A Lenten reflection on how we find hope in our experiences of weakness
Experience of weakness is common to everyone. Whether we are suffering physical weakness as a result of illness or fatigue, whether we feel disempowered by a force greater than ourselves, whether we experience failure through breaking a promise or compromising our integrity, at such moments we are confronted by the fragility of our lives.
One of the traditions of Ash Wednesday is to receive the mark of the cross in ash on our foreheads. When this is done, the minister says these words when they make the sign of the cross on each person: “Remember you are dust and to dust you will return. Turn away from sin and be faithful to Christ.”
“Remember you are dust.” That’s a humble recognition of human weakness. But what do we do with our weaknesses? The Christian message of Easter claims to speak hopefully into our experience of weakness. But in what ways is that so?
The Apostle Paul wrote an amazingly honest section that forms part of his second letter to the Corinthians. In 2 Corinthians 11:16-12:10 he writes in a very personal way about his life experience, particularly of weakness. Paul had planted the church in the city of Corinth in ancient Greece. After he moved on from the church, other people arrived who claimed to be better “apostles” than Paul. They behaved as it they had more power and authority than Paul and so they tried to get the Corinthians to follow them rather than to follow Paul’s teaching. The manner of these other “apostles” was to emphasise human power and strength. They promoted themselves, they quoted their human credentials, they had a domineering attitude over the Corinthians. Paul had to write to the Corinthians to challenge these other “apostles”. Paul did not believe it was appropriate for Christians to compare themselves to others. But this is what the other so-called “apostles” were trying to do with Paul. They criticised Paul by saying he wasn’t very impressive as an apostle. They put him down as they promoted themselves. Paul believed such comparing behaviour was foolish and unchristian. But he realised he would have to challenge them back by sharing something about himself. So he wrestles in this passage because he feels he is being foolish to talk about himself, but he realises it’s the only way to challenge the self-appointed “apostles”.
But when Paul writes about himself, there is a considerable difference in how he does this, compared to the words of the other “apostles”. Whereas they try and promote their human powers, Paul boasts of his experience of weakness. What a fascinating choice. Paul’s writings gets to the heart of the Christian message and this is where we will find hope in our experience of weakness. Paul teaches three ways in which weakness can have a hopeful edge.
To humbly recognise our weakness is a way to avoid arrogant behaviour
In comparing himself to the self-appointed “apostles” at Corinth, Paul says this:
“In fact, you even put up with anyone who enslaves you or exploits you or takes advantage of you or puts on airs or slaps you in the face. To my shame I admit that we were too weak for that!” 2 Corinthians 11:20-21
In other words, Paul was reminding the Corinthians of all the proud, self-promoting behaviour of the other “apostles”, but then he quips, “We were too weak for that!” Paul was saying, “We were never going to play that game.” Paul was never going to promote himself. And he was only too conscious of his own weaknesses which was his deterrent to boasting about himself.
Our experience of weakness, if recognised responsibly, deepens humility in us which is the antidote to pride. That is a hopeful edge in our experience of weakness.
To speak of our weakness creates opportunities to boast of God’s power
Paul writes three times in this passage that if he was going to boast, he would not boast, like the others, in his human strengths, but in his weaknesses. And the third time he writes this, he gives us the reason:
“Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me.” 2 Corinthians 12:9
Paul uses a very unusual Greek word when he writes about the power of Jesus resting on him. This is the only place in the whole New Testament that this Greek verb features. It means “to take up residence”, but the word is closely linked with the word for “overshadowing” and “taking care of something.” So there are interesting links here with the Greek word for a bishop, because a bishop is someone who is over the church and takes care of it.
So Paul is teaching that our weaknesses create the opportunity for the power of God to overshadow us, be resident within us, so that we might experience His care of us. I think what Paul is hinting at here is that God’s power can only have room in our lives, when we stop trying to fill our lives with ourselves. If we wanted to say someone was being proud, we might say, “They are being very full of themselves.” But when we are full of ourselves, it leaves no room for anything else, including the possibility of God’s power to be at work.
So, experience of weakness has a hopeful edge because it creates space for God’s power to be resident within us.
