In the name of “scriptural accuracy”—with a hint of procrastination—I did an Internet search on overcoming in the Bible.
And this is why we check out what we think we know.
I thought I’d find several verses about how God helps us to be overcomers. According to scripture, we are overcomers because of what God has done; but in general the focus of overcoming is God, not us. What he has done, not what we can do.
Even though I wasn’t that far off, why was it automatic for the focus on overcoming to be me, not God? I am the overcomer. God whispered, “Look to culture.” Oh yeah, that.
I am not one to culture bash. God obviously loves culture! Look at the flavors of food, dance moves, and outfits. He is also fonder of political variety and language systems (Why God, why so many?) than I am. He instills a healthy love of land, history, and tradition. He placed each of us in a region and story.
The problem lies in unexamined cultural influences, not merely in culture.
My first sense of how deeply being an American has informed my sense of overcoming involved a phone call with a teacher in Asia. You would be hard pressed to find a more faithful, God-loving servant. Words that jump to mind are loyal, kind, prayer-warrior, willing to help when no one notices, and good sense of humor (as measured by laughing at my jokes. Just being real!). But the word that overshadowed them all? Depressed.
It was not for lack of effort. She tried to exercise faithfully, get enough sleep, read her Bible. She let a small prayer team know and they faithfully prayed for her. But instead of shaking the depression, it burrowed further into her.
I quietly asked, “What if failure is staying and leaving is success? What if this is part of the paradox of our faith?”
When I step back and look at how American culture—my home culture—tends to view overcoming, these words float to the surface: victory, staying power, undefeated, conquer, persevere, outlast, excel, not give in, and eventually a winner.
You may come from a different culture, but if you are a native English speaker, I would be willing to bet that you resonated to a certain sense with this list. When I think of the opposite of overcoming, words like giving in, quitting, not willing to stick-it-out, and a sense of loss come to mind.
But is this really what God means when he talks about overcoming? I do not think God is as taken with winning as we are. Nor do I think he views loss the way many of us have been programmed to view it by our cultures.
I have mild reading problems so when I saw the beautiful image made for this week’s word, my mind processed it “Come over” instead of “Overcome.”
What if one of the invitations of the word overcome is to “come over” to God’s idea of overcoming? What if we wean ourselves from how our home cultures see overcoming and slow ourselves down enough to ask God what it means to be an overcomer in a certain situation?
I understand why we are drawn to unintended formulas like “Overcoming equals ______.” Fairly predictable answers help to create a sense of control and safety.
Overcoming equals staying on the field.
Overcoming equals not taking medication and praying more.
Overcoming equals going to the field under-supported, trusting that God will provide.
Failure equals leaving.
Failure equals getting medical help.
Failure equals waiting.
God is inviting me to see that overcoming is moving beyond formulas and into an intimacy with him where the answer will vary. Maybe for you, overcoming in a situation does mean you stay on the field. Maybe for a teammate it means they return to their country of origin. As long as we wed the idea of overcoming to an outcome, we are missing out on the wild fullness (and at times maddeningly unpredictableness) of God.
What if instead of talking of staying or going, success or failure, victory or defeat we ask:
What is God’s invitation to you in this?
What are you learning about God in this?
Where is God growing you?
Ah, now that might truly make us overcomers.
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