Over the last couple of months, I’ve been gaining a steady trickle of Twitter followers — not many, I’ve not topped 200 yet — and a fair number of them are Christian. Mostly conservatives, but a few of the inspirational, power-of-positive thinking school. (Not that these are mutually exclusive.)
Such thinking tends to give me hives. I’m not much of a positive thinker, though I have learned over the last few years (including a very intensive two-week tenure on Instapray) that often times, the people “thinking positive thoughts” are frequently those going through very difficult times. Me? I see a value in suffering and lament, and tend to view God more as a companion — one who suffers with us — than as one who solves all suffering or provides comfort. God’s presence with me in my suffering is comfort enough for me.
But I don’t challenge the faithfulness of people who publicly express these kinds of sentiments anymore. Because I don’t know what they are going through. Because I don’t know what they need to hear God telling them.
For example. A couple of weeks ago, when I was feeling a little anxious, I was futzing around on the guitar, a melody came to me, and pretty quickly wrote a song from bits and pieces of the Gospel of Mark. The main message was, “do not be afraid,” something I clearly needed to hear. Not just in that moment, but always.
At any rate, I do not know quite where they are.
But there is a bit of scripture I see quoted that still gives me hives. Someone I follow on Twitter, someone of the “think positive” school I suspect, recently posted the following:
Stop saying “I can’t.” #Philippians 4:13
And that’s okay, so far as it goes. But I keep seeing Philippians 4:13 — “I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” — as a kind of incantation that says, “I can do anything so long as I have Jesus with me.” Leap tall buildings, get an A on that exam, close the deal, whatever.
This is where it’s important to read the whole passage. Because Paul isn’t quite saying that:
10 I rejoiced in the Lord greatly that now at length you have revived your concern for me. You were indeed concerned for me, but you had no opportunity. 11 Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. 12 I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. 13 I can do all things through him who strengthens me. (Philippians 4:10-13 ESV)
There is more, and Paul acknowledges in the following verses that the church at Philippi has shared “my trouble” with Paul, and has provisioned him with “a fragrant offering, a sacrifice acceptable and pleasing to God.”
But the point leading up to the verse is about circumstances, not accomplishment. “For I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content.” This is worth learning — I haven’t learned it, as much of my whining on this blog attests to. Paul tells the Philippians that he has “learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need.” He has learned how to deal with his circumstances regardless of what they are.
Because he has the strength of Christ to see the gift and blessing in everything he has. Whether he has plenty or little, he knows he has the power to praise God for whatever he receives. More importantly, he knows that God provides for him. Everything is from God. He is utterly dependent upon the grace of God, and that grace expressed through the goodwill of those he visits, teaches, preaches, and writes to. And he knows this.
I sense in Paul a kind of a grateful presumption as he writes this. He is grateful for everything he has received. He truly is. But he also expects — no, he knows that God will provide for him. Because God promised, and God’s promises never fail.
This isn’t quite positive thinking, a cure for “I can’t.” This is bigger than defeating “no.” It’s living into the promise of God in difficult circumstances, knowing that God will provide. It says “yes” when I want to say “no, I cannot go on.” But it doesn’t say “yes” when I say, “no, I cannot jump that tall building” or “no, I will not get that job” or “no, I won’t win an award for my book.” I know Paul says all things πάντα, but this isn’t about magical or heroic accomplishments — it’s about endurance. It’s about knowing that whether you have much, or have little, whether you are held in high regard, or no regard at all, everything is from God, and each is a thing to be endured. Which means that neither is a natural condition. Neither is to be expected.
And neither is to be feared.
I wish I had this kind of faith. I know how dependent upon the goodwill of others Jennifer and I have been for the last couple of years. I don’t like this dependence, I don’t like being a perpetual guest. I don’t like daily bread, knowing that just about every difficult situation I’ve found myself in has gotten barely resolved for the good at the very last moment.
And yet, I’m slowly learning to live into this with what I call this faithful presumptiveness, that the provision of God will be there exactly when Jennifer and I need it most. It still doesn’t feel right. I still don’t feel like I’m earning any of this. And I so want to earn my bread by the sweat of my brow, and have a home of my own, so I can at some point be a host. And not a guest.
But as Paul has said, I know how to be brought low. Oh God, but I have been brought low. But that is not all there has been either. I know how to abound. I know how to see abundance is simple and meagre gifts. In fact, a big possibility is looming on the horizon — I will be appearing on TBN’s Praise The Lord show next week — that could make all that possible. I hope. I pray.
Once, long before seminary loomed on the horizon, I told my best friend Vince: Jennifer and I have been through so much together, I’m not sure if anything could tear us apart. We’re a good team.
Vince looked at me thoughtfully and said: success and prosperity. You’ve not experienced that yet. And that does strange things to people.
I’m not sure at this point what success and prosperity would look like for me. Likely not a $10 million house or a $60 million private jet. Abundance feels to us right now like a small place of our own and a comfy couch to cuddle on and drink coffee. (And at some point, someone’s abandoned kids to take care of.) That’s all we really need.
Whatever comes, though, I know — I can do all things through him who strengthens me.