God's presence is perplexing

45 Right then, Jesus made his disciples get into a boat and go ahead to the other side of the lake, toward Bethsaida, while he dismissed the crowd. 46 After saying good-bye to them, Jesus went up onto a mountain to pray. 47 Evening came and the boat was in the middle of the lake, but he was alone on the land. 48 He saw his disciples struggling. They were trying to row forward, but the wind was blowing against them. Very early in the morning, he came to them, walking on the lake. He intended to pass by them. 49 When they saw him walking on the lake, they thought he was a ghost and they screamed.50 Seeing him was terrifying to all of them. Just then he spoke to them, “Be encouraged! It’s me. Don’t be afraid.” 51 He got into the boat, and the wind settled down. His disciples were so baffled they were beside themselves. 52 That’s because they hadn’t understood about the loaves. Their hearts had been changed so that they resisted God’s ways.

~ Mark 6:45-52, CEB

A few verses before these, Jesus broke a small amount of bread into enough pieces to feed five thousand people. That act was a sign of God’s kingdom breaking into the world through Jesus. The disciples noticed that a miracle happened, to be sure, but, according to these verses, they didn’t grasp the significance. They didn’t connect the action of the miracle to what it means for Jesus to be God in the flesh. Again, that’s understandable, it’s a pretty huge leap to make. But their inability to see and understand caused problems for them down the road. They couldn’t see God at work in the feeding story, and they can’t recognize God’s presence in Jesus as he walks on the water. What does this lead to? Bewilderment.

God’s presence truly is rather bewildering. When we see it or experience it, it’s hard to come up with a proper explanation. Sometimes things can be explained, and sometimes they can’t. Sometimes they are simply acts of God. Skepticism, in our day, is extremely popular. Some skepticism is a good thing. Too much, perhaps, leads to a certain hardness of the heart.

Do we have some responsibility for the ways in which we fail to recognize God’s action or see him at work? Possibly, though I’m not particularly fond of the blame game. I’ll say more on this tomorrow.

It's not easy to trust God during chaos

45 Right then, Jesus made his disciples get into a boat and go ahead to the other side of the lake, toward Bethsaida, while he dismissed the crowd. 46 After saying good-bye to them, Jesus went up onto a mountain to pray. 47 Evening came and the boat was in the middle of the lake, but he was alone on the land. 48 He saw his disciples struggling. They were trying to row forward, but the wind was blowing against them. Very early in the morning, he came to them, walking on the lake. He intended to pass by them. 49 When they saw him walking on the lake, they thought he was a ghost and they screamed.50 Seeing him was terrifying to all of them. Just then he spoke to them, “Be encouraged! It’s me. Don’t be afraid.” 51 He got into the boat, and the wind settled down. His disciples were so baffled they were beside themselves. 52 That’s because they hadn’t understood about the loaves. Their hearts had been changed so that they resisted God’s ways.

~ Mark 6:45-52, CEB

Here’s another boat/water story from Mark.

Jesus has done a few more miraculous healings since we last saw him on a boat with the disciples (not including the miracle on the boat itself). So, they should be even more clear as to who he is, what he has the capacity to do, etc. This passage, like the other, shows Jesus as someone more than human. Will the disciples be able to recognize that?

The focal point of this boat story is not Jesus calming the winds the disciples were up against but, instead, Jesus himself walking on the water. Evidently, they didn’t recognize him and thought he was a ghost. Their response? Fear. Once again. Even when they realized that the “ghost” was Jesus, they were still “beside themselves” and “baffled”. How could they not know or understand? Verse 52 says they hadn’t understood about the loaves. Just before this, Jesus had performed the famous miracle of feeding the five thousand, and I guess the disciples still didn’t quite grasp the nature of who he was. Because of that, they’re afraid. Because of that, it seems, their hearts became hard.

There’s a lot going on here, and we’ll look at it over a few days. The first thing that stands out to me is the disciples’ inability to recognize the true power of God and to submit to it, and trust it. Granted, I’m not sure I would have done any better in the circumstances. It’s not easy trust in God’s power when our lives are in chaos.

