Perhaps the greatest discouragement in my Christian life is my own weakness before God. It’s at the beginning of a well-worn path to doubt. How could the Holy Spirit possibly be working in me if I’m still struggling with this?
For me this comes up frequently in my struggle to share the gospel well with others. I retreat into a comfortable and “nice” conversation instead of doing the hard work of listening, asking questions, and learning how the person I’m spending time with needs the gospel today. I let fear of causing offense or of having inadequate words rule my conversation.
Recognizing this, I can spiral into a consuming fear that I’m not actually following Christ at all, that I’ve been fooling myself this whole time. After all, if I really loved Jesus and really believed he was the way, I would be filled with enthusiasm to share him with everyone I encounter.
Variations on this spiral might include:
- If I had real faith, I would trust God instead of being so anxious.
- If I had real faith, I wouldn’t get so angry with my family/coworkers/church.
- If I had real faith, I would be content instead of struggling with greed and lust.
- If I had real faith, I would give more generously instead of holding on so tightly to my stuff.
. . . and on and on. There’s an element of truth in these lines, in that our failures do indicate weak faith. They indicate we have more faith in our own way than in God’s way. The trouble lies in focusing exclusively on our weakness. This self-centered gaze takes us straight down the path to discouragement, doubt, and fear. But Jesus beckons us to an alternate route.
Jesus, Unshaken by Failure
Jesus calls his followers to handle their lack of faith by fixing their eyes on him. I saw this in a new way when reading through John last month, focusing on the conversations Jesus has. John 13-16 shares the conversation between Jesus and his disciples in the hours before his death, and in these chapters we see that Jesus is not shaken by their lack of faith. He doesn’t ignore it either; he actually points it out several times, as he did throughout in his ministry. But he constantly turns their attention back to himself, calling them to believe in him, offering promise after promise to be with them and help them glorify God.
In 13:37-14:1, he predicts Peter will deny him that night, but then assures the disciples that he will bring them to be with him and the Father:
Peter said to Him, “Lord, why can I not follow you right now? I will lay down my life for you.” Jesus answered, “Will you lay down your life for me? Truly, truly, I say to you, a rooster will not crow until you deny me three times.
“Do not let your heart by troubled; believe in God, believe also in me. In My Father’s house are many dwelling places … I go to prepare a place for you.”
Shortly after, Philip asks that Jesus show them the Father. Jesus points out their lack of faith in his unity with the Father, but then promises to act when they pray, send them the Holy Spirit, and return for them.
Do you not believe that I am in the Father, and the Father is in me? … Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; otherwise believe because of the works themselves. Truly, truly, I say to you, he who believes in me, the works that I do, he will do also; and greater works than these he will do; because I go to the Father. Whatever you ask in my name, that will I do, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son …
I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper, that he may be with you forever; that is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it does not see him or know him, but you know him because he abides with you and will be in you.
I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you. (14:10-18)
In chapter 16, the disciples think they finally see Jesus’ relationship with the Father and believe in him fully. Jesus again reveals that their faith is so weak that they will soon abandon him, but calls them to find peace in him.
Jesus answered them, “Do you now believe? Behold, an hour is coming, and has already come, for you to be scattered, each to his own home, and to leave me alone; and yet I am not alone, because the Father is with me. These things I have spoken to you, so that in me you may have peace. In the world you have tribulation, but take courage; I have overcome the world.” (16:31-33)
It’s a rhythm of their weakness, his strength; their doubt, his faithfulness; their fear, his assurance. When their lack of faith comes out, he says look at me, believe in me.
Three Ways to Respond to Failure
Knowing this should change the way we respond to our own failures. It will take our whole Christian lives to grow in this dependence and trust, but here are three immediate ways we can apply this in our thinking about weakness and bringing it before the Lord:
1. Look to Jesus as you see your sin and doubt.
God calls us to mourn our sin, but always to turn to him in our mourning. Rather than seeing sin and weakness as dooming, see them as opportunities to take hold of Christ’s strength and depend on him. Jesus does not call his followers to be discouraged in their sin, but to believe in him.
2. Look to Jesus as you confess your sin and doubt.
Hours before Jesus went to the cross, the failures of his disciples were obvious before him, yet he still went. He already knows our failure, and he’s already taken away our guilt. Scripture says we have confidence in appealing to his grace, so we can confess freely and without fear of rejection. Don’t shrink away from confession, but accept his offer of grace.
3. Look to Jesus as you fight sin and doubt.
Jesus speaks to the disciples of his own conquering power and of the Spirit’s help. We can ask for his help, and trust that he is working on our behalf. Though our fight against sin can seem unending and overwhelming, Jesus is not concerned, because he knows his own power is so much greater than our sin. He has overcome sin’s condemnation and has resourced us with the Spirit. He is working for us and with us as we fight, so that we are equipped to continue as we call out to him in the battle.
May you be encouraged today as you force your gaze away from despair and onto Jesus, who is infinitely stronger than our weakness and failures.