Progressing Downward

by Tullian Tchividjian

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A couple weeks ago I talked about Reader’s Digest Christianity, and how it reduced the Christian faith to pithy, easily-achievable goals that ensure our personal improvement. Here, I have a different (though depressingly similar) target: “LiveStrong” Christianity. LiveStrong bracelets are today even more popular than the infamous WWJD bracelets were 10 years ago, despite the public fall from grace of their namesake, Lance Armstrong.

In the minds of many people inside the church, “Livestrong” is the essence and goal of Christianity. You hear this obsession in our lingo: We talk about someone having “strong faith,” about someone being a “strong Christian,” a “prayer warrior,” or a “mighty man/woman of God.”  We want to believe that we can do it all, handle it all. We desperately want to think that we are competent and capable— we’ve concluded that our life and our witness depend on our strength. No one wants to declare deficiency. We even turn the commands that seem to have nothing to do with strength (“Blessed are the meek” or “Turn the other cheek”) into opportunities to showcase our spiritual might. I saw a church billboard the other day that said, “Think being meek is weak? Try being meek for a week!”

We like our Christianity to be muscular, triumphant. We’ve come to believe that the Christian life is a progression from weakness to strength—“Started from the bottom, now we’re here” (Drake) seems to be the victory chant of modern Christianity. We are all by nature, in the terminology of Martin Luther, theologians of glory—not God’s glory, but our own.

But is the progression from weakness to strength the pattern we see throughout the Bible?

Take Samson, for instance. As a kid growing up idolizing Rocky, Rambo, and Conan the Barbarian, the story of Samson was right up my alley. I may have been bored by the rest of the Bible, but not the Samson narrative. Anybody who could kill a thousand bad guys with the jawbone of a donkey had my respect. He was the Wolverine of the Old Testament and I wanted to be just like him. Samson seems, at first blush, to be an exemplar of “Livestrong” Christianity.

The story of Samson is actually the exact opposite of the “weakness to strength” paradigm that has come to mark our understanding of the Christian life. Samson’s story shows us that the rhythm of Christian growth is a progression from strength to weakness, rather than weakness to strength.

Samson starts off strong. He’s invincible. Seemingly indestructible. Clearly unbeatable. He’s what we all want to be—what, down deep, we’re all striving to be. Maybe not physically, but spiritually.

We think his strength is in his hair (heck, even Samson thought that his strength was in his hair), but before every great deed Samson performed, we read, “The Spirit of the Lord rushed upon him.” Before he tears a lion apart with his bare hands (Judges 14:6), before he kills the 30 men of Ashkelon (14:19), and before he kills a thousand men with the jawbone of a donkey (15:14), the exact same phrase is used: “The Spirit of the Lord rushed upon him.” The author of Judges is at pains to make it clear that these feats of strength are not Samson’s, but God’s.

Think about the times in your life when other people have told you that your faith was strong. Aren’t people always saying that when you feel the weakest? When you feel like you’re barely hanging on? There’s something to be said for the real-world truth of Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 1:27—“But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong.” It is when we feel foolish that God shows himself to be wise. It is when we feel weak that God shows himself to be strong.

The Philistines are not defeated until Samson is weakened. His hair is shaved, his eyes are gouged out, and he’s chained up like an animal in the zoo. He finally realizes that he is weak and that God alone is strong and so he prays and asks God for a generous portion of strength. God answers his prayer and Samson brings the building down on himself and all the lords of the Philistines. It is when Samson is at his weakest that he is most powerfully used.

Gideon experienced something similar to Samson. Gideon is prepared to fight a battle. He’s got his army ready—32,000 strong. But God reduces his army from 32,000 to 10,000 by getting rid of everyone who’s afraid. Then he reduces the army from 10,000 to 300, keeping only those who drink “like a dog.” Then he reduces their weaponry to trumpets and empty jars. No knives, no swords, no spears. God wants to make it obvious that their promised victory is owing to his strength, not theirs.

We see this same pattern in the life of the Apostle Paul. By his own admission (Phil. 3:4-6) he started off strong. His spiritual resume was more impressive than anybody else’s. And yet God systematically broke him down throughout his life so that by life’s end he was saying stuff like, “I’m the worst guy I know” and “I’m the least of all the saints” and “For when I am weak, then I am strong.”

The hope of the Christian faith is dependent on God’s display of strength, not ours. God is in the business of destroying our idol of self-sufficiency in order to reveal himself as our sole sufficiency. This is God’s way—he kills in order to make alive; he strips us in order to give us new clothes. He lays us flat on our back so that we’re forced to look up. God’s office of grace is located at the end of our rope. The thing we least want to admit is the one thing that can set us free: the fact that we’re weak. The message of the Gospel will only make sense to those who have run out of options and have come to the relieving realization that they’re not strong. Counterintuitively, our weakness is our greatest strength.

