family’s pain in ways that our words cannot fully communicate. Her final piece was a self-portrait that zeroed in on a theme of her exhibit: Grief is not an easy fix. In our discomfort over other’s grief, we often seek to merely gloss over it with Christian platitudes like Romans 8:28, but in doing so we miss the deeper connection of entering in to one another’s sorrows.

Romans 8:28 is certainly true, but when we are in the midst of a grief that is not likely to be resolved anytime soon, being told that God works all things together for our good sounds more trite than comforting. And so in those places of deep grief in which “working together for good” seems very far off, I am thankful for the way Isaiah 53:3-4 describes our Savior.

He was despised and rejected by men,
    a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief;
and as one from whom men hide their faces
    he was despised, and we esteemed him not.

Surely he has borne our griefs
    and carried our sorrows…

A man of sorrows who was well-acquainted with grief. This is our sympathetic High Priest, who knows us not just as a far-off all-knowing deity but as One who has suffered sorrow and grief even deeper than our own and therefore truly understands us. And in fact, not only does Jesus understand our grief and sorrow, but he has borne our grief and carried our sorrows. He not only bore His own grief on that cross, but the grief of all we for whom He died. He not only carried His own sorrows of being rejected and despised in His earthly life, but He carried all of our sorrows as well.

And as the One who ever lives to make intercession for us (Hebrews 7:25), Jesus bears our griefs even now, and carries our sorrows until He carries us into His very presence for all eternity and wipes every tear away.

Conversational Ministry

What do you say when your two boys are squabbling for the third time in the past twenty minutes?

What will you say when a friend who is single shares with you about her loneliness and despair?

What advice will you give when your wife is overwhelmed with caring for her mother with Alzheimer’s?

How will you respond to your co-worker who just got divorced?

What comes out of our mouths in these situations–and a million more–is counseling. We are always counseling, though we rarely think of it in those terms. But in all of these situations, we are imparting information with the intent to help or encourage one another.

We tend to equate counseling with professional therapy, therefore unless we have a degree in psychology and an office with a couch, we don’t think we could actually counsel anyone. And yet we do so every day.

I’m currently enrolled in a training course that my church is hosting, called Gospel-Centered Counseling. The goal of the course is to equip us as Christians for this kind of everyday, conversational ministry to one another. This model of counseling can also be called Biblical counseling, since it seeks to apply the truth of God’s Word to the sins and sorrows of our lives and relationships.

So what sets Biblical counseling apart from other models? How is it distinct from other forms of Christian counseling? Here are a couple distinctives…

As I understand it, the two main distinctives of Biblical counseling are these: 1) it has as its foundation and starting point a Biblical understanding of people and of change, and 2) it is carried out in conversational ministry with one another as Christians. To the extent that professional Christian counseling starts with a humanistic psychological theory (which implies a humanistic anthropology) and then seeks to apply it through a Christian lens, to that extent it differs from Biblical counseling. And to the extent that Christian counseling is carried out only by a professional expert helping a needy client, to that extent also it differs from Biblical counseling.

According to CCEF (the Christian Counseling and Educational Foundation), Biblical counseling is “a God-centered understanding of people and a Christ-centered understanding of how God redeems people.” In other words, seeing Christians as created by God, ruined by sin, saved by grace, and destined for eternity with God makes a huge difference in understanding our primary problem and our basic need. And seeing transformation into Christ’s likeness as a Spirit-empowered process that happens through the community of the local church, where every child of God is both needy and needed, levels the playing field—we all counsel one another and we all need others’ counsel.

Biblical counseling allows for the reality that some Christians are specially gifted by God and equipped with more extensive training in counseling, and that some may in fact pursue a ministry of counseling as their primary vocation. However, even those who take on that role in a manner similar to a professional therapist do so with a different mindset—they see the counselee as a fellow-struggler whose primary need is no different than their own, namely to grow in dependent relationship with Christ.

Granted, there are those who call what they do “Biblical counseling” but do it so poorly that it creates an inaccurate caricature of what Biblical counseling is meant to be (just as surely as there are those who call what they do “Christian counseling” but also do it poorly and give that honorable discipline a bad name). So it is vital that we consider carefully the definitions and distinctives of each particular branch of counseling in order to avoid caricatures and misrepresentations.

