Many of my prayers over the years have been some version of this: O God, give me strength. What I’ve been praying for has been for God to increase my capacity to do what I need to do. God, give me the physical stamina to get the job done. In other words, make me more machine-like so I can be Super-dad, Super-pastor, Super-John, Super-Christian.
While I can attest that God rarely answers my weather prayers or my sports prayers, looking back I can see that God answered my prayer to give me strength every, single time. But mostly, not in the way I wanted. Instead of turning me into a spiritual Swiss Army knife combination of Billy Graham, Pope Francis, Mother Teresa, and Martin Luther King, Jr., God has just kept me plain, old me — with the exact same struggles, doubts, flaws, and frailties. God hasn’t me any stronger. What God has done is to help me in my weakness to rely more fully on God’s unfailing strength.
I wanted moral strength to become perfect. Instead God gave me mercy to keep me humble. I wanted greater physical endurance to be an Energizer Bunny. Instead God schooled me in patience. I wanted God to be a compliant Cosmic Bellboy doing all the heavy lifting to “miracle” everything right. Instead I got a challenging Carpenter who asked for my compliance, saying: “Take up your cross and follow me.”
The spiritual writer Richard Rohr says that the central symbol of our faith is a symbol of suffering: The cross. The cross tells us that suffering is part of the deal, but, as Rohr says, the cross also promises us that we are never left to suffer alone. Jesus, who suffers for us and with us, shows us the way through suffering. That paradoxical way is this: The way up is down.
“None of us,” Rohr says; “learns anything after age 30 except by failure.” When we think of God, we think God is “up” there and so we start climbing our way to God. We mistakenly turn the Gospel life God gives us into a self-improvement project. But, says Rohr, the surest way to God is “down.” Addicts call it “hitting bottom.” Other names for it are: Middle age, divorce, cancer, grief, heartache, struggle; in other words: Life. That’s where you find God. Not when things are a heavenly perfect Easter morning, but when your life is a Good Friday, perfect hell.
Failure, weakness, defeat, getting sick, getting old, three steps forward, two steps back– we don’t want any of those things. Yet they are all part of the human condition. They’re part of us. They’re part of life. And that’s where we find God. Not in perfection, but through dependence. Not when everything’s coming up roses, but when everything’s gone to hell.
We find God then because suffering, says Rohr, is the only thing that dislodges the tyranny of our ego. We don’t want to suffer, but it is through suffering that we are opened to God and humbled by grace and transformed into a new creation.
“Pastor John, I got arrested for drugs. I destroyed my life. But while I was in jail I turned my life over to Christ. I said: ‘You’re right. I’m wrong. Set me right.’” And He did. it’s the strangest thing: Getting locked up set me free.”
The next time you’re down, according to saints – and sinners – you’re actually up. Your fall from grace is a means of grace that will bring you closer to God – more deeply connecting you to the Love that will not let you go no matter what.
I’m not saying: Go out and suffer. Suffering is great. It’s not. Suffering stinks. But somewhere in your pain, you’ll find a Presence calling you and loving you and transforming you – not despite your weakness, but precisely because of your weakness. That love will transform your crucifixion into Resurrection. Not making you perfect, but making you something way better than that: A humble heart — with God’s power, love, and Spirit perfectly, unfailingly, and forever alive in you.
It’s doesn’t make sense: Down is up. Weakness is strength. The last shall be first. Lose your life to save it. Crucifixion shall become Resurrection. Nonetheless, dare to trust and live into this paradox of life and faith – for as you do, you will find your God and you shall be saved.