I mean, I have access to the whole story and I’m still no better at trust or managing fear.

Don't pay attention to scare tactics

Fear has always been a really effective tool for getting people to do what you want. Entire governments have operated under this principle. Parents have employed this technique with great success. I know many parents who have told their kids that if they pee in the pool then a red ring will appear, letting everyone know what they’ve done (I think I’m going to do this- it’s funny). The media has made liberal use of fear in our country. Political discourse is based on fear (“if you take the other guy’s stance, then our country will be destroyed”). Churches have also kept fear-based tactics en vogue. Some frame salvation in terms of fear (“if you don’t pray this prayer, then God will burn you in hell”). Or, they take a page out of the political book (“if we accept a certain kind of person in the church, then God will burn us in hell”).

Faith communities simply should not be run like the media or governments. It should not be a place where the leaders use tactics to make subtle power plays to get people to do what they want. I once heard a pastor say, “If you say what you want forcefully enough, and repeat it enough times, eventually people will do what you want.” That isn’t what faith is about (that pastor recently left ministry, thankfully). Faith is not about making a name for ourselves, or building a legacy, or getting fame or fortune. So many leaders have used fear-based tactics to do this for themselves. And you know what? Shame on them. Because what we see here in this passage is a direct contradiction to that. We see, as we’ve said, a God who offers us an alternative life to one of fear. One in which we place our ultimate trust in our higher power, not something else. We discern, together, what’s good for a community. We don’t listen to people who make us afraid so that they can get their own psychological cravings met. That nonsense needs to stop.

I want that alternative life. One where I see a bigger picture. One where I understand that I’m not in charge of the universe and that the world does not revolve around me, and that my community does not revolve around me. One in which we reject power dynamics and power plays in favor of working together to submit to God and follow his voice and call. I don’t want a life where I’m constantly making certain choices because I’m afraid of what will happen if I don’t.

And, as far as I can tell, God doesn’t want that either.

There's no shame in being afraid

35 Later that day, when evening came, Jesus said to them, “Let’s cross over to the other side of the lake.” 36 They left the crowd and took him in the boat just as he was. Other boats followed along. 37 Gale-force winds arose, and waves crashed against the boat so that the boat was swamped. 38 But Jesus was in the rear of the boat, sleeping on a pillow. They woke him up and said, “Teacher, don’t you care that we’re drowning?” 39 He got up and gave orders to the wind, and he said to the lake, “Silence! Be still!” The wind settled down and there was a great calm. 40 Jesus asked them, “Why are you frightened? Don’t you have faith yet?” 41 Overcome with awe, they said to each other, “Who then is this? Even the wind and the sea obey him!”

~ Mark 4:35-41, CEB

What were the disciples supposed to do? I mean, the boat is on the lake, in the middle of a storm, about to capsize, and Jesus implies that their response, fear, is the wrong response. Why is that wrong? Wouldn’t we be afraid in the same situation?

Yes, absolutely, but here’s the thing: we’re not in their situation. By this point in the story, the disciples (many of them, anyway) have seen Jesus at work. They’ve seen his miracles, and the things he’s capable of. They’ve seen enough to know that he is worth trusting, and that he is a very unique kind of prophet, at the very least. (Let’s give them some grace for not fully understanding he was God in the flesh. Let’s face it, that’s a hard conclusion to jump to). In other words, they should have some idea of who is in the boat (though let’s not be too harsh either, Jesus is one-of-a-kind). Perhaps their response should have been, “Jesus, we’ve seen the works of your hands, we know what you can do, would you please help us out of this jam?” Who can really say?

But my point is this: we don’t have Jesus in the flesh who we can reach over and wake up and ask to solve our problems. Our circumstances are different. So we need not shame ourselves over a “lack of faith” or some such thing when we experience fear and anxiety. Instead, we pause to prepare. Then, we go before God and community and open up about our fears. We don’t tell ourselves, “Well Jesus said just have more faith so I just need to have more faith.”

