Overcoming our limitations is possible by trusting in God's purpose for our lives.
The idea of growing through adversity was a series theme that was a product of a pretty difficult period in my own life. I described that in earlier weeks. Around early 2015 I started working this through in my own heart with the Lord. A lot of the messages are connected to things that I myself wrestled with and drew strength from. During that time, I was on a medical sabbatical. The genesis of growing through adversity goes all the way back to early 2015. Having said that, the series itself had meaning. I alluded to this earlier. The idea of growing through adversity has two sides to it. One initial concept is this whole idea of something growing out or through something. We wanted to talk about how can we learn to be the kind of people, at a spiritual and emotional level, who are capable of enduring when things get hard? How do we learn to grow in our capacity to persevere when part of us has had a pattern of running away or quitting? How do we expand our resiliency when things are really hard?
This is what we talk about growing through adversity until we can get past it. We also said that there was another way of looking at this theme. It really was connected. On the surface, it looks like the two keywords are growing and adversity. They’re very important words, but the word “through” was something that stood out. Not only was I thinking of the idea of “through” as getting past something, but I was thinking of the idea of “through” as being shaped by or because of the idea that the growing is dynamically connected to the difficulty. It’s the adversity itself, the difficulty, the suffering, the pain, and the hard place that we find ourselves in that becomes the mechanism for a breakthrough in our life. It’s about getting past something, persevering, and having tenacity. It’s also about what God can do and grow in us at these times in our lives that honestly, that growth can’t come at other times when we’re doing a lot better. There’s a unique opportunity that is found in adversity. That’s what we’ve been exploring and will continue to explore.
When it comes to the persevering side of it, I reminded myself back in 2015 when I was at a pretty low point. My wife encouraged me to listen to a message from Bill Hybels. Bill Hybels is an author, a great motivational leader, founder of Willow Creek Church in Chicago, and the founder of the GLS, the Global Leadership Summit. Our church will be participating in GLS this summer as well. It’s designed for anyone who wants to learn how to be a marketplace leader, grow in leadership capacities, or learn how to represent Jesus in the job or marketplace. It’s a great thing that we get to be a part of and do together.
Hybels wrote and shared in a message. His message focused on what he called grit. He was working on a theme and he started talking about it. He started trying to talk about how many times we need to stick with things instead of running away from them. How to make sure we don’t quit when the going gets tough. At the time, when things were getting a little harder and tougher for me, I still recall he called that grit. He said, “passion and perseverance over the long haul is the willingness to play hurt and to expect progress to be difficult, but to believe it’s possible.” He said, “Grit development demands difficulty. It requires effort to get over the mountain. Grit grows every time we exercise tenacity and perseverance.” Just let that sit for a moment. There are some things that cannot be developed in us. It’s just like exercising. Certain things only come by learning how to prevail when things are hard. Learning how to let the Lord teach us how to get past things without allowing those things to define us and our attitudes. He talked about how we view difficulty. There’s great truth in that because God really does want us to grow in our endurance capacity.
As a follower of Jesus, it’s clear that He wants to help us learn how to overcome things and prevail. Maybe that’s why I love reading about achievers. I love reading about people who prevail under very difficult circumstances, they often inspire me. I love reading about people who train themselves to push beyond their fears. They may not even be Christians, but I love the concept of someone who does that. I remember reading an article in the Wall Street Journal by a writer named Alexandra Wolfe. She was talking about a unique guy named Alex Honnold. Alex Honnold is probably one of the most famous rock climbers in the world. He’s especially known for what is referred to as free soloing. If you’ve never heard what free soloing is, it means he climbs and scales over 2,000 feet of rock alone without the help of equipment, ropes, or a partner. Let me say that again. No equipment, no ropes.
I was utterly fascinated by his interview as we often are when we hear people share who do incredibly difficult or dangerous things like that. It looks so much bigger because of the lens. Can you imagine that? Someone said, ‘No, I cannot.” They were talking about him and they asked him for an example of how he feels knowing that he could die if he takes one small misstep. He said, “Oh, it would be the worst four seconds of my life.” Solo climbing requires great physical strength. He said he soon realized that even more than physical strength, it required mental fortitude. In the article, he said, “I discovered that if I had any particular gift, it was a mental one. It was the ability to keep it together in what might otherwise have been a stressful situation.” Someone came up to me after one of the services and said, “Do you know something else about this guy?” I said, “No.” He said, “The guy’s got these incredibly big hands. It looks like he has muscles all over his fingers. Like he got squished into a door multiple times.”
