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Tied for a 2001 Best Non-Fiction Book, Christian Living award in the God Uses Ink Contest!
If you get discouraged by your spiritual failures, you're not alone. In fact, you're in pretty good company.
From the life and death of Samson to Peter's denial of Jesus, the Bible is filled with stories of people who wanted to serve God but frequently failed. And yet God still worked through these men and women for his ...
Tied for a 2001 Best Non-Fiction Book, Christian Living award in the God Uses Ink Contest!
If you get discouraged by your spiritual failures, you're not alone. In fact, you're in pretty good company.
From the life and death of Samson to Peter's denial of Jesus, the Bible is filled with stories of people who wanted to serve God but frequently failed. And yet God still worked through these men and women for his purposes and glory. Through God's power, their points of weakness became their greatest strengths.
In Never Beyond Hope J. I. Packer offers his pastoral wisdom, exploring the stories of eight imperfect people portrayed in the Bible. Packer shows you how their struggles and triumphs relate to your own experiences and highlights how God works despite your mistakes.
Packer also teams up with expert Bible study writer Carolyn Nystrom, who helps you process and apply what you are learning in each chapter with study questions for personal reflection or group discussion, prayer suggestions and journaling ideas.
Let this book help you discover that God's vision for your life may be far bigger than what you can see right now. Though you may be far from perfect, remember that in God's eyes you are never beyond hope.
Hope When My Strength
Brings Weakness with It
No one, surely, can read the Samson story withoutthinking, This is tragedy. Tragedy is a waste of good, a squanderingof potential, and Judges 14—16 is a tragic story of much goodbeing wasted because of the way Samson allowed himself to playthe fool.
Yet Samson is a hero of faith. We know that because in theeleventh chapter of Hebrews he is named specifically: "And whatmore shall I say? I do not have time to tell about Gideon, Barak,Samson, Jephthah, David, Samuel, and the prophets" (Heb11:32). The writer of Hebrews goes on to say that these weremen who "through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice,and gained what was promised; who shut the mouth of lions,quenched the fury of the flames, and escaped the edge of thesword; whose weakness was turned to strength; and who becamepowerful in battle and routed foreign armies" (w. 33-34)."Whose weakness was turned to strength"—strength, that is, forservice that would not otherwise have been rendered. That ispart of the story of Samson—as it is part of the story of manymore of God's imperfect people.
So Samson was a hero of faith. In fact, a central theme of Samson'sstory is that God had appointed him to serve as a savior.When the angel of the Lord announced Samson's coming birth tohis mother, the angel said that her sonwould be "set apart toGod from birth," and that "he will begin the deliverance of Israelfrom the hands of the Philistines" (Judg 13:6). So he did. We readthat he led and ruled Israel as its judge for twenty years, and it isclear that his actions weakened Philistine control of God's people.
The story of Samson's life as the writer of Judges narrates it is,however, very much like the sort of thing you read in paperbackthrillers: women and fights all the way. Samson was undoubtedlya Rambo-type of person, but he is not entirely to blame for that.The book of Judges tells us of a people who lived in a permissivesociety, and a culture of permissiveness leads naturally to randomand irresponsible behavior. We today know that firsthand."Permissive society" is a description that applies very directly tomodern North America. We Westerners live in post-Christiandays, and as in Samson's time, the old rules are not regarded. Everyonedoes what is right in his or her own eyes (see Judg 17:6;21:25). All kinds of wild things done today involve all kinds ofwaste of good. We must realize that we live in an era and in aplace that is a likely backdrop for just the sort of tragedy that wesee in the life of Samson, and take warning.
