Encouragement for the failing, frail and fearful

Encouragement for the failing, frail and fearful

Defeat.  Loneliness.  Regret.  Failure.  Anxiety.  Confusion.  Shame.  Conflict.  Despair. Insignificance.  Loss.

Who does not regularly experience at least some of these hardships?

When experiencing them, where, then, does one go to be encouraged–to find true solace and comfort?

(No mere amusement or anesthetic, but true encouragement.)

Here’s where the Christian goes.

Just over 450 years ago, arguably the most influential catechism of the Reformation was written.  Written in Heidelberg (in modern-day Germany), it became known simply as the Heidelberg Catechism.

Now when we’re in the midst of any of the above hardships–be it loneliness, anxiety, or failure, and we hear the word “catechism,” we may immediately roll our eyes and even furl our eyebrows in anger (I know I would)–

–until we read the very first question of the catechism:

“What is your only comfort in life and in death?”

Here is no theoretical inquiry into dogmatic abstraction.  Here, rather, is a question that dignifies the afflicted (and afflicts the distracted).  It is a question both practical and promising.


And what answer is given?  Well, it’s multi-faceted, so let’s take it bit by bit.  What is our only comfort in life and in death?

“That I am not my own, but belong, body and soul, to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ.”

At the very heart of the Christian faith is an abiding comfort that is both counterintuitive and countercultural, especially to modern Western sensibilities, which often pay homage at the altar of human autonomy and self-determination:  “I am the master of my fate / I am the captain of my soul,” concludes Henley’s famous poem “Invictus.”  Turning from classic poetry to contemporary pop culture, one can readily find similar sentiments:

“This is my fight song
Take back my life song
Prove I’m alright song
My power’s turned on
Starting right now I’ll be strong.”

(from Rachel Platten’s “Fight Song”)

But for the Christian, such homage to human choice leads a person–sooner or later (and often only later–i.e., when it is too late in life) only to catastrophic self-sabotage, often with an immense amount of collateral damage to family and friends.

In the meantime–i.e., before our self-sabotage is complete and it’s too late, our worship of self-determination has so many miserable side effects:  anxiety (“Did I make the right decision? What should I do now?”), regret (“What have I done?”), self-loathing (“I’m such a . . .”), and despair (“It’s too late for me“).

But even when we happen to make the right decision (or perhaps even a string of them), it nevertheless often leads to pride (“Look at me go!”), though our self-congratulation is inevitably short-lived–why?–because there’s always another decision to be made that threatens to “undo” most/all of our former good decisions.  As a (presently) “successful” corporate executive once told me:  “I may have killed it in the last fiscal year, but when the new one hits, the slate is wiped clean, and I need to prove myself all over again, even if market forces have changed [for the worse].  If you take all the credit for last year’s success, you will also take all the ‘credit’ for this year’s failure.”

But the Christian, having had enough of self-sabotage and the side effects of self-determination, chooses to surrender:  like a company in deep financial crisis, the Christian longs for a “take over” that will buy them out and pay all the debts accrued from their past and provide a profitable way forward.

In short, they want new ownership.

And this is exactly what they find in Jesus–and what is celebrated in the catechism.  Bowing their knee to him in full surrender (Jesus doesn’t negotiate), they find in him one who has both the deep pockets and the deep desire to “take over” their lives, so that they are no longer their own but belong, body and soul, to their Lord (i.e., their owner) Jesus Christ.

At this point the catechism points to the following verse in Paul’s letter to the Romans:

“. . . whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord. For this very reason Christ died and returned to life, so that he might be the Lord of both the dead and the living.”

In referencing this verse, the catechism summons the single most common way that the earliest Christians referred to themselves in relation to Jesus:  as servants (or slaves) of their Lord Jesus Christ.”  Classically, this is stated at the outset of Paul’s letter to the Romans, where he first (and characteristically) identifies himself as “Paul, a slave of Jesus Christ . . .” (v. 1), then announces “Jesus Christ [as] our Lord” (v. 4), and then declares to the Roman Christians:

“And you also are among those [Gentiles] who are called to belong to Jesus Christ” (v. 6; see Rom. 8.9; 14.8; 1Cor. 3.23; 6.19-20; 15.23; 2Cor. 10.7; Gal. 3.29; 5.24; Tit. 2.14; cf. Ac. 22.16; Rom. 10.9-14; 1Cor. 1.2; 8.6; 12.3; Phil. 2.11; Col. 2.6-7).

(Little wonder that the earliest Christian creed had three little words:  Jesus is Lord.)

