Rethinking Weakness

self madeStrength is the American ideal. The statue on the right is called the “Self Made Man.” He is chiseling himself out of stone, making himself—with his own hands and strength. The self-made man embodies what our culture values. The ability of an individual to go from strength to strength, overcoming all adversity and chiseling out a successful life for themselves.

Hard work and strength—these are cornerstones of the American value system. Weakness has no place in this ideal. We despise it. We don’t have Weak Man Contests, we don’t celebrate the slowest or take pride in last place. The Rocky theme song “getting strong now” is our theme song. “Getting weak now…” just doesn’t have the same punch.

Weakness—we avoid it, shun it, hide it—no one will see us weak. That’s a strong commitment we all have. Weakness only has one purpose in our culture, it is an ingredient for becoming stronger, it definitely has no purpose or use outside of that.

We are rocks. Our physique has to reflect that, anything else and we feel ashamed and weak. Our emotions must reflect it, tears are weak—rocks don’t cry. Our mental wellness is no different—the mentally strong are not susceptible to mental illness— they don’t need help, that’s weak. It bleeds into our spirituality and faith—God doesn’t want tears, pain and frailty. I can only come with joy and gratitude.

Rocks are steady, not unstable. We are rocks at work—no room for failure or mistakes, no need for help. The rock is solid, unmovable, self-sufficient—I got this! I am strong. There is no room for weakness. The culture of ancient Corinth was very similar to ours. They also had a love affair with strength. Into this perspective of strength comes a divine wrecking ball. Check out 2 Corinthians 12:5-10.

On behalf of this man I will boast, but on my own behalf I will not boast, except of my weaknesses— though if I should wish to boast, I would not be a fool, for I would be speaking the truth; but I refrain from it, so that no one may think more of me than he sees in me or hears from me. So to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited. Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. But he 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 of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. 10 For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.

The language of weakness permeates this entire section. In fact, it permeates the entire letter of 2 Corinthians. Paul has rightly been deemed the “theologian of weakness.” Outside of Paul the term for weakness occurs 39 times in the entirety of the New Testament. Paul uses the term weakness 44 times in his letters. It is a crucial piece of his theology.

In the immediate context Paul is recalling a vision or experience of getting caught up into heaven and seeing things he could not speak. In the larger context, Paul is defending his apostleship. The Corinthians were questioning his legitimacy, because he appeared weak and insignificant, he did not have the charismatic qualities that the culture of the day held in high esteem—-he did not seem strong.

His point is striking: weakness does not disprove my apostleship, it proves it. Weakness does not challenge my authenticity, it demonstrates it! As one commentator said, “The only impressive thing about Paul, according to him, was his weakness.”

But how in the world does Paul get here? Weakness as an asset? What? Weakness as an occasion for God’s strength? Where does this come from? Paul is saying that weakness is something to be embraced not shunned, something to be content not discontent with, something to boast about?!

Paul is not introducing something new here—God has always worked this way. In the next couple posts, we will explore the theme of weakness. My aim, that you and I would grow weaker as a result.

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God, the author of pleasure

Pleasure is not a human idea or invention. Paul tells us that it is God “who richly provides us with everything to enjoy” (1 Tim 6:17). That is all-encompassing—God designed the world and all that is within it for human enjoyment. Relationships, food, trees, oceans, sunsets, beaches, coffee…all for our enjoyment. C.S. Lewis in his book ScrewTape Letters imagines the mentoring relationship of a senior demon with his junior on how to best tempt his Christian patient. He speaks to the issue of pleasure.

Never forget that when we are dealing with any pleasure in its healthy and normal and satisfying form, we are, in a sense, on the enemy’s ground. I know we have won many a soul through pleasure. all the same, it is his invention, not ours. he made the pleasures: all our research so far has not enabled us to produce one. all we can do is to encourage the humans to take the pleasures which our enemy has produced, at times, or in ways, or in degrees, which he has forbidden. hence we always try to work away from the natural condition of any pleasure to that in which it is least natural, least redolent of its Maker, and least pleasurable.

What is a Man?

Templates are important. New experiences are often stressful and tiring, mainly because we are doing the hard work of creating a template. Once the template is created and we run it through a few times we relax. This is true for a new job, for marriage, for parenting, for a new hobby, for traveling to another country, experiencing a loss, etc. Templates are blueprints or frameworks for how to navigate a given situation.

Some templates are more important than others. The journey to manhood is one such example. What is your blueprint? How do you frame the masculine journey? Do you have a template? What does it look like? How would you answer the question: what is a man?

My sense is that most men would use a shotgun to answer this question not a laser. We throw out a bunch of character qualities, traits or actions that have no coherent connection. It is not well thought out, it is not organized. It is not a template. It is random puzzle pieces, often missing the corners—rarely ever put together into a completed image.