No, we don’t shame ourselves. We don’t tell ourselves we just need to do better. We rely on others. We practice seeing God through others. We take our fears to others and trust them to sit with us in our fear. Maybe this helps us with our fear, maybe it doesn’t, but it will at least provide us with a few moments where we are surrounded by God’s love.

Submitting God to our Fear

From yesterday: Too often we submit God to our fear, rather than the other way around.

I heard a story once of a family whose daughter had some health problems. She had to have some tests done and, fearing the worst, the family was quite anxious about the potential news. One day they got a call from the doctor’s office, and they let it go to voicemail. The family was absolutely convinced that it was bad news (re: fear). Why were they convinced? I have no idea, but the family was so convinced that it was bad news that they sat down to pray that God change the test results from bad news into good news. They then called the doctor back and found that the news was, in fact, good. They were convinced their prayers had worked.

This is an odd story to me. I believe God is capable of doing those kinds of things, if he wants. He’s powerful enough. But it seems that this family subjected God to their fear, rather than subjecting their fear to God. They could have taken a step back and realized that they were viewing their circumstances through a lens of fear, then confidently answered the phone because they trust that God gives us an alternative way to live.

With God, we can confront good news and bad news alike. Instead, they wanted God to “change” the news. The fear told them that the news couldn’t possibly be good. And, I think, this is a way of saying that faithful people should not get bad news- and so we should pray when we’re afraid of bad news that news be changed to good news.

Faith tells us that there are many possibilities.

Trusting God with our Fear

35 Later that day, when evening came, Jesus said to them, “Let’s cross over to the other side of the lake.” 36 They left the crowd and took him in the boat just as he was. Other boats followed along. 37 Gale-force winds arose, and waves crashed against the boat so that the boat was swamped. 38 But Jesus was in the rear of the boat, sleeping on a pillow. They woke him up and said, “Teacher, don’t you care that we’re drowning?” 39 He got up and gave orders to the wind, and he said to the lake, “Silence! Be still!” The wind settled down and there was a great calm. 40 Jesus asked them, “Why are you frightened? Don’t you have faith yet?” 41 Overcome with awe, they said to each other, “Who then is this? Even the wind and the sea obey him!”

~ Mark 4:35-41, CEB

Yesterday I wrote about fear and the fact that it is ever-present in my life. I’ve also spoken about this in weekend messages over the years. In those messages, specifically, we talked about the fact that faith gives us a new perspective on life. God provides us with an alternative to interpreting our lives and life events through the lens of fear (i.e. worst-case scenario thinking/planning). Instead, we have someone in whom we can place our trust and to whom we can submit our fears and anxieties. Now, as we said, this doesn’t mean fear and anxiety magically disappear, it just means that we have some responsibility to find our faith (in response to Jesus’ question) and make sure that these things are submitted to God. Too often we submit God to our fear, rather than the other way around.

Tomorrow I’ll share a story about what I mean and then unpack it over a couple of days.

Fear and trust

35 Later that day, when evening came, Jesus said to them, “Let’s cross over to the other side of the lake.” 36 They left the crowd and took him in the boat just as he was. Other boats followed along. 37 Gale-force winds arose, and waves crashed against the boat so that the boat was swamped. 38 But Jesus was in the rear of the boat, sleeping on a pillow. They woke him up and said, “Teacher, don’t you care that we’re drowning?” 39 He got up and gave orders to the wind, and he said to the lake, “Silence! Be still!” The wind settled down and there was a great calm. 40 Jesus asked them, “Why are you frightened? Don’t you have faith yet?” 41 Overcome with awe, they said to each other, “Who then is this? Even the wind and the sea obey him!”

~ Mark 4:35-41, CEB

I have plenty of opportunities in life to be afraid. Change, of any kind, often sparks my fear. Why is that? I don’t really know. I just know it happens. And it happens to all of us (or a lot of us). We have a stereotype of “old people” that they get stuck in their ways and are totally change averse, right? My grandmother(s) could not/would not learn how to use a computer or a cell phone because it was just too different from what she knew. In fact, one of my grandparents got sort of pushed into retirement because she was a bookkeeper who refused to stop doing the books by hand.

