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My friend Shanna used to be part of the disappointed and discouraged crowd. She was an overworked, over-challenged, and overwhelmed single mom. She lived in a world where she never seemed to get on top of things.
Initially, her tenacious grit compelled her to try harder. She bought into the culture’s worldview of independence and self-reliance. She determined never to lose and never give up. It was win-win at all costs and, no matter how difficult things became, her mantra was, “When things get tough, the tough get going.” Her perspective worked well until her meltdowns outnumbered her victories.
Finally, her boss called her in and gave her an ultimatum—no more outbursts. She freaked. Rather than seeking God, she gave herself over to fear and worry, which eventually turned into bitterness and compounded anxiety. Then depression came calling. Shanna’s internal turmoil put her between a rock and a hard place—to the point where she thought about suicide.
But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us (2 Corinthians 4:7).
In a last-ditch effort to pull herself out of her funk, she considered counseling. After listening to her story of woe for nearly an hour, I said, “God is calling you to do what you cannot do with the ability you do not have.”
She gave me a quizzical look to which I followed with, “He wants it this way. What you’re going through is the will of God for your life. God wants to bring you to a place where you cannot fix yourself or your life because His desire is for you to rely on Him.”
For we do not want you to be unaware, 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).
A suffering-sending God was hard for her to hear initially. She was embarrassed about not being able to do it all by herself. Everything that could go wrong was going wrong, and she believed if it were not wrong now, it would be a mistake shortly. She tried to keep up but just could not do it anymore.
Her response to all of this was to internalize her problems, never utter a word, and redouble her efforts. Her plan was not working. Sometimes life is meant to go bad because it is the only way God can get our attention. He had Shanna’s attention now. She was crying out for help.
A plea for help, out of a heart of genuine brokenness, is the prayer He was leading her to share with Him. Shanna had to come to the place where we all should come. Say this out loud, “I am not self-reliant.”
You were not meant to win all the time. Sometimes God has to run you into a ditch to free you from yourself. The self-sufficient person does not need God. It is a deceptive and tempting approach to life that does not work. Paul was right:
I can do all things through him who strengthens me (Philippians 4:13).
To say, “I can do all things through me who strengthens me” is a worship disorder of the worst kind. It is not God’s intention to let us do things our way, according to our agenda, while working within our personal gifting and well-honed skillset (Genesis 11:6).
It can never be win-win all the time for all people with or without God. He is too merciful to allow this to happen to His fallen creation. He insists we do things according to His will while He receives glory for what He accomplishes through us (Romans 11:36; Philippians 2:12–13).
The implication is clear: there will be times when God will accomplish things outside of your abilities. It is important for you to understand this. You are to work under His power and His strength rather than your own.
Part of the reason for this is because people are “glory hogs.” Isn’t it true that in your heart of hearts you love praise and adoration? I do. There is a desire within us to be like a god (Genesis 3:5), which is at the heart of our self-reliant, Adamic fallenness.
This kind of self-centered thinking puts you in competition with God, as well as with others. You demand your way. God requires His way. Guess who is going to win that tug-of-war?
To help you get over yourself, the Lord mercifully puts you in a place or a situation where you cannot control or manipulate the outcome, which is what happened to Shanna. She was left with two choices:
Here are a few examples of times when God’s way is hard to embrace. You decide. Read over these questions and honestly analyze yourself. Which is easier (1) to respond in your strength or (2) to respond in God’s strength?
Did you know God is regularly testing you by giving you opportunities like these to trust Him? Typically, these moments happen when you do not want to trust Him, or you genuinely do not understand how to trust Him.
In either case, He is asking you to do what you may not be willing to do or what you do not have the wisdom, insight, clarity, or knowledge to do.
The Worship Structure of Self-Reliance
But Jesus said, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.” They said to him, “We have only five loaves here and two fish.” And he said, “Bring them here to me.” Then he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass, and taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven and said a blessing. Then he broke the loaves and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds (Matthew 14:16–19).
When the Lord came upon 5,000 people (not counting the women or the children) who were hungry and needing food, it was not within the disciple’s ability to feed them.
The perfect sweet spot with the Lord is when we have to trust Him rather than ourselves. We are called to walk by faith, not by our strength, cleverness, or insights.
The disciples knew there was not enough bread and fish to feed 5,000 people. They were right. There was not enough provision to get the job done. Though they could not see past the bread in their baskets, Jesus could.
