I read these words in an email from a very good friend of mine several days ago, but I just returned to that email and realised that they totally needed more thought than I gave them the first time round:
“I read yesterday about how God is strongest when we are weakest. Which made me think about something **** says – ‘what we are best at is often the area which causes us the most difficulties’. You could flip that to say ‘what we have difficulties with could become (if we let God have control) what we are best at. Don’t know, just some unrefined thoughts.”
This is big.
Of course, for Bible believing Christians, this is nothing new, as far as ideas go. But I am struggling to remember the last time I took part in a service of thanksgiving for my weaknesses. In fact, although I have understood the theory of what my friend wrote above for a very long time on multiple levels, I am seriously unsure that I have actually consistently lived like I believe it. Like most Christians I know (including and especially in my own denomination), I was effectively taught that it is COMPETENCE that is to be highly prized and the more skilled (and knowledgeable) you are, the more likely you are to be materially blessed and the more spiritually blessed you will become. I could talk about this subtle evangelical re-write of the prosperity gospel for a long time, but that is a separate subject.
The truth is that the pursuit of competence in my own life has been as negative as it has been positive.
Recently I have been sharing in various ministry situations that God is rather less interested on our competence than he is in our dependence. Now, we Christians kind of take it for granted that God is the Creator, Sustainer and Redeemer and so obviously if we believe in God we believe that “in Him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). So in principle, no-one has an issue with the idea that we are dependent on God for everything.
But the desire to be as good as we can be at something – “competent” – is a very strange one for many Christians. We are encouraged to ‘look for our ministry” and “develop our strengths” and “think about our passions” and so on. Being competent is good. Important. Necessary. Whatever your creed or none, most people believe this.
And I’m not saying otherwise. But at what point does the pursuit of technical excellence become more important than spiritual transparency and unswavering dependence on God to lead and guide in each and every area of our lives? Do we really live the advice of Proverbs 3:5-6 literally? Do we acknowledge God in every single thing that we do and think?
Or do we run some areas of our life quite happily and and let God do the ‘big stuff?’ We do what is within our comfort zone and take courage from the fact that God is there to run the rest of everything and everyone else’s life – is that how this is supposed to work? Oh, but hang on a sec…no,no no – here’s how it works: we run our own lives, call God when we need the Big Man to come through for us, and in addition, we offer opinions on how everyone else is supposed to live their lives according to the criteria of ourselves! Because clearly (for example), if I see that you have a gift, then God must want you to use that gift a certain way, because if I was God that’s what I would think. Feels good to me – sounds good to others – it MUST be true! And the same applies if I think you are misguided about your talents from God and trying to do what you were never meant to do…
OK, OK, so not everyone does that – but far too many of us who should know better do behave that way far too often and lose more spiritual credibility than even bears thinking about.
As my friend quoted, “what we are best at is that which causes us the most difficulties.” This obviously needs to be qualified to ensure non-misunderstanding. What causes us the most difficulties is that which we need to pray about the most, and so we bring those things to God. How then would it be if we gave God the best that we have of our most natural talents – with no restrictions and qualifications – as well as our weaknesses? If He can do wonders with our weak areas just because we depend on Him so much, what could He do with our strengths? But that is another question altogether. Here in this post we are talking about finding strength in weakness – because when we are weak there is less of us. Less of us would, we hope and pray, mean more of God, if we truly let Him take over.
The next part of this is so serious; my friend then went on to say:
“You could flip that to say ‘what we have difficulties with could become (if we let God have control) what we are best at…”
Re-reading this was a literal lightbulb moment for me and that is why I am sharing it with whosoever will take time to prayerfully read it here at the theomusicology blog. If you are a minister of music and struggling with any one of the major areas in your ministry, then this is for you. But whatever you are and whoever you are, this is still for you too. The reason why I think now of music ministers is this: so many of us desire to give God the best that we have and we are worried that our skills don’t match up to what God needs from us to be able to be effective.
It seems to be not as easy as it once was to get hold of the story of Carol Cymbala online, but for all those in music ministry – and especially my sister Levites – she was and is a lady with a undoubted gift for music, but no musical literacy (i.e. she does not read or write music). Now, many people write songs who can’t read music. But their lack of music theory awareness frequently reduces the quality of their efforts. Carol Cymbala was empowered of God to become an original songwriter for the Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir – whose albums have gone on to win 6 Grammy Awards! Please, do go and look her story up any way you can. Here’s a story of strength emerging through weakness if ever there was one!
If you are concerned about your voice – find a teacher or a vocal coach (a good one!) – but not at the expense of prayer. If you want to play the piano/keyboard or guitar better, then there are videos and things online. If you have a real passion, burden or drive for something and it doesn’t even make sense, we cannot assume that it is not legitimate.
