The news cycle is loud, but we need to hear those who can’t shout
Barbara Duguid was an MK, a missionary kid born in Nigeria who grew up partly in South America. She earned a degree in medical technology that equipped her to head a mission hospital in Liberia. She’s the author of Extravagant Grace: God’s Glory Displayed in Our Weakness and Streams of Mercy: Prayers of Confession and Celebration. She’s also married to a fine theologian, Iain Duguid. Here are edited excerpts of our interview in front of Patrick Henry College students.
You met Iain at that hospital in Liberia? I was encountering for the first time on the mission compound people who did not think Americans were cool. Most of them were British, so I baited Iain shamelessly and said, “Tell me everything you don’t like about Americans. Let’s just get this out of the way.” He went on and on and on, and I was furious. But eventually I got asked to be in a singing group with him, and fell in love with him.
You’ve now co-authored six children, planted three churches (going on four), and written a book applying John Newton’s thinking on God’s amazing grace. Some fear an emphasis on grace means a de-emphasis on holiness. We are called to try very hard to obey God’s law, but in the trying we will fail miserably. We will sin a lot even in the context of our best obedience, when we are proud of it and boastful. For Newton, maturity is all about being humble and dependent upon God and not a glory stealer, not stealing credit for the work God is doing.
‘The heavenly hosts aren’t saying, “Aren’t these humans amazing?” They’re saying, “Isn’t God amazing that He hasn’t blown them up?”’
You write that when we’ve done something bad, “At this very moment, you are exactly as holy and mature in your faith as God wants you to be. He cannot be disappointed in you or surprised by you if he is the one controlling the entire process of growth from start to finish.” One reason God allows us to fall flat on our face is so we will not be people who stand before Him taking credit for His good work. We get confused about that. If we are strong and victorious in a certain area of our lives, we start writing books about how everybody can be as good as I am on this topic. But if God lets us fall flat on our face and we’re in the dust, we realize, “That wasn’t me. That was God, and left to myself, I’ll be flat on my face.”
When these smart and hardworking students get straight A’s, as I’m sure they all will, should they feel proud about that? What do we have that we have not received from the Lord? So ultimately, no, because if you’re a shining star academically, what did you do to create that in yourself? Did you choose the country and the family you were born into? What shaped your work ethic?
It is theoretically possible that some students here will work very hard but still fail a course. How should they feel about that? First, sadness, and then you begin to ask, “Why is this so very painful?” In asking that question, we’re going to bump up against our idolatries. What are the things we’re worshipping that we’re not getting because we failed this test? Parental approval? I can’t get into the med school or the law school I wanted to go to? It could be other things. You begin to say, “Lord, help me not to find my identity in these things,” but you still feel the failure. It’s important to ask, “Lord, what does this say about my heart? Why would you, as a loving heavenly Father, have me fail this test? How might I better see and live in the glory of my Savior, in the face of no glory for me at this moment?”
You write emphatically: “You will never be able to find steady joy in this life until you understand, submit to, and even embrace the fact that you are weak and sinful.” Here’s the thing: Who are we going to trust for our sanctification, and who is more trustworthy with it, us or the Holy Spirit? If we are God’s workmanship and He has begun a good work, He’s going to oversee it every step of the way and finish it.
God can stop whatever He does not ordain? Through falling down we become more humble and more dependent. It’s a long, long process. God is not in a hurry, but we want to be perfect right away for a lot of really sinful, prideful reasons.
You say John Newton’s response to those who wrote to him in a state of despair over their ongoing sin was never, “How could you do that?” That’s the aggrieved parental tone, but Newton’s response was habitually, “Of course you did that. You’re a sinner and that’s what sinners do.” Does that leave us more optimistic because we’re never shocked when we fail, but amazed when we don’t? Low expectations bring more delight? Newton is wonderfully compassionate because he knows we have a lot stacked against us. We live in a world full of temptation. We have sinfully depraved hearts. We have a really strong adversary, Satan, who is very good at tempting. It’s a marvel that we don’t sin a lot more. What a different perspective that is than, “You’ve been a Christian how long? How could you?” A different perspective: “Of course. You’ve got a lot stacked against you.”
Some say there’s as much sexual abuse or other sins within the church as outside it. When outsiders see that, some say, “Christianity makes no difference so why should I bother?” How does that glorify God? All we have to do is look at the history of Israel or the world. Has anybody in any country said, “These Christians are amazing. They’re so sinless and they’re so wonderful.” That’s not been how God has decided to glorify Himself. He glorifies Himself with His relentless patience with weak, terrible people who sin a lot—yet He does not let go of them. The heavenly hosts aren’t saying, “Aren’t these humans amazing?” They’re saying, “Isn’t God amazing that He hasn’t blown them up? Why are they even still here?” Ultimately, God has staked His reputation on Christ, not on us.
We learn from this about the character of God. He’s a manager not determined to win every game, but to show His compassion and mercy, and train us in righteousness. He will discipline us. He sometimes lets us go through really painful, hard times. But what gives you the courage to get up tomorrow when you have failed utterly again today, if it isn’t the wonderful news that it’s not your performance that earns God’s favor? He is for you. Your past, present, and future sins are paid for.
You write, “God chose to leave us significantly deformed and imperfect after our conversion because He values something more than our sinlessness.” What’s the something? His Son. We don’t treasure Christ. We are not captivated by Jesus Christ when we are strong and victorious and triumphant in ourselves. We are eager to tell everybody how they can be like us. But when we are shredded with failure, there is nowhere to look but to this Savior. God loves His Son. He loves it when we love and cherish His Son. He loves that more than our sinlessness.
—See more from this interview here.