He stepped up and provided when their hands were empty. But the story gets better. Christ made what the disciples could not make, and He used the disciples to distribute what He provided. How kind of the Lord.
He provides what you cannot and chooses to use you in spite of your complaining and negativity. Can you imagine lodging a complaint against the Lord because you have assessed the situation and determined the job is too big, too hard, or too complicated?
Then He comes through by doing the impossible.
There have been many instances in my life where I assessed the situation, as well as my abilities and resources to fix the situation, and promptly concluded the problems were too big or too complicated to repair. Then the Lord did the unexpected.
Like the disciples in His day, He allowed me to be part of the process of helping those with whom I was previously lodging my complaints. God wants a relationship with me, but that relationship cannot be what it needs to be until I am willing to trust Him to do what I cannot do. I have to genuinely come to the end of myself (Luke 15:17).
Working outside of your ability is not a bad thing. Sometimes it is the only right thing. It happens to me every day. I am confronted daily with people and situations I cannot fix.
Changing people is outside the scope of my responsibilities. It is a pay grade well above mine. Not being able to fix people kept me awake at night at the beginning of my career. Then I learned that if I could succeed in the “people fixing business,” I would not need God.
The Lord kindly reminded me that there was a Savior and I was not Him. He helped me to repent of my self-reliant thinking while turning to Him for solutions. My job is much simpler than fixing people; I point them to Jesus.
Like John the Baptist, I am a signpost. When people come to me for help, I point them to Christ. I have taken up John’s mantra,
He must increase and I must decrease (John 3:30).
When you come to the place where it does not make sense, or you cannot figure it out, may I make a suggestion? How about if you recalibrate your thinking around the gospel? There is nothing like the gospel narrative to bring clarity to our challenges.
Imagine standing at the foot of Golgotha on the day they crucified the Savior. The disciples were there—the same friends who appealed to Christ to take over the Roman world. There they stood watching their friend die at the hands of the Romans. It was all backward to them. It seemed so wrong that He would die.
That is what the disciples felt on the day their friend died. Watching Christ die pushed them outside the bounds of their human understanding. They wanted, expected, and demanded a king.
The most likely candidate to succeed was now bleeding and dying on a cruel cross. They were baffled. Only a few hours earlier, Peter had his sword drawn and was ready to carve up a victory for Jesus. Now he is looking at King Jesus bleeding to death. They were confused, hopeless, angry, and in despair as they saw all their dreams dying on a cross. That story is no different from your story in that God is always up to something better than what you can perceive. It appeared the Romans murdered the Savior, but actually, His Father executed Him (Isaiah 53:10). Why? Because being a king 2,000 years ago was not nearly as good as being a King in eternity.
Initially, the disciples did not perceive this. Can you look back on your life and thank the Lord that He did not give you the desires of your heart in a time when you were asking for something? I am glad that He did not give the disciples their wishes.
Unfortunately, we are uncomfortable not being in the know. We do not like living by faith (Romans 14:23). We want to know the outcomes before we begin. We want to know it will be okay before we move forward.
We want to work within our abilities rather than the Lord’s strength. We are no different from the disciples. God is calling you to trust Him—to walk by faith (Matthew 14:31).
He will not give you all the answers you desire. If He did, then you would be back to trusting yourself again. He is calling you to stop trusting yourself. Nothing will bring clarity to this faith tension like the gospel story.
That story needs to inform your thinking, rather than your wits. Whose story are you living? The disciples wanted to live for their story. God had another story in mind.
Even when you do not understand what God is doing in your life, it is humble and wise to thank Him with expressions of gratitude for His leadership in your life. Your gratitude does not mean your life will change a lot or at all.
Shanna’s life did not change, but her thoughts about God did. As she persistently preached the gospel narrative to herself, she experienced a calm soul. Through her ordeal, like the disciples, God brought her to an end of herself. Even though she did not exactly know what He was up to, she decided to trust Him, albeit imperfectly.
If God is holding back from you what you desire, I appeal to you to consider the possibility that He has something better for you. Though He may not give you what you want at the moment, whatever He has planned for you will be far better than you could ever imagine (Ephesians 3:20).
The best way to begin this kind of reorientation of the mind is to express gratitude to Him for His sovereign care in your life. Giving thanks is the will of God for you (1 Thessalonians 5:18). Begin right now. Make it your moment-by-moment habit. Perhaps keeping a daily list of things you are thankful for would be a good start.
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