I am Strong in the Lord

Strength when I’m Failing

I will sing to the Lord, for He is highly exalted; the horse and rider He has hurled into the sea.  The Lord is my strength and song, and He has become my salvation; This is my God, and I will praise Him; My father’s God, and I will extol Him.  The Lord is a warrior; The Lord is His name.  Exodus 15:2-3

I grew up in church, and the story of God parting the Red Sea is as familiar as Snow White and the Seven Dwarves to me.  If I’m not careful, it becomes as ho-hum as a fairy tale.

Moses didn’t have that problem.  The man had just lived it.  Pharaoh’s army was hot on his tail, and in a deafening rush, the waters of the sea piled up in two shimmering blue walls, leaving a path of dry land between them.  He rushed his people through the bizarre tunnel, but they could hear the whips and shouts of Pharaoh’s horsemen right behind them, wheels grinding over the gravel.  An entire army was after them, heading through the same escape path.  The Israelites were far too panicked to stop and admire the fish swimming passed their heads.

But just as the last Israelite reached the opposite shore, the watery walls collapsed, drowning the Egyptians in blue death.

Moses stood on that beach trying to wrap his mind around it – the most amazing thing he had ever witnessed.  This was a man who had never even seen a movie seeing the hand of God do the impossible.  Well, is it any wonder he burst into praise?  “The Lord is my strength and song, and He has become my salvation!”

Who could help but feel strong in God at that moment?

But, let’s not forget all the dreary, sweaty, disappointing moments that lead up to it.  God told Moses to free the Israelites, a task he didn’t want, for which he felt ill prepared, and at which he failed several times.   He trusted God enough to march into Pharaoh’s throne room and tell him to free the Israelites, and Pharaoh not only said “No,” but made the Israelites’ work harder.  And that turned the very people Moses was trying to rescue against him.  You know the rest – plagues and complaining until finally Pharaoh released them, only to change his mind and send his army after them.  Hardly a ringing victory.

Was God any less Moses’ strength in those times of discouragement, of rejection, of trying and failing?  When I hit a roadblock, I tend to feel like God is no longer my strength, that He hasn’t really given me the task, or that He just doesn’t care if I complete it or not.

The tasks God gives us are hard. It seemed to me, in sweltering Africa, that if God had sent me there, He should have done me the favor of making the language a bit easier to learn and kept me healthier.  I mean, malaria and diarrhea?  Come on, God!  How am I supposed to share Jesus with these people if I can’t get out of bed and can’t speak when I do?  But God didn’t make Africa easy for me.  Most of the tasks he’s given – on any continent, exotic or not — have been so difficult that it was impossible for me to complete them on my own strength.

And perhaps, that’s the point.

May I praise God for being my strength not only in the moment of awe-inspiring victory, but also in the uphill battle before it.

 

 

I am able to be content

Contentment in Weakness and Trials

Because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, for this reason, to keep me from exalting myself, there was given me a thorn in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me—to keep me from exalting myself! Concerning this I implored the Lord three times that it might leave me. And He has said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness.” Most gladly, therefore, I will rather boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Therefore I am well content with weaknesses, with  insults, with distresses, with persecutions, with difficulties, for Christ’s sake; for when I am weak, then I am strong. 2 Corinthians 12:7-10 NASB

When I started writing this post, I began just with Paul last sentence here: “I am well content with weakness, with insults, with distresses, with persecutions, with difficulties …”  I thought I could come up with some great insights about being content with hardships.  I came up dry.  Because, um, I’m not content with insults and difficulties.  Really.  I’m not.  I spend a lot of time praying that God would take those suckers away – not praying that I’d be content in them.

So I went back to my Bible to get some context for Paul’s radical statement.  It’s sort of vague, but the gist of it is this: God had given Paul some mighty revelations.  Paul had walked on a spiritual mountaintop, and to keep him from thinking too highly of himself because of it, God allowed Satan to give Paul some sort of affliction.  No clue what it was, but it was bothersome, and Paul (like me) prayed that God would take it away.

