Our American mindset doesn’t leave room for weakness. We exist in a culture that lives for strength. In his little book Weakness Is the Way, theologian J.I. Packer writes about the impact of weakness on the life of the Apostle Paul, and he challenges our cultural point of view by showing us that the Christian life is in fact a life of weakness. It’s a theme we sometimes have trouble embracing.
I had plenty of time to contemplate weakness this week. Some long-standing fears had bubbled to the surface of my mind and exerted their grip just long enough to make me discouraged and physically ill. Most of the time I feel so much freedom and grace that this onslaught was a surprise to my spirit. It left me feeling weak and doubtful that God would do anything to help.
Packer describes weakness as “a state of inadequacy, or insufficiency, in relation to some standard or ideal to which we desire to conform.” It can take many forms, such as physical weakness, poor health, weak skill in the workforce, poor memory, or weak character. The feeling of being weak generates feelings of inferiority. “In this fallen world,” says Packer, “where original sin in the form of pride, ambitious independence, and deep-level egocentricity has infected everyone, we all crave to be admired for strength in something.” This is especially true of us Americans, whose favorite idols are superheroes.
But… and here’s the opposite Kingdom-perspective… the gospel message impels us to know we are sinful and beyond helping ourselves, so that we can put on Christ. Here’s irony for you: the way to receive strength is to admit we don’t have it. As Paul says, God’s grace is sufficient for us, because His power is made perfect in our weakness (2 Cor. 12:9).
Paul knows what he’s talking about. Through much of 2 Corinthians, we see Paul defending himself against slanderers who were trying to turn the Corinthian church against him. Paul points to the hardships of his ministry and his love for the Corinthian Christians as proof of his sincerity. Packer points out that Paul’s exposition of hardships “shows that the relative weakness of his position in both the church and the world has been in his mind all along. So too does his expressed uncertainty about his standing with the Corinthians.”
Paul is my hero here, because what does he do? He determines to boast in his weaknesses in order that the power of Christ may rest on him, because “when I am weak, then I am strong” (12:9-10).
I think we tend to read these words, which are some of the most commonly-quoted passages of Scripture, as a sort of triumphant declaration of faith. I picture Paul writing them with a flourish of his pen while trumpets play in the background. But you know what? Maybe not. Maybe Paul, a weak person like me, wrote these words while grappling with unseen fears. Maybe he wrote them because he was at the end of his rope. I’m pretty sure he wrote them to remind himself of their truth at the same time he was reminding the Corinthian church.
So in this “gospel of the opposites”, where weak things manifest the strength of the Kingdom, it’s no wonder we experience hardships, setbacks and fears, because those are often the very conditions God uses as conduits for His grace. Seeing hardship this way helps me make a sort of peace with it. No one ever asks for a chance to be weak. But when weakness does come into my life, I’m believing it won’t be wasted. I’m believing that God is pouring strength through it. I’m contending that where there is dust there will be diamonds, because that’s the kind of exchange we can expect from a God who makes all things new.
Photo credit: <a href=”https://www.flickr.com/photos/grantmac/478325318/”>Grant MacDonald</a> via <a href=”https://visualhunt.com”>Visual Hunt</a> / <a href=”http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/2.0/”>CC BY-NC</a>