The mother of four young children lay praying as she awaited the MRI. The results would tell her family the probability that her brain tumor would claim her life before the next Christmas.
Brain tumors. Rebellious kids. Broken marriages. At times like these we wonder—does God allow us to be crushed beyond what we can bear?
Simply put, the answer is yes. He does.
At some time in our lives we will experience trials beyond our ability to endure them. Paul wrote to the Corinthians, "We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about the hardships we suffered in the province of Asia. We were under great pressure far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired even of life. Indeed in our hearts we felt the sentence of death" (2 Cor. 1:8–9a).
The apostle Paul, probably the greatest preacher of the Christian era, admits to facing pressures beyond what he was humanly able to handle. This is the same man who wrote earlier, "God is faithful; He will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear" (1 Cor. 10:13). How can we have a promise that we will not be pushed beyond what we can bear but then read that the same writer was pushed beyond his ability to bear—even to the point of despair?
The emphasis of 1 Corinthians 10:13 applies to seduction to evil, as illustrated in Israel's failure in the wilderness. We will not be tempted beyond what we can bear. God's child must know that divine resources will be equal to diabolical seductions to evil. The grace of God and the promises of God guarantee help for the tempted child of God.
Yet consider the pressures beyond our ability to bear to which Paul referred in 2 Cor- inthians 1. These are the afflictions incurred in the life of God's servant. Frustration, deprivation, and persecution were certainly the lot of the apostles. These men were made spectacles to men and angels of the suffering they would endure in order to make Christ known.
These sufferings work out a divine purpose in the lives of God's servants. Our strength must come from a source of power other than human ability.
God often allows the hearts of His servants to be broken so that they may minister to the brokenhearted. Plastic flowers bring no fragrance, and plastic lives bring no relief to a broken world. Charles Spurgeon wrote, "One crushing stroke has sometimes laid the minister very low. The brother most relied upon becomes a traitor. Ten years of toil take less from us than we lose in a few hours by a [traitor or an apostate]. It would be a very sharp and trying experience to me to think that I have an affliction which God never sent me, that the bitter cup was never filled by His hand, that my trials were never measured out by Him nor sent to me by His arrangement of their weight and quantity."
The most effective tool you and I have to reach people is our hearts. God—and even sometimes the devil—breaks it. Why? Because in a broken heart we find out we have to be carried. We find out we are not the attraction. We never were. As Paul explains, "This happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God" (2 Cor. 1:9). Paul realized that God put him in such pressure so that he would not rely on what he learned at the feet of Gamaliel. He learned he was not doing ministry in his own strength, but in the strength of another.
We, like Paul, are living on borrowed strength. God gets glory out of putting riches in clay pots so that the surpassing greatness of the power will never be mistaken for the pot (4:7). When we realize how weak is the container of the message, we begin to realize the greatness of God's power. How could God do so much through such a weak vessel? It is not the impressive vessel but the omnipotent God who makes the difference in effective Christian living.
Paul learned to rely on the God who raises dead men. God has a monopoly on raising the dead. He can raise up physical corpses, but He can also raise up despairing and depleted servants. You and I are not the attraction. You and I do not have the ability to endure. We are the clay pots that God is willing to use. I have met several whom I am convinced were "crack pots." Yet it is amazing how God often uses someone as weak as us to get His work done. The one who will give the most glory is the one through whom He manifests His power.
So how did Paul find the grace to endure? He and the believers in Asia found hope and help in prayer. "On him we have set our hope that he will continue to deliver us, as you help us by your prayers. Then many will give thanks on our behalf for the gracious favor granted us in answer to the prayers of many" (1:10–11). Without a lifeline of prayer we are living without oxygen beneath the water line. We cannot last for long. The sooner we realize that we are shipwrecked on God and stranded on omnipotence, the sooner we will begin to live supernatural lives.
In this holiday season is there a house guest who oppresses you, an alcoholic family member who ruins the gathering for everyone? What about airline delays, good-byes, the empty place at the table this year. Add financial pressures, illness, and loneliness. The rebellious child. The brain tumor.
The mother who lay waiting for her MRI prayed, "How can you use this, Lord? I'm just a quiet, unknown mom." Suddenly she remembered Gideon—threshing in the winepress out of sight, fearful of the enemy, the youngest and the least in his family. Yet when the Angel of the Lord appeared to him down in the pit, He called Gideon a "mighty warrior!" (Judg. 6:12). Gideon was weak but he had a strong God, one who specializes in supporting the weak and raising the dead. Because of God's strength, Gideon was strong.
So as the young mom lay on her back, she smiled. And as the machine roared, she worshiped the Lord of hosts, envisioning His answer, "Hail, mighty warrior!"
Phil Howard (DMin, 1986) is pastor of Valley Bible Church in Rodea, California.