A Drowning Man Cannot Be Saved Until He Ceases to Save Himself

My heart has been enriched recently by the assurance of God’s sovereignty in my life hence the realization (yet again) of how useless my attempts are to serve/please Him according to my flesh.

First, let me recommend a book: Watchman Nee’s The Normal Christian Life. If you are craving for a Bible-soaked classic with spiritually-refreshing insights, get this book. The book is basically a walk through the book of Romans particularly chapter five to eight. It is focused on Christ’s finished work in our lives. However, this is not a self-help or a feel-good book; this is a quit-depending-on-yourself, instead depend-on-your-Savior book.

I usually have a major takeaway whenever I finish a good book. It would either be a favorite quote or chapter, or anything that leads to the moment of “This is what I will remember from this book”. For The Normal Christian Life, my major takeaway is a reflection/illustration from chapter 9.

I was once staying in a place in China with some twenty other brothers. There was inadequate provision for bathing in the home where we stayed, so we went for a daily plunge in the river. On one occasion, a brother got a cramp in his leg, and I suddenly saw he was sinking fast. I motioned to another brother, who was an expert swimmer, to hasten to his rescue. But to my astonishment he made no move. Growing desperate I cried out, “Don’t you see the man is drowning?” and the other brothers, about as agitated as I was, shouted vigorously too. But our good swimmer still did not move. Calm and collected, he remained just where he was, apparently postponing the unwelcome task. Meantime the voice of the poor drowning brother grew fainter and his efforts feebler. In my heart I said, I hate that man! Think of his letting a brother drown before his very eyes and not going to the rescue!

But when the man was actually sinking, with a few swift strokes the swimmer was at his side, and both were soon safely ashore. Nevertheless, when I got an opportunity, I aired my views. “I have never seen any Christian who loved his life quite as much as you do,” I said. “Think of the distress you would have saved that brother if you had considered yourself a little less and him a little more.” But the swimmer, I soon discovered, knew his business better than I did.

“Had I gone earlier,” he said, “he would have clutched me so fast that both of us would have gone under. A drowning man cannot be saved until he is utterly exhausted and ceases to make the slightest effort to save himself.”

–          The Normal Christian Life, page 149-150.

This excerpt is my major takeaway from the book because of two reasons. One, it is a slap in the face realization on how God cannot work in us if we calculatingly monopolize the goal to Christlikeness (i.e., righteousness by works instead of righteousness by faith). And two, I am going through a season where this realization is key for another breakthrough.

Early this year, I heard of a sermon on the importance of intentionality and relationship in disciple-making. It helped me appreciate how Jesus reached out to others not out of activity or obligation, but out of love. Few months later however the intentionality suddenly turned into a self-relying protection program.

I started hovering over the ladies that God entrusted me with in an effort of trying to control their lives in order to protect them from harm, disappointment, wrong decisions or anything that I legalistically think would hinder their spiritual growth. I gripped on how they would perform as disciples, so expectations for them to bear fruit became a source of pressure instead of grace and privilege resulting to an outflow. In short, I crossed the line between pointing them to Jesus and choking them by the hand. Instead of bringing them closer to Christ; I was blocking the way of God’s mighty working upon them.

Of course I love them. I do really care for them without any motive of gaining something from it. But the way I loved them was based on human effort and worldly standards, not on Christ’s way. I would most of the time think of ways on how they would feel loved and secured, instead of me surrendering them and their needs at the feet of Jesus. And so I was often pointlessly tired because I was running empty physically, mentally and emotionally.

But God, being a sovereign God that He is, used series of circumstances for me to realize how skewed my actions and decisions were. One of the girls in our discipleship group, in the midst of a trial in her life, messaged me and said, “Stop giving me advices. I know that already. The more you message me, the more I am thinking of leaving”. A day before that, one girl expressed her disinterest in pointing other people to Christ. Another girl was also habitually setting aside fellowship. And another girl was being deceived by the pleasures of the world.

“I did everything I could to love them. How come these are happening?”, I told God as I silently cried with grumble in my heart. Then I prayed, “Lord, please give me Your peace. Please open my eyes. What are you trying to teach me here?”

Early the next day, during my personal time with the Lord, He answered.

I wrote in my journal, “You are trying to hold on to them as if they are yours. They are not yours to begin with; they are God’s (John 17:6). Quit loving them based on your own effort and standards. You are trying so so hard. Stop trying and start trusting Me instead.”

With God’s peace in my heart, He reminded me of what He says in Isaiah 55:9, “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts”.

Like the drowning man in Nee’s book, it was only this time, in utter exhaustion, when I ceased to make the slightest effort to save myself. “Lord, I am tired and hurt. I am letting go of the foolish and selfish idea that I can make them grow. They are Yours Lord and You alone can satisfy. Please forgive me for thinking I can follow-up on them better than You can. Please forgive me for thinking that I can be their superhero. Use me as Your broken vessel, Lord, but please guide me because I do not want to be a wall between You and them again. I cannot please and serve You Lord on my own nor can I follow the pattern of Jesus’ ministry on my own. Please forgive me for thinking that I can. I trust You Lord. Thank You for Your forgiveness and promises. Thank You for revealing these things to me”. 

Then one by one, name after name, I surrendered them to the Lord like a drowning man whose voice is fading and efforts are feebling.

The Lord came to my rescue.

Indeed, a drowning man cannot be saved until he ceases to save himself. Not only was there peace in my heart, God’s grace also shed wisdom on how I should respond to His calling.


In the matter of forgiveness, we look to Christ on the cross; in the matter of deliverance from sin and of doing the will of God, we look to Christ in our hearts. For the one we depend on what He has done, and for the other we depend on what He will do in us; but in regard to both, our dependence is on Him alone. From start to finish, He is the One who does it all.

– The Normal Christian Life, page 153.

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