The essence of tragedy, as I said, is waste of good, the nullifyingof potential. And waste is a description of Samson's life, assurveyed here. Samson was a strange sort of hero, as waywardand incorrigible as any juvenile delinquent. He was given enormousphysical prowess to battle the Philistines, and he battledthem successfully. Scripture says that the Spirit of the Lordcame on him in power again and again (Judg 13:25; 14:6, 19;15:14). And right at the end of his life Samson prayed for andwas given strength to bring down the temple of Dagon. He diedwith the Philistines—as he had prayed that he might. The narratorcomments at that point that Samson killed many more whenhe died than while he lived (16:30). His subduing power over thePhilistines is the golden thread that runs through the murky elementsof Samson's story. Alongside these escapades Samson, aswe noted, was Israel's acknowledged leader for twenty years. Wecan only guess what he might have achieved had his weaknessesnot been what they were.
For our own warning I must now be specific about the flaws thatI see in Samson's character.
First of all, Samson couldn't resist a girl. As a young man hetold his parents, much to their distress, "There's a Philistinelass I want to marry." He wooed this pagan woman right at thestart of his career, and he ended up with another pagan womannamed Delilah. Between the two, Scripture tells of his visitto a prostitute in Gaza. Neither marrying pagans nor beddingprostitutes can please God, but clearly when Samson's sexdrive was stirred, nothing could stop him. Nor is this difficultfor us to understand. Powerful and successful males still thinkof physical sexual pleasure as a recreation to which theirachievements somehow give them a right, and they still act asif restraints and restrictions that apply to others do not applyto them. Examples need not be given, though they are boundto come to mind. Experience has taught us all that this is true.
Then too Samson couldn't resist a joke. He was, among otherthings, a buffoon who prided himself on being a comic, gainingadmiration and respect by making people laugh at his whimsyand his wit. I have known people like that, and I expect you havetoo. His riddle is a case in point. He wrecked his own weddingbreakfast by setting before the young Philistine men (his weddingguests) the following conundrum:
Out of the eater, something to eat;
Out of the strong, something sweet.
"What am I talking about?" he asked. The answer was, as weknow, that Samson remembered the time when he'd found beesnesting and making honey in the corpse of a lion that he'd killed.Naturally, he did not expect that anyone would know this. Theyoung men (not willing to be embarrassed by this outsider, especiallywhen they had each bet a set of clothes that they couldsolve any riddle he set before them) put pressure on his bride toask him for the correct solution. She did as they requested, thenshe told the young men, who at once gave Samson the answer.Realizing what they had done, Samson then got mad, wreckedthe marriage feast and went home in a fury.
Why did he get mad? Well, because no one was expected totop Samson's own jokes. His riddle had been solved, he'd beenupstaged by these Philistines, and he didn't like it. His vanity as abuffoon was hurt, so his euphoria gave way to fury. Unsuccessfulwith that joke, Samson soon followed it up with more destructivehumor involving animals, fire and fields of standing grain. Hecaught three hundred foxes (how, I wonder?), tied them togetherby the tail in pairs, fastened a lighted torch to each pair of tails,let the terrified creatures loose and so burned up the entire Philistineharvest. I imagine that as the foxes ran, Samson stood atthe edge of the field, laughing his head off. As anyone else mighthave foreseen, the joke sequence then escalated with unnecessary(and tragic) loss of life (Judg 15:3-17).
On another occasion, after his time with the Gaza prostituteand aware no doubt that an attempt might be made to stop himfrom leaving, Samson thought it frightfully funny to get up in themiddle of the night, wrestle the pair of city gates and gatepostsout of the ground, carry them on his back thirty miles, and plantthe whole structure on a smooth, rounded hilltop facing MountHebron, nowhere near any human habitation. This again is Samsonletting his sense of humor lead him into fantastic behavior.
In the end we find Samson teasing his good-time girl Delilahwith silly tales about what made him strong. She was plotting hisdownfall while he was making fun of her. When he finally told herhis secret (that as a Nazirite, his hair had never been cut), hisjoking had fatal results—this time to himself (Judg 16:4-30).
Samson's unbridled humor made him behave repeatedly as achildish buffoon, thoughtless and irresponsible, and this was areal weakness of character. Humor, as such, is a God-givensweetener of life and safeguard of sanity, but we have to controlour sense of humor, not let it control us.
