Embracing Helplessness as a Spiritual Discipline

We have all experienced those absolutely dreadful moments when we run full-on into The Situation That Simply Will Not Be Managed (TSTSWNBM), the stubborn face of our waking reality – at high noon on a sunny day – staring back at us impassively, completely unimpressed with our efforts to circumvent…and absolutely impervious to our attempts either to wage war against or deny the obvious.

Anyone over the age of two knows exactly what I am talking about. Live long enough, and you will certainly amass an impressive number of encounters with TSTSWNBM all your own. The unprotected knee that suddenly meets concrete as you fall off your skateboard. The final grade that was far lower than you anticipated, now an unblinking part of your permanent academic record. Far more seriously, the spouse who wakes up one morning and decides to end your marriage with zero advance warning, or the prognosis from your doctor that catches you completely off-guard. The list is endless, and we all have a list that is uniquely ours, many highlighted by episodes of raw, gut-wrenching tragedy. Oftentimes, it seems like many of us – myself included – have a knee-jerk reaction when faced with TSTSWNBM, namely to doubt the goodness of God, perhaps even to deny His existence altogether.

My sense is that this response – voluntary or otherwise – is exactly what the enemy of our souls is hoping to cultivate in our hearts as we bump and jostle our way through the harder events of our lives. While we’re certainly right to say that God allows pain and suffering in our lives (attested to in the first few verses of Job) many of us tend to “go sideways” with this knowledge, failing to integrate it with the other clearly-known attributes of God (justice, mercy, love) and often getting angry at Him simply because we do not appreciate His plans messing with our own. The desire to contend with God can arguably be called the seed of all sins, the demon that crouches patiently at all of our doorsteps (Genesis 4:1-7). The conscious decision to battle against this ancient temptation simply becomes more urgent as the heat gets turned up in our lives, morphing from a decision we make upon rising each morning to a decision we sometimes need to make on a minute-by-minute basis.

As I write this, my young son’s tiny body has – mercifully – stopped heaving and retching uncontrollably. Thankfully, whatever bug he had appears to have been of the 24-hour variety, and he is now safely on the mend. (Thank you, Lord!) But he really gave both my wife and I a decent-sized scare Saturday night and early Sunday morning. (Something of a gross understatement there.) Put plainly, it’s absolutely agonizing to watch a small child retch and heave and realize that his skinny little body is now at the mercy of a virus…and there are most assuredly limits on what one can do to help a child through physical agony.

“Will it pass? Will he ever be able to hold down water again? When will he be able to settle down…and get some much-needed sleep?” A parent’s heart and mind literally swim in panic when the life of a child appears to be on the line. It seems to me that as long as we are given something to do – run cold water in the tub, fix a sippie cup, take his temperature again – we tend to do much better than when we are forced to stand still, hold the child close and just…wait. Wait for the heaves and sobbing to subside. Just wait and pray. Trust God, while taking all sensible steps to help as best we are able.

I may be completely alone in this, but my sense is that many of us tend to make the “Give me something to do!” error when it comes to our relationship with Christ. (I know I do.) I am so deeply grateful for the grace and mercy that I have been shown that my heart wants to turn right around and start earning my friendship with Jesus by doing whatever it takes to bring my helpless, sin-ravaged body back to life. Yes, I know this is wrongheaded; I am familiar with enough Christian teaching to realize that there is nothing I can do to earn my salvation, and yet I still hear myself asking Jesus the spiritual equivalent of “Can I run some cold bath water for my soul? Shall I grab the bottle of Advil?”

Increasingly, I “hear” the calm, reassuring voice of my Savior gently assuring me that, no, there is absolutely nothing I can do to bring healing to my life…or anyone else’s. The much-desired pain relief will not come on my proposed timeline. The breakthrough in conquering besetting sin will be achieved at the exact date and time set forth by the One who knows all things, controls all things, and cares lovingly for all things. My application to submit a Microsoft PowerPoint presentation to the Holy Trinity – My Life and How I Think It Should Go – has been graciously denied. Pain and problems will be dealt with, most assuredly, either at the Cross of Christ or in an eternity of separation from God, but they will not be “sped up” in the least by my frantic efforts.

Honestly, I am starting to see these episodes of helplessness in my own life as – dare I say it – opportunities to trust God. There are simply some things that are completely beyond my control, TSTSWNBM intrudes on my day-to-day more than I would care to admit, and I just have to face the fact that I am finite, limited and totally dependent. I would be less than truthful if I said that my first response to watching my son’s body writhe and shake uncontrollably is to chalk up yet another opportunity to trust my Savior; I’m not quite there yet. All I can say with certainty is that, by God’s mercy, there is an increasing tendency to go immediately to prayer and total surrender, and He has responded by lovingly providing many examples wherein acknowledging that level of dependence has been visibly, tangibly rewarded.

For whatever this is worth, the next time you encounter TSTSWNBM, I urge you to remind yourself of the hard, cold fact that your life and everything in it, your very heartbeat, is outside your control. By His grace, God allows us some measure of control over the day-in, day-out details of our lives, but ultimately you and I are unable to do anything apart from Christ (John 15:1-5). For me, my son’s recent illness was an opportunity to thank God that I have a son in the first place, that my wife’s heart was such that she was 100% dedicated to his comfort and care as he heaved and sobbed, and that we are united in our desire to yield his young life up to Jesus Christ, whatever the outcome.

And wouldn’t you know it…the very next day our boy was – much to my consternation – jumping off the couches in our living room and running around the house doing plenty of things he knows he’s not supposed to, and I was able to find great joy in all of it (though his foolish behavior still required that I put on my “stern Daddy face” a few times).

Matthew 6:25-33
“Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life? And why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.”

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