So, the Christian life is a progression. But it’s not an upward progression from weakness to strength—it’s a downward progression from strength to weakness. And this is good news because “Livestrong” Christianity is exhausting and enslaving.  The strength of God alone can liberate us from the burden of needing to be strong—the sufficiency of God alone can relieve us of the weight we feel to be sufficient. As I’ve said before, Christian growth is not, “I’m getting stronger and stronger, more and more competent every day.” Rather, it’s “I’m becoming increasingly aware of just how weak and incompetent I am and how strong and competent Jesus was, and continues to be, for me.”

Because Jesus paid it all, we are set free from the pressure of having to do it all. We are weak. He is strong.

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14 Responses to “Progressing Downward”

  1. a. says:

    “The message of the Gospel will only make sense to those who have run out of options and have come to the relieving realization that they’re not strong.”

    the message of the Gospel….
    23 For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.22 But now having been freed from sin and enslaved to God, you derive your benefit resulting in sanctification and the outcome eternal life.Rom 6 therefore, repent and live

  2. Karen says:

    Exactly spot-on. I started a difficult day with this message…just what I needed to be reminded of. Thank you. God is good beyond all imagining! Jesus never fails!

  3. Mary Sargent says:

    I continue to be blessed by Pastor Tullian’s presentation of what Jesus has done for us. I am in the second half of my 60’s and his position, his declaration are beyond words for those of us who realized (maybe secretively) that their triumphant faith was exhausting. He so helps me take my eyes off of me and my failures and look at Christ.

  4. Aixa says:

    YES! YES! YES!
    God bless pastor T! I’m continually blown away by Jesus thru him.

  5. […] Progressing Downward: By Tullian Tchividjian – Tullian notes: “So, the Christian life is a progression. But […]

  6. I M IN MY 80’s with a body out of balance from auto-immune desease yet when I pick up my bible I get strong. not from my hair which I had cut yesterday. only Jesus within strengthens me and reading things such as this and devotions from Joni on my computer. thanks for being there. May He continue to bless your ministry.

  7. jeremy w says:

    Great article Tullian!!

  8. As always, this is terrific. I am a (Gordon-Conwell) seminary grad, and have spent MANY years in the reformed tradition. About 8 years ago or so, I began to question the “reformed” perspective on sanctification as progressive moral / spiritual improvement. This didn’t strike me as: coherent with the solas, let alone with justification; consistent with biblical themes or examples (as you’ve said elsewhere–not a book of heroes); observable in the church, nor in my own life; a healthy message, one that truly reflects ‘out of slavery and into sonship.” Thanks So Much Tullian!!! Dale

  9. a million times YES! this is precisely the story that the Lord continues to write in my life. when i admit my weakness (again, and again, and again), His power is made gloriously perfect.

  10. Amen. This is the only vision of the christian life the is grounded in gospel; growing such that we become more DEPENDENT as our faith grows and deepens. Your points (above) are the only way the believer can, for instance, grow to love God’s mercy more and more over time; something that would become small and insignificant if the muscular vision were a reality. My favorite hymn has always been Annie Hawks’ “I Need Thee Every Hour,” as she expresses the same sentiment you address here, i.e. growing in dependence. Many thanks Tullian. Dale

  11. Richard UK says:

    Like Dale, I heartily agree that the Reformed tradition are slipping back into an unsatisfying, exhausting Galatian-style ‘Theology of Glory’

    It leads to the absurd idea that we might get to the pearly gates and say ‘Jesus died for my sins – though there are now many fewer than there used to be’

    But I wonder if the article is even radical enough? It says

    “This is God’s way— he kills in order to make alive; he strips us in order to give us new clothes” (clothes, yes; strength, no); “The thing we least want to admit is the one thing that can set us free: the fact that we’re weak” (can do some stuff but not all, no! we were dead in our sins, we were crucified with him, it is not I but Christ who lives in me)

    We need to eradicate with absolute clarity and finality all the tentacles of man contribution or man cooperation. Grace, or Christ’s holy righteousness, is not a Holy Spirit power pack or fuel that a weak me can draw on. There is no “I” anymore. We were crucified with Christ. It is now not I, but Christ who lives in me.

    Grace does not enable me to do stuff; it enables me to see I am dead.

  12. sharonb says:

    Wait! You mean I can stop striving to be the perfect Christian? Its all about His strength? Its not about me doing!! Oh how I need to truly understand in a greater way His grace….

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