“What does God’s strength actually mean?” I recently began to ask myself again and again. Is strength physical? Spiritual? Available? Is it even a promise? Strength is all over the Bible, a common theme in worship music, and used to encourage. A struggle with a fatigue had awoken me to the fact that, not only do I not understand the strength of God, but that I actually doubt it. Doubt is never a good place to be in, but it is dangerously easy to fall into during times of weakness. Hungry for truth to combat and answer my doubts and questions, I am turning intensively to Scripture to see what the LORD had to say about His strength. An intriguing passage on the subject is found in Jesus’ well-known Sermon on the Mount:
“Why do you call me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do what I say? 47 I will show you what he is like who comes to me and hears my words and puts them into practice. 48 He is like a man building a house, who dug down deep and laid the foundation on rock. When a flood came, the torrent struck that house but could not shake it, because it was well built. 49But the one who hears my words and does not put them into practice is like a man who built a house on the ground without a foundation. The moment the torrent struck that house, it collapsed and its destruction was complete.” (Luke 6:47-50).
Here Jesus describe two different people with two different outcomes. The first is obviously a man of wisdom; when he hears Jesus’ words he puts them into practice. The result? His house was built on a foundation of such security that floods and torrents could not shake it. Because he did as Jesus said his house was stronger than anything the physical world could throw at him.
The second man had a starkly different outcome. He heard Jesus’ words but didn’t take them any further than that. The result? His house had no foundation. Other versions of this story say he built his house upon the sand. The same storms that the first man’s house withstood devastated this man’s house. Jesus goes so far as to say “its destruction was complete.”
Two things about this analogy speak clearly into strength. First, the storms of life affect everyone, for The Father “sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous” (Matt 5:45b). The flood and torrents Jesus described hit the first and second man equally. The first man’s wisdom did not stop the storm from hitting his house just as the second man’s foolishness did not cause the storm. The difference lies in what the storm was able to accomplish in each case. For the first man, the storm hit his home with the force of all its torrents but could not shake it. This powerful storm could do no damage! Why? The man had built his life on the words of God by believing them and practicing them. A life of strength begins with taking the Word of God deep into our heart and then living it out in real and practical ways. Doing this is not going to keep storms at bay. We are not going to ward off heartache, disease, tragedy, or any other unpleasantness. We are going to be able to withstand it unscathed. Consider this promise,
“But blessed is the man who trusts in the LORD,
whose confidence is in him.
8 He will be like a tree planted by the water
that sends out its roots by the stream.
It does not fear when heat comes;
its leaves are always green.
It has no worries in a year of drought
and never fails to bear fruit.” Jeremiah 17:7-8
For the righteous man in the parable, that year of drought came. The heat came. But, like a well-watered plant, his leaves remained green and vibrant; he did not wither or fade under trial. Consider another promise of God,
When you pass through the waters,
I will be with you;
and when you pass through the rivers,
they will not sweep over you.
When you walk through the fire,
you will not be burned;
the flames will not set you ablaze. Isaiah 43:2
Here again we see God’s children walking through fire and deep water, but emerging victorious and strong. This is what living in the strength of God looks like. It is not God using his sovereignty and power to shield us from hardship. It is continuing to take in and then live out the words of this God even when trials press upon us. This practice, though painful at times, produces in us that steadfastness that testifies of strength. A person with a complete faith characterized by hearing and doing, no matter what comes, is strong in the LORD. Storms that shake others do not shake them because they are standing on the only thing that cannot change, the LORD God Almighty.
So, we become strong by hearing the words of the LORD and putting them into practice. The second crucial lesson from this passage comes from the second man, the man whose foundationless home was destroyed by the storm. Looking carefully at his description, a shocking truth emerges. It is easy just to think of this man as foolish and ignorant. Foolish he may have been, but ignorant he was not! Jesus says, “But the one who hears my words and does not put them into practice is like a man who built a house on the ground without a foundation.” The second man in the story was not ignorant about the words of God; he had actually heard them! He knew what God had said; we could even take the liberty of implying that he knew the Bible. His house fell even though he knew the words of God, because he failed to take a vital step: putting those words into practice. If we are brutally honest, we will see much of ourselves in this man. How often do we go to church, listen to Christian music, read our daily chapter of the Bible but fail to carry out what we have heard? I had an experience through music that brought this lesson to life.
One night I was in our living room crying out to God over a sin issue I had been struggling with. As I was praying, music from a random song on the radio kept floating through my head. I decided to play it as I continued in prayer. However, I also chose to pull up the lyrics and read them as I listened. Doing this brought me to my knees and more tears to my eyes as I realized for the first time the truth the song conveyed. The song’s music is beautiful; I had listened to it many times and been moved simply by that even apart from the words. Each time I would hear it I would catch lovely phrases such as “Oh what mercy has been granted me,” and “our God of strength, our deliverer.” But, as I listened to the song in its fullness and entirety that night, the powerful words around those scattered phrases I had previously caught penetrated my heart with new understanding. The first verse goes,
O what mercy has been granted me
for the filthy rags I’ve worn
clothed in sacrifice too great to speak
and of new life reborn
still my darkness veils all the victories
that you’ve seen me through
the prisons I have counted each
a wall of sin so high I cannot reach
Jesus Christ who died for me
gave his life so that I could be free
he gave his life so that I could be free.
The song was about so much more than I had realized when I was “half-listening.” It was only when I gave the song my full attention that the lessons of God’s truth penetrated my heart in a way that changed the way I thought and lived.
How much more so are we with the words of God? It is not enough to read them or listen to them half-heartedly as I had done with The Hymn. It is not enough just to go to church and listen to a sermon. It is not even enough to just read the Bible. We must take in His Words in such a way that we become convinced and determined to live them out. Putting the Word into practice is our only hope of withstanding life’s storms; it is God’s prescription for strength! We must live by his words for “man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes out of the mouth of God.” And, we can only live strongly by God’s words when we know them. If we do not know, how then can we act? Knowing God’s Word is a journey, not something we fully acquire overnight, but a continual and joyful return to the wellspring of life. To live as Christians of strength we must first hear the words of God and then put them into practice.