“He lifted me out of the pit of despair, out of the mud and the mire. He set my feet on solid ground and steadied me as I walked along.” Psalm 40:2
“And after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you.” (1 Peter 5:10)
My pastor once said that the trials we face because of our own making are the hardest and the most painful to overcome. That is certainly true for me. My life has more than enough holes that I have personally burrowed deep below the surface. The deeper the hole and the more frequent it occurs, the more difficult the climb and the harder it is to keep from slipping back into the abyss.
I had a roommate in college who was the proud owner of a bulldog named Dutch. I asked him if Dutch was potty trained. He said he tried numerous times but was not successful. I don’t know what dog training manual he was using but the method he used was both cruel and comical at the same time. Every time his bulldog would poop on the rug my roommate would rub his dogs face into his own feces. I found this method very disturbing but was curious as to how the dog responded to such a cruel method of potty training. Oddly, he said Dutch started to rub his own face in his own poop immediately after he went. I couldn’t help but think of Proverbs 26:11 “As a dog returns to its vomit, so fools repeat their folly.”
Dutch and I have a lot in common. When I dig my own holes my response is to distance myself from God and return to the unclean, defiled “mud and mire”. Like the prodigal son, ‘I long to fill my belly with the pods that the pigs are eating’ and eventually return to the only hope I can find for spiritual healing; on my knees at the very steps of the throne of grace. That is not always easy. I have walked away from grace on many occasions, either because I felt undeserving of it or I decided to return to a performance based mindset in my relation to God and to those closest to me (either way it is a form of pride). The power of shame is a formidable foe. Whether we are addicted to food, money, power, religion, sex or alcohol the cravings are real and only a power greater than ourselves will offer any kind of lasting hope. I call that higher power Jesus Christ.
It can be a long painful road to travel all the way from shame to grace; through many trials and temptations. There also can be distractions along the way promising quick fixes driven by a prosperity theology. These distractions only serve to prolong the journey; bypassing the path that is paved with brokenness and humility. If our goal is to achieve wholeness and spiritual growth we must resist the temptation to avoid this path. We must rely completely on God’s sufficient grace. (2 Corinthians 12:9). For hole diggers our default is to self destruct. Self-destructive behaviors are usually an attempt to manage overpowering, painful feelings that only lead to more shame, escalating the self-destructive cycle. So what is the proper response to such madness? How do we stop this never ending cycle?
“Grace is for the desperate, the needy, the broken, those who can not make it on their own. Grace is for all of us.” Phillip Yancey
The proper response to such trials is not self mutilation; nor is it either to avoid suffering, but to pray, lean into our pain as we lean into God and most important embrace grace. Carl Jung once said, “If you kill or silence pain before you answer its questions, you inadvertently kill yourself.” There are two verses that have given me hope and courage in the face of trials born of my own doing: James 1:2-4 “2 Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters,[a] whenever you face trials of many kinds, 3 because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. 4 Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.” Do you understand what James is saying? He is saying, do not short circuit the path of trials and tribulations. “Let perseverance finish its work”! Then Paul says in Romans 5:3-5 “…but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.” In other words, not only should we walk through the fire, but it can be the very catalyst that brings us wholeness and a spirit filled life. A beautiful picture of this is the way in which the eagle responds to the violent winds of the storm. Once it finds the wind, the eagle uses the raging storm to lift itself above the clouds. This response results in an effortless glide and a welcome rest.
“As with the Cross, our darkest hour may be God’s finest moment. It may be there that he does his greatest work—albeit unseen to us. Thus instead of letting circumstances consume us, we are to be consumed with God. To that end, we pray without ceasing, trust in his sovereignty, and find comfort in his hope.” Mark Yarbrough
Going back to the mess we have created is our default. In AA it is called a relapse. It is where we find comfort and in a strange way it is momentarily satisfying. There are so many ways in which we can medicate to avoid suffering, but there are no shortcuts. It is crucial that we understand that the very thing that we are convinced we deserve (self-destruction), drives us right back to the pit. We actually can come to a point where we believe that we belong there. That is why cynicism, abandonment, and rejection are absolutely devastating to us. That is why it is so important to surround ourselves with other broken people who are willing to come alongside you and help carry your burdens during this chapter of your life (Galatians 6:1). Those people could be your church, small group, AA or your Celebrate Recovery family as well. And most importantly allow God to love you and remind you of who you are, especially when you feel unclean and defiled. You are a child of God, created in His image with inherent worth and value. You matter! You are His!
