The Desire to Be Stronger
Nearly everyone would like to be stronger. I’m not just thinking about physical strength. I recently finished the book 13 Things Mentally Strong People Don’t Do, and I highly recommend it. My point is that when we think about strength, we often do not consider all the areas in which we need strength. We need physical strength and mental strength, but we also need spiritual strength.
Now I can learn about physical fitness and nutrition or higher someone to teach me, and if diligent I can make significant progress in my quest for physical strength. The same is true for mental strength. Obviously, the means to attaining mental and/or emotional strength are different from attaining physical strength, but I can make great strides by simply being diligent. But what aboutspiritual strength? Can I follow certain prescribed methods to gain spiritual strength?
For when we were still without strength, in due time Christ died for the ungodly. (Romans 5:6)
Here is the first step in our search for developing spiritual strength — recognizing that we don’t have any.
This is probably not where most people want to begin any kind of strength training, but it is essential to recognize exactly where you are if you ever want to get somewhere else. It is probably easiest to realize that we are physically weak, or at least it is the most difficult to ignore. We can cover mental, emotional, and spiritual weakness for a time, but eventually you and everyone else will know just how strong or weak you are in those areas.
What would spiritual strength look like? Let’s consider Paul’s description of what he and his associates, prior to his conversion, would have considered spiritual strength:
For we are the circumcision, who worship God in the Spirit, rejoice in Christ Jesus, and have no confidence in the flesh, though I also might have confidence in the flesh. If anyone else thinks he may have confidence in the flesh, I more so: circumcised the eighth day, of the stock of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of the Hebrews; concerning the law, a Pharisee; concerning zeal, persecuting the church; concerning the righteousness which is in the law, blameless. (Phil. 3:3-6)
Paul describes here the method many of us use to gain what we think is spiritual strength. Just obey every religious rule that is set before you, and you will be spiritually strong. But is that what spiritual strength looks like?
I don’t think so.
So let’s consider another Hebrew.
. . . they said to Him, “Teacher, this woman was caught in adultery, in the very act. . . . He raised Himself up and said to them, “He who is without sin among you, let him throw a stone at her first.” And again He stooped down and wrote on the ground. . . . He said to her, “Woman, where are those accusers of yours? Has no one condemned you?” She said, “No one, Lord[?]” And Jesus said to her, “Neither do I condemn you; go and sin no more.” (John 8:4-11)
The contrast between Saul the Pharisee and the woman could not be more stark — at least on the surface. But I ask you, in whose strength was Saul obeying the law? And in whose strength was the woman breaking the law?
Yep, same answer — his/her own.
Both had access to the same method — the system of sacrifices and rules given by God Himself. Yet one was successful and the other a failure. But was Saul really so successful?
We’ve only to continue reading Paul’s epistle to the Philippians to answer that question.
But what things were gain to me, these I have counted loss for Christ. Yet indeed I also count all things loss for the excellence of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as rubbish, that I may gain Christ.” (Phil. 3:7, 8)
Not only was Paul’s success deemed a failure by himself; he considered that “success” to be an obstacle to attaining a relationship with Christ. Not until Paul stopped trusting in his own ability to perfectly obey the law/rules was he able to embrace the truth that Christ is our strength.
I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me. (Phil. 4:13)
This is the only way we can obey Jesus’ command to the woman to “go and sin no more” (John 8:11).
Later in his gospel, John records Jesus’ beautiful illustration of the vine. Jesus assures His disciples that all that He has bid them do is within their ability only if they keep their focus on Him.
. . . for without Me you can do nothing. (John 15:5)
We are no different. Yet we’re convinced that we are different.
Let me suggest a thought experiment. (You can carry it out if you like.)
Imagine you are holing a bottle of watering your hand with your arm extended in front of you at shoulder height. This represents you being wonderful — obeying in your own strength. How long can you hold the bottle? You can use a prop or someone can hold your hand, but the bottle, even if it is only half full, is going to get heavier and heavier. It is not until someone takes the bottle from you, releases you from your obligation to hold it, that you experience relief.
This is what Jesus offers us. He does not offer to merely enable us to hold the bottle; He takes the bottle and holds it for us.
This is the nuance of difference that most people cannot sort out. It not His strength to hold the bottle, but it is His strength of holding the bottle that we receive. That is why we can do “all things” if we abide in Him, because He can do all things.
Many of us would object to this arrangement. “It is too easy,” we’d say. But what we really mean is “If that is the case, I don’t get any credit.” That is our weakness — ego. We want to get credit from others, from God, and even from ourselves. But the Christian walk is not about gaining credit but rather about glorifying God — giving Him the credit — in our lives.
Jesus Himself demonstrated that in His incarnation.
…and He said, “Abba, Father , all things are possible for You. Take this cup away from Me; nevertheless, not what I will, but what You will.” (Mark 14:36)
Jesus had to rely on the Father’s strength to walk the path from the cradle to the cross. More was required of Him in his humanity than will ever be required of us. He endured it all so that we could have access to His victory in our lives.
It is in this truth that Paul encouraged believer in Rome.
For sin shall not have dominion over you, for you are not under the law but under grace. What then? Shall we sin because we are not under law but under grace? Certainly not! (Rom. 6;14, 15)
Why aren’t we under the law? Because Christ was. If you want to be under the law, that option is available to you. Just rely on your own strength and wisdom to obey God’s law. Being under grace is not automatic, it comes at the price of your ego. You must let go of all thoughts of showing off your spiritual strength to others.
Here is what true spiritual strength looks like — self-forgetfulness. A life lived with the objective to glorify God — giving Him all the credit for all the successes in your life.