In short, desperately wanting freedom from the autonomy that leads only to self-sabotage, the Christian finds in Jesus one who is both willing and able to “take over” their lives, both paying for their “past” and pointing the way for their future–why?–because he has purchased them:  they are not their own, but belong to him.  He is now responsible for them.

Their problems are now his problems.

But their problems–their moral failures, their bodily frailties, their crippling fears, etc.–are simply no match for his power:  because they now belong to him, they now benefit from his sacrificial death–their moral failures have been fully paid for; they now benefit from his restoring resurrection–their bodily frailties which eventually finish them will one day be fully reversed; they now benefit from his ascension and triumphant reign over all powers in heaven and on earth–their crippling fears have been relieved.

This is precisely what the catechism goes on to say about the One to whom they belong, body and soul:

“He has fully paid for all my sins with his precious blood, and has set me free from all the power of the devil.” 

Again, their problems are no match for his power, and as those who belong to him, they participate in–and, thus, benefit from–his death, resurrection, and reign over all.  Belonging to him, they participate in his destiny:

whatever happens to him happens to them.

A shared destiny

Having overcome their moral failures, bodily frailties, and crippling fears, the Catechism rightly calls Jesus their “Savior.”  How did he do this?  He was “faithful”:  Christ’s faithfulness–i.e., his obedience unto death, even death on a cross, unjustly accused by his foes, utterly abandoned by his followers, and undeservedly abandoned by his Father–his faithfulness is what makes Jesus our Savior, the One to whom we belong, body and soul.

This is comfort.  A deep and abiding comfort.

But as if this weren’t enough, there’s even more.

Our Lord Jesus has the power not only to pay for our “past,” but to point the way for our future:  he can protect and preserve us.  The catechism continues:

“He also preserves me in such a way that, apart from the will of my heavenly Father, not a hair can fall from my head.”

It seems that when Jesus “takes over” our lives, he is (wonderfully) something of a micro-manager.  Having brought us into the family of God, Jesus entrusts us to the intimate care of his (and now our) Father:  whatever happens to the Christian happens only at the Father’s permission, and in such a way that it will “preserve” them.

What does this mean?

It means that, whatever may befall a Christian, it is of the Father’s design, such that it will always serve to deepen their conviction of the necessity and reality of Christ’s power–i.e., his lordship–over all their moral failures, bodily frailties, and crippling fears of the powers of this world.

As with a great family doctor, once the relationship between physician and family has been established, any future visits to their office, due to the accidents and ailments that are sure to come, will ultimately result in a greater confidence in the doctor’s expertise and advised treatment.

That is, a Christian’s future failures, frailties, and fears will in time only give them greater confidence that Jesus is, more than ever, their “faithful Savior”–as the catechism goes on to say:

“Indeed, all things must work together for my salvation.”

But what–or who–persuades the Christian of the saving work of Jesus?  How do they come to recognize, repent, receive and rest in Jesus as their Savior?  Once they become Christians, how do they continue to recognize that “all things must work together for their salvation” and the eternal life that is theirs?

The Catechism concludes with the answer:

“Therefore, by his Holy Spirit He also assures me of eternal life and makes me heartily willing and ready from now on to live for him.” 

It is the work of Holy Spirit–effective through the sacred Scriptures and among the community of struggling saints–who gives a person the eyes to see every more fully how Christ is Lord over humanity’s unspeakable failures, inescapable frailties, and incapacitating fears.

It is little wonder that Scripture speaks of the Spirit as the Comforter.

Deeply encouraged that they are no longer their own but belong, body and soul, to the One who is Lord over all, the Christian, even (especially!) when facing the countless hardships of life, is made “heartily willing and ready from now on to live for him.”

Such is the nature of the Christian’s encouragement.

. . . . . . . . . . . .

“Sing to Jesus, Lord of our shame,
Lord of our sinful hearts,
He is our great Redeemer.
Sing to Jesus, honor his name
Sing of his faithfulness,
pouring His life out unto death.

“Sing to Jesus, His is the throne.
Now and forever, He is the King of heaven.
Sing to Jesus, we are his own,
Now and forever sing for the love
Our God has shown.”

– from “Sing to Jesus” by Fernando Ortega

“…And as He stands in victory,
sin’s curse has lost its grip on me.
For I am his, and he is mine–
Bought with the precious blood of Christ.

No guilt in life, no fear in death–
This is the pow’r of Christ in me;
From life’s first cry to final breath,
Jesus commands my destiny.
No pow’r of hell, no scheme of man,
Can ever pluck me from His hand;
Till he returns or calls me home–
Here in the pow’r of Christ I’ll stand.”

– from “In Christ Alone” by Keith Getty and Stuart Townend

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