What does grace look like to the struggling believer? What does relief look like while in the depths, while frustrated by those very depths?
Suffering varies in degree and form, but often its core narrative is the same—that God is not good, hope is not real, and the sufferer is alone, helplessly alone. The last seven months felt like this for me. I had no job, no church, and no immediate community. It was the beginning of a dreadfully static season after three dynamic years in seminary where I was vocationally secure as a student and children’s pastor and firmly embedded in a solid community. Though outwardly I was not hurting, my new context provoked the same hard inner struggle I’ve come to know in cycles for years, and I was not privileged an escape.
Going back home was not the triumphant return I secretly hoped it would be. A month before, my best friends had all coincidentally moved to different cities, and, to make matters worse, I was in the process of finding a new church. In the midst of my shame from failing to find employment and my defeat from the continual rejection there, without an audible voice of truth to speak into me here, I fell vulnerable to the lies of my mind—the familiar lies of unworthiness, lies rooted deeply in my past. For seven lonely and idle months, I felt trapped in a body where I couldn’t outrun this spirit of condemnation, and worse, I had no one to whom I could go. Suddenly, yet all too familiarly, God was not good, hope was not real, and I was alone in the cavernous depths.
The lies were obscene. Frustrated that every season this despair returns, that my heart will always be heavy and my mind unrelentingly assaulted, that I am straitjacketed to the most debilitating predisposition of doubt and hopelessness—the doubt that God is not good and the hopelessness that perhaps I am not actually saved—that I will never be a joyful worshiper, my thoughts descended to a new weakness, a new personal cowardice of self-defeat. But on that restless night, frustrated by these thoughts and sleepless because of their grating noise, I opened up a book by my former counseling professor, a book on a topic I previously hadn’t given thought to. I began my begrudging read, and somehow, there in that book, I found hope. For one more night, I could sleep.
It is true that we were made to be in community, but when I needed community, when I needed someone here and now to speak life and love into me, I had only a book. Even less, I had only a paragraph from a book, a rather ordinary paragraph that I can’t even recall today. When my flesh wanted more, when at best it wanted the thorn removed and when at the least I wanted a friend beside me, a mere book—no, a mere paragraph out of a book—was enough. It was enough to sustain me for one more night.
But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” (2 Cor 12:9)
Without community, it was hard. Without community, it is hard. When I didn’t have it, all I had was a book, a voice transmuted into written form, and that was community—the bare minimum. It was a paragraph knee-deep in the obvious, full of “been there, heard that” remarks. Yet while I was searching for the novel things in life, for the grandest wisdom to become my saving branch, the small, small bit of encouragement that paragraph gave me was enough to strengthen and sustain me. It brought a new perspective to 2 Corinthians 12:9: the bare minimum of a paragraph was his grace for me that night, and it was enough.
Often in our lonely struggles, when it’s hard to see God working, we want relief and we want it in abundance now. Yet in reality, the hope for a situational deliverance might be distant and the balms for our wounds lacking, and that is always discouraging, perhaps even maddening. We know that God’s grace is sufficient, but too often in the depths, what we have is only the bare minimum to make it through one more day, one more hour, one more minute; and we may begrudge it, disregard it, or feel entitled to more. But that portion, too, is God’s sufficient grace, because it’s never so much about the mode or presentation of his grace as it is about its content, the substance itself—Christ.
The full and finished work of Christ on the cross is his sufficient grace. It is the grace that came into the world, the grace that knows us in our pain in the world, having suffered himself, and the grace that gives us an abiding hope beyond the world. Whether that grace comes to us in the form of plenty or need, of deliverance or bare minimum, of grandness or the ordinary, Christ remains enough. He is at the center, and he alone is the power to lead even the weariest through the night, because sola fide is never about the strength of one’s faith but instead about the strength of its object, Christ. And so, though we may lack in the depths, though we may still hurt, though day by day we may crawl just enough to make it through, with thanksgiving in, yes, even this circumstance (1 Thess 5:18), we can yet say, “Your grace is sufficient,” because bare minimal grace is abundant grace when Christ himself is the source.