November 18, 2007

When “I can’t” becomes “I won’t”

When someone says, “I can’t do that” my inner question is often, “Can’t? Or Won’t?” depending on what the person is answering. I remember sometimes asking my children to do certain chores and getting a response something like, “I can’t do that right now.”

When that happened, my inner question was usually expressed because I sensed they were merely procrastinating rather than telling me they felt unable. In other words, “can’t” really meant “won’t.”

After being a Christian for a long time, I’ve recognized that in my own self, there is a sense that saying “I can’t do it” is a sin, but there is also a sense that saying “I can’t do it” is totally what God wants me to say. What a paradox!

As I learn to sort this out, I realize that when God asks me to do something and I refuse, saying “I cannot” as if it were beyond me, denies God the opportunity to fill me with His grace and power so I can obey Him. It is a rebel response, an excuse for disobedience. “I can’t” is a sinful response.

But sometimes my heart is willing to obey, but my mind knows that I do not have any resources and the task at hand is beyond my human capacity. However, I want to obey God, therefore telling Him that “I can’t” becomes a prayer that He will give me what I need to get the job done. Saying “I can’t” is an admission of need coming from a humble heart.

This is the meaning behind 2 Corinthians 12:9. Paul struggled with what he called a “thorn in the flesh.” The Bible doesn’t explain what this thorn was so no one knows for sure what he meant. The only elaboration is that it was “a messenger of Satan to buffet” Paul. He had experienced supernatural revelations from God and was given this, whatever it was, “lest I be exalted above measure.

Paul pleaded with God to remove the thorn, but after asking three times, God told him, “My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness.” In God’s mind, Paul would be overcome with pride, so this weakness was necessary to his obedience. It is in this sense that I’ve learned it is okay to say “I can’t.”

Every Sunday, after years of experience teaching and leading a Bible class, and after hours during the week of preparation and prayer, I almost always have a huge sense of “I can’t do this.” It used to bother me because I fully believed that feeling so unable would automatically mean the class would turn into a disaster. In other words, if my confidence was lagging, so also would my teaching, and the response of the others in class.

However, God has changed my thinking. I realize this is how He wants me to feel; willing to go anyway, but needy enough that in the doing of it I will be relying on His grace and strength, not my own resources. In fact, I’ve discovered that if I don’t have that horrid sense of “I can’t” then I should worry.

This is a faith issue. I know I am unable on one hand, and I feel that inadequacy. On the other hand, I know God is able and even have that deep bubbling up from inside me that says “I can do all things through Christ.” Yet these conflicting thoughts must coexist. God has even shown me that although I feel a deep sense of my own weakness, at the same time others see in me His power.

This is the oddest thing. It makes sense only to those who have experienced it. The trouble is that feeling weak does not match our culture’s idea of moving ahead. We are told that confidence and assurance are an important part of doing things well. So when “I can’t” begins to pop up along with a new challenge from the Lord, that sense of being unable to do it in my own power can easily turn into “I won’t.”

This is why it is a faith issue. When everything in me is screaming ‘impossible’ I have to trust God who says His power will be perfected in me—even in that weakness—and it does not matter that this has been happening to me every week for years and years. Even though I know the principle, and know that God will come through for me, and know that weakness is part of a successful ministry from God, I still feel weak and unable, and sometimes am really close to jumping from “I can’t” to “I won’t.”

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