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By Myself

A few days ago was “RUOK Day,” a great opportunity to raise awareness of mental heath issues and honestly appraise the fact that many of us are genuinely struggling with life. It prompts us to look out for each other, support and encourage each other as we face life’s challenges and, importantly, seek specific help when necessary. The fact is, though, none of us are really “okay” if we struggle along in our own strength. What does it even mean to be a “strong” person, and where do we find that strength? Our society is confused on that issue. On the one hand, Big Bad, impersonal Society-As-A-Whole recognises and rewards the self-achievers, the strong ones who make things happen. The rich, the powerful, the famous. Success is measured by outward appearances, the phony gospel of prosperity. Anyone who thinks a bit deeper knows that’s a sham. We know that individuals have worth, intrinsic worth, regardless of their “achievements” as recognised by the unrealistic expectations of Society. But where does this idea come from?

Deep down, we understand that unless everybody matters, nobody matters. We understand that an individual person is intrinsically priceless irrespective of their wealth, power, influence and achievements. Yet sometimes we can unintentionally reinforce the idea of contingent worthiness as we strive to encourage others. “You can do this!” “Find your inner strength!” This can be tremendously encouraging when it’s not just empty words and platitudes, but spoken in love by genuine friends who are there for you through thick and thin. But what if the inner strength is just not there? What if we are looking at the wrong source? Our inner worth must transcend our abilities, or it’s just another version of society’s lie, that our worth depends on what we can do and be. This is understandable, because it’s our natural inclination. When my daughter was a toddler, forming her first phrases and exploring her developing abilities, she used to defiantly push aside a helping parental hand and cry, “By self!” She wanted to do things by herself. Sometimes that was laudable and appropriate and we would be pleased to stand back and encourage her halting efforts. Other times we had to override her demands and intervene for safety reasons. As adults we still have that independent streak that demands we achieve something “by self.” It still, in our own hearts at least, defines our self worth.

The Bible teaches that our intrinsic worth is rooted in the fact of our being the special creations of a loving God who wants to draw us to himself as his children. This is tremendously encouraging, because it means we are loved and precious despite our weaknesses and the mistakes we make. Despite our often-time appalling behaviour, our rejection of him and our fierce desire for independence, God has not rejected his rebellious creatures. He loves humanity so much he took our sins, our selfishness, greed, abhorrent disregard for others, our weakness and failure upon himself in the person of his Son, and dealt with it all.

This is a portion of Psalm 103, a prayer to be sung, from the Bible:

“The LORD is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. He will not always chide, nor will he keep his anger forever. He does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities. For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him; as far as the east is from the west, so far does he remove our transgressions from us. As a father shows compassion to his children, so the LORD shows compassion to those who fear him. For he knows our frame; he remembers that we are dust. As for humans, their days are like grass; they flourish like a flower of the field; for the wind passes over it, and it is gone, and its place knows it no more. But the steadfast love of the LORD is from everlasting to everlasting on those who fear him, and his righteousness to children's children...”

God knows our weaknesses, our strivings, our successes and failures. He understands our struggles, for Jesus Christ experienced humanity in all its frailty. He does not brush these issues under the carpet, but confronts them. He asks us, “Are you okay?” knowing that we are not, but he also reveals to us the true source of strength; himself. We all appreciate the value of a friend, who like Pooh Bear and Piglet sitting quietly by their friend Eeyore, can just be there for us. This is a good, loving and godly thing for us to do for each other. It is an opportunity to love others in imitation of God who loves us.

But we are not God; we in turn have only so much strength. Despite our best intentions, we do let each other down. None of us are perfect. But there is One who is the perfect friend, the perfect parent, whose love is deep and whose strength is endless. The same God who gives us our worth because we are his creation and precious in his sight is the source of that elusive “inner strength,” if we would only acknowledge and tap into it. “No one has greater love than this”, said Jesus, “than that someone lays down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). God is so invested in us, that this is exactly what he did. The apostle Paul wrote, “For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person — though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die — but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:6–8). God did this, not because we had proved our worth, accomplished much, got our lives together or showed our “inner strength”... No, he did this while we were still weak. God’s love for us is not dependent on what we do or who we are; it is a free gift, what the Bible calls grace. No one is too bad or weak or poor or “useless” to be loved by God, and no one is too strong, successful or “together” that they do not need to come to God. We can’t do salvation “by self.”

God’s strength is not like our feeble strength. Not only is God’s strength unlimited, but it is, amazingly, made perfect through our weakness! The apostle Paul had an affliction. It’s not clear whether it was physical, possibly a visual impairment, or whether he struggled with mental health. God did not cure him; God will not necessarily do that in this life, but he did strengthen him, and turn something bad into something positive. Paul wrote, “Jesus said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” (2 Cor 12:9–10). God does not promise that our lives will be free from trouble. Suffering in this world is a complex issue, ultimately rooted in the pervasiveness of human sin. But God has entered into that suffering, and he draws us out from it. Jesus Christ, who suffered for us, suffers with us. He will never leave us, never forsake us. The Bible describes God as a rock; solid, secure, strong, faithful and utterly trustworthy. To tap into this great strength does not require any achievement on our part. In fact, God is not interested in us bringing the evidence of our goodness, success and got-it-together-ness to him. Because he knows that it’s actually all weakness. None of us can overcome our sin “by self.” None of us, really, is “okay.” God wants us to just acknowledge that we need his help, his strength. To tap into his great reserve of unconditional love. To hold out the empty hands of faith and say, “here is my empty cup, please fill it.” This goes against the grain, that desire for us to prove that we are worth something because we are strong and can do things "by self." We hate to admit our own need. But to see it that way is just another version of society's lie, inviting us to fail and then to question our value. Paradoxically, it is when we acknowledge our need, that God steps in to fill us with the true inner strength and the assurance of our true worth in his sight.

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