Will your directives to your sons, or your comfort to your friend, or your advice to your wife, or your response to your co-worker truly offer help and hope? Remember, you and I are always counseling–will we give an accurate diagnosis of their greatest problem, and will we point them to the only One who can bring lasting change?

[For more resources & information about Biblical counseling, I highly recommend the ministry of CCEF. Lighthouse Community Church also has some great resources.]

Grownup Blankies

I think my mom still has my tattered old blankie (or what remains of it) from when I was a little boy–that silky softness that I snuggled with every night as a child, which somehow brought a measure of comfort and peace to my timid heart in the midst of the bad dreams and wild imaginations and lonely longings of childhood. Looking at those ragged strips of cloth now as an adult, it’s hard to believe that I once found such comfort in it, yet I know I did because blankies only reach that treasured status by being loved for a long time (like the Velveteen Rabbit in one of my favorite picture books).

I don’t sleep with that blankie anymore, but maybe it would be better if I did. My grownup heart still looks for comfort–not so much because of bad dreams or imaginary lions walking through the front door, but because of the ache of unfulfilled longings and the weariness of life that is often overwhelming. If only those burdens and sorrows could be relieved by simply stroking a soft blankie on my cheek!

Unfortunately, growing up doesn’t only bring different (and often heavier) fears and struggles, but growing up also brings the pursuit of less innocent comforts than blankies. Our hearts are idol factories, and we run after a whole assembly-line of solutions that promise comfort but cannot truly deliver it.

God’s word to the prophet Jeremiah (2:13) is just as relevant now as it was for the people to whom it was spoken:

My people have committed two sins:
They have forsaken me,
    the spring of living water,
and have dug their own cisterns,
    broken cisterns that cannot hold water.

Our God is the “Father of compassion and the God of all comfort” (2 Corinthians 1:3). Christians have been given the Spirit of God, who is the Helper and Comforter (John 14:16). Yet rather than turning to God for comfort in our places of pain and need, we try to arrange for our own comfort (or in Jeremiah’s words, we dig our own broken cisterns): we demand intimacy from marriage or family, we hungrily look for likes on our social media posts, we shop for the latest fashion or device, we pursue greater influence and purpose through our work, and we even seek to prove our godliness by serving in ministry or mission.

None of these “comforts” are inherently sinful, yet when they are sought in place of God, that is where sin enters in. So this is not a rant against marital intimacy or social media or shopping, but it is a call to not turn to those things for comfort rather than turning to God. In this season of Lent, may we who belong to Christ look to Him alone for the comfort we desperately long for, and may we repent of the grownup blankies with which we have been snuggling.

[Jessica Snell writes a similar call–to repent from “that comforting sin you turn to time and again”–in Biola’s Lent Project. Check it out…]

Beautifying Love

God’s love for those He has adopted into His family is so far greater than the love that we as humans have for one another. We look for beauty to love–God makes the ones He loves beautiful. 

Sally Lloyd-Jones, in The Jesus Storybook Bible, speaks of this beautifying love of God in His choosing of Jacob’s unlovely (and unloved) wife Leah to be part of the lineage of the Christ:

“…when he saw that Leah was not loved and that no one wanted her, God chose her–to love her specially, to give her a very important job. One day, God was going to rescue the whole world–through Leah’s family…. You see, when God looked at Leah, he saw a princess. And sure enough, that’s exactly what she became. One of Leah’s children’s children’s children would be a prince–the Prince of Heaven–God’s Son. This Prince would love God’s people. They wouldn’t need to be beautiful for him to love them. He would love them with all of his heart. And they would be beautiful because he loved them. Like Leah.”

A blog post by Garry Williams elaborates on God’s beautifying love:

“By contrast [with human love], God loves us when we are unlovely to him. He finds us languishing in the filth of our sin and chooses to cleanse and make us holy. Samuel Crossman expresses this idea beautifully in his hymn: Love to the loveless shown, That they might lovely be. Christ is a husband who makes the church beautiful when he weds her, not a husband who wants to wed her because she is beautiful.”

In the same post, Williams also quotes C.S. Lewis, who writes in The Four Loves: “The Church has no beauty but what the Bridegroom gives her; he does not find, but makes her, lovely.”

So when you, or I, feel lost in the ugliness of our sin and shame, or when our longings for love from those around us are unfulfilled, may we find hope in knowing that the One who created us also loves us with a love that makes us beautiful. And may we aspire (with His help!) to love those around us in the same way that we are loved by God–not because of their beauty but to make them beautiful.