This week, I found myself more cognizant of my dependence on the grace of God than I have been in a long time. I was fearful and anxious instead of remembering that God knows me. I fell into familiar strongholds of my flesh, which shouts at me:
You act this way, and yet say you love God?
You’ll always be this way.
You’ll never change.
You have no future.
I got weary of the battle. I got tired of fighting against my flesh, of disciplining and training my mind to think on God day in and day out, to run to him, to realize that he is my strength, my provider, my stronghold in times of trouble. I get tired of my sin, that inexorable prognosis of my earthly humanity, and my seeming inability to go past it.
How long will I crave the affirming words of people “above” me in social or academic hierarchies? How long will my uncertain future incite fear instead of calling me to cast myself on the promises of my God?
Romans 7:24 describes what this week has felt like in the spiritual realm. Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? God knew that Paul wasn’t alone in this — and I am so grateful for the humility of Paul reminds me that I’m not alone as I stumble along the path to become like Jesus.
God loves me too much to keep me — or you — where we are. God is working in my life and loves us more than I love myself, or that you love yourself. His love is what transforms condemnation into an experience of his glorious grace.
This week, I came across the poem “Who am I?” by Dietrich Bonhoeffer. A prominent German theologian and preacher in the first half of the 20th century, when WWII began, he abandoned his asylum in the US and returned to Germany, fully cognizant of the risks. He was convicted, in his words, that:
“I shall have no right to participate in the reconstruction of Christian life in Germany if I do not share the trials of this time with my people.”
He was imprisoned in Berlin for his involvement with the German resistance in 1943. After his association in a conspiracy to assassinate Hitler was discovered, he was moved to the Gestapo’s high-security prison in February 1945. On April 9, 1945, he would be hanged. His final words were, “This is for me the end, the beginning of life.”
He wrote the poem “Who am I” after a year and a half of imprisonment. These are the final stanzas:
Who am I? This or the Other?
Am I one person to-day and to-morrow another?
Am I both at once? A hypocrite before others,
and before myself a contemptible woebegone weakling?
Or is something within me still like a beaten army
feeing in disorder from victory already achieved?
Who am I? They mock me, these lowly questions of mine.
Whoever I am, Thou knowest, O God, I am thine!— Final two stanzas of “Who am I” by Bonhoeffer, translated by J. B. Leishman
It was the phrase victory already achieved that first set me thinking.
Bonhoeffer, in the eyes of the world, had little to feel victorious about. He was in prison, his death knowingly imminent, and he found himself willing, as he writes in a letter to Reinhold Niebuhr, “the defeat of [his] nation in order that Christian civilization may survive, or willing the victory of [his] nation and thereby destroying [his] civilization.” Bonhoeffer “knew” the choice he had to make, but it came with deep sorrow.
As his own life drew to a close, he writes the phrase: Or is something within me still like a beaten army fleeing in disorder from victory already achieved?
Something within me seems to refer to his thoughts that make him feel like a woebegone weakling. However, these thoughts, as he thinks of them in light of Christ, become like a beaten army feeling in disorder. They don’t last — they’re running away because victory [is] already achieved.
Who am I? They mock me, these lowly questions of mine.
Whoever I am, Thou knowest, O God, I am thine!
Bonhoeffer sees that it doesn’t matter who he thinks he is, or what the answers to his questions are. Maybe he is a hypocrite or a weakling. It really doesn’t matter — he was God’s, and that is what settles Bonhoeffer’s mind. He knew whose he was, instead of who he was — and that made all the difference. The victory is that he belongs to and is loved by God.
Because God loves me, he’ll perfect me one day. I won’t be stuck where I am; that sanctification path will lead me directly to his throne, and instead of thinking about how I am a hypocrite and a contemptible woebegone weakling (I am, if I am to be fully honest, both of these things) I will be emptied finally of thoughts of myself and focus on God.
In the meantime, as I’m almost stuck somewhere on a kink in the sanctification path, I can look ahead to 1 John 3:1-3.
See what great love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are! The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him. Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when Christ appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is. All who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure.
1 John 3:1-3
But we know that when Christ appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.
This is my Victory, already achieved: One day, God will make me like Jesus.
That’s the highest aspiration any person could ever have. And I’m going to have it. Grace feels like an understatement.
I’m going to be rid of the fear, the nervousness, and all the other fickle and unfulfilling sin I choose instead of Jesus. One day, my mind will be captivated solely by the one who loves me, and everything will flow from that, and, Oh, God, I will rest! We will rest.
Whoever I am, you know, O God, I am yours.
© Olivia Davis 2019, all rights reserved
Tony Mercurio (@tonymercurio3) says
Wow. This resonates with me deeply. The pilgrim’s path has not been what I would’ve expected, though at first it seemed to be.
I was saved as a child, but my much delayed “honeymoon” period with Christ came over fifteen years later. I naively imagined that despite anticipated difficulties, the road to progress was as simple as finding the shortest distance between two points and executing. Read the Bible. Pray. Fellowship. Dig deeper. Wash, rinse, repeat.
At first I found myself on a familiar trajectory – going after my mission. God had called me, after all. I knew the recipe; show up, do what you’re asked, quietly put in your time, grow, move forward. The only trouble was that at a certain point the curves in the path obstructed my view of the end goal. I couldn’t see past my sin.
I was weak. I am weak. Like you, I also got weary of the battle. I am well acquainted with Romans 7. It’s hard enough to deal with sin as it is, but the “kink” in my path has been having to do it as a lay leader. Am I fit for duty? Is the road supposed to curve backwards? Who am I, really?
More pointedly, if the fullness of my humanity could be seen, would my witness for Christ be destroyed? I think sometimes we allow fear of others’ judgments to be of greater significance than God’s word. Christendom levies stigmas on some sins above others, but this is not the way of Christ.
I was reading in John 8 this morning. I am reminded that we are all held equal at the cross, and that we can only be held in any regard, in sound reputation so long as we are suspended in the grace of our Lord.
Men will make their judgments, but I think it’s critical for us to understand that the Lord Jesus did not pick up a stone, and in his presence, no other man would dare such hypocrisy either.
I still struggle with the enemy strongholds that have not been completely driven out of my life. God tells us that he’ll do this “little by little” for our greater good (Exo 23:30, context vv. 20-33). I believe his words. I have hope. Through all the mire, I have hope in him, and not of myself.
“We also glory in tribulations, knowing that tribulation produces perseverance; and perseverance, character; and character, hope. Now hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out in our hearts by the Holy Spirit who was given to us.” (Romans 5:3-5)
I think I’ve finally learned that I cannot and should not try to determine my own fate. Am I fit for duty? God knows. It’s God who raises up, and who chastens. I’ve spent so many years practicing introspection that I’ve almost become my own parent. I now desire to leave that to the Lord. What do I know, anyway?
If my life is marked by one thing, it’s grace. I exist, I breathe, I serve at the pleasure of the King. I’ve seen his mercies and have known his grace. From grace to grace, this is all I know.
“‘Tis grace hath brought me safe thus far, and grace will lead me home.” May we go and sin no more.