The life of faith – biblical faith – requires living with paradox: Finding strength through weakness. Receiving through giving. Living by dying. Seeing by believing.
Over the next weeks I’ll address each of these seeming contradictions separately. Today, the conundrum of becoming strong by being weak.
In our society – and the world – strength is glorified and weakness is anathema. (I like that word – anathema. It sounds strong. In case you’re wondering, it means, “vehemently disliked.” Thus endeth the vocabulary lesson.) Choosing weakness over strength is counter-cultural, almost anti-American. Strong is cool; weak is wimpy.
We don’t encounter the phrase much anymore, but people used to talk about “pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps.” If you’re a cowboy that might still make sense, but “pull yourself up by your own loafers (or sandals)” doesn’t have the same impact. Recently someone told me, “I’m not sure where, but doesn’t the Bible say, ‘God helps those that help themselves’?” Uh, no, the Bible doesn’t say that. But it’s a philosophy many of us follow.
This ad from decades past, courtesy of the U.S. |
All-Round Weightlifting Association,
reflects our disdain for weakness.
Angelo Siciliano, aka Charles Atlas, capitalized on America’s infatuation with strength. Nicknamed “the 97-pound weakling,” he overcame a frail childhood to become a champion bodybuilder in the early to mid-1900s. Magazine and comic book ads depicted him as a skinny guy having sand kicked in his face by some bully, then returning the favor after becoming a muscle-bound powerhouse.
Strength conquers all was his message, and it appealed to many people. Our nation has maintained that mantra in war and in peacetime.
So it’s paradoxical to read Bible passages that stress the virtues of weakness. “The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth…. He gives strength to the weary and increases the power of the weak…but those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles, they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint” (Isaiah 40:28-31).
Then in the New Testament, the apostle Paul carries on the same theme: “But he (God) said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:9-10).
Talk about a paradigm shift! We occasionally pray for God’s help, but the Bible asserts things are best when we’re helpless. That doesn’t sound logical.
I’ve pondered this a lot, even in my own life. Strangely enough, it’s true. Times I’ve felt closest to God were when I found myself at the end of my rope, all my resources exhausted, and not knowing what to do. Depleted of my own strength, I had no choice but to turn to God to take charge. Whenever I’ve done that, He always seemed to be saying, “Good. I’ve been waiting. All you had to do was ask.”
Recent decades have seen our nation adopt a secularized, who-needs-God type of mindset. And that’s understandable. When it seems we have things under control, we don’t feel much need for God. “I’ve got this” is our attitude.
Since World War II, people in the United States have prospered materially unlike any other nation in history. Private home ownership became normative. Multi-car families also became common. Today many of us have more than one of most things, from TVs to bathrooms. Even the poor in our country would rank among the wealthiest in many Third World nations.
So when you have everything you need, who needs God, right? Self-sufficiency, not deity, sits on the altar of worship.
Perhaps that’s why weakness, not strength, fosters spiritual growth. Powerlessness makes us more receptive to the all-powerful God.
Reading through the Scriptures, we see this pattern repeatedly. Noah and his family escaping the flood only through the ark God appointed him to build. Job suffering various afflictions. Abraham and Sarah, aging and without hope of having children together. Joseph in prison through no fault of his own. Moses and the Israelites pressed between a sea and some angry Egyptians. David, the victim of his own sexual sin and murderous cover-up. Impulsive Peter, caught up in his own cowardice.
And then there’s Paul, whose unidentified “thorn in the flesh” kept him humble. At the end of his life he didn’t boast about great success, but rather of having persevered through hardship. “For I am already being poured out like a drink offering, and the time has come for my departure. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith” (2 Timothy 4:6-7).
Oswald Chambers, in My Utmost for His Highest, notes, “The things we try to avoid and fight against – tribulation, sufferings, and persecution – are the very things that produce abundant joy in us…. A saint doesn’t know the joy of the Lord in spite of tribulation, but because of it.”