Sufficient Grace: Suffering is Hope
“O Love That Will Not Let Me Go”
George Matheson, 1842-1906
O Love that wilt not let me go,
I rest my weary soul in thee;
I give thee back the life I owe,
That in thine ocean depths its flow
May richer, fuller be.
George Matheson wrote this hymn on the night of his sister’s wedding, when he was 40 years old. Matheson was flooded with the painful memory of the woman he loved, and who did not marry him because he was losing his eyesight. Through deep and personal suffering, George came to know and trust in the love of God made known in Jesus Christ.
In the Scriptures, the Apostle Paul, who calls himself the chief of sinners, tells us God’s answer to his plea for God to remove a thorn in his flesh. “My grace is sufficient for you for power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12: 7-10). The Apostle makes it known that this thorn is given to him. In ancient literature, a piercing of the flesh by a thorn or an arrow signified love’s invasion of the body; it was a common theme in love poetry. The love of God is found in suffering.
O light that followest all my way,
I yield my flickering torch to thee;
My heart restores its borrowed ray,
That in thy sunshine’s blaze its day
May brighter, fairer be.
In the deepest moments of our pain, God does not seem to be a particularly sentimental God. The heart of God and God’s willingness to share in the sufferings of the world God loves come to articulation in Jesus Christ's death upon the cross. To bear a cross is to bear the suffering that brings the crown of glory. The 16th century Reformer, Martin Luther, wrote: "The love of God does not find but creates that which is pleasing to it." He believed that and creates from the nothing he has reduced us to through suffering. God must rid us of the old so that the new life may begin. In a conversation with an esteemed Jewish leader, Nicodemus, Jesus says that unless a man is born again, he cannot see the Kingdom of God (John 3:3).
Contrary to what we might want to believe, we are attached to our sin, and the cross is an intervention -- it creates a real low point where false optimism and positive thinking cannot move our mountains. But, it is also where in faith, we recognize that God is gracious. In our deepest sorrows and our deepest wounds, we can be assured that God has shared in our suffering in the life and crucifixion of Christ. Jesus was crucified at the hands of the human race, but he makes it known that he laid his life down on his own accord; it was not taken from him. “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:13). God’s grace is sufficient for you. God will have his way and this is good news because your life is held in the hands of a Creator who creates from nothing. God's saving work seems strange, but we must first die so that we may live.
O Joy that seekest me through pain,
I cannot close my heart to thee;
I trace the rainbow through the rain,
And feel the promise is not vain,
That morn shall tearless be.
In an exchange between Jesus and his disciple Peter, Jesus asks who people say that He is: "John the Baptist, Elijah, one of the prophets.” Jesus asks: “Who do you say that I am?” and Peter answers, “ You are the Messiah.” After sternly ordering the disciples not to tell anyone about Him, Jesus openly foretells His death and resurrection. Peter pulls Jesus aside and rebukes him. Jesus, in turn, rebukes Peter with the words, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things, but on human things.” He called the crowd with his disciples and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves, take up their cross, and follow me” (Mark 8:29-38). We will lose our lives on account of our salvation; we will die so we can live. We will follow after Christ in the way of the cross. In this passive experience of suffering, we come to know Christ as the Messiah, and we come to know that God is the ultimate answer to it all.
O Cross that liftest up my head,
I dare not ask to fly from thee;
I lay in dust life’s glory dead,
And from the ground there blossoms red
Life that shall endless be.
We would never construct a religion patterned after the cross. As we experience our own sinfulness before the holy God who declares, “I am the Lord your God,” we may want to run away from God. But, in this declaration, God promises to be our God! God will not leave us nor let sin and death have the final say over our lives. As we come to know Jesus, we come to know God, disguised in human flesh and humility. God calls us in grace to experience God where he bled and died on the cross. God calls us to know the passion of the God who saves sinners.