And God said, “No.” 

He allowed Paul to keep struggling with this unnamed hardship, this weakness that tripped him up, so that the glory for all Paul accomplished would go to God Himself and not to Paul.  It would be obvious that God was moving and bringing people to Himself, because Paul’s mastery of that African language was so poor that no one could ever credit him for the success.  (Oh, wait … that was me in Africa, not Paul.)

What is it for you?  What are you inept at?  That may be where God can be most glorified – right there in your weakness, as He moves inspite of you flubbing up your part. Go plunge into ministry despite your weakness. That way God gets the credit instead of you. I think this is at least part of what Paul is saying here. 

But there’s more.  He’s not just talking about personal inaptitude.  He’s talking about honest-to-goodness trials, things that assail us from the outside.  Contentment, he says, can be found when God gets the glory as we suffer through them.

A man in my Sunday School class had a massive and unexpected stroke a few weeks ago.  As his life ebbed away there in the ICU, his family stood around his bed and sang hymns. Because musical talent runs deep in their genetic pool, they sang them in four-part harmony.  A hush fell over the hospital.  Nurses, doctors, other patients, and other visitors stopped their bustle to listen to a grieving group of believers praise their God in the midst of their trial. 

My friend died.  His family is heartbroken.  But they gave God glory in their suffering, and who knows how many hearts were moved closer to God’s kingdom because of it?

Yes, I am weak.  Yes, I will face hardships, persecutions, distress. And when God uses me despite those things, when He brings people into His kingdom even though I am tangled in my afflictions, He gets the glory – not me. 

In that, I truly am well content.

I am crucified with Christ

Tounge Tied and Crucified

When I came to you, brothers, announcing the testimony of God to you, I did not come with brilliance of speech or wisdom.  For I didn’t think it was a good idea to know anything among you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified.  I came to you in weakness, in fear, and in much trembling.  My speech and my proclamation were not with persuasive words of wisdom but with a powerful demonstration by the Spirit, so that your faith might not be based on men’s wisdom but on God’s power. I Cor. 2:1-5

The little girls in tattered dresses held their bellies and guffawed behind the African hut.  One of them was putting on quite a performance to entertain her friends.  “Good morning,” she hooted through her nose, distorting the words, screwing up her face in concentration.  “Did you sleep well?” The other fell against each other in fits of giggles.

That was the phrase I had been practicing that morning in their language — their blasted, twisted, tonal, impossible language.  And I’d obviously said it quite wrong.  Jesus said to love the little children, but at that moment, I found it rather difficult.

I had to learn two African languages during my 12 ½ years in West Africa, and both times I achieved what some would label “fluency.”  Could I share the gospel in those languages?  Certainly.  Could I do it eloquently? Nope.  My accent was thick and my phrasing awkward.  Yes, Paul, I exactly understand what it is like to open my mouth without “brilliance of speech or wisdom.”

Yet, hundreds of West Africans came to Christ while my team, our U.S. partnership churches, and I labored among them.  Why?  Most definitely not because of my stellar language skills or cultural knowledge.  It was entirely because of Jesus Christ and Him crucified. The power of that story – the story of a God who loved them so much that He died for them – arrested them.  It didn’t matter that the story was told haltingly with grammar blunders.  It was the God of the story, not the story-teller, who drew people to Himself.

For me, it was a new take on being “crucified with Christ.”  The day those girls mocked me, and hundreds of other times while I lived in Africa, my pride was absolutely crucified. It was painfully obvious that the birth of West African churches had nothing to do with me or my skill or expertise.  It seemed all that was required of me was my attendance.  I just showed up, made mistakes, and watched God work miracles.

Now that I am back in the States, my focus should be the same.  But here, I am competent.  I speak and write well.  I get the culture.  I’m not socially awkward.  It’s tempting to take a little credit for myself.  Tempting, but erroneous, for even in my native land, I am crucified with Christ. Any good that I do comes from His giftings, His empowerment, and most of all, from His grace.

Praise the God of the cross, and may He always obscure me.