So there is good news! Our trials, struggles and temptations have a purpose and God promises us that He will be right there in the furnace with us. Was there not, after all, a fourth man in the furnace with Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego?
But what are we looking for when we go back to our holes? Are we conditioned just like Dutch or is shame alone enough to bury us in our own filth. Or could it be, that we are also looking for something else? George MacDonald once said, “The man who rings the bell at the brothel, unconsciously does so seeking God”. Augustine put it like this, “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.”. Dwight Edwards says “Sin has introduced the insanity that God-given longings can be met in a God-absent direction… If we do not allow the cry of our soul for worship to be answered by God, we will begin dialing other numbers.”
To finally get to the place where we want change in our lives we need to embrace our brokenness and feel the weight of our sins. Fruit grows best in broken soil. The road from shame to grace is paved with brokenness and humility and it is impossible without God and without the warriors that God has placed in your life to fight alongside of you. Struggling is a sign that you are alive and that you are trying to change. Paul tells us to boast of our weaknesses so that Christs power will rest on him and even Paul admits that he also, at times, has tread in murky waters. The bible is full of messy broken saints and game changing sinners. Every biblical character, outside of Jesus, is terribly messy, terribly flawed and magnificently broken. That’s why they became saints! Confused? So am I.
I love the way Phillip Yancey puts it:
“Having spent time around “sinners” and also around purported saints, I have a hunch why Jesus spent so much time with the former group: I think he preferred their company. Because the sinners were honest about themselves and had no pretense, Jesus could deal with them. In contrast, the saints put on airs, judged him, and sought to catch him in a moral trap. In the end it was the saints, not the sinners, who arrested Jesus.”
“My sacrifice, O God, is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart you, God, will not despise.” (Psalm 51:17)
So how should the church respond to those stuck in the ‘mud and mire’?
The sad part is that the we (the church) are known for killing our wounded. We tend to draw a hard line when it comes to messy people. Good people are thrown into a human waste pile because of their messiness and then written off as outcasts. But, in Jesus ancestry you have murderers, drunks, prostitutes, liars, adulterers, broken messy families and outcasts. The most common question that Jesus was asked is, “Why do you run with those people”? Jesus answer was always, “because I love them, I have come to save them from their selves and give them rest.” We are not only to love unconditionally like Jesus, but we are told to take it a step further and leave the flock, and our social standing that brings us so much comfort, and go and find the lost sheep and carry him or her home – Luke 15:1-32. I believe we as individuals and the body of the Christ have really dropped the ball in caring for these lost messy sheep. Jesus says, “as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.”
At the end of the day, it will be broken people that God uses to change the world. It was broken people who wrote the Old Testament and the New Testament. I am very cautious of Godly “spirit filled” people who walk without a limp.
No man who wrestles with God and his own sins and comes face to face with the magnitude of Gods grace will stay unbroken. If there is no brokenness then there is no fruit. If we believe that we have nothing to be broken about then we will never grow spiritually. When I see a man who walks with a limp, with an unassuming confidence and humble disposition.. who is not afraid to follow Jesus where the world tells us not to go – that man I will follow anywhere.
“And when the scribes and Pharisees saw Him eating with the tax collectors and sinners, they said to His disciples, “How is it that He eats and drinks with tax collectors and sinners?” Jesus answers, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners, to repentance.” (Mark 2:13-17)
God, please give me the strength to cling to you through the trials and temptations that come my way everyday. Help me to love myself so that I can love others the way you love me.