He said, “Do you know what else they found? They did a study on his brain. They found that the part called the amygdala that makes fear, doesn’t fire. His doesn’t.” I go, “Wow, that makes total sense, I believe you.” In 2007, he climbed two legendary routes in Yosemite. One was called Rostrum and the other Astroman. Within a few years, he was breaking speed records for scaling Yosemite’s most challenging wall. They asked him, “How do you over overshadow your fear?” He says, “My awe at the natural landscape often overshadows my fear.” It got me thinking about how the Lord works in our own lives sometimes. How He wants to teach us not to be dominated by our fears. Instead, to look to Him, be in awe of who He is, who I believe is the maker of even the most beautiful things that our eyes behold. He is the master maker of the cathedral.
I love Yosemite, but I always remind myself like John Muir that it was the product of a master artist. When I finished reading the article, I felt so inspired. We often do when we witness or read about people who push themselves to the limit, achievers who through sheer grit, determination, hard work, and fearlessness, conquer and climb things. They compel us to clap our hands, shake our heads in amazement, and we hope, encourage us to face things on our own that maybe with a smidgen of resolve and relentlessness that they exhibit. Maybe that’s part of why the Bible tends to remind us about the examples, especially in the older Testament of men and women who lived a life of faith. The Book of Hebrews in the New Testament, especially that 11th chapter called the Hall of Faith, goes back and lists different people in the Bible. People like Abraham, Isaac, Sarah, Moses, and others. You can read about different people in the older Testament who were examples of being in very difficult situations modeling heroic faith.
The expanse of the story in Hebrews 11 bleeds into Hebrews 12. It’s as if the writer is saying, “All these different examples in the older Testament are inspiring for us when we find ourselves in a difficult place. But don’t forget our greatest example.” In Hebrews 12 he says, “Therefore, since we are surrounded also by so great a cloud of witnesses.” The people who showed us the examples in the older Testament are people who modeled faith in courageous ways. He says, “Let us lay aside every weight and the sin, which so easily ensnares us and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us.” He shifts to the ultimate hero, example, and model, the one who will help us. He says, “Looking unto Jesus who is the author, the beginner, the originator, and the finisher, the completer of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him showed us how it’s done. He endured the cross, went through the pain, went through the suffering and came out on the other side, despised the shame, threw it off. Now He sat has sat down at the right hand and the full authority at the throne of God.” He’s saying Jesus is the ultimate example. I truly believe that we are to let the examples of the scriptures help us. It is why it’s important for us to be familiar with the scriptures. I am firmly embedded in the words of Jesus and the New Testament. I want to suggest to you that there is value in the older Testament. I know it was a different culture. I know it was a pre-Christ time. The older Testament, not only does it have so much to teach us about how God was moving in the course of humanity, it has many examples around people who in their own time and space honored God in amazing ways.
Many times I believe that their examples and the example of Jesus can inspire us to run our race. Whatever that race may be, we need to draw strength from the scriptures. At the same time, practice resilience, learn to endure and trust the one who showed us how it’s done. There’s no question in my mind that God wants us to develop grit. I believe that and am convinced of it. As Hybels pointed out, “Grit grows when we exercise tenacity and perseverance.” I am totally for that. Please do not hear this as I’m anti-faith or excusing us from striving to give our best or to be strong and courageous. What happens when we come up against an obstacle that we can’t climb? Even worse, what happens when after our best effort we fail? In some cases, we fail miserably as Moses did. What happens when we’re not able to scale the mountain before us? When we, unlike Jesus, who is our great inspiration, aren’t gritty enough. Maybe we’re not obedient enough. Maybe we’re not aligned with the Father enough. It’s so easy to wander off course to get ourselves into trouble, addictions, or locked up in our pain. Sometimes it feels like we’re locked up. The Academy Awards are out and two films are nominated for best film. One of the actors in these two films is probably going to win the Best Actor Award; Denzel Washington in the film Fences or Casey Affleck in Manchester by the Sea.
