Hope Network Newsletter: The Problem With Bootstrap Theology (Mar-Apr 1998)

By Matt Dabbs

by Marcus Brecheen
March – April, 1998

Marcus Brecheen is a preaching minister in Decatur, Texas. These reflections not only reveal Marcus’ heart, but put us in touch with what it means to walk with Jesus in the real world. I commend these lines to Wineskins readers. ~ Lynn Anderson

Jim hadn’t shaved in days. His hair was disheveled, his clothes were wrinkled, and he hung his head when he walked. If the eyes are indeed windows into the soul, his eyes betrayed a soul which had been ransacked beyond repair. During the four days since his life had fallen apart he had attempted suicide. Mary, his live-in girl friend of four years, had left him for another man, and Jim saw nothing to live for.

“Jim, aren’t you going to eat?” I asked him over lunch.

“No, I’m just not hungry. I haven’t eaten since she moved out.” I was the preacher called in to save the day.

Had I slept through this class in graduate school? In all of my education had I somehow taken the wrong classes? Or was I just beginning my education? One thing was sure. It was finally time to see if all this Bible stuff really works in the trench.

Never had I been the first on the scene and witnessed such carnage as Jim’s.

“Lord, what do I tell him? How do I help him? Please give me some way to minister to him.” I pleaded. My thoughts turned to graduate school counseling classes: Family Systems Theory, triangling, co-dependency, and what Jim’s relationship must have been like with his father. All those things have their place in the right setting, but they failed dismally in this crowded restaurant as Jim’s tears trailed down his nose and fell into his lap. His broken heart was screaming for relief, but his sobs were answered only with a deafening silence.

It finally occurred to me that the only thing I had to offer was the one thing Jim needed most. “Jim, there is hope for you. I’m not smart enough to work out all of your problems, but I have a friend who can. Jim, Jesus Christ loves you, and He doesn’t want you to suffer like this. In fact, Jesus came that you might have a better life than you ever dreamed of. Jesus has pulled me out of a trench or two, and I am certain that no trench is too difficult for him. And Jesus specializes in the trenches everybody else runs away from.”

He looked at me through red, swollen eyes with a stare which seemed to say, “I want desperately to believe you, and I have nowhere else to turn.”

In the eleventh chapter of John’s Gospel, Jesus’ close friend Lazarus was sick. Trenches usually begin with sickness. Sometimes it is a physical sickness like Lazarus was suffering, but in Jim’s case it was a sickness of the heart. Sickness of the heart can be a ruthless foe, waking you up in the middle of the night or tugging on your coat in the checkout line at the grocery store.

There is only one thing to do when you are flat on your back looking up at an overcast sky. Send word to Jesus

Lesson Number One: Send Word to Jesus

Good thing Lazarus was blessed with smart sisters. John 11:3 says that Mary and Martha sent word to Jesus that the one he loved was sick. Trench-dwellers rarely understand that they are loved by Jesus, and that he cares enough to enter their trench with them. But first they need to invite him. Bootstrap theology makes this one difficult because there is a certain pride associated with climbing out of the trench by yourself. And as long as we think we can do it without Jesus, he will likely let us try.

Have you ever heard people say, “God helps those who help themselves?” That tired old cliché is most often uttered as we slip our hands around our bootstraps. “I think I can, I think I can,” works pretty well when reading a children’s story about a little train engine and teaching a child about the value of hard work. But what happens when you can’t? What happens when the bootstraps break?

The real trouble with “God helps those who help themselves” is that it can be found no-where in the Bible. Rather, what the Bible says repeatedly is that God takes great delight in helping those who have absolutely no hope.

And so when the bootstraps break and everything else has proven us helpless and hope-less, the only thing left to do is send word to Jesus.

That’s what Mary and Martha did. And that’s what Jim and I did after lunch. “Jim, repeat after me. ‘Jesus, I’m in bad shape. I’m sad, lonely, desperate, helpless, and without hope. I’ve tried everything I know how to try. I’ve even tried to die, and I’m sorry. So Jesus, if you really love me, I want to know you and have you as my friend. Please show me your friendship and your love. In Jesus’ name, Amen.’”

Jim wiped his eyes and shyly smiled. It was the first time he had prayed in thirty-five years. He wasn’t yet ready to become a Christian, but if this Jesus really loved him he wanted to learn to love Jesus, too.

God moves in mysterious ways, to be sure! Even after Mary and Martha sent word to Jesus, he stayed away for two more days. Why would Jesus do that? Why would he heal complete strangers sometimes, but not rush now to the side of a dying companion?

How is it that a woman can sneak up behind Jesus, touch the edge of his garment (Mat-thew 9:20), and seemingly rob Jesus of a healing; and yet Jesus will not offer his power from a distance to heal a friend to whom he was closer than a brother? After all, Jesus had healed other people from a distance (John 4:50). Why not now?

Lesson Number Two: God Will Break Your Heart to Save Your Soul

One of the hardest lessons we ever learn about God is that we are not God. He cares nothing for our agendas, plans, meetings, and schedules. What Jesus had to give the fam-ily and friends of Lazarus was actually better than a healing. He was not about to rob them of this blessing by conforming to their agenda for how saviors should act. So Jesus stayed away for two more days, and while he was away Lazarus died.