Samson also had trouble, as we have seen, controlling his temper.Anger is an urge to strike out, hurt and destroy, and Samson'sstory shows him to be a constantly angry man. He couldn'tendure a putdown. One of his fixed ideas, it seems, was that hehad to pay people back. Tit for tat was the rule of Samson's life.He would deal with others the way they dealt with him, onlyworse, so that he got a triumphant revenge and ended up topdog. This attitude appears in his very last prayer: "O God, pleasestrengthen me just once more, and let me with one blow getrevenge on the Philistines for my two eyes" (Judg 16:28). Samsondid not see that there is more to life than keeping even withthe wrongs that are done to us. It was a further character weaknesson Samson's part not to be able to control his temper butinstead to let anger and pride overflow again and again in hurtingother people. (Neighbor love as taught by Jesus and the apostlesdoes the exact opposite: see Mt 5:38-48; Lk 10:25-37; Rom12:17-21; 1 Jn 3:11-24; 4:7-21.)
In light of that, look again at Samson's practical jokes. Peoplestill think that by making others laugh they're somehow vindicatingthemselves as members of society, so that if their jokeshave been expressing malice and anger, that will be forgiven andforgotten because they have given people some fun. Samson wasevidently a man of that kind. As we see, his comic actions reallyhave a rather nasty side to them. They are cruel and heartlessjokes. They are jokes that express a desire to be one up and toscore over the people on whom the jokes are played. Such jokesare not expressions of goodwill. They are funny, but the fun isugly fun. The jokes are anger in thin disguise. It was a defect inSamson that his conscience seems not to have troubled himabout this.
I criticize Samson's jokes with some hesitation because whenI started preaching, I was super-serious. The senior minister withwhom I was working said to me one day, "Look, you are too seriouswhen you preach for anyone to take you seriously. God gaveyou humor. Use it!" (He was actually an Irishman, so he saidyummer [rhymes with plumber]). I've been planting jokes in mysermons ever since, and I rather think it is a good idea. But I tryto keep them from being malicious or demeaning. I see Samsonas a man in the grip of his sense of humor, a man who habituallyacted the fool and thought the very fact that he was doing somethingfunny justified his bad behavior.
Yet God appointed Samson to be his special servant. Every once ina while in the Samson story up pops a reminder of the fact thatSamson is God's man, set apart for God's work, and it is God whois overruling the course of Samson's actions and experience. It isthis part of the Samson story that brings us hope. We too livetragic-comic flawed lives, lives full of mistakes and deficiencies,lives in which what we think of as our strengths take us ego-hoppingand so become our real weakness. But God was God toSamson—and is God to us.
Oddly, there are things in the Samson story that remind us ofthe Lord Jesus—another person miraculously born for the purposesof God's kingdom. Jesus had a sense of humor also. True, itwas a rather grim and sharp sense of humor. But we are surelymeant to smile a bit at the thought of a camel going through theeye of a needle or a man with a plank sticking out of his own eyetrying to get a speck out of someone else's eye. Yet Jesus wasn'tenslaved to his humor. He was man of courtesy, wisdom, goodwilland restraint in a way that Samson never was.
As for self-control, not losing one's temper, Jesus was reviledbut did not revile again. He committed himself to the one whojudges justly. That's true human maturity, a maturity that all wewho are Christ's are called to aim at (see 1 Pet 2:19-23). In thisrespect Jesus and Samson are polar opposites.
The story of Samson is a cautionary tale, and it is appropriatethat we Christians take Samson's biography as a warning to ourselves.Samson was physically strong, that's true. At themoments when God's Spirit fell on him, God gave him unbelievablestrength. But this very strength brought weakness—thespecific weaknesses of self-centeredness, self-reliance, self-indulgenceand self-satisfaction. All four are clearly here in Samson'strack record. Had he been less spectacularly strong, hewould have been less vulnerable to these attitudes. As it was, hefought the Philistines well but seems to have made no progress atall in the war with sin—which meant that all through his life hewas weak within.
