For the past seven years, as a minister in Langley, British Columbia, Canada, I was growing in my ability to walk into any situation, at any time, and give the distinct impression that I was in control. Performing my first graveside service and don’t know where to stand? Adopt the right facial expressions, good posture, and pretend I do this all the time. Phone rings with a pastoral emergency that is way over my head? Adopt a deep, calming tone of voice, and assure the person on the other end of the phone that it is okay, I’ve dealt with things like this before, and let’s remember who is in control right now (even though it’s not okay, I haven’t dealt with anything quite this bad before, and it’s a good thing God is in control, because I certainly am not). Let me be clear. I do not think that I always was in control, nor was I being insincere in my actions. I was trying to fulfil my role with competence and dignity. I think that if you asked the members of my former congregation, they would say that I did an okay job of this. I usually kept my head and even had a bit of grace-under-fire.
That seems to be all over now that I have come to Papua New Guinea. The other day in the grocery store, I dropped a bottle of Sprite on the floor. That’s cause for attention anywhere, but when you are the only white guy in the store, it is a real attraction. Imagine my humiliation when, while attempting to pick up the errant Sprite, which had not only dropped but was now rapidly rolling away from me, I started to take a few quick steps to make a quick and graceful grab, intending to make it look like I did these kind of graceful grabs all the time, only to trip over my own feet and fall straight onto my face. Big tall white guy chasing a bottle of Sprite, sliding and sprawling face-first onto the floor.
In the past, I considered myself quite athletic and generally in good control of my body in physically demanding environments. If there was heavy lifting, I would join in. If there was a difficult hiking path, I wanted to take the lead. I have boasted to more than a few people of the trail runs I completed at various mountains in British Columbia. Well, this too seems to be over. On two hikes now to worship at the Reformed Church in Wantun I have been the only one in group to be helped across the river by a teenaged girl, been the only one that had to hold someone’s hand while crossing a log-bridge, and been the only one to lose my footing in half-a-meter of water and need rescue.
These are only the superficial things, but I hope that they will help you to understand what is happening on a deeper level. While I spent the last seven years trying to grow in my ability to think, write, and preach in the English language, I am now like a babbling child in my new language, Tok Pisin. While I had spent considerable time and energy reading widely to understand Western, particularly Canadian, culture, I am now in a very, very different culture. Whereas I might have gained some insight into how to help well-off middle-class people of Northern European descent with the struggles and temptations of their time and place, I am now in a completely different time and place, where people are dealing with poverty, the harsh realities of settlement life, and deeply rooted ways of life that are much more pagan than Christian.
How does this feel? Well imagine you are in a grocery store and you drop a bottle of Sprite… Or you need a grown man to hold your hand while you cross a ditch…
Whatever mirage of control I had managed to convince others of or believed myself is now gone.
And this is good. It is very, very good. Because in this humiliation (in the proper sense of the word, a process of being brought low), I am learning deep truths about the grace of God. I would like to share two with you.
First, as you can imagine, I have learned that I am not in control. From my birth, I have been catechized by Western culture to believe that I am always to be in control of a situation. Western culture emphasizes the power and rights of the individual, the ability of technology to overcome obstacles, and the need to pursue ever higher levels of achievement (strong, higher, faster). It also taught me to believe in myself, and in my abilities and capacity to deal with any and every situation. I read once that Africans have this sense that Westerners have a god-complex by the way that they walk around with the absolute confidence that every problem has a solution and their job is to provide just that. Certain structures in Western culture allow this mirage to continue. We don’t deal with many catastrophic natural disasters, we are blessed with well-functioning civil governments, and we have the benefit of hundreds, even thousands, of years of Judeo-Christian influence. We should praise God for these blessings. Instead, we become puffed up with pride and believe the lie that we are in control.
But we are not in control. And many ugly parts of our Western culture should be reminding us of this every day. We experience huge amounts of anxiety and stress— it is the Western epidemic.
Because we believed the lie that we should be able to control everything, and quite literally freak-out at trying to maintain the lie. Believe me, I know: I have suffered the panic attacks and had the heightened blood pressure of stress.
In moving me to PNG, God is teaching me in new ways that I am not in control. I don’t know the language and so I simply can not do the things I would like to do. I do not know or understand the culture, and so I cannot form the relationships that I would like to form. I do not have the social and civil structures around me that I am used to depending on, and so I cannot just assume that things will go the way that I expect them to go, and therefore I am often at a complete loss as to what to do. The other day I went for a haircut. Walking into the barbershop, I didn’t know where to sit, what to ask for, or how much to pay. In the end, my hair was cut, but I was not at all in control of the experience.
