I pledge allegiance to my weakness.
For those of you that know my story, you know that the past two years have been the most difficult and painful years of my life. Back in 2001 when I first began to sense God stirring in me a desire to serve in this thing called full-time ministry, I had no idea where He would lead me or what my life would look like. All I knew is that I had a great passion to communicate the hope of Jesus to this generation. At the time, I was finishing up my MBA and had dreams of becoming an investment banker in Austin, Texas. In January 2003, I entered seminary and started learning how to become a professional Christian. During those years I would hear crazy stories of pastors who had been chewed up and spit out by their churches, and I would think, "That could never happen to me. I'm too smart to let that happen to me." It wasn't long after leaving seminary that I realized churches aren't just full of broken people who need Jesus, they're also led by broken people who need Jesus.
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I didn't think it was possible to experience the heartache that we've felt over the past two years. I didn't know the human soul could bruise. Nothing in seminary could have prepared me for the experience of being betrayed by those closest to us, falsely accused, maligned, and slandered. I spent a majority of 2013 walking through the valley of shadows. I became intimately acquainted with the reality of depression. I learned a lot about myself, and I learned a lot about what it means to follow Jesus. He never promised that the Narrow Road would be well-lit, well-paved, or pain-free, but He did promise that He would always be with us. I think I've asked God just about every question you could think to ask Him over the past two years:
God where were you?
God how could you let that happen to us?
God I thought you cared?
God I thought you loved us?
God I thought you said your desire was to prosper me and not to harm me?
Faith has a peculiar way of putting down deep roots in the soil of difficult questions.
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If I said I never thought about giving up I'd be lying. There were countless nights where I found myself giving serious thought to walking away from it all... not just from ministry, but from the church as well. "Surely Jesus died for more than this." is a phrase I found myself repeating often. As I look back over those painful days, God never gave me the answers I was looking for. He gave me something greater, He gave me Himself. When the storms come and we find ourselves in the midst of the shadows, I've learned that what sustains us isn't the prayer we prayed when we were 7, it's not the sermons we've heard, it's not the promises we've made, It's Jesus Himself.
It was in the midst of those dark, lonely, and painful days that I learned the discipline of preaching the Gospel to myself. I learned that our feelings often lie to us. To put it another way; our feelings often preach a false gospel.
I felt like God had left.
I felt like God had forgotten about me.
I felt like there was no future for me.
I felt alone.
But just because I felt those things didn't make them true. My mom would often tell me "Son, it's incredibly arrogant to think you would be the first person God chose to be unfaithful to." (#preachmom) The dangerous problem with the voice of our enemy is that most of us don't have a competing message to go to battle with. It was in those lonely days that I learned to claim God's promises for myself and my family. I learned to anchor my faith in truth instead of my feelings.
I had lunch with a very wise man recently who had been through something very similar in his past. I wanted some wisdom because I felt like I should be more healed than I am today. He said something that will forever stay with me. He said, "Bryan, it's not about being healED, it's about healing. We're always in the process of healing." I walked away with the reminder that some of our scars and bruises never go away. Our scars have a story to tell. The further I get from those painful days, the more those scars remind me of the radical faithfulness of our God.
I finally decided that I would allow my past and my scars to remind me and refine me, but I refuse to allow them to define me. I refuse to become bitter. I refuse to go back to the way things used to be. I refuse to give up.
You ever think about how much time we spend highlighting our strengths and hiding from our weaknesses? We're all image managers from birth. We all want to be seen a certain way. We work so hard to highlight our strengths, and hide our weaknesses. Too many of us are afraid that if people knew the real us, both our strengths and our weaknesses, then they wouldn't accept us.
Sometime in 2013, I found myself in a passage of Scripture that I had read a thousand times. I was reading Paul's words in his second letter to the Corinthian Church. Here's what he said:
"If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness... I will not boast, except of my weaknesses— though if I should wish to boast, I would not be a fool, for I would be speaking the truth; but I refrain from it, so that no one may think more of me than he sees in me or hears from me. So to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited. Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong." 2 Corinthians 11:30, 12:5-10 ESV
It's sobering how often we run from the very places where God has promised to meet us! Like Adam and Eve in Eden, we discover our weaknesses and then go hide from God. I'm grateful that the same God who went looking for Adam and Eve on that cool, breezy evening in Eden is the same God who comes looking for us today.