We evangelical Christians are strong too in at least one sense,that is, numerically. When statisticians count numbers, they tellus that there are about forty million of us in the United Statesalone. We have seminaries, technologies and the megachurchmovement. The ministry and impact of a giant-sized SouthernBaptist leader named Billy Graham, honorary chaplain to NorthAmerica, has been incalculable, and he is, as we say, "one of us."Our literature ministry expands and expands. God has givenChristians impressive strength, yet our very strength makes usvulnerable. Are we in danger of falling victim to some of the sameself-destructive weaknesses we see in Samson? That, I think, is aquestion we must face very seriously.
Evangelical Christians live in an enclave. It is a large enclave,but it is an enclave all the same. We cannot escape our family relationshipto each other. Who and what we are individually impactsall of us. And things in our enclave are not always whatthey should be. We need purity of heart—especially in sexualmatters. We know that there are folk in our Christian circles todaywhose sexual lives are all too similar to Samson's. Beyondsexual purity there was a certain high quality of character thatSamson never attained, and in evangelical circles we don't alwaysattain that quality either. In some of our Christian ministrieswe see an unwillingness to accept accountability, a desire tolead others and to be our own boss as we do so. We see emotionalattitudes—resentment, bad temper, vindictiveness, discourtesy,unlove—that spell the same lack of maturity and sanctity thatSamson displayed. Christians are quarrelsome. Christians areconceited. Christians are power-hungry egoists; we build empires.This happens over and over again.
These character flaws (Samson's and ours) are real weaknesses—weaknessesthat can have a tragic effect both on our personallives and on the impact that our evangelical strength makes inNorth America today. Defects of character destroy credibility inno time. In my travels I have spoken many times on the characterof Samson. Every time I speak of him, I see in him a disturbingmirror of what I actually observe around me. So now I shalloffer some lessons from Samson, this man of flawed character,divine vocation and real if unsteady faith.
On Being Weak and Being Strong
Where we feel strong, there we may very easily be weak. TheScriptures say, "If you think you are standing firm, be careful thatyou don't fall!" (1 Cor 10:12). Let everyone who loves to be independentin Christ realize the danger of being independent ofChrist. Samson was a loner; he did his own thinking. But thatwasn't the path of blessing from every standpoint. Had he listenedmore to his parents (note Judg 14:2-4) and had he made himselfaccountable to elders and friends (note 15:7-13), he would surelyhave done better and honored God more. So mistrust your ownsense of strength and realize your own need for fellowship andaccountability. We all need that to keep us in order.
And realize that God in his mercy may have to deal with useventually as he dealt with Samson. Through Delilah's treacherySamson was taken captive by the Philistines. He was blinded;they cut off his hair; the strength God had given him seemedgone forever; his usefulness seemed to have gone as well. In thegoodness of God Samson recovered just enough strength for thefinal act of his life. We cannot help thinking, however, how muchbetter it would have been if Samson had never got involved withDelilah in the first place.
But there's a message here for us. God may have to weaken usand bring us down at the points where we thought we werestrong in order that we may become truly strong in real dependenceon himself. He's done that before, and he may have to do itagain—perhaps on a grand scale with Christians in North America,maybe on a personal level with you and me. If he does, there willbe mercy in it. It will be God working to make some sense out oframbling lives that have reached the point where it seems thatnothing good can come from them anymore.
One more encouraging thought from Samson's story. God doesuse us. He uses us right now in spite of our flaws. He is a kindlyGod and uses flawed people as a part of his regular agenda. Nomatter how conscious we are of our own limitations, shortcomingsand sins, we may look to God to make use of us again—andin his great mercy he will.
Christians live by faith in Jesus Christ, which means we liveby being forgiven. And Christians (forgiven sinners) are given ashare in God's work in a way that, over and over, goes beyondanything we could have expected—certainly anything that wedeserve. Samson's story is not all gloom and doom and despair. Itshows that we serve a gracious God who could and did use even awild man such as Samson was. So in spite of all our shortcomingsthere is hope that God will reveal a positive role for you and mein the affairs of his kingdom.