According to John 11:17, by the time Jesus arrived in Lazarus’ hometown of Bethany, Lazarus had been dead for four days.

This was all according to plan because all good Jews believed that after a person died, their spirit hovered around the deceased body for three days. If a person was raised from the dead within three days, nobody would have notified CNN. After all, they believed the spirit never actually left until after the third day. Jesus comes marching into Bethany on the fourth day to comfort those who are grieving, only to be confronted by two sisters who rightfully preach, “If you had come when we called you, Lazarus would still be alive.”

Remember, Jesus has something better to offer them than a healing. You see, Jesus will allow Bethany to grow hopelessly dark, all the while knowing that light is just around the corner. It may seem cruel to us, but what Jesus wants to do is remove every other crutch upon which we could lean. He wants there to be no doubt that when the light comes, it comes only from God.

And so as the sun sets and the street lights come on in Bethany, all hope vanishes. Laza-rus has been dead for four days. Mary and Martha have never seen a darker night. And Jesus planned it this way.

Why does Jesus allow this? Why would Jesus intentionally let people hurt when he has the ability to make it all go away? Because humans are prone to bootstrap theology. Years ago a friend of mine was sick with cancer. Doctors gave the gloomy prognosis, “This is aggressive cancer. It’s the most aggressive cancer that we know of. We can op-erate and remove most of it, but it always comes back. We can slow your death with chemotherapy, but your death will be soon.” Darkness had enveloped Bethany! So we prayed, and we prayed some more. And we gathered together for prayer. We prayed on the way to work, and we prayed at work, and we prayed on the way home from work. God healed our friend. And there were those who whispered as they stooped over to grab their bootstraps, “Ain’t chemotherapy marvelous!”

When my wife was pregnant with our only child, we did all the things first-time parents love to do. We called everybody we knew, furnished the baby room, and started thinking of names. We prayed for our baby, and we even talked and sang to our baby in the womb. We went to the doctor for a sonogram one sunny afternoon and stared in amaze-ment at the fuzzy little shape of our baby on the monitor. We could see her little head, and she was kicking her legs and waving her arms. My wife and I both cried tears of joy. Suddenly the doctor turned off the machine and said sternly, “You need to go see a spe-cialist.” “What’s wrong?” we asked. “I cannot find your baby’s abdominal organs. Your baby has no abdominal organs, and she will not be able to live outside the womb.”

“But doctor, there must be some mistake, some oversight.”

“No, there is no mistake. I’ve done more than 3,000 sonograms, and I’ve never seen this problem before.”

Once again, darkness had surrounded Bethany.

So we prayed, and we learned what it meant to pray without ceasing. We drove to Houston to see a specialist. In fact, we were able to see the very doctor who adapted sonogram technology into the office of the obstetrician/gynecologist. As we entered his office he was reviewing our previous sonogram, and the grimace on his face told us things didn’t look good. But as he began the sonogram, he quickly found that our baby’s abdominal organs had formed perfectly. While we cried tears of joy, there were those who stooped over again to grab their bootstraps, and said, “Aw, that first doctor must have made a mistake.”

That’s why Jesus let the cold chill of death creep through the lifeless body of his friend Lazarus. That’s why Jesus wanted Lazarus to stay dead for four days. Because with even the slightest margin of doubt, people always opt for the bootstraps. There was no other way for Jesus to prove to them that he was indeed the resurrection and the life. Yes, Jesus could have healed Lazarus. And in spite of his power to do so, Jesus allowed Bethany to grow dark while one of His closest friends passed away.

In John 11:35, John writes, “Jesus wept.” Only two words, but with more meaning than libraries full of theology. Two words pregnant with meaning. One of the shortest sentences in all of Scripture, but with enough power to light the world.

Even when Bethany is encased in darkness, the Son of God will weep with you through the night. Jesus will come and take his place next to you and share the burden of your sadness.

That was one of the greatest revelations for my friend Jim. He had known the loneliness of crying himself to sleep at night. He had tasted the sudden death of his heart’s greatest desire. A world once washed in pastel was now hued in gray. Jim was all alone in his trench. His closest friends peered into his abyss and shook their heads, “Better him than me.”

That’s why Jim wiped his eyes when I told him about Jesus. Jesus came from the back of the crowd, making his way through the fair-weather friends who stood safely above the trench. And without regard for the terrain, the depth, or the personal risk involved, Jesus descended the tear-drenched wall of Jim’s trench. Not to pull him out immediately, but first to throw a nail-pierced hand around Jim’s shoulder and weep with him.

Trenches don’t scare Jesus like they scare you and me. The darkness of Bethany never frightens the Son of God like it frightens the ones he loves.

So, in John 11:39 he tells them to take away the stone which covered the tomb of his friend Lazarus. In the King’s best English, Martha said to Jesus, “But, Lord, by this time he stinketh.” The very one who sent word to Jesus in the first place that Lazarus was sick now tried to keep Jesus away because of the smell, as though Jesus didn’t know what death smelled like.