“Grace cannot prevail…until our lifelong certainty that someone is keeping score has
run out of steam and collapsed.” Robert Farrar Capon (1925-2013)
I first read this quote in one of my favorite books, The Christian Life: Cross or Glory by Steven A. Hein. This quote catches me by surprise every time I read it. For by nature we are theologians of glory and daily my thoughts of God pursue him as the One who will fulfill my will according to my prayers. But in all reality, again and again, I will be brought to the depths of pain and sorrow as God thwarts my will in order to make room for His own. It is a holy anguish.
Hein makes no soft talk page after page he discusses the theology of a God whose will it is to bring us to absolutely nothing to prepare us for His grace. He says that “He never comes to sinners to inquire if anyone is interested in becoming a Christian.” (1) This is a God who hides himself in death on the cross instead of taking an alternate route (which He perfectly has the power to do). We will feel the reality of this terror as we lose the grip on ourselves that separates us from him. Our sin is our pleasure and the illusion of owning ourselves is a false pride that will fall hard as Christ takes on the work of the New Creation that we have been baptized into.
Martin Luther’s Heidelberg Disputation takes us through the meaning of his Theology of the Cross. Here we find the truth about our perceived good works. As good as we believe they are, we must be separated from them. For they are the source of a pride that fools us into believing they offer some merit for our own cause. It is a juxtaposition in that it is in our piety we say precisely that we do not believe!! We believe in the law more than we believe in Jesus Christ. Gerhard Forde says that good works are the “seat of sin.”(2) The cross reveals it is really our spiritual aspirations (disguised as good works) that we must hold as responsible for the seriousness of our sinful nature. How strange! But yet, how strange it is that God incarnate died at our hands to save us.
Capon’s quote above is an echo of Luther’s Heidelberg thesis 18: It is certain that man must despair of his own ability before he is prepare to receive the grace of Christ.(3)
Briefly, there are two types of despair to discuss: despair and ultimate despair.
Ultimate despair lies where we have not yet despaired of the self; it is to be caught up in a false regard for our works believing there is no hope beyond our own abilities.(4)
“Doing what is in one“ is the hallmark of a theology of glory, but with a theology of the cross, we come face to face with the utter depravity of our sinful nature that we will then judge ourselves by admitting we can claim absolutely nothing in the way of good works. Then comes the cry for mercy. This alien work of God’s law and wrath catches us in the false pride of our works and turns us to Christ for salvation.(5)
So we must have grace. This humbling work is death to the old Adam but it is also where true hope lies. Where we see doubt and despair is exactly where God is saving us and making us into something totally new. The love of God does not find, but creates, what is pleasing to it.(6) The one humbles is pleasing to Him. Humility is the faith that saves and it is in this faith that we are lifted up by grace and made anew.
Grace is the beginning. This realization at first causes despair because we have to have it, but it prepares us to receive. There is no way we can save ourself. But the old Adam by nature will fight to his death to hold onto a least something he can offer. And he will die and be saved from the ultimate despair and he will be set free. And this is the beginning of the new.
(1) Steven A. Hein, The Christian Life: Cross or Glory, (Irvine: New Reformation Publications, 2015), 2.
(2) Gerhard O. Forde, On Being a Theologian of the Cross: Reflections on Luther’s Heidelberg Disputation, 1518, (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1997), 1.
(3) Forde, On Being a Theologian of the Cross, 65.
(4) Forde, On Being a Theologian of the Cross, 66-7.
(5) Forde, On Being a Theologian of the Cross, 61.
(6) Thesis 28 from Luther’s Heidelberg Disputation, 1518.
“O Love That Wilt Not Let Me Go”*
O cross that liftest up my head
I dare not ask to fly from thee
I lay in dust life’s glory dead
and from the ground there blossoms red
Life that shall endless be.
*George Matheson (1842-1906)
My Anorexic Nervosa was fully evident by the time I was 15. The worship of thinness and beauty in society presents an unrealistic ideal body image. I obsessively tried to maintain this through sports — mainly long-distance running. I have learned in my recovery that the real problem is much deeper than this, and I can recall this struggle beginning as early as 8 or 9 years old. By the age of 22, I was both Anorexia and Bulimic.
