Our Flaws and God's Grace
Do not pray for easy lives. Pray to be stronger men. Do not pray for tasks equal to your powers. Pray for powers equal to your tasks.
He knows not his own strength that hath not met adversity. Heaven prepares good men with crosses.
The name Charles Haddon Spurgeon is often invoked by those in the ministry with a sense of awe and admiration, and with good reason. He was one of the giants of the modern church era, a powerful preacher from the pulpit of London's Metropolitan Tabernacle, the author of some two hundred books, including the masterful Treasury of David. Spurgeon was truly a man to be respected, loved, and emulated.
Based on his enormous reputation and accomplishments, many people assume Spurgeon must have experienced great peace, contentment, and prosperity. After all, his dedication to God and the power with which God anointed his life and ministry were obvious. Surely his was a life of satisfaction and fulfillment.
The facts, however, are vastly different. Spurgeon carried a heavy burden throughout his years of ministry. Wrote Richard Day, one of his biographers, "There was one aspect of Spurgeon's life, glossed over by most of his biographers, that we must now view with utter frankness: he was frequently in the grip of terrific depression."
Further, he was often ill, spending weeks at a time in bed, so many that he told the leaders of his church they ought to replace him. (They wisely chose not to.)
He frequently worried over his personal financial situation. Spurgeon once told this story about himself: "During a very serious illness, I had an unaccountable fit of anxiety about money matters. One of the brethren, after trying to comfort me, went straight home, and came back to me bringing all the stocks and shares and deeds and available funds he had, putting them down on the bed: 'There, dear Pastor, I owe everything I have in the world to you, and you are quite welcome to all I possess.' Of course I soon got better and returned it all to my dear friend."
Spurgeon, like the rest of us, was a man of many weaknesses. He had his doubts, his anxieties, his struggles with emotion. He wrestled mightily with the tension between being holy and being human. Yet the God he served is one who seems to specialize in making tremendous use of flawed instruments. I sometimes think, in fact, that God chooses to make the greatest use of those people with the greatest flaws.
Sinners in the Hands of a Gracious God
Christians have always struggled with grace. It's far easier for us to accept the reality that a holy God hates our sin than it is for us to really believe that he can use flawed instruments to fulfill his perfect design. For some reason, we're reluctant to believe he loves us, forgives us, and truly wants what's best for us, even when we sin.
I'm amazed at how often I meet pastors who, once I get to know them, seem to believe that God isn't really on their side, that he's actually against them. If only I were a great performer, God would bless my ministry seems to be the prevailing attitude. They doubt that God really has good things in mind for them. Practically speaking, they believe they still have to earn his favor.
The Bible, however, goes to great lengths to teach a completely different truth. I think of Elijah, "a man of like passions as we are," who ran from his enemy Jezebel. Yet when he admitted his fears, God listened and used him powerfully. I think of Jonah, with whom God had to use drastic circumstances just to get him in the right ministerial vicinity. Yet God used bitter, reluctant Jonah to save an entire nation. I think of Paul's self-seeking contemporaries mentioned in Philippians 1. They were preaching the gospel out of unworthy motives, and were causing Paul distress, yet he acknowledged they were being used by God to spread the Good News.
Whether from the experience of individuals like Charles Spurgeon or the examples of biblical characters, we're all confronted with that tension between the pursuit of holiness and our humanity. We struggle, and often we fall. But we're not alone. Further, nothing we say or think or do surprises God, nor does it alter his love for or commitment to us. And rather than precluding our ability to be used by God, our flaws sometimes seem almost to be requirements for great service.
"My power is made perfect in weakness," the Lord told Paul (2 Cor. 12:9), who responded, as we should, "Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ's power may rest on me.… For when I am weak, then I am strong." Except for Jesus Christ, God has always used flawed instruments. Always.
This is not to be used as an excuse to sin, of course. God calls us to holiness and expects us to mature in it. But he recognizes the stuff of which we're made — he did the making, after all. He gives us the freedom to be human, and he usually chooses to display his power through our weakness, not our strength.
The Hard Lesson of Life
Psychiatrist Scott Peck, in his book The Road Less Traveled, emphasizes the simple, obvious point that for virtually everyone, life is hard most of the time. We have to get out of bed early in the morning to go to work, even though we'd rather keep sleeping. Many people have to go off to jobs they really don't like. Things go wrong with cars and plumbing and kids and projects and relationships. Food spoils and clothes wear out and ropes break. The paycheck doesn't stretch quite far enough to cover the budget. And on and on.
In conversational settings, whenever I mention the fact that life is hard, most people nod their heads in knowing agreement. Yet subconsciously, we try to avoid the pain, the difficulty, of life. We try to cover our hurts and failure. We don't want to admit them, even though we know they're the common lot of humanity. Peck defines mental illness, at root, as the attempt to avoid that hardness of life in one's own experience. Thus, to the extent that each of us tries to avoid the reality that life is hard, to that extent each of us is mentally ill.
My point in paraphrasing Peck is that when it comes to handling the tension between being holy and being human, I hope the perspectives in this book will help, but I recognize that there are no easy answers, no quick, sure cures.
In some ways it's good that we have to struggle with the hard things in life; I know it's helped to keep me humble, to make me a better, more empathic minister, and to keep me dependent on the Lord.
In The Treasury of David, Spurgeon offered this understanding: "The Lord frequently appears to save his heaviest blows for his best-loved ones; if any one affliction be more painful than another it falls to the lot of those whom he most distinguishes in his service. The gardener prunes his best roses with most care. [Discipline] is sent to keep successful saints humble, to make them tender towards others, and to enable them to bear the high honours which their heavenly Friend puts upon them."
May we all be found worthy of such honors as we faithfully serve our loving Lord.
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