Eventually, it seems like we get to a place in our life where we’re simply done changing and adapting and we give up (which may or may not lead to retirement). But, each of us is change averse in smaller ways in our daily lives. I hear a lot of fear around the government. I hear a lot of fear around jobs and other issues of security. I hear a lot of fear around family relationships. Some of the things I’m afraid of make me uncomfortable. Some of them I don’t understand. But, I ask myself, why is my response to be afraid? Many of the changes we see and experience each day are inevitable. How does fear relate to trust?

We’re always going to deal with some fear. Having fear doesn’t mean, necessarily, that we’re bad at trust. But I think it’s important to examine our fears, our anxieties, etc. I think it’s important to push ourselves a little bit, to ask ourselves hard questions about whether or not we truly are trusting (and/or exercising faith) that the world is more than the chaos it seems to be.

When I read Jesus’ words here, I try to imagine that he might ask the same thing of me. It’s a discipline, and it’s not easy, and I’m not good at it, but it’s something I’m trying. We will always have some fear. That is natural, understandable, and acceptable. It’s also okay to question our fear from time to time.

Learn to question your feelings

When I was a kid I often dreamed of the police coming to the house and hauling my dad off to jail. As I aged up, I often had these vague feelings, fear and dread mostly, that I was a person who might get hauled off to prison for wrongdoing. What wrongdoing? I did not know. I wondered - am I a bad person?

I could shrink all this down and hypothesize about my chronic shame, but it would bore you and miss the point I am trying to meander to. Here’s the deal: There are a ton of things we cannot know for certain, but one thing that is true enough and sure enough to make all of us collectively jump for joy.

This is how we know we’re living steadily and deeply in him, and he in us: He’s given us life from his life, from his very own Spirit.

~ 1 John 4:13, The Message

Our feelings are helpful, but don’t get the final say in determining our value. Neither do other people’s feelings, thoughts and opinions. Here is what we can know: We are living in the light when we wrestle with what it means to love God. There is no major renovation needed to turn us INTO a someone God can love, he created us as beings he deeply and profoundly loves. This changes the nature of our work, and the confidence in our capacity to be faithful people.

We were made for this abundant, loving life. It is our best and most natural look. But we still screw up. We do bad things. God knows this, and made provision for us. It is beautifully laid out in the 12 Steps of AA. In case these are not steps you trod, we’ll unpack it in future blog posts.

Uncertainty is not the worst-case scenario

Uncertainty is not a worst-case scenario. Living in pain for a life unnecessarily might be.

Now, of course, life is not pain-free. There is not a version of life without pain, without conflict, or without hardship. In fact one of the most important things we can do as people of faith is learn to face pain, conflict, and hardship head-on. It is vital that we learn to live with some level of pain, to work through conflict, and to tolerate hardship. Otherwise we are fooling ourselves.

The kind of pain I’m describing is the kind that is unnecessary and avoidable. Should we make a change, it would not exist. Making that change, though, may give rise to some other problem or pain. That is the uncertainty piece.

Embracing uncertainty is difficult, but it can be an act of hope. It suggests that we’re willing to tolerate some pain, some discomfort, for a time in order to ensure a future where we are better suited to reflect God’s image because we’re not bogged down by pain. We have pain, but we are not bogged down. There’s a difference between having some pain or discomfort and being bogged down by it such that our ability to live as the kind of people we hope to be is compromised.

I am not suggesting you go out and end every relationship that causes you pain. I am suggesting that you consider whether a relationship or situation is /defined/ by the pain it causes. If so, it may be worth considering uncertainty.