If you are very talented in a given area, then we also cannot assume that the full thrust of your ministry is necessarily going to be in that area. Sure, as a secular person, that would make sense. But as a Christian, you would accept what Jesus said in John 15:5 – “without Me you can do nothing.” But the heart is an idol factory and constantly guaranteed to create new false gods! This same friend of mine has also said in the past: “The devil isn’t stupid. He’s learnt from God to reach us where we are.”
So just as God takes what Satan means for bad and turns it into good, Satan tries his best to take the good and perfect gifts of God (James 1:17) and turn them into something bad. You can see the point – the very gifts and skills that God bestows upon us are potentially the very things in our lives that could become more important to us than God.
So let me make this personal. I have no idea why God has chosen me to become a choral director, but to me this is the highest calling in sacred music. If anything surpasses it, that would be composing and arranging sacred music that blessed God, shares faith and opens a door for the Holy Spirit to communicate to the hearts of listeners.
Stay with me on this one. So – from a background as a highly anti-vocal music person, I become a choral director who cannot sing. Some part of me realises that I am being carried by God Himself in this area. But as the gifting continues, I take time to figure out how to grow skills and I become an extremely-highly-regarded gospel choral director by those who know anything about what it takes to direct gospel choirs. God’s work.
But I know that I want to work in classical sacred music as well, and when God opens the door for me to go to school to learn how to be a real conductor of classical choral music, I find that the skills and instincts that served me so well in gospel music are literally almost useless in much of what I need to do as a credible conductor of classical music. And I struggle – musically, emotionally and spiritually. I nearly cave in and give up more than once. And at times it is the literal combined force of my fellow students and all my teachers that stops me from abandoning this course of study.
And despite much heartache and pain, mistakes, roadblocks and obstacles of one kind or another, I am able to complete the course and say that I am now a fully-professionally qualified conductor of classical choral music – something which very, very few seriously talented gospel choral directors will ever achieve. This is without question also God’s work.
And now the punchline: WHY was the journey as hard as it was? Because my expectations and understanding hitherto had led me into the fuzzy, saccharine and seemingly-biblical-yet-not-at-all-biblical idea that if this was really what God wanted me to do, then I should have been more ‘naturally talented’ at it. And so I sweated and fretted and stressed myself out like a crazy man over each of the things that I found difficult about serious classical conducting. When I look back on it, I was the biggest hindrance to myself, and God has to use people who did not even share my own faith to help me out of the quagmire in which I frequently found myself.
But although I look back on certain musical happenstances and wish that I had performed better, I am super-thrilled with the outcome of that course of study. Becuase in the end I literally had to stop depending on my own efforts and literally relax in the arms of a loving God in order to get through my final conducting exams. And from that moment on I experienced a new sensation – of God at work in me, conducting through me. All the best things that I did on that course on the podium were when I let go of my own self and just depended on God. BUT I needed to have done the preparation first!
God occasionally bailed me out when I was unprepared, but at other times He allowed me to take a dose of medicine for my failure to prepare. What we can get away with in gospel music is impossible to escape with in classical music…not professionally, anyway!
This is what I want you, my dear readers, to understand: had my grasp of the fact that God works best in our weaknesses been greater than it was at the outset of that course, then I would not have been so affected by the mind-bending attacks from Satan himself (ably assisted by my own mind on numerous occasions) that caused me to doubt and tremble and fear every time I tried to practise the things I needed to practise. God literally had to bind the enemy sometimes so that I could do the work I needed to do! I was far too consumed with the genuine desire to do as well as I could and be as good a conductor as I could be because I was all-out for God and super-scared that if I didn’t do really well I would let God down. And so my fears, insecurities and complexes could literally only hinder what God was trying to do both in me and through me.
I was too afraid of being weak. Too scared to trust in the God who opened the door to the course, yanked me through and kept me going. I was too afraid of not being good as I felt I should be.
God did not want to just give me more talent – He wanted to actually conduct through me – which meant that there NEEDED to be less of me, so that there could be more of Him. So my job was to work as if everything depended on me, but pray as if everything depended on God. Easy words to say, but much, much harder to live…
Bottom line: that course made me into a conductor, and my best days are yet to come on the podium. I am insanely excited about my future as a conductor of sacred music. But that was not the main reason God wanted me to do that course.
The main reason was so that I could learn and retain the very lesson that this blog post is talking about – the fact that God really is strongest when we are weakest. And so for those of you who may have wondered why it took me so long to get around to the most well-known text that talks about this, the reason is simple. I’ve known that text for over 20 years. But I have only just understood what it means in practice. So many of you who think you understand what the Bible says about various things may yet find that your expectations and assumptions are going to be violently assaulted and the real question will then become: is your faith real enough and adequate enough to stand up when your test comes?
2 Corinthians 12:9
New King James Version (NKJV)
And He said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore most gladly I will rather boast in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me.
For the first time in my life, I can actually say: Amen! That’s what I am going to do too – for as long as I have left on this earth.
And as you can see, that process has begun.