Both films are very interesting because they capture a person who’s utterly locked up. In one case, in Fences, there’s a slightly redemptive Christian component to it. In Manchester by the Sea, we see a man locked up in grief; there’s almost no redemptive component. Even the way Christ is presented is very one-dimensional. It seemed to me to miss the very thing that it could offer. I understand why sometimes they don’t understand what the Lord can do. In both those films, you see individuals locked up in their pain. One built a fence. ‘Fences’ becomes its symbolic cause of something. He’s built a wall around. He’s felt injustice and a life of unfairness. As a result, he’s all locked up. Both these amazingly good men locked up in their pain. The other has experienced tremendous tragedy and is imprisoned in his grief. I think about how we can get ourselves locked up emotionally. We have different levels of course. In Moses’ case, he was defined by his failure.
In the Book of Exodus, Moses thinks he’s going to be the deliverer of his people. He finally comes to a point in his life as a relatively younger man in his strength where he’s going to make the move and save his people. He feels the call. He responds with courage. He ends up doing something. He fights for his people. They end up rejecting him. He has to run from Egypt like a fugitive whose banned from ever coming back. He loses everything and doesn’t even get the gratitude from the very people he risked it all for. Thinking he heard from God, he lives the next four decades of his life alone as a shepherd in the wilderness. Over time, he’s settled into a different kind of life; life in the desert. He’s gotten married and has two sons. He tends sheep as a way of living oftentimes alone. Then there was a day when something happened. Watch how Moses who is holding onto his kind of wound, struggles to move forward. Maybe some of us can relate to that. Maybe we can relate to having things that are particularly difficult for us. We’re trying to work through it. We got defined by it or stuck in it. Moses is reluctant to do something that God is asking him to do. He has little confidence and tries to evade with tenacity, the Lord’s appeal. This is a different kind of tenacity.
Exodus 3:1-10, “One day, Moses was tending the flock of his father-in-law, Jethro, the priest of Midian and he led the flock far into the wilderness and he came to Sinai, it was the mountain of God.” This place was where the Lord’s presence would often dwell. “There the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a blazing fire from the middle of bush and Moses stared in amazement. Though the bush was engulfed in flames, it didn’t burn up.” He never saw anything like it. “This is amazing. Moses said to himself. ‘Why isn’t that bush burning up? I have to go see it. Is that what I think it is?’ He makes his way over there. The Lord saw Moses coming to take a closer look. God called to him from the middle of the bush, ‘Moses, Moses. ‘Here I am ‘ Moses replied. ‘Do not come any closer,’ the Lord warned. ‘Take off your sandals for you’re standing on holy ground. I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.’ When Moses heard this, he covered his face because he was afraid to look at God.”
“The Lord told him, ‘I have certainly seen the oppression of my people in Egypt and I’ve heard of their cries of distress because of their harsh slave drivers. I am aware of their suffering. I have come down to rescue them from the power of the Egyptians and to lead them out of Egypt into their own fertile and spacious land, the land of milk and honey, that land where the land where presently the Canaanites, Hittites, Amorites, Perizzites, these different tribes Hivites and Jebusites now live. ‘Look, the cry of the people of Israel has reached me and I have seen how harshly the Egyptians abuse them. Now go, for I’m sending you to Pharaoh. You must lead my people, Israel, out of the land of Egypt.'”
I want to pick up here at verse 11. Watch how Moses responds to God’s amazing invitation. “But Moses protested to God. ‘Well, who am I to appear before Pharaoh? Who am I to lead the people of Israel out of Egypt? You have the wrong guy. I’m not that guy.’ God answered. ‘I will be with you. This is your sign that I am the one who has sent you. When you have brought the people out of Egypt, you’re going to worship God at this very mountain.” But Moses protested, “Oh, no. If I go to the people of Israel and tell them, ‘The God of your ancestors sent me to you, they’re going to ask me, ‘What is His name? What authority do you come in? Then what should I tell them?’ God replied to Moses. ‘I Am Who I Am. Say this to the people of Israel. The I Am the self-existent one has sent you.'” Going on to chapter 4:1, “Moses protested again. We see a pattern here, don’t we?