So let us take courage and learn from Samson's story the lessonsit has for us. We must seek to get our lives—and keep ourlives—in a shape that will glorify God. That's not easy. It meansfighting our sins, disciplining our thoughts, changing our attitudesand critiquing our desires in a way that Samson did not tryto do. But let's trust in the Lord who uses flawed human materialfor his glory, and by faith let's seek strength to serve God in goodworks and good attitudes that at this moment we feel are beyondus. Those who seek find; for Samson's God, who is our God, is aGod of great patience and great grace. Thus there is great hopefor us all. Praise his name.
Holy Father, you know us, you have loved us and redeemedus through the blood-shedding of your Son, and exalted us tothe glorious dignity of being your children and heirs. Keep usmindful of our privileged identity, and teach us to live lives thatare Christlike in their maturity of faith and hope, their consistencyin aiming to please you, and their humility in looking toyou for the help we need at all times. Make us honest in recognizingour weaknesses of character and conduct, and in repentingof our sins. Lead us not into temptation but deliver us fromevil. So may we follow your servant Samson in contending forthe welfare of your people, and by your grace go beyond him inself-denial and purity of heart and life. Through Jesus Christ,our Savior and our Lord. Amen.
1. Read the biblical account of Samson's life in Judges 14—16.
2. What evidences do you see of God's kindness in this description ofSamson's life?
3. Review the ways that Samson used his enormous physical strength.What character weaknesses do these actions suggest?
4. What are some of your own areas of strength?
5. What cautions can you take so that your strength does not becomea source of weakness?
6. What situations tempt you to use humor as a weapon?
7. Before Samson was born an angel spoke to his mother about her son(see Judg 13:3-5). How might the angel's words at that time have helpedSamson's mother as she witnessed the events in his life?
8. Hebrews 11:32-34 speaks of Samson as one whose "weakness wasturned to strength." In what ways did God use Samson—in spite of hisflaws?
9. One of Samson's weaknesses was the way he misused his strength.What misuses of power seem especially tempting to Christians?
10. As you consider some of your own flaws, what warnings and whatencouragement do you take from the Samson story?
* Spend several moments in quiet contemplation asking God to remindyou of some of the strengths that he has given you. List several of these asa reminder of his kindness to you and of the responsibilities he has givenyou to use those strengths for his glory.
* Even though it may be painful, ask God to reveal some of the flaws inyour character. (It may be appropriate to kneel for this prayer communication.)One by one in prayer, turn these flaws over to God, asking hisforgiveness. Ask also for his strength as you attempt to overcome yourflaws.
* Sometimes we can best overcome our weaknesses when we join withone or two others who will pray for us and regularly ask us how we aredoing in these weak areas. Consider, in prayer, whether this may be truefor you. If it seems appropriate, begin a search for partners in accountability.
* God uses us "right now" in spite of our flaws. Thank God for this. Askthat he will point out to you this day how you can serve him.
Prayerfully review the section in this chapter titled "On Being Weak andBeing Strong" (pp. 33-35). Ask God to show you how it ought to impactwho you are and what you do. Jot notes on your impressions. Then writea prayer of response to God.
Excerpted from NEVER BEYOND HOPE by J. I. PACKER and Carolyn Nystrom. Copyright © 2000 by James I. Packer and Carolyn Nystrom. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
To the Reader
Introduction: God's Gift of Hope
1. Hope When My Strength Brings Weakness with It: Samson
2. Hope When I Belong to an Unhappy Family: Jacob
3. Hope When I Am Barely Noticed and Not Trusted: Manoah's Wife
4. Hope When I Am Angry with People and with God: Jonah
5. Hope When False Priorities Have Betrayed Me: Martha
6. Hope When I Find It Hard to Believe: Thomas
7. Hope When I Have Done Something Terrible: Simon Peter
8. Hope When Everything Has Gone Wrong: Nehemiah