“I can’t do it,” my 7-year-old son exclaimed, throwing down his pencil in frustration.
The source of his angst? A second grade subtraction and addition worksheet. My son had started out writing down the answers with ease, but when he came to a hard sum with large numbers, he proclaimed that he would never be able to do it.
After asking him a few questions, I assessed that my son, a great memorizer, had either memorized the answers for the previous problems or was able to work out the answers in his head for sums with simple numbers. However, when he got to problems that he hadn’t seen before or problems with larger numbers than he was used to, he wasn’t able to figure out the answers in his head — and he wanted to give up.
With as much patience as I could muster, I demonstrated to him how to count on his fingers. I know that they don’t probably encourage this strategy in schools anymore, but it always helped me when I was in elementary school. When I first showed him the new strategy, he crossed his arms, repeating, “I can’t do it!” I repeated the instructions again several times.
Just when I wondered if my coaching efforts would help, he began to try the new strategy. At first, he got mixed up on how to “count up” on subtraction problems, but I kept repeating how to do it. He kept trying, and he was still getting wrong answers because he was counting starting on the wrong number or getting mixed up with the numbers on his fingers.
However, my little boy had more persistence than I thought and kept trying over the course of the next few days. A week later, I noticed him counting correctly and finding the right answers without my help!
When We Feel Like We Can’t Do What God Wants in Our Christian Walk
Sometimes in our Christian walk we might be like my son and get to a place where we say, “I can’t!” When we try to do the task God sets before us, we fall short. We may find ourselves in a frustrating pattern of failing and feeling like we can never measure up. We don’t desire to be disobedient, but He may “up the ante,” so to speak, where He teaches us new things and desires us to walk at a higher level with Him. And that place that He brings us may not be comfortable or easy for us. We may wonder how we will ever overcome the obstacles in front of us or change certain patterns we’ve held onto for far too long.
In a recent post “A Fix for the Disconnect Between Your Head and Your Heart,” Hayley Morgan calls the distance between what we intellectually know we should do and what we do an “integrity gap.” She notes that we’ve all experienced how hard it is to put our head knowledge into life practice and continues to explain how tackling the hard tasks Jesus sets before us can be as awkward and uncomfortable as riding a backwards bike. We keep falling off because we’re not used to riding a bike this way. We may want to give up on learning whatever Jesus wants to teach us or making a needed change in our lives because it’s not coming naturally or easily for us.
Perhaps this very dilemma of finding it hard to live out what we know in our head to be true is what the writer of Hebrews had in mind when he penned these words: “See to it that no one falls short of the grace of God and that no bitter root grows up to cause trouble and defile many” (12:15). As I explained in my previous post, I had always understood this verse to mean that anger that festers can affect others in a negative way. However, when I did a deeper study of the words, I realized that the meaning goes beyond that. Certainly, the verse can refer to those with bad attitudes that pollute the body of Christ and need heart adjustments after suffering disappointment or pain that has made them bitter. But “bitter root” in the context of this passage is most likely primarily referring to those who get slothful in their spiritual walk and fall away.
The passage is an allusion to Deuteronomy 29:18, 19 where Moses warns the nation of Israel not to turn from God and infect the nation with sinful actions and idolatrous worship. Similarly, in Hebrews, the writer is cautioning Christians not to allow themselves to turn away from God and become a “bitter root” in the community of believers that causes trouble to self and others.
In addition, when we look to see that we and others around us do not “fall short of the grace of God,” this is referring not to our salvation, but to coming up short or deficient by not doing the tasks God would have us do in our faith walk.
My guess is that many Christians who drift do so not because they stop believing in God, but because they get to a place where the path before them looks too hard. Like my son encountering the math problems with big numbers he had never seen before, we get to new levels with Jesus and want to progress but get stuck in a behavior or a pattern that, try as we might, we can’t overcome.
It’s in those places where rather than turn to God in our weakness and ask Him for the help to get through, we shut down instead. “I want to, Lord! But I can’t!” we cry. We are aware of the “integrity gap” between His standard given to us in His Word and where we are and fear that we will never “measure up” in terms of making needed changes in our spiritual walk. Or can we?
How Jesus Helps Us Change
Recently, as I sat crying over the painfulness of circumstances and my inability to change myself in an area of fear I’ve been struggling in for far too long, I remembered a verse from the beginning of Hebrews 12:1, 2 that cites Jesus as the “perfecter of our faith.” I decided to take another look at the passage, and one word kept ringing through my mind: “perfecter.”
What does that mean for us? The word “perfecter” means “finisher, completer” in the Greek. We might look at that and say, “Yes, Jesus does finish my faith.” But it’s more than that. Jesus is the finisher not just of our faith, but the finisher of the faith. He made it possible for us to run the race of faith because of what He did for us on the cross. We are no longer under the imperfect system of the law, but we have been given the Gospel. What Jesus did for us on the cross makes us righteous and acceptable in the sight of God — and makes it possible for us to have the help of Jesus on our journey.
He is our elder brother, our interceder. He completed the race of faith and reached a standard we could never reach on our own. This doesn’t mean that we don’t ever have to participate in our faith journey or do hard things in our Christian walk. To the contrary. We do have to do hard things, and Jesus will take us up steep, rocky inclines that are far above where we could ever walk on our own (or think we want to go at times). But we don’t do these things alone. (And, as I emphasized earlier, we certainly don’t do these things to try to earn salvation or His love. We obey in response to what He has done for us and trust Him to lead us.) When things feel as hard and impossible as riding a backwards bike, we have Jesus to help us.
You might be reading this, saying, “I’ve been with Jesus a long time, and I still can’t get a handle on this. I literally can’t.” And to you I would say the same thing I’ve been telling myself: “Through Him, all things are possible” (Matthew 19:26). When we can’t, rather than try harder, we turn to Him and we keep pressing in. We keep praying and asking for His help. We keep taking small, shaky, scared steps in reliance on His Spirit — however sloppy and imperfect. We repent when we mess up, but we keep going. We keep trying. We don’t stop running the race. And we don’t let our imperfection keep us from turning to Him.
While I was able to give my son a strategy to use to help him overcome his difficulty solving math problems, life doesn’t always work like that. We can’t always fix whatever stands in our way or our own problems with a simple 1-2-3 plan or book or helpful mantra. We need God — and our strategy should always be to fall before Him and proclaim our utter need for Him and inability to do whatever it is on our own.
That, friends, turns our “I can’t” statements into “I can.” Do all things through Him who gives me strength, that is (Philippians 4:13).
Want to learn more about how Jesus helps us in our weakness and how our inadequacies aren’t a cause for giving up, but rather, a cause for pressing in more than ever for His power to fill us? Check out Part 3 of this series on not falling back in the race of faith and attaining the promises God has for us. We will also explore both the old and new covenants and how the new covenant frees us from striving in our own strength to live up to the demands of the law.
This is a 3-part series on Hebrews 12, where we have been exploring not falling away in our faith and pushing through hardship to attain the blessings of God. Check out Part 1 of the series that talks about why the hard things we do for Jesus are always worth it.
If you would like to learn more about how God doesn’t base his love for us on what we do, check out this article on God’s love for us in the midst of our failures.
*Updated November 11, 2018.