Have you ever kept Jesus at bay while you tried to work out your problems? Bootstraps are always ready, ever encouraging us that we can fix things ourselves. We even get support from fellow boot-wearers. Self-help books line bookshelves across this land, encouraging, prodding, demanding that you pick yourself up and get on with the business of living. We are most often convinced that the sun has not yet sunk completely below the skyline of Bethany. But eventually we realize God’s eternal scheme—that life will fail miserably without Jesus. And it’s not until we realize this fact that we are ready to hear the voice of Jesus.

Lesson Number Three: Jesus Desires to Create Life from Death

John 11:43 literally says, “Jesus megaphoned, ‘Lazarus, come out.’” No doubt there were those standing nearby who thought to themselves, “Uh, Jesus, Remember our third grade synagogue teacher, Mrs. Reubenstein? She taught us that the spirit leaves the body after three days. You could’ve made a difference if you had come when you were called. But take one good whiff and you can tell that Lazarus is as dead as a hammer.

Jesus was about to reveal an aspect of the Father which no sober person could have ever imagined. We read plainly in the book of Genesis that with a single word God is able to create. With his voice he created light, heavens, seas, the sun, moon, and stars, and every living thing upon this earth. God speaks worlds into existence because of power which no human will ever comprehend, and he does it all with merely a spoken word. So when Jesus stood outside the tomb of Lazarus and megaphoned for him to come out, there is solid evidence that if Jesus had not specified “Lazarus,” the entire cemetery would have emptied!

Lazarus is not the only one who obeyed Jesus and came forth from the grave. So did my friend Jim. Never in all my life had I encountered anybody so hungry and thirsty for the things of God. Jim wanted to meet with Christians every day to talk about the things of God, so for three weeks every question he asked was answered from Scripture. One afternoon there was a knock on my door. Jim had come to my office with only one thing on his mind. “I want to become a Christian, and I want to do it right now.”

So Jim was immersed into Jesus, and he was indeed a new creation. “Christianity is the strangest thing I’ve every experienced,” he said later. “Today I was sitting at a red light, and when the light turned green the man in front of me just sat there. A month ago I would have honked and shook my fist at him, but today I just sat there waiting patiently for him to realize what he was doing. I’ve never been so in love with life, so full of joy, so at peace in all my life.” His description of his love for Jesus was as pure and innocent as a child. Like those of a newborn baby, Jim’s lungs were finally filling with the fresh oxygen of the Holy Spirit for which they were made. And as Jim breathed, God taught him a lesson about tombs. Once you’ve left the cemetery you can no longer cast a casual glance toward a funeral procession.

God doesn’t rescue people from hell simply to deliver them from eternal punishment. The “I Am” is more than fire insurance. God saves people for a reason: to be his workmanship (Ephesians 2:10). And God’s workmanship was reflected the very next time I talked with Jim. “I’m concerned about Mary. She has not named Jesus Christ as her Lord. I can honestly say that even though I still love her, I don’t want her back unless she becomes a Christian. But I’m still concerned about her eternity. What should I do?”

“Jim, we need to pray for Mary. We need to pray that Jesus will somehow become attractive to Mary.” And so we prayed. We prayed together, and we prayed by ourselves. We prayed at church and we prayed at home. And one day there was a now-familiar knock on my door. Outside stood Jim and Mary and Mary wanted to know what had come over him. She could not understand the Jim who didn’t complain about his job any more. He looked the same on the outside, but deep inside there was a Jim she had never met. I sat and listened to Jim share the gospel of Jesus Christ with Mary. And as we ar-ranged to meet again the next day, I prayed much more confidently than the first time, “Lord, thank you for being so faithful. I can hardly wait to see you prove your love to Mary.”

Three weeks later Jim baptized Mary into Jesus and later that same year I had the privilege of performing their wedding ceremony. God had once again megaphoned toward a tomb, and another very precious person came to Jesus.

Conclusion

To be quite honest, when Jim finished describing the turn of events in his life for me that very first day over lunch, even I wasn’t sure any good could come from it. God really should have called in an expert on an important case like this one. But He didn’t. He called a rookie off the bench and into the Super Bowl.

God showed me that my place on his team was similar to a young Chicago Bulls basketball player named Stacy King. King was a rookie with the Bulls and played in a game on an evening when Michael Jordan scored 69 points. After the game he was asked for his reflections on the game. He said, “I’ll always remember it as the evening Michael Jordan and I combined for 70 points.” God’s power was indeed made perfect in my weakness. What I couldn’t do for Jim, God could and did.Wineskins Magazine

Marcus Brecheen

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Profile photo of Matt DabbsThis author published 1577 posts in this site.
Matt is the preaching minister at the Auburn Church of Christ in Auburn, Alabama. He and Missy have been married 12 years and are raising two wonderful boys, Jonah and Elijah. Matt is passionate about reaching and discipling young adults, small groups, and teaching. Matt is currently the editor and co-owner of Wineskins.org.

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