“Eating disorders are among the most difficult mental illnesses to treat. Anorexia in particular, has stymied many of psychiatry’s best treatment efforts. The illness has the highest mortality rate of any mental disorder, with patients dying from the medical complications of starvation or from suicide" (This quote is taken from a New York Times article on 3/15/16.)
I grew up in a Christian home. I was baptized as an infant and I grew up attending Sunday school and church. I read my Bible and tried my best to live like I was a Christian. I struggled deeply with uncertainty over sin, and I carried this grief long before I began to lose weight and show signs of an emerging illness. I understood right from wrong, and I felt tremendous guilt over anything I did that might not be right according to God’s law. I prayed for healing and I journaled with prayer requests and scriptures relevant to the beauty of God’s creation and his design for the female human being, but the disease continued to take control.
I had long been faithful in praying to be made well, and the healing experience healing was the valley of the shadow of death. Sorrow, sadness, and suffering were the merciless companions God used to strip me of the vanity I had created for myself in an attempt to secure my well-being apart from Him. To my surprise, God intervened in my life with His cross, and for a long time, I found it to be even more painful than the disease of eating disorders itself.
Having an addiction is no different than heading straight for the grave; it is this serious. My eating disorder was an impossible attempt to make myself righteous before God. This way of thinking only offers death; we must instead have Christ, who has taken the burden upon himself. Through faith, we are righteous because Christ's righteousness replaces what we could never offer. It is easy to see how sin leads to chaos and ultimately death, but we may be surprised to see how a preoccupation with our (good) works will also lead to death. We presume (good) works cannot lead to death, but the letter of the Law produces death because it is a rejection of Christ and God’s mercy. It leads to death because we can’t help but believe we might acquire salvation through our own efforts. Without Christ, both roads lead to death. Salvation comes through faith alone. The cross restores this faith. I write this on my healing experience:
The life I strived for lies at my feet. I have not been reconstructed as I had hoped, but the beams and timbers of my own self-sufficiency continue to smolder. Broken glass from the rose colored windows of self-help promises make it dangerous so I must be careful where I step. The cross on my back has emptied me of my pride and my strength. I feel the realness of my sin. I feel the purifying fires of tribulation and my salvation has become tangible to me as never before. Bravely, I call this healing because Christ is saving me from myself.
Before I began to heal from eating disorders, I had a misunderstanding of the Gospel. I believed in works over faith - the law as a code of conduct to be met by my own efforts. This manifested itself brilliantly in my battle with food. Anorexia is a disease of measurement and precision and Bulimia is a disease of shame. An emaciated and malnourished body is starving for the life and nourishment of the Gospel.
“Then he said to me, prophesy to these dry bones and say to them, ‘Dry bones, hear the word of the Lord’.” (Ezekiel 37:4)
Unbelief is the root of sinful behavior. Healing is not about being made better, but it is about being made new. We are either slaves to sin or slaves to righteousness. "For we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body ruled by sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin-- because anyone who has died has been set free from sin" (Romans 6:6,7). To speak of death for the sake of resurrection is to say that healing is the experience of the saving work of Christ where the sinful areas of our lives are brought to an end so that we may be raised up in a new life of faith which rests in the provision of God alone. “For the righteous shall live by faith” (Romans 1:17).
By way of holy anguish, God has separated me from this sinful ailment. Like a skilled surgeon, God has removed a terminal illness from my body, and now I remain under his cure. God’s plan for change within us goes to the heart of the matter. He deals first with the cause, not the symptoms. I have been given complete freedom from eating disorders. I can also attest to a complete physical restoration, including restored bone density, a common condition that accompanies the disease.
Embedded within my eating disorders were my own strict efforts of obedience that are nothing more than a dead end. We will never reach the obedience or righteousness demanded by the Law. Because Christ is the fulfillment of the Law, we are set free from the Law: “He was sent to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners” (Isaiah 61:1). When we live by faith, the Law can no longer work death within us. Make no mistake about it, healing comes with a huge cost. It comes with the cost of losing your old life in exchange for a new one.