The Little Engine That Couldn’t

While I love our tattered and torn copy of the classic The Little Engine that Could as much as the next sappy momma, I find my life cry being its antithesis. The little engine continually chanted “I think I can, I think I can” as it climbed its impossible hill; however,  the more I walk with Christ, the more I realize that I cannot.


In each season, I tend to have a centering prayer to which my heart returns multiple times throughout the day. I don’t pick them; they seem to pick me. This season, triplet phrases have been my homing call: “I can’t. You must. I shall.”

Rather than leaving me in paralyzed in a pit of despair or shame, I have actually found these twin phrases to produce more and better work than its worldly, self-esteem counterpart.

God has called me to love my husband as I love myself. Apart from Him, I cannot. 

God has called me to raise my three boys in the nurture and admonition of the Lord. Apart from Him, I cannot.

God has called me to lead the women of our Church both by teaching them and also by training them to study His Word. Apart from Him, I cannot.

God has called me to see my neighbors as He sees them. Apart from Him, I cannot.

I coud go on all day, but you get the picture. I cannot. 

It used to bother me immensely that God would call me and others to things that He full well knew we could not do; but that was before He began to teach me the profound depths of our union with Christ.

By calling me to do things that I could never do, even on my best day, He is calling me deeper to Himself and His unlimited resources. He sets the bar high so that the only way to move forward is wrapped up like a child in His arms.

St. Augustine’s prayer, “Command whatever you will, only give all that you command” is my constant petition.

While many think the increasing realization that we cannot would lead us to a depressing valley, I find that the impossible hills that I cannot climb lead me to a peak of experiencing God’s always available all-sufficiency. Once I have come (again and again and again) to the realization “I can’t” (after myriad attempts to do whatever the calling on my strength and with my own ingenuity), I can earnestly cry out to God, “You Must.”

From “You Must,” I find myself propelled back into action from His provision and person with a confident, “I shall.

For whatever God asks of us will, indeed, require effort and work. But that work will be anchored in His Word, His strength, His promises, not my own.

I must bring my “I can’t” to His presence and empty my hands of my own attempts. When I do so, I can earnestly cry “You must.” After surrendering my self-sufficiency, I am able to pick up His provisions of strength and wisdom, leaving His presence with a humble “I shall.” 

Simple, but far from easy.

Daily, I wake up living like the Little Engine that Could. Sometimes I live thinking I can for days until I again hit a wall and realize that I simply cannot. God, in His pursuing grace, does not allow me to chug along in my own strength for long. In His tender mercies, He allows me to face my inadequacy and my limitedness.

Even though I do not often receive these realizations well initially, they eventually lead me in desperation to His lap. On His lap, He fills my lap with His power and sends me back out with an “I shall” rooted in the one who does all things well.

Little Engines that Can’t but are attached to the One who Can can climb far greater and more lasting hills than plucky little blue engines who think they can.

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