Making Sense of Weakness
My latest column at ChristianWeek:
I spend so much time trying to be strong that I have a hard time making sense of what the Bible says about weakness.
“I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling,” the apostle Paul writes. Later he says, “For when I am weak, then I am strong.” What kind of Kingdom math is this? And if it’s true, why do we try so hard to be strong?
Rose Marie Miller, in her book Nothing Is Impossible with God, helps me make sense of this. There are three kinds of weakness, she writes.
The first kind of weakness is presumptive weakness. It’s what we usually think of as strength. “Presumptive weakness is when I am strong in myself. I think, ‘I have the ability, the gifts, the understanding, the wisdom to get the job done or get on with life.'” It turns out that our strengths, until surrendered, are liabilities, because “it is impossible to fully trust in God while you still cling to something in yourself.”
The second type of weakness is despairing weakness. This is usually what we think of as weakness, but it’s not what we should aim for. When we despair, we look at our own resources and discover they’re not enough, and we begin to lose hope.
I find that I tend to alternate between these first two types of weakness. I try to make it on my own strength, or give up. There’s a third way, though.
The third type of weakness is what Paul talks about, and it’s what we should aim for: true weakness, “born out of a deep sense of inadequacy and need, which drives us to Christ and unleashes all the redeeming energy of God’s grace in our lives.”
Charles Spurgeon put it this way in his sermon “Paradox”: “We are strong when, under a sense of absolute inability, we depend wholly upon God…When we are weak we are strong, again, because then we are driven away from self to God.”
What about our abilities and talents? Oswald Chambers writes, “God can achieve his purpose either through absence of human power and resources, or abandonment of reliance on them…He chose and used nobodies only when they renounced dependence on their natural abilities and resources.”
The exciting part about true weakness is that it’s freeing. We don’t have to pretend to be more than we are, or that we have it all together. I spoke to a man last week who with genuine joy said to me, “There’s nothing you could tell me about yourself that would surprise me, because there’s no way that you’re a worse sinner than me.” He had encountered God’s grace and strength in his weakness, and it set him free.
I’m a weak pastor in a land of weak churches. That may just be my greatest strength. I’m slowly learning to turn away from my own resources and despair, to find that God’s strength really is enough and more.