Hope and acceptance

Many of us get to a certain point in life where we’ve become so accustomed to the way things are that we fear change, even though change brings with it the possibility that things will be better. The status quo, or the familiar, offers us comfort because it’s a known entity. We know what we’re up against day-in and day-out even if what we’re up against robs us of our joy and our ability to thrive. It can be, ultimately, an act of faith to abandon the familiar in order to create the possibility of a more joyful, more free life of thriving.

I get it, though, even if the familiar isn’t particularly pleasant it often offers us benefits. If your child has a use disorder, it can ease our anxiety to be able to put eyes on them whenever we want by allowing them to live at home. It can be comforting and secure to go to work everyday and receive a steady paycheck even if the work environment is negative. My point is, even things that are negative experiences on the aggregate generally offer some benefits. So, when we make a choice to change those things we’re leaving behind not just the “familiar negatives,” which we tolerate because they’re familiar, but also the benefits, though they may be small. This is a challenge. A big challenge.

All that said, though, making a change will offer new positives, even as it offers new negatives. The question is whether these changes open up the possibility of living out of our new way of seeing. You certainly don’t need to change what is familiar just for the sake of changing it, but it may be a good idea if it supports our ability to love as God loves at the same time as it decreases our pain. Changes also bring the pain of loss, and this, too, can keep us stuck.

Acceptance is about embracing the truth that the familiar may be quite harmful for us. Hope is trusting that changing what is harmful is ultimately for our benefit, even though it brings with it a great deal of uncertainty.

Uncertainty is not a worst-case scenario. Living in pain for a lifetime unnecessarily might be.

Is "acceptance" really just giving up?

Acceptance is about living in reality. It’s an acknowledgment that things change and we must adapt to those changes. In my mind, it’s not about giving up so much as it is learning to operate within the confines that life throws at us. But, sometimes acceptance is about giving up. It’s about giving up when we’re holding onto a fantasy that is either destructive (to self or others) or otherwise impeding our ability to live out of our certain way of seeing.

For instance, if you’ve lived the past 20 years in a toxic relationship that has robbed you of your dignity and your ability to thrive, it may be time to “give up” on that relationship. If it were me, though, I wouldn’t consider this giving up. I would consider it an act of hope. It’s an act of hope because it’s trusting that there is a better alternative for you, even if it’s not your ideal. In romantic relationships, again, for instance, we often hesitate to let go even when they’re particularly harmful because we fear the alternative of being alone. Being temporarily alone, though, may have unforeseen benefits. You may not have to walk on eggshells. You may not have someone regularly scream at you, or hit you. You may not have to suffer any number of indignities. And, you open the door to the possibility of meeting someone who values you, respects you, and uplifts you.

This isn’t only true in romantic relationships. It can be true of a family sharing a house with someone with a use disorder. It can be true in a working environment. It can be true of a friendship, or a family relationship. Whatever your circumstances are, consider whether or not you have the capacity to thrive. Consider whether or not you have the opportunity to live out of your certain way of seeing. If this isn’t possible, then it might be time to make difficult changes. Don’t make the mistake of calling this “giving up” or “quitting” though, that’s the kind of language people use to try to keep you trapped in a dehumanizing situation.

Call it hope.

Is it a limitation or a temporary obstacle?

Today I’m returning more explicitly to our conversation about limitations. One of the questions that came up during a recent message dealt with discerning when to view something as a limitation as opposed to an obstacle. How do we know when what we’re faced with is something we can transcend as opposed to something that must be accepted?

Well, my answer to that isn’t going to be particularly satisfying: context is king. I follow a guitar builder on Instagram whose hand got mangled in an industrial accident. It will never work the same way again. Is this a limitation or an obstacle?

Let’s start with this question: Can he overcome it? It depends on what we mean by overcome. His hand will never function identically to how it functioned prior to the accident. When I use “overcome” or “transcend” I tend to think of these terms as meaning that whatever got disrupted could be returned to its original state. In this case, he cannot overcome it according to that definition.

This does not mean he has to give up building guitars, though. In fact, he has not stopped. His process has changed. His speed is reduced. This means fewer guitars each year. It means he will make less money. But he doesn’t have to give up on his dream job of building guitars. As was true in our example earlier in the month, we could view this as a kind of overcoming, I suppose, but it’s the kind that requires acceptance and adaptation.