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Paul said he would rather boast about his weaknesses. In spite of all his accomplishments, titles, and experiences Paul said he would rather brag on the things that show his weakness! Not sure that principle would sell many leadership books in 2015. I have read those verses a thousand times through the years, but it wasn't until I found myself in the pit of despair that I began to see them in a whole new light. Paul learned something that can only be learned experientially. It's in the insufficiency of ourselves that we discover the sufficiency of God's grace and goodness. Those joy-inducing truths are always found in the valley that lies over the next ridge from our comfort zone. Rarely, if ever, will anyone voluntarily walk into those valleys. We have to be led into those valleys. It takes the watchful eye and the steady head of our Shepherd to lead us into those valleys. I don't understand why God led me where He did, but never have I experienced the radical grace and goodness of God like I did there in that dark valley. Our heartache serves as a beautiful hermeneutic.
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There comes a point in our lives when we can't wear enough masks to cover our weaknesses. Looking back over my life, I see how much time I wasted trying harder to be better. I thought the better I got, the more God would like, love, and accept me. There was only one problem; I wasn't getting better, I was just getting tired - spiritually, emotionally, and physically. The promises I continually made to God now served as shame-fueling reminders of my weakness and inability. Sadly, too many people are trapped in that "try-harder-to-be-better" version of christianity that Jesus died to rescue us all from.
There's good news for those of us who are tired today. The Gospel invites us to get out of our religious hamster wheels. There's something so liberating when we realize that Jesus has pleased God for us. The heartbeat of the Christian journey isn't our performance for Jesus, but Jesus' performance for us. Jesus holds it all together for those who can't get it together and for those who can't seem to ever keep it together.
The Gospel frees us to walk in our weakness. Those that get better spiritually are those that understand their standing with God isn't dependent upon them getting better. The Gospel reminds us all that we are fully known, and fully loved - just as we are - simply because of what Jesus has done for us.
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Jesus saves us from our self-righteous attempts to save ourselves. He saves us from the need to save ourselves. It wasn't just me at my worst that needing rescuing, it was me at my best that needed saving. How sobering to think about how often I had defined what my "best" was.
So, according to Paul in 2 Corinthians 12, God's strength is perfected in our weakness. Paul says our strength can be found in the place where we've hidden our weaknesses. Here's a few of my thoughts on the strength that's found in our weakness:
Some thoughts on the strength of our weaknesses:
- Our weaknesses keep us properly oriented. When we're honest about our weaknesses, we're forced to admit we can't do it on our own. We need someone else to lead us. Our weaknesses keep us dependent.
- Few things have the power to defeat pride like an awareness of our weaknesses. Paul saw his weaknesses as a gift from God to keep him from becoming conceited. (See 2 Corinthians 12:7 - "a thorn was given")
- Understanding our weakness helps us relate to others. There's something so refreshing about people who aren't afraid to admit they don't have it all together.When you realize your weaknesses, you are freed from the tyranny of judging others for their weaknesses. Now we get to love. When I fall down, I'm not looking for perfect people, I'm looking for other broken people, people who have walked the same dim and dusty stretch of the Narrow Road that I just came through.
- Great leaders embrace their weaknesses. I refuse to follow a leader who's hiding from his/her weaknesses. I read an article a few years ago that I will never forget. Matt Carter was speaking at a conference at Saddleback Church in California and said, "Never trust a man of God that doesn't walk with a limp." Wow. You can read that article here.
- Our weaknesses are invitations from the God who made us to experience the life He created for us to live. If I'm banking on my strength and faithfulness to carry me through, I'm in big trouble.
- Growth in life is about dependence, not independence. Growth in the Christian adventure is about killing the independence that keeps us from experiencing the radical grace and provision of God. To admit that I'm weak isn't weakness. There's great power in admitting my need for God to show up.
- The Gospel frees us to be weak. When we realize that Jesus is strong for us, we're free to be weak. The Gospel frees us of the ridiculous need of trying to prove to others how strong we are.
- Our weaknesses act as mirror. Few things reveal more about our hearts than how we treat others that sin differently than we do or cope with their weaknesses differently than we do.
- Heartache is a beautiful hermeneutic. How we respond to our weaknesses reveals a lot about our understanding of who God is. One way to test your understanding of the Gospel is to ask yourself this question: Where do you run when you struggle and fall? Do you run to God or away from Him?"
- It's in our weakness that we discover that God's grace really is enough. We'll never be content with our weaknesses until we are convinced that God's grace is sufficient. Grace leads the way.
- We limp our way into joy. Ray Ortlund tweeted something recently that really marked me. He said, "We swagger our way into misery. We limp our way into the heart of God, into ecstasy. No other way." How many days have I wasted trying to swagger my way into joy? The ticket to true joy is found in the place we've tried to hide our weaknesses. God give us a Gospel limp.
Just my $0.02 on this cold January afternoon. I'd love to hear your thoughts. Feel free to comment below.
I pray these blogs will encourage your soul and stir up your affections for Jesus in the days ahead.
Grace and peace,