“We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so we despaired of life itself… ” These are very familiar words. They are, indeed, the words of the apostle Paul in 2 Corinthians 1:8. Paul goes on to say that it felt like they had received a death sentence (verse 9).
Then we put that together with Paul’s words from 1 Corinthians 10:13 that says that “God will not let you be tested beyond your strength, that He will provide a way out so that you can endure it.”
The fact is, both are right. Both need to be held in tension with each other.
Life will not ultimately break us, but we will be broken in the process.
Many people will read those words are not understand them. It will seem like folly. But those who have experienced this paradoxical true Gospel life will attest to the enigmatic truth this tension espouses.
Indeed, I would suggest that the authentic Christian experience is about learning to be broken.
Elsewhere in Paul he says that “we are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed.” (2 Corinthians 4:8-9)
Suffering was so familiar to Paul it is difficult to imagine him reeling off the kind of cliché that says, “God won’t give you more than you can handle.” The fact is, his own experience, and his own words betray such a statement. When we hear “God won’t give you more than you can handle” there is more of our comfortable culture in those words than the reality that both Paul and we face existentially.
Our culture’s deepest wish is that we would have control over our own lives, but we need to remember our culture is lost in scrambling for what it cannot control.
Why do we succumb to this weakness that must be strong?
The reality of life for the fortunate is that life will take us beyond our ability to bear. I say the fortunate, because we won’t know the temerity and zeal of God’s faithfulness until we are faced with that situation where we are broken beyond continuing.
It is only in this place where we have nothing left that we realise we need nothing to continue.
For, in this we carry about within us the death of Christ, which is the most bemusing paradox for abundant living.
When there is no strength left, there is no barrier to surrender. But there must be no strength left first.
When we are forced to rest we very well rest. Perhaps it is a hopelessness that attaches itself to us and we feel beleaguered. Maybe it is day after day, week after week, month after month, and the only reprieve we get are fleeting experiences of peace interspersed within the helplessness of it all.
Fortunate is the person who has experienced death to self – the Gospel imperative. We only die to self when we are made to die to self. Nobody volunteers to die to self because they think it is a good idea. It’s always an admirable idea, but we cannot do such a thing until we are forced into it.
The pride of self-sufficiency cannot procure death to self. Yet it is in a situation where God gives you more than you can handle that you finally learn to put yourself off and put on Christ.
God gives us more than we can handle in the moments of our lives. He does this often enough that we may learn something. For me, it took several months, up to a dozen and more, before I finally learned what was most necessary from the most valuable traineeship anyone can enrol in.
God uses the circumstances in our lives that break us to show us that, in Him, we will never be broken.
We may feel broken beyond repair so often, yet that sliver of a hope keeps us tantalisingly in the game.
We never enjoy being pushed beyond our limit, but as we look back we do enjoy the fact we survived… and grew!
And we marvel at the faithfulness of God that carries us over the brink and over the abyss.