The backwards reality of Christian growth.
Growing up in church and having Sunday School be apart of your molecular composition, as it were, there are certain stories that stand out from among the others, especially if you’re a young boy. As a budding male specimen, certain themes and details appeal to you more than others as the teacher trudges his way through Old Testament accounts, most notably, the “action scenes.” Whenever a war account came up in class, I always like to imagine how it would look as a movie — it helped me visualize the story and it was fun to envision the battles. Naturally, certain Bible stories would linger with me longer than others. For example, Joshua’s destruction of Jericho (Josh 5:13–6:27), Gideon and his 300 (Jgs 6:1–7:25), David and Goliath (1 Sam 17), David and his mighty men (2 Sam 23:8, which I always likened to Robin Hood and his “merry men”), and, in particular, the account we’re going to unfold today: the story of Samson.
Remember Samson? He’s the guy with the long hair and large muscles who has some of the coolest stories in the Bible. Seriously, just read through Judges 14–16 — he’s like an ancient Braveheart, or a “Christian” Hercules or Superman. Samson’s exploits would definitely make for a great film that Dwayne Johnson would surely star in. His story is naturally appealing to us, as it is a visceral display of strength and power. It’s most attractive to young boys, though, who crave those action sequences.
Remember when Samson tore a lion in two with his bare hands (Jgs 14:5–6)? Or when he caught three hundred foxes, tied their tails together, lit a fire in the knot, and turned them raging on the Philistine’s crops (Jgs 15:4–5)? Or when he killed 1,000 soldiers by himself with nothing but the jawbone of a donkey (Jgs 15:15)? Or when he destroy the palace of Philistia, slaying over 3,000 men and women by crushing two pillars (Jgs 16:23–31)? These escapades are hair-raising and spine-tingling, not just for the graphic visuals that are naturally stirred up, but for the simple fact that all of this is meant to show us Jesus.
Huh? Yes, these violent accounts are all part of God’s intricate plan of revealing himself as the glorious Savior and matchless Redeemer, King Jesus. But, how? How does the story of Samson show us the gospel?
Everyone’s a Samson.
Let it be known that we’re all just like Samson. No, we’re not shredded like he was (in fact, he might not have been that ripped anyway; see Delilah’s question, Jgs 16:6) — but we all rely on ourselves just like he did. The narrative of Samson is like any other tragic tale, in that he started out good and virtuous, taking the Nazarite vow (Jgs 13:5–7) and having the intimate presence of the Spirit with him. (Jgs 13:25) But he ended up weak and blind and enslaved. (Jgs 16:21) Samson thought he was strong in and of himself, and that thinking ended up crippling him. He began to buy into his own renown as a valiant warrior, courageous combatant, and mighty mercenary. What Samson forgot was that his strength wasn’t a result of his own doing nor was it a byproduct of his vow. His strength, in fact, had nothing to do with him at all.
What’s most interesting is where Samson deemed his power originated. Throughout his story, is that at each event the phrase “the Spirit of the Lord rushed upon him” appears. (Jgs 14:6, 19; 15:14) This is very significant. His strength was wholly outside of himself, irrespective of his might or virtue. Later in life, he fell in love with a woman named Delilah (Jgs 16:4), and she’s immediately called upon to seduce him into disclosing the secret of his ability. After many failed attempts at discovering his mystery, Delilah finally implores of Samson, “How can you say, ‘I love you,’ when your heart is not with me? You have mocked me these three times, and you have not told me where your great strength lies.” (Jgs 16:15) She then presses upon him, day after day, unrelenting her pressure and prodding. Eventually, Samson couldn’t take the nagging anymore, and confessed to her all his heart, saying, “A razor has never come upon my head, for I have been a Nazirite to God from my mother’s womb. If my head is shaved, then my strength will leave me, and I shall become weak and be like any other man.” (Jgs 16:17) Samson was putting all his proverbial eggs in the basket of his devout oath. He was banking on himself and counting upon his own righteousness and strength and merits. Thus, his fall, his crippling, his humiliation.
See, we’re just like Samson. We think we’re strong, we think we’re good in and of ourselves. As a society, we’re obsessed with strength and achievement and overcoming. As a church, we’re possessed by the same fallacies. We’ve succumb to the contagion of “LiveStrong” Christianity, putting the pressure squarely on our shoulders to carry weight of the law. Many Christians are apt to receive God’s grace at the inception of their salvation, but are more resistant to the notion that it’s God’s grace that keeps them in their sanctification, in their daily living. We receive God’s bounteous gift of grace and promptly go our own way, quickly concluding that the onus is on us! We determine that we’re the ones who are strong and valiant and courageous. We’ve wrongly concluded that the progression of the Christian life is one of weakness to strength: from desperate and dependent to invincible and independent. We must be ascending, we must be growing, we have to be getting stronger! What a crippling mindset! How blind we are to the truth!
But amidst all those “musts,” the meat and heart of the gospel is diluted, and, indeed, lost. Counter to what we’d naturally conclude, the way to get better isn’t to focus on how you need to get better. True growth doesn’t happen when we focus on growing; just like the old adage says, a watched pot never boils. No, growth happens when we live! It’s only when we stop obsessing over our need to get better that we begin to get better. It’s when we live freely in light of Jesus’s gospel of grace that become who we’re meant to be. Maturity rises to the degree that focus on self less and less.
When we stop narcissistically focusing on our need to get better, that is what it means to get better! When we stop obsessing over our need to improve that is what it means to improve!1
The world isn’t attracted to Christianity by our competence, but by our confession. It’s not by “living strong” that we bring light to the gospel, it’s by repenting more! The world is scandalized when we admit that we don’t have it together and that we’re just as bad as they are, and maybe even worse.
From strength to weakness.
The Christian life isn’t about your strength, ability, and might; it’s about Jesus and what he’s done for us! “Christianity is not first about our getting better, our obedience, our behavior, and our daily victory over remaining sin — as important as all these are,” writes Tullian Tchividjian. “It’s first about Jesus! It’s about his person and substitutionary work — his incarnation, life, death, resurrection, ascension, session, and promised return. We’re justified — and sanctified — by grace alone through faith alone in the finished work of Christ alone.”2 Always trying to “LiveStrong” and be everything is exhausting. In fact, it’s slavery. Self-reliance and self-sufficiency is the first step into a life of bondage and oppression. “LiveStrong” Christianity promotes the notion of performancism, which is the unrelenting pressure to “have it all together, all the time”; to always be competent and capable. But that’s not what the Christian life is all about. The Christian life is all about realizing that you can’t do anything and that Jesus already did everything. True freedom and joy comes when you realize that your life doesn’t rest on your shoulders, but on Jesus’s cross! The progression of the Christian life is from strength to weakness. (Phil 3:4–11; Rom 7:18-19; 1 Tm 1:15–16)
The sufficiency and strength of God alone relieves us from the need to be sufficient, to be strong. In other words, as Tullian says, “because Jesus was strong for you, you’re free to be weak!”3 Rejoice in that freedom, Christian! Revel in your weakness, for then, you are strong! “But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” (2 Cor 12:9–10)
Tullian Tchividjian, One Way Love: Inexhaustible Grace for an Exhausted World (Colorado Springs, CO: David C Cook, 2013), 223.
Tullian Tchividjian, Jesus + Nothing = Everything (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Publishing, 2011), 181.
Tchividjian, One Way, 36.