Robert Hicks in his book The Masculine Journey suggests that the answer to this question is a moving target. Men are on a journey. Each juncture looks different and is marked by different things. Certain masculine attributes are at the forefront in different developmental stages.

Proverbs 20:29 captures this: “The glory of young men is their strength, but the splendor of old men is their gray hair.” We don’t expect gray haired men to be warriors and we don’t expect young warriors to be filled with wisdom and life experience. This biblical distinction points to a dynamic understanding of manhood.

A template for manhood looks at the commonalities, well-worn paths and critical junctures of the masculine journey. Hicks suggests six stages: 1) the created man 2) the sexual man 3) the warrior 4) the wounded man 5) the mature man 6) the sage. One may not agree with his categories, but the idea of common signposts along the masculine journey is instructive.

I appreciate this author’s approach to developing a template for the journey of a man—whether one agrees completely with his framework—the project of a masculine template is important to pursue.

Creation Apart from Works

We are dust. We must never forget our origins. Our existence is marvelous. We started from a clump of mud. God’s creative, forming, breathing energy was infused into the dirt as he fashioned a creature to bear his image—simply phenomenal. This is a cornerstone of our reality. Life and death, joy and sorrow are located at the intersection of the Creator-creature distinction.

It is no mistake that the first line of the Apostle’s Creed says, “I believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of Heaven and Earth.” In this simple affirmation we confess our creatureliness and our Maker’s sovereignty. Martin Luther is wonderful in his comments from his small catechism on this phrase. He asks the question: what does this mean? He answers.

I believe that God has made me and all creatures; that He has given me my body and soul, eyes, ears and all my members, my reason and all my senses, and still preserves them; that He richly and daily provides me with food and clothing, home and family, property and goods, and all that I need to support this body and life; that He protects me from all danger, guards and keeps me from all evil; and all this purely out of fatherly, divine goodness and mercy, without any merit or worthiness in me; for all which I am in duty bound to thank and praise, to serve and obey Him. This is most certainly true.

I love the way he frames God’s creative work as an act of “fatherly, divine goodness and mercy.” Our existence is without “any merit or worthiness in me.” I did not earn my existence. Creation is apart from works, it has nothing to do with me whatsoever—it is based purely on his good pleasure. Luther provocatively utilizes the language he often uses of justification to speak of creation. His point: creation and justification operate on the same principle, grace alone.

The posture of the creature is hands open to receive. The posture of the sinner is arms outstretched grasping at what is not ours. A posture we know all too well since the transgression of our first parents. Justification is about making us human again…it returns us to this receiving posture. God graces us with salvation apart from any merit of our own.

The Pastor’s Depression

Charles Spurgeon was no stranger to depression. He knew the lonely journey that marks the gospel minister. He used the term “fainting fits” to describe the ups and downs that characterize the pastor’s soul. He is so helpful in this vein. This entire post is drawn from his book Lectures to My Students.

In the midst of a long stretch of unbroken labour, the same affliction may be looked for. The bow cannot be always bent without fear of breaking. Repose is as needful to the mind as sleep to the body. Our Sabbaths are our days of toil, and if we do not rest upon some other day we shall break down. Even the earth must lie fallow and have her Sabbaths, and so must we. Hence the wisdom and compassion of our Lord, when he said to his disciples, “Let us go into the desert and rest awhile.” What! when the people are fainting? When the multitudes are like sheep upon the mountains without a shepherd? Does Jesus talk of rest? When Scribes and Pharisees, like grievous wolves, are rending the flock, does he take his followers on an excursion into a quiet resting place? Does some red-hot zealot denounce such atrocious forgetfulness of present and pressing demands? Let him rave in his folly. The Master knows better than to exhaust his servants and quench the light of Israel. Rest time is not waste time. It is economy to gather fresh strength. Look at the mower in the summer a day, with so much to cut down ere the sun sets. He pauses in his labour, is he a sluggard? He looks for his stone, and begins to draw it up and down his scythe, with “rink-a-tink—rink-a-tink—rink-a-tink.” Is that idle music? is he wasting precious moments? How much he might have mown while he has been ringing out those notes on his scythe! But he is sharpening his tool, and he will do far more when once again he gives his strength to those long sweeps which lay the grass prostrate in rows before him. …