But at the very same time, God is teaching me that He is in control. Surely there is an inverse relationship between our mirage of control and our devotion to prayer. As I lose my security blanket of culture and language, I am praying more. Yes, I am confessing to you now that in the past I struggled with my devotion to prayer. But in praying more now, I am learning that God is in control. He is hearing my prayers. He is answering them. Many things are too difficult for me, but God is sovereign over all things, and he does things that are impossible for me. They always were impossible for me, but now I understand that better. I hope that by sharing this with you, you might begin to question your mirage of control, and might begin to pray with more earnestness, intensity, and frequency. I also hope that by sharing this, you will remember to keep me accountable too. As I become more savvy with the language and culture here, I am going to start feeling more in control. But I don’t want to lose the sense that God is one who is sovereign over all, who guides and directs each one of our steps, who works out all things according to His eternal plan, and who allows problems to be solved and successes to happen so that His kingdom will come and His name will be honoured. God is in control, not me, not us.
Second, I am learning that I am not strong, but God is. Here too, much like my sense of control, my strength was really just a mirage. In Western culture, weakness is shameful. Nobody wants to be weak. Everyone wants to be strong. Look at the magazines in the grocery store— carefully, because many are simply feeding your lust. But if they are not feeding your lust, they are showing you the strong body, the business acumen, the political power, the celebrity fame that you should worshiping. No magazine glorifies weakness. Every story is about the person who has overcome and achieved success. You should be strong, we are told. You are strong, some stranger who writes self-help books assures us.
But I am not strong. See what I said about my inability to control things. Strong people take control. Weak people have no control. When strong people feel weak, they dig deeper within themselves and find previously-undiscovered sources of endurance and stamina. Here in PNG, I find myself completely tired out at 9:00pm (aptly termed, “missionary midnight,” I have learned). There is a to-do list that seems like it will never get done because at the end of the day, I am completely wiped.
These physical examples are only a part of the weakness that I am experiencing here in PNG. The more significant parts are the relational, emotional, and spiritual parts. On the relational side, it is very difficult to go deep with people when you cannot converse with them easily. This is especially true in Papua New Guinea, where the way that relationships are built is through “storying”, sitting around and telling others about your past or the events in the life your community that are important to you. Emotionally, apart from what has already been shared, there are many other factors that are having a tremendous impact on my emotions: being faced with poverty, illness, and the potential of crime almost everyday; dealing with the different smells, sights, and sounds constantly; trying to juggle my new role as missionary along with the needs and demands of my family, to name a few.
Imagine these types of weaknesses— physical, relational, emotional— as boxes, and they are all stacked one on top of the other, each one giving stress and strain to the one below it. On the bottom of the heap, then, is the spiritual weakness. It is the hardest one to get to, but it is the one that feels the most strain.
And yet, hidden inside this near-to-crumpling box of weakness is a beautiful, precious, life-saving truth, waiting to be discovered. It is the truth that JI Packer captures in his book “Weakness is the Way.” He writes,
“The truth, however, is that in many respects, and certainly in spiritual matters, we are all weak and inadequate, and we need to face it. Sin, which disrupts all relationships, has disabled us all across the board. We need to be aware of our limitations and to let this awareness work in us humility and self-distrust, and a realisation of our helplessness on our own. Thus we may learn our need to depend on Christ, our Saviour and Lord, at every turn of the road, to practice that dependence as one of the constant habits of our heart, and nearby to discover what Paul discovered before us: ‘when I am weak, then I am strong’ (2 Cor 12:10)” (Weakness is the Way, 2013, 15-16)
This is the truth that I am learning to believe and trust. The strength that I find within myself is not that strength which lasts or which feeds and nourishes imperishable life. It is a strength that provides for this life only, and even then, not really. But in weakness there is a strength that nourishes spiritual life, the strength of Jesus Christ. In the weakness of my sin, there is the forgiveness through Christ’s blood. In the weakness of my mind, there is the wisdom of Christ crucified. In the weakness of my body, there is the strength of Christ’s resurrection. In the weakness of my struggle against sin, there is the strength of Christ’s Spirit protecting and helping. In the weakness of my personality, there is the refining, recreating work of Christ. The Spirit-breathed Word of God is full of the truth that we are weak but God is strong. God reveals this to us for two purposes. First, so that we might not put our trust in our strength and deceive ourselves into temporal and eternal ruin. Second, so that we would rely on a strength that is true and will never fail, a strength that has proven itself time and again, a strength powerful enough overcome death, tender enough to support bruised reeds, faithful enough to promise forgiveness for all of our sins.
I never was in control and never was strong. But the Triune God was, and is, and always will be. This is a life-giving, glorious truth, especially when you are face down on the floor, Sprite in hand.
(This article was published in Una Sancta, volume 64 3, March 11, 2017).