Last week I experienced a tempest in a teapot, and I failed to weather the storm with grace. On Monday afternoon, I discovered that my blog’s subscription sign-up form was broken. It accepted the entry of an email address; everything looked fine. Except it didn’t actually update the subscription files. So I began a sweaty scramble to fix it.
I worked from 3:30 Monday afternoon until about 9:30 that evening. At that point, the tiny-tempest sank my site: everything stopped working. I went to bed. I woke early Tuesday morning, coordinated communication between four different help centers, got the site running, temporarily jury-rigged an email signup form, and published last week’s article.
Phew! It took me nine hours, but I got it done. Afterward I took a prayer time, beginning with My Utmost for His Highest. The devotional ended with:
Is there someplace where you are not at home with God? Then allow God to work through that particular circumstance until you increase in Him, adding His qualities.
I immediately felt convicted (in a good way). I hadn’t really repaired my website “in God.” Sure, I had asked God for help, but I had been “at home” in my skills rather than in God.
My work had the stench of human sweat rather than the fragrance of the Father.*
It wasn’t that big of a deal
For twenty-five years, I worked in software support, often working on problems that could cost my clients tens of thousands of dollars. Or their jobs. Compared with those situations, my little problem—a busted email sign-up form—wasn’t that big of a deal. It especially wasn’t a big deal compared with medical professionals who daily deal with life and death.
And I felt competent to talk with support hotlines and perform the simple web setup directions. I asked God for help, but probably out of habit. Mostly I felt I had things under control. Then I got a weekly email from Larry Crabb. It asked,
In what ways are you currently more focused on making a difficult situation better by asking God what to do, rather than seeking to draw near to God and give Him pleasure?
Again, I was convicted. I had asked God what I should do, but mostly I said, “I’ve got this one.” (Hey, I had been a software professional.) I simply relied on my natural skills. Yes, I asked God for a bit of help, but it was like taking a vitamin supplement to cover all the nutritional bases.
For me, it’s my natural strengths
An old adage says, “There are no atheists in foxholes.” Atheists find that statement highly insulting, and I don’t mean to offend. Rather, I apply it to believers like me. When I’m in deep trouble, something I know I can’t handle, I turn to God; not perfectly, but at least eagerly.
But in a situation for which I think I have some expertise, I lean into my aptitude or training. I might ask God for ideas, but mostly I go it alone. And my behavior isn’t all that attractive. Symptoms of leaning on my own strengths include:
- Preoccupation: During my website malfunction, I thought of little else.
- Excessive energy: I pour more energy into a situation than it deserves.
- Crabbiness: Little irritants frustrate me more quickly than normal.
- Self-pity: I’m quick to ask, “Why does this always happen to me?”
- Imbalance: I sense something in me is “out of whack” (a deeply theological term), but I’m not sure what to do with it, and I usually ignore it.
- Fault-finding: I notice the faults of other people; “Why can’t they work as hard as me?”
- Task-squeezing; Believe it or not, when I’m operating in my natural skill-set, I usually find ways to squeeze in extra tasks, even when the ones I’m doing already fill my plate.
All this is to say, when I’m operating in my strengths . . . I’m not a pleasant person to be around. Using our skills isn’t bad, unless—like me—we rely on them instead of God.
Isn’t that strange?
You may be different than me—maybe you’re harder to be around when you face a situation you are clueless to handle—but I find that my strengths are my biggest obstacles to the presence of God; in those times, I least bring the fragrance of the Father.
My natural goodness is my greatest hindrance to a spirit-changed goodness.
God is attracted to the humble. Something about our open need of God is beautiful to him. That’s why Jesus proclaimed, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 5:3) and David sang, “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise” (Psalm 51:17).
God is calling me to die to myself, and “myself” in this case is my natural strength. Chambers once wrote, “I am called to live in such a perfect relationship with God that my life produces a yearning for God in the lives of others, not admiration for myself.”
It’s easier said than done
It’s not that my natural strengths are bad, it just that I often don’t cling to God when I operate in them. How do we learn to lean into spirit-changed strengths and not into our natural ones? How do we avoid the stench of human sweat and live in the fragrance of the Father?
I don’t know. But I think God is taking me through a time of training. It has that scent.
Meanwhile, if you ever come over to my house for dinner, pray that God has put me in a desperate situation for which I have no wisdom, ideas, or natural strength.
I’ll be a much more pleasant host.
* I heard of the “stench of human sweat versus the fragrance of the Father” in a conversation with Gary Barkalow who quoted Wayne Jacobsen. Something about that line just smelled right.