Thursday, May 02, 2013

On Giving Our Lives To God

What does it mean to give our weaknesses to God? 

On a certain level, I don't know if I can explain what I mean by giving our weakness to God. I think it is something that one has to experience. The words point to something in one's relationship with God that others might explain differently. Nonetheless, let me try.

Since I was a teenager, I have wanted to be God's. I have wanted to follow God wholeheartedly. (If He is not Lord of all, He is not Lord at all--I used to say.) Over the years, my understanding of what it means to follow God has changed, but a metaphor that has been perennially useful for me has been to give my life to God. It seems that at some important level there is an act of volition, an act of choosing, an act of offering. But even my understanding of what this means has become quite nuanced over the past fifteen or twenty years. Still I find the concept of giving my life to God a useful one. It helps me pray. It helps me find peace not only with God, but also with myself and the circumstances of my life (and I'm pretty sure all three are closely connected, for they meet in my heart).

For the sake of discussion, let me talk about three kinds of giving to God. These three roughly follow the line of my spiritual development. I say roughly because like the Ladder of Virtues or any other metaphor for growth, you never really leave one level for the next, but your understanding and experience of each level grows to include other levels.

When I was young, I understood giving to God in terms of "giving God your best." As an athlete, I imagined myself as an Olympian for Jesus--this was in the late 70s and the Jesus People movement was rampant. My goal was to use my talents for the Kingdom. I wanted to love God with all my strength (literally, my strengths). Weakness was to be strengthened, so that I would be more than a conquerer in Christ Jesus (c.f. Heb. 12:12 and Rom. 8:37).  

Such a view of giving one's life to God certainly keeps one busy, but inner quiet is hard to find. Prayer for me was a matter of leveraging "God's Will" as I thought I understood it against the circumstances of my life. There were, certainly, moments of Grace--sometimes amazing--but overall there was not much difference between giving my all for the team and giving my all to God. And then there were the huge personal failures of various kinds. Moral failures, failures of physical or mental weakness, failures of courage, and the general inability to reign in selfishness. And in addition my personal failures (as I saw them at the time) there was the unavoidable reality of circumstance. I began to realize (thank God) that to be faithful to God in any specific circumstance meant that I would also in one way or another end up being unfaithful.  

Let me explain. To marry a wife and be a faithful husband limits the level of faithfulness one can show to the homeless, for example. To be a faithful parent limits the extent to which one can be faithful to friends. Every specific circumstance of life calls for a faithfulness to God that limits one's ability to fulfill any kind of idealized faithfulness to God. This realization led me to a second kind of giving my life to God. That is, I came to give the circumstances of my life to God; or to put it differently, I came to accept that the circumstances of my life were from God's hand. I came to accept that I had to follow God and be faithful to God in the specific circumstances of my life, not in some other circumstance that I thought I should be in, that I imagined was "really" God's will for my life. This is what I mean by giving my circumstances to God. 

Giving my circumstances to God meant trusting that no matter how I got into the fix I was in, it was now God's will for me to be faithful to Him (and to the people around me) in that circumstance. I often struggled with God in prayer. I felt such a failure. So many of the strengths I had imagined that I would or should give to God were now seemingly impossible to give. It was impossible for me, for example, to spend much time in spiritual reading when to do so meant I had to keep telling my children to be quiet. Somehow, I knew it was right to love the people who were actually in my life even if that meant failing in my idealized personal disciplines, failing in my idealized way of serving God with my strengths. This failure caused inner pain; and this pain I learned to offer to God.  Literally, I said to God something like this: "You see how sad I am about this, but I don't know what else to do." The pain itself became a kind of prayer. This also is what I mean be giving my circumstances to God.

But then there were the failures, moral and otherwise. I knew that a big part of the reason why the circumstances of my life were as they were was because I had screwed up: I had not given my best to God (though at times I had so meant to), I had strayed from my first love, my courage or faith or love had failed. I didn't know what to do with these failures. Yes, I knew that God forgave me. But still, my weaknesses and the failures (what seemed to me to be failures) that came from my weaknesses overwhelmed me. I was stuck. I was broken. I had nothing to offer God, nothing that was not broken, no strength that was not tied to sin and weakness. However somewhere along the line, I think it was something my spiritual father said to me, I came to realize that my deep brokenness was no surprise to God.  

When I first heard of offering my weaknesses to God, I had no idea what it meant--well, actually, I thought I knew exactly what it meant and filed it away in my mind. I didn't know myself very well. But as I went through a season of my life that can, I think, best be described as a time of drowning in the awareness of my weaknesses, out of despair I could only pray, "You see who and what I am. Have mercy!" During that time (and now and again since) instead of saying the Jesus Prayer, I repeated the words of the Psalm, "Let none who wait on Thee be ashamed because of me" (Psalm 69:6). It was enough that I had screwed up my own life and relationship with God. I didn't want to mess up anyone else's. The feeling of weakness and failure was freezing me. I didn't want to get out of bed in the morning.

But gradually, a Light began to dawn. If my weaknesses are no surprise to God, then in God's Providence, even these are used by God. The words of St. Paul about glorying in weakness began to make sense to me. I began to become aware of the profound humility of God. "We have this treasure in earthen vessels" (2 Cor. 4:7). This is exactly God's plan: to take a murder and persecutor like Saul and make him St. Paul. It is exactly God's plan to take a loose woman like the Samaritan woman at the well and turn her into St. Photini. God came to save sinners, not the righteous. It is our brokenness that enables us to carry the Treasure without it destroying us. Only as we are aware of and grieve our deep brokenness can "the exceeding glory be of God and not of man."

And so this has become a third way for me to understand giving my life to God. I give to God my weakness, my failures, my brokenness. When I feel profoundly my limitations and my failures to live up to even my own standards (much less anyone else's), when I see how poorly I do what others expect me to do well and how unmotivated I am most of the time, and when I'm flooded with the awareness of my spiritual sicknesses and the mess I have made out of my life: then I say to God the little prayer He seems to have given me: God I am a mess, but I am your mess.

You can't give part of your life to God. He is Lord of all, or not Lord at all. He is Lord of the mess, for God is Lord of me. I give him everything--the whole meal deal. The seemingly good parts, the obviously rotten parts. And He takes me. That is the Love of God. He takes all of me, even the yucky parts. God sees what I don't see. He sees through the yucky to something real, a spark, a sliver of His Image in me. But it's a package deal. He knows that, I'm the one who has had a hard time accepting it.

The Day will come when sin is washed away. The Day will come when everything will be made right. For now however, God has chosen to put His Spirit in broken people like us. Offering our weakness to God means accepting this.


Barbara said...

Thank you, Father.

emily said...

Beautiful post. Thank you for this.

Michelle said...

I'm mulling over "But it's a package deal. He knows that, I'm the one who has had a hard time accepting it."

I wrote in my journal years ago, "Who really *wants* to be forgiven? It's so humiliating."