So, was his accident a limitation or an obstacle? Perhaps a little bit of both. Sometimes we must treat our limitations as obstacles in order to figure out how we can best adapt to them. This may even be a form of acceptance. This guitar builder figured out how to adapt such that even though his life greatly changed, the change was not the most hopeless version that it might have been. This is our key point. Acceptance is not about giving up, it’s about making sure that the outcome isn’t as hopeless as it otherwise might be. We do not need to choose between accepting and fighting. Accepting is a form of fighting, it’s just a kind that does not involve living in denial.

More on this tomorrow.

Silence, stillness, solitude

From yesterday: How does a person become brave, or strong, or whatever, such that they can withstand all of the junk life throws at them?

The first attempt to answer this question had to do with establishing a system of loving support and accountability.

The second has to do with finding the confidence to believe that you have a place in this world, that you belong, and that you are worthy of love and respect. This kind of confidence tells us that we have the right to ask those who we are in community with to uphold our dignity. It allows us to set boundaries when our dignity and sense of self are either challenged or at risk.

Where does this confidence come from?

Well, this may be similar to the kind of strength Paul describes in Philippians that comes from God. Again, we ask, how to find it, or access it? I hope others are willing to jump in with their opinions in the comment section because I do not have the perfect or most complete answer to that question, but I believe it starts with the willingness to spend time in silence, stillness, and solitude.

We need to give ourselves the gift of space from distraction, noise, and negativity to simply sit and reflect on our lives and see what rises to the surface. This does not always feel like a gift. If you’re not used to time alone, it can be highly uncomfortable. It feels like something that must be escaped. But, that’s a feeling to resist, and it’s one that is easily overcome with practice. It’s in (healthy) disengagement that we find God and can learn to relax with ourselves and draw comfort from knowing that we are placed here so we can thrive, not so that we can be destroyed. It’s this perspective that allows us the strength, the perspective, the wisdom, and the discernment to discover our true needs and what is “ours to do” in meeting them.

What else does it take to be brave in the face of adversity? Let us know your thoughts.

How to be brave

How does a person become brave, or strong, or whatever, such that they can withstand all of the junk life throws at them? Well, the simple answer based on the past few days is that this is the kind of strength God offers us through faith. I believe that, I really do. But sometimes we still need a little help learning how to access that strength, right?

The first piece is we need a firm grounding in several key relationships where people both allow us to be ourselves and offer us strict accountability when we are not abiding by our chosen “way of seeing.” (Remember, we talk about faith as a “certain way of being based on a certain way of seeing.”).

We need other people in our lives for God to work through. This isn’t to say that God exclusively works through other people, or that He could not just work on us individually, but it helps to offer him multiple opportunities to go to work in our lives. That is one important role others play.

Sometimes in my life I have been the recipient of hardship and not been able to withstand it. I was alone. Other times, the opposite. I was surrounded. Being brave doesn’t mean having more inner resolve, necessarily, though we often think that. It can mean having exterior resolve- we can borrow from the resolve of those who love us.

Endurance and thriving

Yesterday we established that part of experiencing joy, patience, and endurance, as people of faith, is consciously choosing the long-term perspective that God is actively at work to remove hardship. We learn to use this lens to remind ourselves that our hardships are part of a version of creation that is fading away (albeit slowly, too slowly). In this way, we find joy in anticipating the end of God’s work.

But what does that have to do with today? How might we thrive in the present?

First we should ask, what do we mean by thriving? Under what circumstances would you consider yourself to be thriving? Is thriving all about having desirable circumstances? I’d suggest not, because life will never offer totally desirable circumstances. Some things will be desirable, some things won’t be. This is just how life goes.