Even thus a little pause prepares the mind for greater service in the good cause. Fishermen must mend their nets, and we must every now and then repair our mental waste and set our machinery in order for future service. To tug the oar from day to day, like a galley-slave who knows no holidays, suits not mortal men. Mill-streams go on and on forever, but we must have our pauses and our intervals. Who can help being out of breath when the race is continued without intermission? Even beasts of burden must be turned out to grass occasionally; the very sea pauses at ebb and flood; earth keeps the Sabbath of the wintry months; and man, even when exalted to be God’s ambassador, must rest or faint; must trim his lamp or let it burn low; must recruit his vigour or grow prematurely old. It is wisdom to take occasional furlough. In the long run, we shall do more by sometimes doing less. On, on, on forever, without recreation, may suit spirits emancipated from this “heavy clay,” but while we are in this tabernacle, we must every now and then cry halt, and serve the Lord by holy inaction and consecrated leisure. Let no tender conscience doubt the lawfulness of going out of harness for awhile, but learn from the experience of others the necessity and duty of taking timely rest…

This evil will also come upon us, we know not why, and then it is all the more difficult to drive it away. Causeless depression is not to he reasoned with, nor can David’s harp charm it away by sweet discoursings. As well fight with the mist as with this shapeless, undefinable, yet all-beclouding hopelessness. One affords himself no pity when in this case, because it seems so unreasonable, and even sinful to be troubled without manifest cause; and yet troubled the man is, even in the very depths of his spirit. If those who laugh at such melancholy did but feel the grief of it for one hour, their laughter would he sobered into compassion. Resolution might, perhaps, shake it off, but where are we to find the resolution when the whole man is unstrung? The physician and the divine may unite their skill in such cases, and both find their hands full, and more than full. The iron bolt which so mysteriously fastens the door of hope and holds our spirits in gloomy prison, needs a heavenly hand to push it back; and when that hand is seen we cry with the apostle, “Blessed be God, even the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies, and the God of all comfort; who comforteth us in all our tribulation, that we may be able to comfort them which are in any trouble, by the comfort wherewith we ourselves are comforted of God.” 2 Corinthians 1: 3, 4. It is the God of all consolation who can—

“With sweet oblivious antidote
Cleanse our poor bosoms of that perilous stuff
Which weighs upon the heart.”

Simon sinks till Jesus takes him by the hand. The devil within rends and tears the poor child till time word of authority commands him to come out of him. When we are ridden with horrible fears, and weighed down with an intolerable incubus, we need but the Sun of Righteousness to rise, and the evils generated of our darkness are driven away; but nothing short of this will chase away time nightmare of the soul. Timothy Rogers, the author of a treatise on Melancholy, and Simon Browne, the writer of some remarkably sweet hymns, proved in their own cases how unavailing is the help of man if the Lord withdraw the light from the soul.

If it be enquired why the Valley of the Shadow of Death must so often be traversed by the servants of King Jesus, the answer is not far to find. All this is promotive of the Lord’s mode of working, which is summed up in these words—”Not by might nor by power, but by my Spirit, saith the Lord.” Instruments shall be used, but their intrinsic weakness shall be clearly manifested; there shall be no division of the glory, no diminishing the honour due to the Great Worker. The man shall be emptied of self, and then filled with the Holy Ghost. In his own apprehension he shall be like a sere leaf driven of the tempest, and then shall be strengthened into a brazen wall against the enemies of truth. To hide pride from the worker is the great difficulty. Uninterrupted success and unfading joy in it would be more than our weak heads could bear. Our wine must needs be mixed with water, lest it turn our brains. My witness is, that those who are honoured of their Lord in public, have usually to endure a secret chastening, or to carry a peculiar cross, lest by any means they exalt themselves, and fall into the snare of the devil. How constantly the Lord calls Ezekiel “Son of man”! Amid his soarings into the superlative splendours, just when with eye undimmed he is strengthened to gaze into the excellent glory, the word “Son of man” falls on his ears, sobering the heart which else might have been intoxicated with the honour conferred upon it. Such humbling but salutary messages our depressions whisper in our ears; they tell us in a manner not to be mistaken that we are but men, frail, feeble, apt to faint.

By all the castings down of his servants God is glorified, for they are led to magnify him when again he sets them on their feet, and even while prostrate in the dust their faith yields him praise. They speak all time more sweetly of his faithfulness, and are the more firmly established in his love. Such mature men as sonic elderly preachers are, could scarcely have been produced if they had not been emptied from vessel to vessel, and made to see their own emptiness and the vanity of all things round about them. Glory be to God for the furnace, the hammer, and the file. Heaven shall be all the fuller of bliss because we have been filled with anguish here below, and earth shall be better tilled because of our training in the school of adversity.