In 1630 Puritan preacher Richard Stibbes wrote this:
“Weakness with watchfulness will stand out, when strength with too much confidence fails. Weakness, with acknowledgement of it, is the fittest seat and subject for God to perfect His strength in. For consciousness of our infirmities drives us out of ourselves to Him in whom our strength lies.” (1)
Recognition of weakness is the “fittest seat” for the power of God.
God has placed paradoxical power in weakness
Paul ends this amazing autobiographical passage by saying:
“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 12:10
What a paradox! “When I am weak, then I am strong.” How come, Paul? How does that work?
It works because at the very heart of God’s actions is an over-turning of the human concept of strength. In his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul writes an amazing passage about the cross and the way it flips over our human notions of wisdom. He writes this:
“But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong.” 1 Corinthians 1:27
What a great phrase, “the shaming of the strong”. Paul had told the Corinthians that they only had to look at their own congregation to see evidence that this was God’s way. The Corinthian believers were a right mixture. Hardly any of them came from a privileged background, they didn’t have influential roles in civic society and they weren’t particularly well-educated. And yet God called them into relationship. The Church wasn’t just for people who were perceived to be strong in human terms. God placed His hand of favour to lift up those who the world considers weak.
But it is at the cross that we see God’s greatest overturning of human values of strength. For on the cross God, by deliberate choice, made Himself as weak as anyone could possibly make them. In Jesus, God allowed Himself to be nailed to a tree and tortured to death over a period of 6 hours. You can’t get any weaker than that.
On the 16th July 1944, German pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer sat in his prison cell in Tegel where he was incarcerated by the Nazi regime and he wrote a letter to his good friend Eberhard Bethge. In that letter he wrote this:
“God lets Himself be pushed out of the world on to the cross. He is weak and powerless in the world and that is precisely the way, the only way, in which He is with us and helps us. Matthew 8:17 makes it quite clear that Christ helps us, not by virtue of His omnipotence, but by virtue of His weakness and suffering. The Bible directs man to God’s powerlessness and suffering; only the suffering God can help.” (2)
This is dramatic theology, yet it is the paradoxical truth of the cross, with which we journey through Lent to celebrate at Easter. At the cross, it was because God fully embraced human weakness, that He provided the way for all people to be saved from their weakness. One of the ancient Church Fathers, Gregory of Nazianzas, wrote, “That which is not assumed is not healed.” In other words, unless God chose to become weak in Jesus on the cross, the sinful weaknesses of humanity could not be healed.
How could Paul write, “When I am weak then I am strong”? Because at the cross, God demonstrated exactly that. The paradox of the cross is that healing comes through pain, wisdom comes through foolishness, honour comes through shame, life comes through death and strength comes through weakness. The best credentials of God are the scars of Christ.
There’s a famous story, which you may have heard, which I think illustrates a good response to our experience of weakness. Danish King Canute who also was King of England in the early 11th century occupied a human position of great power. But he was not comfortable to throw his weight around. In fact, he became profoundly irritated by his courtiers who expected him to be all-powerful.
So, to prove his courtiers wrong, he sat one day in a chair on the beach at a place called Bosham (pronounced bozzum) and commanded the in-coming tide to stop. Of course, the tide continued merrily to come up the sand, until it flowed over his feet and legs as he continued to sit in his chair. And King Canute said this, “Let all men know how empty and worthless is the power of kings, for there is none worthy of the name, but He whom heaven, earth and sea obey by eternal laws.” (3)
King Canute never boasted of human power, but instead demonstrated humility in his weakness, pointing to the power of God. And so, in company with King Canute and with the Apostle Paul, we can boast about our experience of weakness. In humility, as we recognise our weakness, we give space for the power of God to be at work in us, and our lives then mirror the paradox of the cross, that there can be strength in weakness. These are the hopeful edges of weakness which we mustn’t forget.
Quoted in Garber S, The Fabric of Faithfulness, 2007, IVP Press, Downers Grove, p23
Bonhoeffer D, Letters and Papers from Prison, 1953, SCM Press, London, P360
This story is re-told in a number of places, but I have drawn on the reference in: Struthers J, Britain's History from the Air, 1994, Ebury Press, London, p61