“Are you so foolish? Having begun in the Spirit, are you now made perfect by the flesh?” –Galatians 3:3
As a 14 year old radically transformed by the power of God, it wasn’t long before I began to think highly of myself. It’s amazing how easy it is to confuse the gifts of God with ourselves – as if we never received them as gifts to begin with. The church at Corinth had a similar problem, and Paul wrote to them saying, “For who makes you different from others? And what do you now have that you didn’t receive? Now if you did receive it, why do you boast as if you didn’t receive it?” – 1 Corinthians 4:7 It was impossible to deny that the change in me was from God, but in my pride I began to develop a theology that would allow me a little more credit. I reasoned that the gifts I now possessed had always been inside of me, but were now activated through my encounter with God. Now that God had done His part in activating them, it was up to me to perfect them.
Although I didn’t realize it at the time, this kind of thinking permeated everything I was doing, and I began to trust more in my own power than in the power of God. Before my encounter with the Holy Spirit I was never athletically inclined, but I started running using wildly inappropriate Adidas shoes. Out of compassion my mom bought me a cheap pair of running shoes of a brand called ‘Saucony’ that I had never heard of. Back in those days the brand name of a shoe was more important than the shoe itself, but I figured since I was only using them for running they would be acceptable for the time being. My running ability improved dramatically over the next year of high school, and I thought to myself “Wow, if I am doing this good with a cheap pair of shoes, how much better will I do with a ‘real’ pair of shoes?”
The next year as a junior after running my first marathon I bought an expensive pair of Nike’s that I thought would turn me into a superstar – but just the opposite happened! The next years of high school proved to be some of the most painful years of my life both physically, mentally, and spiritually. My shins and knees were so wracked with pain that I could barely run a few miles without stopping. Bending my knees I could hear cartilage grinding against the bone and I began to wonder what in the world happened. For the next nine years my running ability would never be the same until I realized after college that those cheap shoes in the beginning were the best and most perfect pair of shoes I ever had. Like everything else in my life up until that point, my attempts to perfect what was given to me at the beginning only hindered their effectiveness.
I spent those nine years wondering how I did all those things in the beginning, and why I seemed to have lost the abilities I had. After all I loved God – spent time in His Word, prayed, faithfully gave to the church, and worked hard; but something was still missing. I didn’t understand it at the time, but the Lord was speaking to me from 1st Corinthians 1:29 saying, “…no flesh shall glory in His presence.” In my mind I had always associated the term ‘flesh’ with all of the works of the flesh listed in Galatians chapter 5: adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lasciviousness, idolatry… But I didn’t realize that ‘flesh’ is really all human ability apart from Christ! The works of the flesh listed in Galatians 5 are the result of our own efforts to live without the power of the Holy Spirit. The Galatians began their walk in the power of the Spirit, but later attempted to perfect that walk through the law and religious observances.
It’s not easy to learn, but Christ’s strength is perfected in weakness. Jesus told the Apostle Paul, “My grace is sufficient for you: for my strength is made perfect in weakness.” – 2nd Corinthians 12: 9 When we first give our lives to Christ, we surrender it to Him in weakness – having nothing to offer but our sin and broken lives. At that moment even though we may feel like we have nothing to offer, we are at our most beautiful to God and shine with His glory. As we grow older we are often deceived into thinking that we have something more to offer God than our own brokenness, and begin to offer the efforts of our own ability instead. When we do this we drift from our Savior and His strength, and before we know it have lost the strength that once characterized our early days. As I discovered through years of discipline, growing in Christ’s strength is all about realizing our own weakness, and learning to rely on His strength instead of our own.