“What if they won’t believe or listen to me? What if they say, ‘the Lord never appeared to you?’ The Lord asked them, ‘What is in your hand?’ ‘A shepherd’s staff, my staff.'” That staff wasn’t just anything. It represented something for him. When you’re a shepherd that many years, that staff becomes not only like a third leg for you, but it becomes a weapon, an extension of your arm. It is everything. In many ways, it is your identity and your power. When the Lord says to him, “Throw that down,” it’s even more significant. “The Lord said, “What is in your hand? He says, ‘My shepherd’s staff.’ ‘Throw it down on the ground.’ The Lord told him. Moses threw down the staff and it turned into a snake and Moses jumped back. The Lord told him, ‘Reach out and grab its tail.’ Moses reached out and grabbed it and then it turned back into a shepherd’s staff again in his hand, ‘Perform this sign’ the Lord told him. ‘They will believe that the Lord, the God of their ancestors, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob has appeared to you.’ The Lord said, ‘Moses, put your hand inside your cloak.’ Moses put his hand inside his cloak. When he took it out again, his hand was white as snow, as if it was a leprosy skin disease. He says, ‘Now, I want you to put your hand back in. When he took it out again, it was as healthy as the rest of his body.
You would think just seeing this bush burning and it’s not being consumed. God’s talking to you. You throw down the staff and it turns into something. You put your hand in your cloak and it comes out diseased. You would think, “I’m doing what you want me to do. You have the power.” Instead, Moses pleaded with the Lord. See how complete and comprehensive his wound is. How his sense of failure has utterly altered his confidence so that not even the miraculous power of God seems enough. “Oh Lord, do you know what? I’m not very good with words. I just remembered this. I never have been. I can’t even talk. Even though you have spoken to me, I get tongue-tied and my words get all tangled up. I’m not good. I’ve been speaking to sheep for 40 years. I know what it’s going to take. I’ve been there before. I did that once. That was a long time ago. I’m not your guy. You have to get somebody else.”
The Lord asked Moses, “Who makes a person’s mouth? Who decides whether people speak or do not speak, hear or do not hear, see or do not see?” Is it not I, the Lord? Now go. I will be with you as you speak. I will instruct you in what you say. But Moses pleaded, ‘Oh Lord, please would you send somebody else? Anybody else. I don’t want to do it. I’m not your guy. That’s not who I am anymore.’ The Lord became angry with Moses. What about your brother, Aaron the Levite? I know he speaks well. He’s on his way to meet you now. He’ll be delighted to see you.'” Moses makes God mad because he lost his confidence. What a contrast to the pre-failure Moses before he couldn’t restrain himself. I’m your man. Now he can’t be persuaded. That’s what failure will do to us. That’s what defeat in our lives does to us. Here are some things to sit with. Sometimes our brokenness is true. If it hasn’t happened in our lives, great. But perhaps it’s happened in an area of our lives. Sometimes our brokenness is so profound that even knowing what God can do doesn’t seem to be enough.
Our wounds are so deeply embedded it blunts out our confidence and inhibits our ability to trust God’s Word over our lives. We might believe it theoretically, but sometimes there are certain areas where we have a hard time trusting the Lord in it. The pain, devastation, and struggle that we have felt around it mean that it’s so hard for us to want to move forward in this area. There’s a part of us that believes that God can’t do it. In the films, I refer to especially one of them, there was no solution. It was just to live out your life in pain and allow that to define you.
I have come to believe that God is the master healer. He can take things and bring life into them. I understand that for some of us, some things are so deep and hurt so bad that it’s harder to get free. Sometimes, when we start to see a little progress, we find ourselves with just enough pressure falling right back. Remember, we’re all different. We all have had different experiences. I always say that I might see what you’re going through. I might say, “Wow. That’s tough, but that’s not that tough for me.” Others might see something happening in my life and say, “Come on, get over that. It’s okay. You’re fine. Just tough it up. Growing through adversity is serious. What’s wrong with you? Come on. Persevere.”
