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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Gospel Strength

“You then, my child, be strengthened by the grace that is in Christ Jesus.”

In one sentence Paul pulls back the curtain on the link between strength and the gospel (2 Tim 2:1). What can we learn from Paul’s words to Timothy?

  • The source of strength in this text is grace. Paul affirms here that the journey of the Christian is by “grace alone.” In other places, Paul asserts that we are “saved by grace” (Eph 2-8-10). Here he shows us that we are “strengthened by grace.” The journey begins and continues by grace.
  • The grace that Paul speaks of is that which is located in Christ Jesus. Here he pushes us toward a gospel-centered understanding of strength. The grace of God is found in the message of the incarnate, crucified, risen and exalted Lord. As we press into the gospel of our salvation, meditate on it, study it, internalize it, speak it to one another, trust it and allow it to permeate our hearts and minds we are strengthened.
  • The word translated “be strengthened” is the present passive imperative form of a verb that is concerned with being strong (ἐνδυναμοῦ). Paul commands Timothy toward strength and yet, Timothy’s role is passive. Strength is required of us, it is a command. Strength comes to us, it is a gift. Timothy is called upon here to unfurl the sails of faith and position himself to catch gospel wind. The call here is to strategically position ourselves to be reminded of the gospel of God. We are to put ourselves in situations where reading, hearing, speaking and believing the gospel is sure to happen.
  • Strength comes from the gospel. Weakness must also be gauged by the gospel. Proximity to the gospel determines both strength and weakness. Full battery on a cell phone indicates recent close proximity to its power source, just as low battery indicates distance from its power source. Paul is helping us grasp that weakness is no mystery in the Christian journey. When we are far from the gospel we will certainly be weak. When we are near the gospel we will certainly be strengthened.