A couple of months ago, an internet acquaintance of mine, Joshua Arnold, shared a profound thought:
“I’d rather have a breakdown that has me cleaving to Christ than a ‘breakthrough’ in something worldly and vain that may charm me into thinking I don’t need to desperately depend on Christ in every moment.”
This sentiment runs contrary to the advice of popular Christian culture (let alone secular culture, which is not very different) and I hadn’t realized how deeply ingrained that advice was in my heart until recently. Sometimes we spend so long entrenched in worldly wisdom that even after we formally espouse and pursue the things of God, we still find ourselves struggling with the mentalities and priorities of our former lives. The obsession with finding my next “breakthrough” moment had been wound so deeply into the fabric of my thought patterns that I rarely questioned myself when asking, “How can I escape this trial as quickly as possible?” or, “When will I be delivered from my theological wrestling, my besetting sin, or my spirit of apathy toward the Scriptures and the God they reveal?”
Whenever I’m faced with the choice, I automatically long to take flight to greener pastures rather than wait and fight. I demand to be heaved over each wall as soon as I come to it, rather than be forced to hope in God’s sufficiency and faithfulness. What we are rarely told by our favorite “inspirational” resources is that this attitude may actually harm us in the long run. The reality is that an attitude of entitlement toward some expected personal breakthrough trains the heart in impatience and discontentment rather than trust in God’s good control – and not only His control, but also His sufficiency.
In spite of this, our next breakthrough is what we constantly demand from the Christian life. Breakthrough is what Western spiritual culture prioritizes above all else. It’s the topic of the most popular songs and sermons, it’s what we want to read about when we wearily open our devotional readers each morning, and, ultimately, it’s the thought that gives us the most motivation when we are “stuck” in seasons of spiritual dryness and affliction.
I want to change how I think about these seasons. I want to reach a point in my walk with God where I know I’ll not only be fine, but even fruitful, if the breakthrough I anticipate never arrives during my earthly life. And this is one of the most erroneous aspects of breakthrough culture when viewed in the light of Scripture, because most attempts to encourage believers with the thought of breakthrough focus on the here-and-now. The most obvious example of this is the “ministry” of the Osteens, who are known for their insistence that believers should live their best life – their most victorious life – now. But when we look at what the Bible has to say about victory experienced by the believer, the overwhelming majority of these verses are referencing the glory of eternal life, not the temporal goodness of earthly life. Some of the most clear examples are:
“For everyone born of God overcomes the world. And this is the victory that has overcome the world – our faith.” | 1 John 5:3 ESV
“When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written: ‘Death is swallowed up in victory.’ ‘O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?’ The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.” | 1 Corinthians 15:54-57 ESV
So, what if “abundant life” (John 10:10) is found in Christ, rather than merely through Christ? What if such promises refer primarily to our learning God’s preeminence over all other good things? Will we still worship God when it appears that He is the only good part of our earthly life? Are we willing to follow Christ if our cross-carrying journey turns out to be all valley and no mountaintop? If this happens, will we still proclaim our hope in “that which is unseen” – or in other words, “that which is eternal” (Hebrews 11:1; 2 Corinthians 4:18)?
I don’t know about you, but if you’re anything like me there will be countless times where the natural, honest answer to these questions is “Maybe?”
And yet, I want to say Yes. I want to truly mean it, alongside my friend Joshua and the witness of believers like the apostle Paul and Charles Spurgeon, when I say that to be helpless and broken in desperate, constant need of Christ (Christ Himself, not just His benefits) is better than to grasp for reprieve at every uncomfortable turn. I want to believe that the greatest expression of Christian faith is to trust in the “surpassing worth” of eternal glory when the world tells me that the purpose of my life is to soak up all the magic and happiness available in the here-and-now.
Do we really believe there is something beyond what we know and experience in this life? I think the answer to this is revealed in how we handle the suffering that is promised to us if we abide in Christ. It is seen in how we respond to our breakdowns, not in how assured we are of whether an earthly breakthrough is on the horizon.
Sanctification happens in this breaking-down – this crucifixion of the old natural self that knows and trusts in nothing higher than earthly good.