There might be areas in our lives that are so unique to us that for us we’re very weak. It’s hard for us. For other people, it may be nothing, but for us it’s hard. It represents pain. I think how easily we can get ourselves emotionally locked up in certain ways. How there are certain areas we struggle with that other people might not. It’s because of the uniqueness of what we’ve walked through or the situation we find ourselves in. Many times, in those places, one of our real struggles is to trust that God who we do believe does amazing things can meet us in this place and help us. Sometimes in these weak zones that define us, they can cause us to doubt God like Moses. Not only is Moses doubting God, but he’s also resisting Him. God, despite that doubt, will work with us. Do you see divine humility? I look at that and think, “First off, He allows Moses to bargain with Him and even makes a concession.” The tenderness of the Lord astonishes me. His willingness to meet us in our struggle astonishes me. How He will work with us to move forward gently, firmly, or sometimes with a nudge. He doesn’t force us against our will, but He will help us get there.
I was thinking of Jesus. We talked about how in His ministry we characterize by a bruised reed. In Matthew 12:20 it says, “A bruised reed He will not break. A smoking flax.” A flickering candle, the little end of a part of the oil lamp that has dried up and burnt out. “He will not quench it until he sends forth the wick that is about ready to die out.” Has no oil. It just burnt up. “He will not quench it until he sends forth justice to victory.” This is the picture of what the Lord does in our lives. The bruised reed is a reed that has been damaged. As a result, it can’t hold weight. It’s bent. It can’t be what it was meant to be. Some of us have deep bruises, but the Lord doesn’t just toss that out. Others would, but not the Lord.
Many times that is exactly the thing that God uses to become a testimony of His amazing capacity to work with us in our place of greatest woundedness. It’s in our place of greatest weakness that His grace often shows forth in its most amazing, astonishing, and humbling ways. That’s the place that we’re talking about. He doesn’t cast out the bruised reed. He doesn’t throw it out. That smoking little ember that’s still there, He fans it into a flame that is capable of bringing light and warmth again. What others would cast off, He uses. It is such a great reminder for us. I have this little quotation. It says, “What’s more feeble than a cracked reed or a wick that’s just flickering? And yet, He reckons neither as useless. He allows for possibilities of improvement. His treatment of the behavior was weakest, and so to speak, least alive is marked by long-suffering and gentleness.”
I remember reading that when I was feeling hurt. I remember reading this and my eyes started getting damp because I thought, “Oh Lord, I thank you for your grace, your help. Help me not to quit or to be discouraged too long. Lord, what you’re reminding me is that if you are with us, hope is never far from us. I just need to keep you close.” That leads me to this last thought; our limitations need not limit what God can do in and through us. Moses was going to learn this. He takes the broken, flawed, fearful, and limited and plays His best music through them. Can you hear the song? It’s called the song of grace. That song is a song He wants to sing over all of our lives. It’s a song of goodness. It’s a song of His love at work in us. God resists the proud. He gives grace to the humble. As His work with Moses teaches us anything it’s, at least in part spiritually speaking, that when we are at our weakest that in some ways we are most usable and strongest.
When we are most usable and vulnerable is in the moments when we’re most dependent, that God can do His most amazing things. It’s an extraordinary dichotomy, a paradox of source. It may require a burning bush of source to get our attention, I agree. A little persuasion to get us moving, but when all seems lost, bleak, or despairing, He may have us exactly where He wants us because now He can show up in ways that would’ve otherwise never happened. I’m just saying we don’t need to be defined by things. We’ll close with this prayer together.
Lord sometimes like Moses, I know this is true. Our wounds are so profound, so deeply a part of us that we have a hard time believing your words over our lives. Sometimes, Lord, our struggle is so real in ways that other people do not see or understand. I’m not saying that in any proud or arrogant way. It’s in those places where it’s hard for us, maybe uniquely hard for us. Help me to remember that you’re not offended by our weaknesses. Our feebleness only inspires your faithfulness. How thankful I am, how truly thankful I am, Lord. I ask that hope would rise within me. In Jesus’ name, I pray this, we pray this in your name, Lord. Amen.