The lesson of wisdom is, be not dismayed by soul-trouble. Count it no strange thing, but a part of ordinary ministerial experience. Should the power of depression be more than ordinary, think not that all is over with your usefulness. Cast not away your confidence, for it hath great recompense of reward. Even if the enemy’s foot be on your neck, expect to rise amid overthrow him. Cast the burden of the present, along with the sin of the past and the fear of the future, upon the Lord, who forsaketh not his saints. Live by the day—ay, by the hour. Put no trust in frames and feelings. Care more for a grain of faith than a ton of excitement. Trust in God alone, and lean not on the reeds of human help. Be not surprised when friends fail you: it is a failing world. Never count upon immutability in man: inconstancy you may reckon upon without fear of disappointment. The disciples of Jesus forsook him; be not amazed if your adherents wander away to other teachers: as they were not your all when with you, all is not gone from you with their departure. Serve God with all your might while the candle is burning, and then when it goes out for a season, you will have the less to regret. Be content to be nothing, for that is what you are. When your own emptiness is painfully forced upon your consciousness, chide yourself that you ever dreamed of being full, except in the Lord. Set small store by present rewards; be grateful for earnests by the way, but look for the recompensing joy hereafter. Continue, with double earnestness to serve your Lord when no visible result is before you. Any simpleton can follow the narrow path in the light: faith’s rare wisdom enables us to march on in the dark with infallible accuracy, since she places her hand in that of her Great Guide. Between this and heaven there may be rougher weather yet, but it is all provided for by our covenant Head. In nothing let us be turned aside from the path which the divine call has urged us to pursue. Come fair or come foul, the pulpit is our watch-tower, and the ministry our warfare; be it ours, when we cannot see the face of our God, to trust under THE SHADOW OF HIS WINGS.

The Not Preached God

Luther talked often about the “Hidden God.” He was intrigued by God’s chosen vehicle of self-revelation. God always chose to show up in the most unexpected places, the settings where man would never look for Him.

He suggested that where God does not show Himself is just as important to understand as where He does reveal Himself. Listen to this thought provoking quote by Luther.

We have to argue in one way about God or the will of God as preached, revealed, offered, and worshiped, and in another way about God as he is not preached, not revealed, not offered, not worshiped. To the extent, therefore, that God hides himself and wills to be unknown to us, it is no business of ours.

We must understand where God is not preached. God chooses the sermon. He chooses the location of his self-disclosure. In other places he is clear, the cross and resurrection is the locus of God’s unveiling. He is preached there! Anywhere else, we must recognize there is no divine sermon—you won’t hear of him if you don’t tune in at Calvary.

Made for Others

God did not fashion us with the ability to see ourselves. Eyes were made to see the world and the “others” around us. Created to look outside of ourselves, it is no surprise that freedom, joy and purpose align when “others” are the focus. Genesis 1-2 reveals humanity looking up to the Creator and outward to his creation. Adam’s marching orders were to look out for his spouse, the living creatures and the earth. His vocation was other-focused and outward-postured.

Genesis 3 is a tragic interruption to the freedom of self-forgetfulness. Humanity’s rebellion was an inward turn—concern for one’s own desires, pleasures and understanding of reality trumped any thought of the “other.” That moment defined humanity. Adam and Eve looked down and realized they were naked…self-concern and self-preservation were enthroned. The “other” became a stepping stone, a means to satisfying the desires of the self. Made for others and enslaved to ourselves, this is the judgment under which we rest (Rom 1:18-32).

In the early 1900’s, a well-known paper in London sent out an inquiry to famous authors, asking “What is wrong with the world?” G.K. Chesterton, famed theologian and author, responded with a two-word letter to the inquiry: “I am.” This admission is the starting point for every human to move back toward wellness. We must own the reality that we exploit and damage the “others” we were made to serve and love.

Sin is deeply personal. The “others” have names. Sin damages people. Sin offends and grieves the Triune God. My self-devotion is a stench to my Creator and a weapon against my fellow human-being. Repentance takes complete responsibility for the rancor in our souls. It is movement back toward the Creator, agreement on his assessment of our loyalties. It puts the needed cry on our lips: “Lord, have mercy on me, heal me, for I have sinned against you” (Ps 41:4). The need for cleansing, forgiveness and healing drives us to the how.

How is beautiful. God comes down. In Christ we see humanity’s design. In Christ we see humanity’s Healer. Looking up to his Father and out to his fractured creation, the outward postured God rescues us. The judgment earned by my self-worship is endured by the Son of God, the one true worshipper of the Father. The chains of self-slavery are shattered by Jesus Christ, the free God who bound himself to the cross.

The saving work of the Triune God is not exhausted with forgiveness, cleansing and right standing. He gives us new hearts. He places the Holy Spirit within us. He bends the inward curve outward. He makes us human. The Trinity is devoted to restoring what was lost, remaking what was broken and ushering us into the freedom of otherness.