Chapter currently under revision – with study group
The Human Exoskeleton
The human experience is quite a challenge for most of us. The world can be a harsh and cruel place. It often seems we need a way to protect ourselves from getting swallowed up by the cruelty of others, the suffering which surrounds us and the overall results of a fallen paradise. If you’ve been a believer for a while, you’ve probably seen that the church can mimic the world with gossip, misunderstanding, hidden agendas, etc. We optimistically believe the body of Christ to be a safe place where we can let down our guard and it should be. But we are all works in progress and often we don’t treat our brothers and sisters according to the grace of God.
I like to think of our personalities as an outer shell or emotional exoskeleton which can help cope with these harsh realities of life. In addition, God provides great wisdom in Proverbs (for example) to guide us in our interactions with this fallen world (both inside and outside the church). However, our personality (exoskeleton) which can be so valuable to protect us in this dark world can hinder us in our quest for a deeper, more intimate walk with God.
Think of how we cope with the world: work harder, make better decisions, be careful how you frame that argument, stay away from that person, we should never let that happen again, and on and on. These statements all reflect the idea of self-preservation, personal effort and what can we do to look good, be successful and have the approval of others, while not getting hurt along the way.
This ego mindset carries over into our walk with God, with ourselves as the focal point. If we make the mistake of trying to relate to God through our personalities, we will completely miss him. Remember that God is spirit and we worship and interact with him in spirit and truth, not through our personality or exoskeleton. When relating to God the same way we interact with the world, we can tend to use the same methods: look good, be good, act right, etc. This takes us right back to the law and bypasses spiritual communion with the one who loves us. So naturally, we fall into the Levitical system of works-based righteousness such as:
- The 10 steps to be a ‘good’ Christian
- A new formula for spiritual maturity
- My church needs me to do this
- It’s what is expected of a good Christian
Many years ago, the Lord gave me a powerful lesson. I had been in the habit of praying for thirty minutes each morning, even to the point that I would check the clock to see if my devotional time was satisfied yet. At the same time, I had been reading the life of David where Satan tempted him to take a census of the army. This story is found in 1 Chronicles chapter 21. Apparently, David was relying on the strength of his own kingdom and fighting men and not on the Lord God for protection. During one of my prayer times, the Lord spoke to me and asked: “why are you counting the soldiers”? Apparently, I also had been relying on my own spiritual effort (the amount of spiritual time I invested) to ensure that God’s blessing would rest on my life. From that point forward I quit trying to put in my quota of quiet time minutes. That was the first time I recall God beginning to teach me about the difference between his grace and my self-effort.
This system of works based righteousness keeps the carrot just a little bit further away – so repeatedly we fall short, deal with guilt, repent of our weakness and failure and back to square one we go. It is a “rinse and repeat” cycle. Most of us never get off this carousel ride. If we honestly evaluate this dilemma, we are frustrated. We believe there must be an escape, but we don’t have the foggiest idea where it is or how to get there.
Shedding the Skeleton
Let’s go back to Abram in Genesis 12. Abram had a call and a promise on his life. Part of the promise in Genesis 12 was, “I will make you into a great nation” and another section of the promise reads, “All families on earth will be blessed through you.” I imagine that Abram periodically thought on this promise and likely asked the Lord about it. Pick up the story with me in Gen. 15:2.
“Oh sovereign Lord, what good are all your blessings when I don’t even have a son? Since you’ve given me no children, Eliezer of Damascus, a servant in my household will inherit all my wealth. You have given me no descendants of my own so one of my servants will be my heir”.
God gently corrects Abram and then took him outside to display his handiwork of the night sky. Count the stars, Abram, if you can, that’s how many descendants you will have.
In chapter 16 we find Sarai (Abram’s wife) coming up with a “brilliant” idea. If I may paraphrase her thoughts?
I’m way past the age of child-bearing and my husband too, I’ve been barren my entire life and now I am way past the age of childbearing. If the covenant which Yahweh made with my husband is going to work out, we better get busy and make it happen. Wait, I have a great idea, I’ll give my maidservant Hagar to Abram so that he may have a son through her.
But God was not impressed by her resourcefulness. Sarai, Abram, and Hagar did the “work of God” on their own with their wisdom, their strategy and their effort! If we could tap into Sarai’s thought-life we might hear, “Lord, aren’t you proud of us, look what we did for you?”
Did you ever notice that God never did rebuke or question Abram and Sarai regarding their plan to use Hagar as a surrogate – he just did not honor her plan and continued on with the messianic line through Isaac? Self-effort, like the law, seems to be a natural part of the learning process in our spiritual growth. We try and fail and try and fail again (shampoo, rinse, repeat …ad nauseam). But as a benevolent father, he does not upbraid us because this is a normal part of the spiritual journey (a bruised reed he will not snuff out).
Do you find yourself on the Levitical treadmill but God has spoken to you, given you a calling, a vision, a desire for something bigger than yourself? Are you driven to fulfill this under your own power, inspiration, wisdom, etc? This is a very difficult obstacle to overcome because we spend our entire lives relying on our skill and ability to function in a fallen world. But the very thing which can and does help us in the earth proves to be a great hindrance in the kingdom of God. If it’s my power and wisdom how does the power of God fit into self-effort, how does his blessing fit in and most importantly who receives the glory?
We must remember that he is Lord and we are his servants; his thoughts and ways are not our thoughts and ways – to live this way requires great humility and a yielding to the work of his Spirit. Please understand that attempting to fulfill the call or promise of God in our own strength, power and wisdom is like giving birth to Ishmael. This flesh born offspring will always persecute the true work of God. This is how Paul explains it:
And you, dear brothers and sisters, are children of the promise, just like Isaac. But you are now being persecuted by those who want you to keep the law, just as Ishmael, the child born by human effort, persecuted Isaac, the child born by the power of the Spirit.
But what do the Scriptures say about that? “Get rid of the slave and her son, for the son of the slave woman will not share the inheritance with the free woman’s son.” So, dear brothers and sisters, we are not children of the slave woman; we are children of the free woman.
Galatians 4:28 – 31
Personally, I am still working through this balance of personality/exoskeleton and a reliance on the power of God. It is a great challenge in the age in which we find ourselves. I would love to see some comments on this topic.
Meditation and discussion
Discuss a ‘spiritual’ work that was birthed in the flesh. When your self-effort did not work out what were the clues which pointed you to the true work God wanted to do?