These are challenging times. It’s often said that God won’t give us more than we can bear, which suggests God has brought the challenging times upon us, and we have the strength to endure them. It’s meant well, but it’s wrong.
The scripture not correctly cited is from Paul’s first letter to the church in Corinth where he wrote, “No testing has overtaken you that is not common to everyone. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing he will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it.” It’s encouragement to follow Jesus even when it seems no one else does, especially in matters of worship amongst the dominant pagan religions of the day.
In these challenging times, what does following Jesus mean? It has to mean more than “I accept Jesus as my personal lord and savior.” That’s just bumper sticker faith with no more substance than the paper it’s printed on. Paul gave it a lot of thought as he tried to guide new congregations in the eastern Mediterranean. His own experiences of beatings, imprisonment, and hard living on the road provided deep insights worth sharing. Following Jesus, he had learned, meant dropping one’s ego defenses to allow God’s presence to enter, bringing with it new ways of thinking and acting. They were gifts. Gifts from God that one does not have to reach for, but can only accept. How hard that is for us to do, including Paul himself. It means surrendering more of our ego than is comfortable.
What sort of gifts? Very strange ones indeed because they seem incompatible with common sense and reasonable self interest. To the extent we are willing to accept them, they change our lives. It’s not something we do, it’s something they do.
What are they? They’re elements of godly love expressed through humans for the benefit of humanity. Paul wrote in his letter to the Romans (Rom. 12) that they include a type of humility that doesn’t place one’s self above others, yet never surrenders the self confidence of being a child of God. They encourage us to do what is noble in the sight of all, boldly hating what is evil, yet overcoming it with good. This is not the sort of stuff we’re inclined to do on our own. It’s God working through us, but only if we allow it. A gift is not a gift until it’s accepted.
Writing to the Ephesians, he counseled them to “let no evil talk come out of your mouths.” Well that’s a bummer because I have a lot of not very nice things to say, and sometime do. But what is evil talk? It’s talk that oppresses, sows contempt for the vulnerable, verbally assaults and batters, spreads rumors, destroys reputations, incites needless fear, and manipulates for selfish purposes the lives and goods of others. We’re not likely to be up to it on our own. It’s only by letting down our defenses that we’re able to accept the gift of God’s presence working through us that we can discover ourselves beginning to live into a new way of being. Beginning, not attaining. Be kind to yourself. It’s a start, not a finish.
So where does it all lead? I mean in this life, not some other life yet to come. By Paul’s own experience, it leads to love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self control. It dispenses with pointless competitiveness and envy, and discovers contentment, even in hard times. That according to the letter to the Galatians.
I suppose it shouldn’t be a surprise, but not everyone wants these gifts. They’re counterintuitive. They weaken arguments for the self sufficiency of rugged individualism. They undermine the logic of Machiavellian tactics to grab power and position. All that can be said in their defense is they are God’s ways that God would have be human ways for the good of humanity. Following Jesus means giving up the parts of one’s self that are suspicious of these godly gifts to make room for them. In making room, even a small room, they will begin to grow and guide toward new ways of living in community with one another.
One final note. It’s commonly believed that to accept these gifts, and begin living into them, makes one into a milquetoast doormat easily trampled on. It doesn’t work that way. It leads, oddly enough, to greater courage to stand firmly and forcefully against all the powers of oppression, degradation, and injustice that infect the societies in which we live.