Dear Morning Devotion Group: This concludes our Pencil Faith Series. Thank you for sticking with me while I make this transition to form that allows me to compile my entries into book form. Monday we start a series on the church called “The Father and the Bride” (Temporary Title). I hope you enjoy it! Blessings, Larry Jones
Chapter 17 – What Makes Us Stronger?
Once a friend of mine said, “Doesn’t the Bible say, what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger?” I’ll confess I had to look, and the answer is “no.” Not only is it not in the Bible, but the statement is attributed to philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. Nietzsche died at the age of 56 after a debilitating mental breakdown, followed by a host of medical issues. In the end, his illness rendered his famous motto void, at least as it played out in his own life.
The truth that we are made stronger by our trials is, however, scriptural. In his letter to the Romans Paul wrote, “Not only so, but we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance” (Romans 5:3). Yet there is a difference between the rationale for Nietzsche’s philosophy and Paul’s convictions. Nietzsche felt if we could find a way to endure human suffering, it would equip us to win future personal battles. Paul, on the other hand, believed God was working through his trials to proclaim the glory of Christ through his testimony. Nietzsche’s path put its hope in humanity. Paul’s put its hope in God.
This means the answer to the question “what makes us stronger?” is answered in the context of a relationship. It is true Paul says our suffering “produces” perseverance, but perseverance is merely a fruit of something more basic. We find this “something more” in another statement from Paul: “And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us” (Rom 5:5 NIV).
If faith grows as our trust in God deepens, then one purpose for our suffering is made clear. Our trials teach us to depend less on our own strength and more on God. While it is true victory over our circumstances can and should make us more confident, our confidence is never in ourselves. Victory has its origin in God, and if the full truth were known we would probably be astonished to know the extent of His intervention.
We are made stronger when we admit our weaknesses and assume the role of clay jars, allowing God’s glory to be seen in us. This presents another ironic twist in Satan’s strategy. Not only do his attempts to defeat us drive us deeper into the arms of God, but they also amplify our witness. Our frustrations and limitations make us better vessels for God’s purposes.
No wonder we find joy in our trials. They draw us closer to the Father, bring Him glory and give our lives greater meaning. We will still have questions. Why does a loving and good God permit us to be afraid? Why does He allow Satan to sift us with doubt? While we may never know all of the answers, there is comfort in knowing these are the things that teach us the One who is in us is greater than the one who is in the world.
During the season when our church family was recovering from the loss of its facility, we sojourned for three years without a permanent home. This created immeasurable stress on our church staff since we often had to scramble at the last-minute when our temporary arrangements fell through. As well, our architectural plans for our new facility placed function over form, leading to a manageable level of controversy over its non-traditional design. These were just two pressure points on a journey that pushed me to the edge of sanity. In time, my anxiety turned to discouragement and eventually to depression.
One afternoon I was traveling home after a long day of planning, and I decided to drive down to a marina near our home to settle my spirit. I parked my car by an old oyster boat and stared at the water for several minutes. A torrent of worries rushed through my head and I tried to make a mental note of the issues that really mattered while pushing the ones that seemed unimportant away. Then, for reasons I still cannot explain, I felt an overwhelming sense of hopelessness and abandonment. Looking back, I can see I was in depression. My stress level had simply been too high for too long and I was reaching the limits of my capacity to cope. I wept. My tears were mingled with fear, grief and confusion, but mostly confusion. And since I was a leader the mere thought I was at my wit’s end terrified me. I was afraid to face the questions before me, let alone answer them.
When my tears subsided I started my engine, turned on the radio and put my car in gear. At that very moment the DJ on our local classic rock station made a most unusual song choice. It began, “Oh happy day, oh happy day”. Perhaps you remember this popularized 1960s version of an old hymn. “When Jesus washed, He washed my sins away.” I put my car back in park, leaned my head back, closed my eyes and listened. I thought about the grace of God poured into my life through His Son. I was facing a lot of earthly challenges, but my greatest victory had already been won on the cross of Calvary. Indeed I had all I needed! Buildings are useful. Other people’s perspectives are important. But in the final analysis, since I had the promises of forgiveness and eternal life, and was in a new and lasting covenant with my Creator, nothing else mattered.
“Oh happy day, oh happy day”!
The song ended and I began my slow, but very relaxed drive home. I still had fears and doubts, but at that moment I began the process of restoring balance to my faith. I had been holding fiercely to the things I knew for certain. But the time had come to let God show me a greater certainty. My faith leaped for joy as I placed everything I thought I knew at the foot of the cross.
The foundational truths that comprised my certainties hadn’t changed, but my willingness to be open to the ways God might work within them had. To the casual observer the pencils of my #2 Pencil Faith had been restored to their standard 80/20 position, but I was anything but normal. In the years that have passed I have grown increasingly abnormal and aware of the peace of which Paul wrote, “And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7).
This is the peace I think we all desire, but cannot find on our own. Nor can we discover it in the comfort of a life without pain. We must be tested and tried. Such is the nature of growing in Christ, and the way of the #2 Pencil Faith.