Thriving is not just about removing negative things from life, but being people who respond to negative events with courage, grace, and dignity. It is about being people who can speak back to the tragedy of life, instead of being people lose their identity in response to suffering, or who become defined by that suffering. What I mean is, it’s possible for life to smack us in the face without losing our sense of who we are. It’s not easy, but it’s possible. That is the essence of thriving. It is the essence of contentment and joy. When Paul says he can do all things through Christ, I believe this is what he means.

How do we become those kinds of people?

I’ll speak on that tomorrow.

Endurance and joy


From yesterday: Enduring gets a bad wrap. It sounds negative, as if to “endure” means to just barely make it. As if to imply that we can’t thrive, we can only survive. Today, we’re going to begin to move in the direction of discussing how endurance can be about thriving, but it’s going to require us taking some small steps first. Today is one small step in that direction, so do not be discouraged. Hang in there over the next few days.

We recently talked about the following verses about endurance and joy in both in the blogs and in the weekend messages, but let’s revisit them:


2 My brothers and sisters, think of the various tests you encounter as occasions for joy. 3 After all, you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance. 4 Let this endurance complete its work so that you may be fully mature, complete, and lacking in nothing.

~ James 1:2-4, CEB

There’s a certain logic to this that we must walk through slowly and carefully in order to fully understand what is going on here. It is not saying that we should be happy about life’s difficulties. It’s suggesting that people of faith take on a bold, long-term perspective. That perspective reminds us that God is not yet done working. Because he’s not yet done working, there are going to be hardships. These hardships are reminders, ultimately, that God is not yet done working. Let’s phrase it positively: God is working to remove hardships, so that there will be no more tears. That may not make us happy, and it may not completely relieve our pain, but it is a reminder we hold onto that limits the damage.

Joy isn’t about masochistically enjoying hardship, it’s about damage limitation. It is about the long game. It’s about using our perspective, as people of faith, to remind ourselves that God is still at work, even amidst our trials, and part of his work is to create people who can endure such that we become whole, or complete. Joy is not about feeling happy about suffering. It’s about reminding ourselves that suffering does not get the final say.

More to come.

Faith and limitations redux

I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.

According to verses that lead up to this one, Paul is saying he is empowered, by Christ, to live in contentment regardless of his material circumstances. In other words, whether in wealth or poverty, Paul is capable of being content because Christ strengthens him to do so. In this way, we should hear these verses as saying something more like, “You can be content in the midst of your limitations because Christ offers you the kind of strength necessary to live with your limitations.”

Again, this isn’t really a popular message. People would likely be more interested in this post if I said that anything was possible with the appropriate amount and type of faith. That’s a fantasy- but it’s a tempting one because it suggests that it’s possible to go from powerless to powerful with faith. We can manipulate the world, our lives, our life circumstances, even God. Sadly, this is not the case. Even Paul does not think anything is possible, he thinks it’s possible to be strengthened by God, through Christ, to endure limitations.

In other words, this is really a message of acceptance more than it is a message of power or strength. Faith doesn’t give us more power. It gives us the power to endure.

Enduring gets a bad wrap. It sounds negative, as if to “endure” means to just barely make it. As if to imply that we can’t thrive, we can only survive. I do not think this is what enduring really is, and we’ll talk more about that tomorrow.

Faith and limitations

I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.

These words have become more about tearing people down than lifting them up. How so? Well, if you have limitations, then you must not be a faithful person because faithful people are strengthened (by Christ) to do anything. Let me pause here. I don’t believe that is what these verses are saying, nor what they mean, but it is the most common presentation. People who have limitations cannot help but feel ashamed when their lives do not match this image of strength.

It might surprise you, then, to see the words which precede these famous verses.

10 I was very glad in the Lord because now at last you have shown concern for me again. (Of course you were always concerned but had no way to show it.) 11 I’m not saying this because I need anything, for I have learned how to be content in any circumstance. 12 I know the experience of being in need and of having more than enough; I have learned the secret to being content in any and every circumstance, whether full or hungry or whether having plenty or being poor.

