A New Strength and Courage

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All my ministry life, I’ve seen myself as a Joshua. I was called to my first full-time pastorate at the age of 26. I followed a pastor who had served the congregation for 32 faithful years. He was a man with a reputation that went far beyond the church walls. If he was Moses, I was his Joshua. And how do you follow Moses? My answer was found in Joshua 1:6–9. These were my theme verses for many years: “Be strong and courageous, because you will lead these people . . . . Be strong and very courageous. Be careful to obey all the law my servant Moses gave you . . . . Be strong and very courageous. Do not be terrified; do not be discouraged” (NIV). These words motivated me to be strong in my life and ministry. And fortunately, they seemed to fit right in with what we assume Christian leadership success to look like. Be strong, do the right things, and you’ll know God’s favor and blessings.

That worked well for about 23 years. Then on a Friday morning in July, my strength and courage hit a speed bump. A pain I couldn’t ignore hit me in the chest. Calling the doctor at 8:30 in the morning, he said: “Go to the hospital.” So, I drove there, and within minutes I was being prepped for the Cath lab. In the middle of the procedure, the cardiologist mentioned surgery. Forcing myself to pay attention, I asked, “Did you say surgery?” He said, “Yes Jim, we need to do surgery.” My reply was, “When?” He said, “As soon as the team is assembled.”

My thoughts immediately went to my wife and kids. We still had two teenagers living at home. I told the doctor, “I want to see my wife and kids before I have surgery.” Without apologies he replied, “If they get here in time, you can. But we’re not waiting.”

My left anterior descending artery was more than 95% blocked. While I was being shaved, the nurse let it slip that this was the infamous “widow maker.” My right coronary artery was more than 80% blocked.

I came through surgery and spent 4 days in ICU. Thank God, I had been spared a heart attack and there was no apparent heart damage.

After a few weeks of recuperating, with renewed Joshua-like courage and strength, I began my recovery. I counted sodium, fat, and sugars in every meal. I walked several times a day. I went to my cardiac rehab 3 times a week. I lost about 35 pounds. I became a heart-health zealot. I was determined to succeed where others in my family had failed. This was a physical and spiritual battle I was determined to win.

About 14 months later, still in tip-top shape, a familiar pain showed up. My wife took me to the ER. They did a nuclear stress test and saw that some things had changed. My right bypass had failed. The vein which had been taken from my leg failed me—it collapsed. And the cardiologist saw evidence of a new blockage. He came to me and said it was time for two stents. He assured me that sometimes this happens, but there was no indication of further problems. Our attitude again was “be strong and courageous.” So, two stents went on order, and after a few days in the hospital I was back on the road, as good as new.

But then, 9 months later, the pain came again. I was getting too good at spotting it. Another new blockage and another new stent. And then, 5 months later it all happened again. This time, it was Christmas and my visiting kids exchanged presents with me in the hospital. I was just 3 weeks away from my first sabbatical ever, and it included my dream trip to Israel.

I just couldn’t be strong anymore. I was tired. My body had betrayed me. It felt like it was my greatest enemy. It was denying me at every turn. I was angry. I didn’t want to die. But I didn’t know how to live like this. I was weak. While on our tour of Israel, there were times when I had excruciating pain walking around the places Jesus walked. And with that pain, thousands of miles from home, came fear. On the tour bus, my wife and I would keep an eye out for the nearest hospital, just in case.

In the following weeks and months, I could no longer summon Joshua’s strength. And it was then God began to show me that the very thing I was most afraid of was the exact thing he was calling me to—weakness.

For weeks, I was challenged to appreciate God’s work in suffering. I contemplated the weakness, the brokenness, and the humility that is expressed in the cross of Jesus. Paul gloried in the cross. God always used weakness and suffering. Job, Jacob, David, and Daniel all found God when they no longer had strength to carry on.

During this season, a new passage of Scripture took on greater significance for me. In 2 Corinthians 12, Paul told of his own experience with God in weakness. After he had a glorious experience of God’s presence, God gave him a wound. Paul called his wound a “thorn in the flesh.” Whatever this ailment was, he wanted it gone like I wanted my “chronic coronary artery disease” gone. Jesus’ words to Paul had become God’s word to me. He said, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor 12:9).

Embracing weakness flies in the face of our culture. We’re supposed to fight it and overcome it. We elevate the strong. We like those who stand tall on their own two feet and need little from others. We like leaders who are independent and self-sufficient and can show us the way. These are the ones who are wired for success. And we assume they are blessed by God and can most easily bring God’s blessings to us. We don’t have to read much of Scripture to realize God has a different way of working.

I have discovered there are blessings that our sufferings and weaknesses make available to us. In our suffering, we can have fellowship with Jesus, the Suffering Servant, that we can’t have any other way. Because of our weakness, we can experience his divine power. By depending on God, we find the most perfect expression of the divine-human relationship. Lastly, our hardships are redeemed as he uses us in the lives of others. When God is seen working through our infirmities, others have tangible hope that God will work in and through their lives too.

While God and my cardiologist have kept me going for the last 12 years, I still have hard days when chest pain reminds me of my need. My annoying and sometimes frightening pain reminds me to look again at Jesus, see his work in and through my weakness, trust in his strength and power, and rest in deep fellowship with the Savior who suffered for me.