Weak Knees and Feeble Hands
For the first time in five weeks, I went to church on Reformation Day. Staggered to church would be more accurate. Hard hit by the Covid-19 virus, I spent two harrowing weeks in the hospital, and am recovering with excruciatingly slow baby steps as my lungs grope for oxygen, and as I try to learn how to breathe again. God has been very merciful to me, giving me the best medical and home care, and providing encouragements from so many people who have prayed and continue to pray for my full recovery.
In it all, God is teaching me many things: I'm learning more about God's sovereign good pleasure; I was in good physical shape, healthy immune system, a great candidate for a mild case of the virus and quick recovery--so I thought. God had ordained a more difficult path for me. I'm also learning more about the frailty of life (in the early days of my hospitalization, my doctor said honestly that my case could go either way); I'm learning the comfort of being known and loved by Christ and being safe in his arms, come what may (during one particularly long wakeful night, it occurred to me I was going to die, but in that realization, I had an overwhelming sense of the presence of the Comforter, that I was safe in the arms of Jesus--and I was not afraid), and I'm learning what it means to be utterly dependent on others, to be able to do nothing for myself, to acknowledge with the psalmist that I am poor and needy--I have no strength, only weak knees and feeble hands.
And then my first Sunday back in corporate worship we sang one of my favorite hymns from one of my favorite hymn writers, Scots Presbyterian Horatius Bonar. First published in 1861, Bonar's hymn, theologically undergirded and adorned by this gifted poet, laid hold of my heart afresh.
Not what my hands have done can save my guilty soul; not what my toiling flesh has borne can make my spirit whole. Not what I feel or do can give me peace with God; not all my prayers and sighs and tears can bear my awful load.
One of the great advantages of having no strength, of having weak knees and feeble hands, is that my physical condition aligns with my spiritual condition. The fact that my hands have not done, nor are able to do, anything to "give me peace with God," makes more sense to a man whose entire system has been ravaged by this virus, leaving me a wheezing wreck of an invalid. But we persist in thinking that there's some work required of us, some contribution we feel able to make, some change of posture, or affection. Aren't we supposed to seek him, come to him, choose him? Aren't we supposed to love God? Surely we can't expect to have peace with God unless we first love him. Bonar points us away from our delusions:
Thy work alone, O Christ, can ease this weight of sin; thy blood alone, O Lamb of God, can give me peace within. Thy love to me, O God, not mine, O Lord, to thee, can rid me of this dark unrest, and set my spirit free.
It is entirely Christ's work, Bonar insists; it's God's love to feeble me, not my love to him that gives me peace with God. Salvation is entirely by grace alone, God's sovereign power alone, his effectual work alone, "No other work, save thine," no human strength, or effort, or perceived ability can break my bondage. When I am entirely without strength, poor and needy, devoid of any ability, then Bonar's message makes more sense to me. I desperately need something far greater than my weak knees and feeble hands if I am to be pardoned for my sins. What is it I need?
Thy grace alone, O God, to me can pardon speak; thy pow'r alone, O Son of God, can this sore bondage break. No other work, save thine, no other blood will do; no strength, save that which is divine, can bear me safely through.
What is my response to such divine benevolence, to such power exerted by such a gracious God on behalf of such an unworthy and powerless sinner? Bonar thrills my heart with the Savior and invites me to the only fitting response to such expansive loving kindness--adoration.
I bless the Christ of God; I rest on love divine; and with unfalt'ring lip and heart, I call this Savior mine. His cross dispels each doubt; I bury in his tomb each thought of unbelief and fear, each ling'ring shade of gloom.
Alone in the dark agonizing nights in the hospital, I prayed. There was nothing eloquent about my praying. It was more like a lisping child crying out to his father. And Father was there. Through the gloom of the virus that had laid hold of my body, and the hallucinations that brought doubts and fears to my oxygen-starved brain, God was with me. "My God, my joy, my light," never left me or forsook me. I was never alone. How do I respond to such faithfulness?
I praise the God of grace; I trust his truth and might; he calls me his, I call him mine, my God, my joy, my light.
"It could go either way." To put it bluntly, my doctor was saying my life was in the balance. The virus could win. I could die. I am deeply grateful to God that, furious as the virus was with me, it did not kill me. But what if it had? Bonar directs my heart and mind to the eternal perspective. My deepest problem isn't dying from the virus. My biggest problem is that, apart from Christ, I'm already dead--dead in my trespasses and sins. Left to myself, to my efforts, to my strength, to the work of my feeble hands, it can't go either way; it can only go one way. Christ's love for me, not mine for him, has delivered me from my soul's virus, the weight of my sin, my sore bondage, my dark unrest. For such a deliverance, "I praise the God of grace." But what if the virus had won? What if it had gone the other way? And I had died alone in room 322? The dreaded call from my doctor to my loved ones. No discharge from the hospital. No recovery. No earthly hope of love.
While loved ones this side of eternity might be grieving, to the God of grace I would be singing "with unfaltering lip and heart," and with Bonar himself, and the saints throughout the ages:
'Tis he who saveth me, and freely pardon gives; I love because he loveth me, I live because he lives.
Douglas Bond is author of more than thirty books of historical fiction, biography, and practical theology; including God Sings! (And Ways We Think He Ought To), the Mr. Pipes series, and others on hymns and hymn writers, and a forthcoming family Advent devotional based on carols and their writers. Learn more at bondbooks.net