The Strength of Weakness
My latest column at Christian Week:
One of the themes we hear a lot about at Christmas is incarnational ministry. Just as Jesus took on flesh and became God with us, it is important for his followers to leave the church buildings and become part of the neighborhoods in which they live.
This is an important theme, but there’s another Christmas theme that is less common but just important. It’s the theme of weakness. Jesus came to earth not in a position of strength, but in startling weakness. God the Son became completely dependent on a young couple for his basic needs. He did not grow up in a centre of power. When offered power, he consistently walked away. Even when he faced death, his refusal to respond with power is stunning. Jesus taught us that God often works most powerfully in what appears to be weakness.
I remember that in the early days of my ministry pastors still commanded respect. Clergy mattered, even if their role was diminished from years before. When churches spoke, people listened. I’ve watched as churches have increasingly become just another special interest group. We are no longer a dominant voice in our culture’s conversation; we are just one of many voices, and not a loud one either.
I suppose that many of us don’t like this. We have lost some power. Nobody likes to be pushed to the side.
One of the temptations we face is the desire to get that power back. We are bombarded every week with new programs and methods that will make our churches bigger and our voices stronger. These programs and methods tempt us because we miss some of the power we have lost, and after all, we want to use that power for good.
Jesus, too, faced the temptation of quick fixes and shortcuts to power. He refused to give in. David Hansen writes in The Art of Pastoring, “Jesus knew what would happen if he left the Way of the Cross for the cheap shortcut. If he jumped off the temple, he would crash on the cobblestones below. The devil is a liar.” Despite knowing this I confess that I am often tempted by the cheap shortcut, because the way of the cross seldom looks like the path to greatness.
Jesus consistently taught about laying aside our rights, becoming weak like children, and rejoicing when we were under-appreciated. He identified with those who were outcasts and powerless. He taught that the tiniest of seeds becomes the haven of birds. His entire ministry was predicated upon God’s strength showing up in weakness. Yet I find myself consistently impressed with the strong. I do not naturally like the way of weakness.
I praise God for large and strong churches, but I worry that we often think that God needs powerful churches and important people to do his work. Scripture shows us that some of the most powerful and influential people in redemption’s history squandered their influence, while God has used humble nobodies to change the world.
On Christmas, as we think of the God who laid aside his strength, it’s important to remind ourselves of the strength of weakness. Perhaps God is most at work today in people and churches that will never be written up in books, and will never make the conference circuit. God’s strength still shows up most powerfully in weakness.
Theologian Marva Dawn asks, “Why have we turned pastors into successful CEOs instead of shepherds for the weak? Why do we search for pastors who are handsome, sophisticated, charismatic – instead of models in suffering? Why do our churches adopt practices of business life and its achievement models?” Most hauntingly she asks, “Why are a large proportion of today’s churches in North America not living out of weakness?”
When God entered the world to do his most powerful work, he came in weakness. Perhaps God still does his best work today among those who are weak. As we occupy a diminished role within Canadian culture, may Christmas help us develop the theology and practice of weakness, believing that our weakness is an opportunity for God’s strength.