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?

Imitation of Christ

5 Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
6 who, though he was in the form of God,
    did not regard equality with God
    as something to be exploited,
7 but emptied himself,
    taking the form of a slave,
    being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
8     he humbled himself
    and became obedient to the point of death—
    even death on a cross.
 
Philippians 2:5-8, NRSV

We could just as easily title this day, “Character Part III.”  

The idea here is that our spirituality, our participation in God’s spirit, doesn’t happen just so we feel good, or calm, or peaceful (though those things are good), but so that we become people who embody God’s values, such as humility and obedience to God’s way of seeing.  The idea here is that participating in God’s spirit creates within us the capacity to give up on the rat race of striving for power and, instead, being willing to be people who find meaning in a life defined by service.  

Service looks many different ways (though it does not look like codependency, for instance) but it seems to take place where presence meets humility.  When presence and humility meet, we are free to simply be available for a difficult conversation, or show up to a meeting when you know you won’t benefit from either.  You may not benefit, but presence plus humility gives us vision to see that other people benefit from learning that showing up to meetings is meaningful and impactful.  When presence meets humility we are prepared to do things that we don’t need to do (for our own benefit), or things that may actually be beneath us, so that someone else may benefit.  

I don’t want to sound too legalistic.  This humility plus presence stuff is about a mentality, not a certain set of right actions.  Situation and context always inform our actions.  This is about learning to become people who desire to live in ways that benefit others, and then learn to act on that desire.  

God, you are killing me!

In Alice Fryling’s book, Mirror for the Soul, she writes about Lewis Carroll’s sequel to Alice in Wonderland.  I’m not sure I knew there was a sequel.  In the Looking Glass House, books can only be read when reflected a mirror because the words are written backwards. Fryling’s book is on the enneagram and she uses that analogy as a way to talk about her fondness for that particular tool for self-discovery and her perception of its value. 

 

I would say that the scriptures have done the same thing for me (and the enneagram too for that matter).  More accurately, are doing the same thing for me.  God’s word provides a grand epic panoramic story that often serves as a backdrop for our own mite-sized narratives. Oftentimes I experience it as a Looking Glass House mirror.  It puts “me” in context; it takes my backward self and turns me around. 

 

I was ashamed of the way I didn’t handle the abusive situation when the older woman spoke so rudely to the slightly less older volunteer.  I felt like I didn’t stand up for someone who had stood up for my children.  She had been an able teacher and for one child in particular, a valuable mentor.  And when she was publicly humiliated I did nothing but hold her gaze and lamely attempt to communicate my silent rage.  This doesn’t fit well with that panoramic vision for life I’ve been reading about for decades.  Of the three of us, I was the greatest offender.

 

Where to go from here?  Back to the drawing board.  I cannot forget the things that are behind me, as Paul suggests in the scripture below, but I also know that needless rumination isn’t healthy either.  Maybe, just maybe, I can learn from my mistake(s).

 

Learning from this past experience has been an actionable item on my “to do” list for exactly one year.  When I arrive at my polling precinct and immediately am confronted with another scene, there’s only one sensible thing to do.  Pray – “God, you are killing me here.  Seriously?”

 

Join me as we go back to the beginning of this grand epic tale and see what God might have me do on election day in light of all we know about who God is and what he is up to.

 

Brothers and sisters, I myself don’t think I’ve reached it, but I do this one thing: I forget about the things behind me and reach out for the things ahead of me.

~ Philippians 3:13 CEB