I have called you by My name, you are Mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. Because you are precious in My sight, and honored, and I love you. (Isaiah 43.1-2,4)
Little Shop of Horrors—the 1960 sci-fi classic later remade as a musical—is the parable of a nerdy florist who stumbles on an exotic plant and decides to nurture it. Though he does everything he can to keep it healthy, it shrivels up and nearly dies. Because it’s not a plant. It’s an alien life form in leafy get-up. One day, the florist cuts his finger and a drop of blood instantly revives the plant. As it grows, its bottomless thirst bleeds the florist dry and he resorts to murder to keep it alive. He bargains with his conscience by limiting his victims to Skid Row regulars—banking on the twisted idea he’s doing society a favor while serving the plant’s needs. At first, we can’t figure out why he doesn’t toss the thing into the alley and forget it. But gradually we realize his compulsion to satisfy the plant’s cravings stems from his craving for acclaim. Discovering a new species will elevate him from mundane florist to botanist extraordinaire. And he's so sure that the plant holds his key to happiness he’s unaware it’s devouring him and his dream. Moral: When we allow our problems to control us, we’re in deep trouble.
That’s why we take all our burdens to God; we don’t know which of them will seek to control us. Every trial and temptation, whether agonizing or annoying, contains seeds of monstrous cravings. More sad stories than we can count open with, “It seemed like such a little thing at first…” So, if we must, we choose our poisons. But let us be warned: not one is sufficiently labeled, nor are we adequately qualified, to predict how we’ll react to it. Experience alone teaches what we can and can’t handle. And too often it’s a lesson learned too late.
How Can We?
When watching others bridle impulses and situations we can’t master, we dust off that golden oldie, “If They Can Do It, Why Can’t I”, forgetting the reason they can do it—whatever “it” may be—is because they’re strong where we’re weak. In other settings, the tables turn: we’re strong where they’re weak. It’s not a hard idea to grasp. But it can be very difficult to accept. I want to think my strengths give me an edge over yours. You want to believe my weaknesses make yours look like a day at the beach. Yet in the final analysis, all we can confidently say about one another is neither of us is so strong to escape struggle.
Since we’re all in the same boat, why bother God with our problems? After all, God helps those who help themselves. (There’s another oldie we need to pitch.) If we try hard enough, we should be able to handle it on our own. But how can we, if we can’t handle admitting what controls us has bled us dry, driven us to the unthinkable, and mocked us when we tried to justify our actions? How can we handle problems if they’re not what they seem? How long can we feed monsters that keep our pipe dreams alive, even as they devour our lives and dreams?
Once weakness grips us, handling it on our own is no longer feasible. We’re in deep trouble. We need God. And whether or not that business about God and self-help is true, this we know: God helps those who can’t help themselves. In Isaiah 43.2, God tells us when there’s no bridge we can cross, God will help us reach the other side. When we’re in over our heads, God will lift us. When we’re thrown into the fire, God will see we survive it unscathed. God doesn’t spare us from problems that seek to control us. God faces them with us to prove we can overcome weaknesses with God’s help.
This promise is first spoken to Israel. And though it sounds simplistic, it’s not wrong to summarize the Old Testament as the story of people who can’t break free of problems because they won’t confess their need for God. Over and over, Israel lets the same weaknesses drive it to the brink of ruin. What it lacks in vision it more than makes up in selective memory. As soon as they hit a dry patch in the desert, the Israelites groan with nostalgia for Egypt. When Babylon destroys Jerusalem and takes thousands hostage, they sit down beside the Tigris and sing about the good old days—never mind that they spent most of them fighting off enemies. When times are good, they persistently submit to self-destructive impulses. They feed monstrous cravings to keep their dreams of freedom and respect alive, never realizing that they’ve surrendered both to what controls them. Through it all, God keeps saying, “Let Me help you. You need Me.” But Israel is so sure of itself it puts God on hold until it’s overwhelmed. Then, like a disobedient toddler, it hands God its mess and says, “Please don’t be mad. We promise never to do it again.”
So why does God stick with Israel? Why does God stick with us? We’re no better at letting God help us than they. The answer rests in two statements that frame God’s promises to be with us through flood and fire. In verse 1, God says, “I have called you by My name. You are Mine,” while verse 4 declares, “Because you are precious in My sight, and honored, and I love you.” That’s the lever to pry us from problems and weaknesses that captivate us. They may grip us, but they’ll never hold us, because we belong to God. Although they try to diminish us, they’ll fail in the end, because we are precious to God. While they mock us, God honors us. While they abuse us, God loves us.
When we think of the cravings beneath our cravings—the weaknesses exploited by problems that control us—God speaks comfort to our souls. Why do we surrender to harmful obsessions? We want to be known. God says, “I have called you by My name.” We want to belong. God says, “You are Mine.” We want to matter. God says, “You are precious in My sight.” We want to be respected. God says, “You are honored.” And we crave love. God says, “I love you.” Problems that control us conjure crazy dreams that we chase but never catch. They’re merely distractions to prevent us from detecting the real nightmare of being eaten alive. Our God is a Creator, not a dream weaver—a Life Giver, not a bloodsucker. What God says is true, because God alone has the power to make it true. So we say to harms that seek our destruction, “Not this time, not ever again, because we know who we are and to Whom we belong. We are precious to God, honored, and God loves us.”
Awaken us, O God, from our oblivion. Quiet our spirits to hear You speak comfort to deep cravings that make us vulnerable to self-destructive obsessions. Forgive us of haughty delusions that ignore our need for You. You promise to be with us always. We ask You now to stay. Amen.
When we surrender control to problems and habits, we feed cravings that don’t satisfy and chase dreams we can’t catch. So we say to them, “Not this time. Not ever again.”