Working backwards, we ask the question, “What is it that Christ strengthens Paul to do?” Not literally “all things.” He can’t fly. He can’t jump over a mountain. So, what is it? According to verses 10-12, Paul is empowered, by Christ, to live in contentment regardless of his material circumstances. In other words, whether in wealth or poverty, Paul is capable of being content because Christ strengthens him to do so.

This should blow your hair back, because these verses are often used to encourage people to think that hard work, or effort, can help them rise above their limitations. What Paul is saying is more like: You can be content in the midst of your limitations because Christ offers you the kind of strength necessary to live with your limitations.

Those are very different messages, aren’t they?

Limitations threaten our perceptions

Acknowledging limitations poses a major threat to a number of our cultural values and norms. Our culture teaches us that people have unlimited potential and that they can be whatever they want as long as you work hard enough. It’s a silly philosophy- but it’s also one that is difficult to tear down because, if you don’t accomplish your goal, then someone easily rationalize it by saying, “They must not have worked hard enough.” That allows us to continue the fantasy that nothing can stop hard work and that means we all have the potential for “greatness.”

Acknowledging limitations isn’t popular because, if we did acknowledge them, then it would mean giving up on this fantasy that everyone has equal opportunities at greatness. Even worse, we are a culture of people so obsessed with avoiding pain such that we will go out of our way to deny that pain even exists. When we can’t deny the pain exists, we will deny that it continues to impact us. “I’m over it, I’ve moved on.”

So, we try to deny limitations. Or we talk as if we’ve overcome things that we haven’t yet overcome because it’s hard for us to face the fact that we are limited. Or we simply come up with a replacement “thing.” Yesterday, I wrote about my friend who lost his fiancé to a car accident. Today, he is happily married with children. But that isn’t a replacement wife, and those aren’t replacement kids. He still carries the pain of his loss, and that is okay. If he doesn’t acknowledge that then the pain itself may run amok, causing all kinds of damage he is unaware of. That unintentional damage can be limited if we’re willing to acknowledge life’s limitations and its confines and learn to work within them. In other words, acknowledging limitations as a result of our pain does not create problems for us. However, refusing to acknowledge our limitations does.

Tragedy and Limitations

Some limitations will always be there and we must learn to live alongside them. They put confines around the types of outcomes we can expect to experience in life and we can only learn to tolerate or accept that reality.

Here’s an example. I have a friend who was once engaged to a woman who died, tragically and unexpectedly, in a car crash. He never got the experience of being married to her, neither the joy nor the sorrow of marriage. He will never raise children with her. This was an outcome he anticipated, even expected. Her death placed a confine on his life: he will never see the future they planned. He can’t overcome that.

Let me be clear: he may very well find a happy and hopeful future with someone else. We could call that a certain kind of “overcoming,” because his life would not be defined by grief and victimhood. That would be legitimately good. But, at the same time, he will never see the future he planned with his fiancé and that is a reality that can only be grieved, mourned, and, hopefully, accepted as he enters a new phase of life. In that sense, specifically, he can’t overcome the tragedy. What I mean is, he can’t erase it from existence and he will always be impacted. He can’t bring his fiancé back nor change the past. He will carry it with him. Because he will carry this pain with him, there will be limitations. He will live with unmet expectations, remorse or regret (potentially), disappointment, shock, sadness, anger, and more. Likely he will struggle with emotional intimacy for a time because his burden is great. The list could go on. His life has confines now. He cannot marry the person he wanted to marry. Because of that, his future is limited to options other than the one he planned on. While this is deeply sad, this does not have to be hopeless, and we’ll talk more about that in the days to come.

The point is, life will throw things at us, at times, that we cannot undue, ignore, or simply move past. They must be confronted, somehow, some way and, even if we’re able to confront them, they may still impact us moving forward. In short, life’s difficulties can be so great that they place confines on us. They limit us and they limit our potential outcomes for our lives.

Here are some questions we’ll try to tackle in the next few days:

What do we do about this? How do we, as faithful people, respond to these limitations? Is the acknowledgment of these limitations an example of hopelessness?

Stay tuned.