Not too long ago a man came to see me who was one the most miserable looking individuals I have ever seen. As we talked I discovered he had made some very important promises to God. He had promised he would give his life wholly and completely to God. He had promised that at every opportunity he would be a faithful witness for Jesus. He had promised that in all of his actions he would be clean and pure. He had promised he would burn himself out.
Now those were laudable promises, and I am sure God heard them and was pleased. However, there was a problem. As this young man tried to live his life, as he got out into the grind of just keeping on keeping on, he found that no matter how hard he tried, he just couldn’t keep his promises. There had been times when he knew he should have witnessed for Christ, but on those occasions he had decided that silence was better and easier. He had not been absolutely pure and righteous. He had not really burned himself out for God—in fact, he had hardly gone near the flame. And now, he had failed so often, he came to tell me that he was giving the whole thing up.
There are thousands of Christians just like this man who have a strong desire to follow Christ wherever he should lead and yet want to give it up when they find they aren’t strong enough or good enough or spiritual enough. God has just demanded too much, they say, and the impossibility of the whole enterprise either makes for hypocrites or failures.
The root of the difficulty is this: Most of us feel that God can’t do without us—if we fail, God fails. That is one of the greatest lies ever perpetrated on the Christian community. Everything doesn’t depend on you, and the sooner each Christian learns that truth the better. One of the reasons Jesus formed the church was to make up the difference between what individuals ought to do and what they do.
Somewhere, perhaps from those of us who don’t make clear exactly what the Christian life involves, some new Christians (and some older ones too) have gotten the idea that when they become Christians they somehow become superhuman, and if they don’t see superhuman qualities in their lives they feel they must not really be Christians. Nothing could be further from the truth.
In his or her position of new life the Christian is, in fact, a completely new creature. There is now the power to do and will many things that were not possible before. However, that does not mean that all of a sudden the Christian is not human anymore. Spiritual depression, failure, hurt, and sin are still present in the Christian, and a feeling that none of these things should ever happen to a Christian only makes them seem even worse.
When you stick a Christian with a pin, she bleeds just like everyone else. If a Christian jumps off a ten-story building, he dies just like everyone else. Some Christians do have financial problems, family problems, and health problems. Time after time I have heard Christians say, “I thought I was a Christian, but I know now that I was just being idealistic.” In other words, they are saying, “I thought I was perfect, but now I know I’m not.” The danger is in equating being perfect with being Christian. If you have been doing that, I have some very good news for you: Christians are human too.
We struggle with physical problems.
Listen to what one of the finest Christians who ever lived, the Apostle Paul, had to say about physical problems: “So to keep me from being too elated by 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 being too elated. 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” (2 Corinthians 12:7-9). What Paul is saying is that Christians are just as physically weak as other human beings.
The good news the Bible has for Christians who suffer from physical problems is that God knows and understands. No matter how much pain you suffer, no matter how tired you get, no matter how weak you are, God knows that you are an “earthen vessel” and he will love you and use you anyway. Catherine Booth said she could not remember a time in her life when she was without pain. Beethoven was the son of an alcoholic and became deaf at the age of twenty-eight. When Handel wrote the Messiah he was suffering from a paralyzed right side and right arm. Ignatius Loyola suffered from lifelong pain. Fanny Crosby was blind. And we could go on and on. The point is this: Your physical weakness is not a sign of God’s disfavor; it is what God has promised to help you overcome and use.
I believe God does perform miracles of healing in our time. Any pastor can give you incident after incident of God’s healing power. But to say that is a far cry from saying that God’s healing is given as a reward for goodness, piety, or spirituality. The Christian life is not a life of power without pressure. It is power under pressure. That includes the pressure of physical weakness. One of the great dangers involved in the resurgence of interest in spiritual healing in our time is the danger of those who aren’t healed feeling that the fault lies within themselves. That just isn’t true. Helen Keller said on one occasion that she thanked God for her handicaps because through them she had found herself, her work, and her God.
I don’t know what your physical problem is right now, or what it will be in the future. Sometimes God in his grace sees fit to provide healing—but sometimes he doesn’t. Whatever he does is best for you and should not cause guilt because his “grace is sufficient for you,” and his “power is made perfect in weakness.” Sickness can be God’s gift as much as health.
We struggle with sin.
Christians are not only weak physically; they are still human in regard to sin. Now what I say here should not be misunderstood. I am not saying that sin is okay. I am not saying that because it is human to sin it is all right to sin. John and I have the same goal: “My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. He is the propitiation for our sins…” (1 John 2:1-2).
