Monday, November 14, 2011

Thorn In Your Flesh

I have found that most people tend to struggle with the same frustrating weaknesses over and over in their lives and no matter how hard they try they can't seem to make them better.  I know this sounds like blasphemy coming from a Christian counselor whose career is based on helping people get out of stuck patterns and getting to a state of increased healthiness, but it is often the case.  There is definitely a sanctification process where we as believers are transformed by God over the course of our lifetimes being shaped more into His image, and there are insights and tools that counseling can provide that facilitate this process, but often there is a point where no matter how hard I work as a counselor or how hard my client works the weakness doesn't seem to go away.  The young man who is afraid he might actually lose his job soon if his business finds out he regularly surfs for porn during work hours, who works extremely hard to institute changes, does everything I tell him to do, and fervently begs God to take the temptation away from him.  The woman who has been in counseling for decades and studies scripture daily looking for God to lift her depression that even medication doesn't seem to touch.  The spouse that tries and works their tail off trying to transform their marriage and years later continue to get nothing in return.  There seems to be cases where people work hard and get better and cases where people work hard and don't get better, but rarely if ever are there times where people are irresponsible and put forth no effort but they are magically transformed by God.  So maybe the two necessary components for significant life change are a determination to put forth effort and take responsibility paired with the transforming power of God, where one without the other is ineffective.  Don't get me wrong, I believe Non-Christians can improve their marriages and become less anxious, they just have to do all the work on their own and have to fight an uphill battle against their own sin nature to which they are a slave.  I also believe that God is sovereign and could choose to transform a person without them doing a thing, I just more often observe in counseling as well as scripture that God seems to like for us to invest in the process rather than sitting back and waiting on the magic.

So this post isn't expressly for those who just don't have a relationship with Christ, or for those who just aren't interested in doing the work of getting better, but rather those who are crying out desperately to God to rescue them from their sinful flesh and are doing everything in their power to take responsibility but consistently see no change.  Paul says this, and we can all relate:

2 Corinthians 12:7b-10

New International Version (NIV)
7 Therefore, in order to keep me from becoming conceited, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me.8 Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. 9 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 about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. 10 That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.

The relationship between man and sin, before and after salvation is a deep and theologically rich topic which can't be fully fleshed out here but the basics I am working from are these: God could have chose to create a world without choice and therefore no sin but it would have also been mindless automatons devoid of the ability to really love.  He also could have set it up to where when we accept Christ we are not only forgiven of our past but allowed to move forward without ever sinning again, but that seems to not be the case.  And while many believers experience the supernatural deliverance from their sin, weakness, or affliction there are many more that, like Paul, never seem to catch a break.

What this indicates to me about the heart and character of God is that he seems to be more interested in us relying on him in humility and dependence, regardless of what kind of benefit we get from it, far more than he is interested in us becoming more and more perfect and sinless according to the law.  It seems that the work of sanctification, where we are rescued from the bondage of sin and able to live more in the image of God, is a work that we are powerless to do in and of ourselves.  But it is also a process in which God likes for us to do our part, to struggle and fight, to make responsible choices, and to step out in audacious faith - kind of like my kids cleaning up the playroom on a much grander scale.  I know I will be doing the vast majority of the picking up of toys and that by the end I am lucky to get a toy or two a piece cleaned up from my boys but I want them to take ownership and engage in the process even though I could lock them in there for days and they could never get it exactly perfect, but would more likely just create a bigger mess.

I think this is important for people to remember for several reasons, one of which is that it reminds us that if we aren't seeing significant reduction in our sinfulness and we can't easily just acknowledge our own lack of responsibility that maybe God teaches us just as much from allowing us to stay in our sinfulness as he does from rescuing us out of it.  It's really just our stubborn humanness that convinces us that the chief goal of life is to stringently stick to a set of laws and work towards becoming more and more perfect.  The Bible, however, is chock full of stories and injunctions that suggest us focusing on being more and more sinless is not the correct focus as it ultimately is on us and our elevation instead of God and his glory.  God flat out tells Abraham to commit the worst kind of sin, killing his own son, just to make the point that we are to be about listening to his voice and obeying rather than blindly following dogma.  In Micah 6:8, God indicates that our acts of sacrifice, trying to become more and more perfect, are worthless compared to a heart of humility and mercy, broken and contrite.  It seems keeping us weak and helpless gives God the richest, fertile ground for these things.  If you can just get it in your mind to kick a sin and you do it then it becomes hard to stay humble.  If you never have to struggle with something far beyond your own power and steely resolve then it is much easier to interact with others based on judgement rather than mercy.  And Paul speaks clearly when he says God's power is made perfect in our weakness.  I believe God prefers a dependent person over a sinless person any day, someone who knows his frailness and desperate ongoing need for not just a far off savior but a daily strength to get through the day.  Someone who knows that they don't have the power to stand toe-to-toe with temptation, that they'd lose 10 times out of 10, and that their only hope is to run full speed away from sin's tempting influence and into the arms of God.

Maybe your weakness is a mouth that can't help but gossip, slander, and judge whenever you are around your friends.  Maybe for you it is a nagging sense of never feeling good enough that keeps you working late and disappointing your wife once again.  Maybe there are weeks on end where it takes the effort of climbing Mt. Everest to get you out of bed in the morning and reading your Bible just feels like ash in your mouth.  Maybe you weep while praying that today when your wife leaves to go to work you won't be haunted by urges to surf for porn or get out your stash of whiskey she doesn't know about.  All I know is that over the years I have met many men and women of every age that deeply love Christ and desperately cry out to him to be delivered from their weaknesses only to hear that God's grace is sufficient.  These are also the humblest, least judgmental, pious, and Christ-like people I've had the pleasure of knowing.  God likes to use weak people, prone to sinfulness, and flawed in every way because when he does great things in and through us the watching world has no other logical recourse than to see the handiwork of an powerful and praiseworthy God.  God chose a murdering adulterer to bear the title of a man after his own heart, used a fanatical murderer of Christians to spread the gospel further than any other man, and he uses weak, recurrently sinful, and hopelessly dependent me to counsel broken people because I am and always will be one too.

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