Like very few other experiences, moving cross-culturally makes you intimately familiar with feelings of incompetence. From very basic situations early on – like not being able to tell the vegetable man you don’t want that many potatoes – to more complicated social dances you still don’t understand years later, you tend to be smacked in the face daily with how little competence you have.
I was recently sitting in a meeting with a roomful of American business people. We’d had a devotion the first morning on the verse, “unless the Lord builds the house, they labor in vain who try to build it” – a reminder of our dependence on God to act. But by the middle of the second day – overwhelmed with a new list of regulations to be followed – we’d somehow forgotten that verse. We’d been shown plainly a situation in which our incompetence glowed brilliantly and it crushed us.
People say “God never gives you more than you can handle” and while we’ve all heard that’s not really true, we’d prefer to believe it. Because to not believe it means to accept a limit to our competence. To accept there are things out there we can’t handle is to accept limits on our powers, our abilities, our self. Raised in a culture where we’re taught to believe “you can do anything you set your mind to” – nothing is more repugnant than the shocking realization we are not as awesome as we thought.
To our horrified surprise upon discovery of our ongoing incompetence, I think I hear a gentle, divine laugh.
For only crazy people would think they could complete by their own efforts what was begun by God. If you weren’t smart enough or strong enough to begin it, how do you suppose you could perfect it? – Galatians 3:2-4, MSG
“Of course you can’t do it,” chuckles Heaven. “Of course it’s more than you can handle. Hasn’t that always been the point?”
I still swallow hard when confronted with my own failure. My pride still cries in protest when others notice my incompetence. But I’m learning to laugh gently at it too. Because from the very beginning I have been unable, weak, incompetent. That was the whole point – that was the whole reason – for gracious intervention from Heaven.