Again let’s look at the words of the Apostle Paul: “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree with the law, that it is good. So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing” (Romans 7:15-19).
And we say, “Now wait a minute, Paul. You’re supposed to be Paul, super-Christian. You are an apostle. You wrote much of the New Testament. You were the first Christian missionary. You certainly don’t mean you still had a problem with sin after all that. You certainly don’t mean you fell short of God’s demands.” If Paul were here I am sure he would say, “That’s exactly what I mean!”
One of Satan’s greatest tricks is to say to the Christian who has sinned, “Ah, you’ve done it again…after all that talking about being such a dedicated Christian. You aren’t any more a Christian than I am a Christian. How could you be a Christian and act as you do? You aren’t a Christian—you are a hypocrite.” And then the Christian says, “You know, you’re right. I’m not a Christian.” It’s a trap.
Let me give you the spiritual cycle in which many Christians live. They promise God that they will follow him no matter what, and they sincerely try—and fail. Then they say to themselves, “I have tried and failed, therefore I’m not worthy [which is precisely the point].” Then the Christian is hesitant to go before God because of the sin and becomes spiritually dead. But in the midst of the deadness, the Christian realizes he or she can’t live without God and goes to him and starts the whole process again. The good news of the Christian faith is that that kind of cycle is a lie. The Christian is the person who, more than anyone else, realizes his or her own imperfection and depends on Christ alone to make up for it. That kind of dependence removes guilt and provides power to overcome the sin.
There was a small college in the Midwest that used to advertise it was “seven miles from any known sin.” Would to God it were true! I would go there and live the rest of my life. But our sin isn’t so much outside us, is it? It is part of us, and that is why it hurts so much. God has provided the power to overcome the sin about which you are aware right now. The chances are that when you have, by his grace, overcome it, he will show you other sins with which you must deal. Dealing with sin is a lifelong process. Guilt over something that is a part of your nature isn’t necessary for the Christian. That’s the reason for the cross. There are just two kinds of people in this world—those who are sinners and don’t know it, and those who are sinners and know it and are trying to do something about it. The Christian is of the latter breed. It isn’t getting in the mud that is the worst part. (That’s part of being human.) It is staying there.
We struggle spiritually.
Christians are not only human physically and in regard to sin but they are also human spiritually. Listen again to the words of Paul: “For we do not want you to be ignorant, brothers, of the affliction we experienced in Asia. For we were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death. But that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead” (2 Corinthians 1:8-9). Someone said to me recently, “Steve, since I became a Christian, I have never lost the sense of God’s presence.” That man was either a fool or a liar or both. Why? Because as the Bible says, we are earthen vessels. Because we are earthen vessels we sometimes live on the spiritual mountaintop, but sometimes must go through the valley of despair and darkness so that we might appreciate the mountaintop.
You are probably saying right now, “All right, I understand that my spiritual depression is normal, but that doesn’t help me much when I am going through it. What I want to know is what I can do about it. How can I get rid of it?" I will tell you: Praise God anyway. Continue with your prayer life anyway. Read the Scripture anyway. Serve and witness anyway. And don’t whine about how you have lost everything because you are going through a period of spiritual depression. You haven’t. You’re just human.
Physical weakness, spiritual weakness, and sin are a part of the Christian life because Christians are human too. But let me tell you something else. God’s strength is not dependent on your weakness. Aren’t you glad? Let’s look again at the words of the Apostle Paul: “But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. For we who live are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh” (2 Corinthians 4:7-11).
I am very pessimistic about human nature. I call it realism (some would say cynicism), but I’ll tell you something. Whereas I may be pessimistic about man, I am extremely optimistic about God and what he can do with and through weak and sinful men and women who are willing to let him. That’s the only kind of people he has to work with. He knew that before he created us and called us unto himself. He requires only that we follow him. He knows we will fail physically, we will sin, and we are weak spiritually. If he is willing to allow us to follow him anyway, that should be enough. Nothing depends on our strength. If it did, God’s work would go undone. Nothing depends on our purity. If it did, we could forget about God ever doing anything in the world. Nothing depends on our spirituality. If it did, the Christian faith would be a farce. You are nothing and I am nothing outside of God’s grace. The world doesn’t rest on our shoulders; it rests on God’s shoulders. And aren’t you glad?
Adapted from Steve’s book Welcome to the Family.