Tuesday, March 17, 2015

At The End of Our Tether

Part 1

Recently I thought it would be good to read through 2 Corinthians again. As I considered this, it occurred to me that it might be better if I read it in a different translation than the one that I usually use. I opted for an older paraphrase, translated by J. B. Phillips, and started to read. I was quickly brought up short. Paul wrote that he had experienced such troubles that he was sure that he and his cohorts were ‘coming to the end of our tether’. (Now, bear in mind that this is a somewhat older translation and Phillips was British. Today, we’d talk about ‘coming to the end of our rope’.) This caught my attention because I thought that Phillips had captured Paul’s sense
well. More literally, it was, ‘For we were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself.’

God does that to us from time to time. He puts us in situations that feel overwhelming, impossible to handle – and that is exactly what they are. We are burdened beyond our strength. And so, we find ourselves ‘at the end of our rope’, ‘despairing of life itself’. Why does God do such things? Paul explains.

Yet we believe now that we had this experience of coming to the end of our tether that we might learn to trust, not in ourselves, but in God who can raise the dead.
It’s just a fact that, as good Americans, we have been taught ‘to trust … in ourselves’. Self-reliance! It’s the American way. But it’s a lie. It won’t work. And so, our kind God, because He really wants us to flourish, brings us into situations that are more than what we can handle. He burdens us beyond our strength. And He does that because He wants us to see reality more clearly. We can’t rely on ourselves. Us against the evil that exists in this universe? Are you kidding me? That’s utter foolishness. We need to learn how to rely on the God who can do impossible things, the God who can make it possible for us to deal with impossible situations.

It seems to me that this is probably something you might want to remember the next time you find yourself in another overwhelming, absolutely impossible situation. Maybe God is trying to teach you something about yourself (and your limitations) and about Him (that He doesn’t have any).

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Part 2

In Part 1 I wrote about why it is that God puts us in impossible situations. He does it because He loves us. He wants us to flourish. The route to that includes being able to see reality more clearly, that is our inability. There are those of us who can accept that. We read in the Bible how God is behind everything that happens, even the bad things: Job’s evil days, the situation that made Paul despair of life, Jesus’ murder. It’s all part of the plan, God’s good and wise and loving plan. But too many of us don’t respond like Christians to some evil that has happened. We’re closer to responding like solid Stoics. ‘Life has hard spots. It’s what Fate/God has decided to bring into my life. I’ll just have to grin and bear it.’ Somehow that doesn’t sound right. It doesn't sound Christian.

As I read that first chapter in 2 Corinthians I found it interesting that Paul didn’t respond in that way. This is how he began to relate his terrible experience to those Corinthian saints.
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort …
And he continues on from there in the same tone. What is he doing? He is praising God. You know, the God who just put him through hell. How could he do that? He was in such a horrible situation. He despaired of life. Praise? Most of us would be happy if we could come up with a Stoic’s response. But not Paul. As he looks back and reflects on what happened, he praises God with great joy. I think that he could do that because he actually did believe that God’s intention in sending all that terrible stuff his way really was so that he would flourish and, as a result, be able to care for these other Christians in Corinth to whom he was writing. (You really should read all that Paul wrote about the situation: 2 Corinthians 1.) So, let’s not only believe that God is sovereign. He really is! But let’s also believe that what He does with us, even when He sends terrible things our way – it’s to do us good and enable us to do good for others. Let’s be Christians and not Stoics.