Weakness and the Divine Resume

Resumes are a catalogue of our strengths. We put our best foot forward. Weakness is nowhere to be found on one of these. God’s resume looks very different…when we look at how he works, weakness is not avoided—it is chosen.

Weakness is his prevalent mode of operation, it is his strategy. One author says, “The biblical storyline is one not of God being frustrated by human weakness but attracted to it.” The three greatest characters in the Old Testament are point in fact.

Promises through Idolater Abraham and Infertile Sarah

  • Abraham was a moon worshipper (Josh 24:2) and his wife Sarah was barren. God chose this couple to create a nation that would bless the world. His choice had weakness front and center. Deuteronomy 7:7 calls God’s choice of this great people a choice of  “the fewest of Peoples.”

Deliverance through Insecure Moses

  • The Israelites were enslaved for 400 years and they cried to God for help. He chose the most unlikely deliverer. Moses himself knew he was weak. Twice he says to God, “If the Israelites will not listen to me, why would Pharaoh listen to me, since I speak with faltering lips?” Yet, God persists. He did not make a mistake in the choice of Moses, he is not surprised by his weaknesses. God used Moses to accomplish the decisive Old Testament rescue of God’s people, which became the very template for all God’s saving action.

Kingship through Shepherd Boy David

  • The choice of the greatest King of Israel was not unlike the choice of Moses. Samuel the prophet was told that he would come from the family of a man named Jesse. He went to his home to find the King. Jesse brought seven of his sons before him, when Samuel saw the tallest and strongest he thought, “this must be the one.” God responded with a reminder that he does not look on the outward appearance but inward to the heart. After they had all paraded through, Samuel knew that none of them were the chosen King. “Are these all your sons?” Jesse told him there was one more, the youngest who is out taking care of the sheep. Sure enough, the unexpected, unnoticed, smallest, youngest—this was God’s King.

Hebrews 11 and the Hall of Weakness

  • Hebrews 11 has often been called the hall of faith, it may be more fitting to call it the hall of weakness. Abraham, Moses and David dominate this chapter of the Bible and their stories highlight their great weakness as much as their great faith. If you read this chapter, most characters in  the great hall are explicitly described as weak in the Old Testament. In fact, in one of the summary statements these people of faith were said to be made strong out of weakness” (Hebrews 11:34).

I love Scripture’s real portrayal of human beings—all the biblical models of faith are normal, broken people. Like us they all struggled to believe and be faithful. I find this greatly comforting.

Weakness is God’s design. It is his strategy. As Paul says, “God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong.” (1 Cor 1:27). Weakness is God’s choice, not strength. Hudson Taylor was right, “All God’s giants have been weak people.” 

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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.

Why Weakness Should Drive us Godward

Weakness, moral and otherwise has a way of pushing us away from God. It certainly does not serve as a confidence builder when approaching the holy God of the universe.

Hebrews introduces us to a different perspective, an incarnational logic. Take a look at Hebrews 4:14-16.

“Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.”

The call in this passage is to “hold fast our confession” and to “draw near” to God with confidence that we might know the help of grace when in need. Note what grounds  the call, what forms the foundation of this confidence.

Incredibly, it’s how God engages our weakness. The “for” and “then” of the text drive us to the central confidence giver in the face of weakness—a sympathetic Savior.

We do not have a mediator who lacks understanding, a stand-between ignorant of suffering, a high priest incapable of meeting weakness with grace. He is sympathetic (συμπαθῆσαι). This is a description of the God-man. This is the fruit of  the incarnation and cross—understanding and sympathy.

The NIGTC commentary on Hebrews states that “Christ’s earthly life gives him inner understanding of human experience, and thus makes him ready and able to give active help.”

The very thing that drives us away from God should push us toward him. Our weakness is always met by a gracious, understanding Savior who desires to provide help. He does not engage our weakness with condemnation, but kindness.

Through Christ even our weaknesses are transformed into an invitation to know his grace and mercy. They are the occasion for experiencing God’s help.

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.

The Purest Theology

Martin Luther once said, “the cross of Christ is the only instruction in the Word of God there is, the purest theology.” For Luther, the cross was far more than a saving event though of course he affirmed that it was central to salvation. His argument went far deeper. He believed that the cross was the central event of theology, the definitive act of God’s revelation and self-identification.

Calvary was a game changer. The Triune God is now and forever the “God of the cross.” As Robert Kolb states, the cross is “where human beings can see what God’s experience, God’s disposition—even God’s essence— really are.” If we would find God, Kolb says we must look in the most unexpected places. We find him as a “child in a crib, as a criminal on a cross, and as a corpse in a crypt.”

Luther based these theological assertions on his reading of Paul, particularly the Corinthian correspondence. Paul argues in 1 Corinthians 1-2 that the cross destroys our perceptions of reality and redefines everything. Wisdom, power and glory are now foolishness, weakness and humility. The cross turns the world on its head.

If the cross becomes our center and we orbit about the Crucified God things will never be the same. We will see with a different lens. We will make decisions that won’t make sense to others. We will value things that are often despised. We will recognize God in places we’ve never seen him before. We will embrace a cruciform existence and in small ways reflect the heart of this humble God.

Immanuel: God With Us In Our Sin

Names mean something. This was especially true in the world of Christ. Names were carefully chosen and would often set the trajectory of a child’s life. In the Matthew narrative we learn that the naming of Jesus was no different. The text says that Mary and Joseph received divine guidance regarding what they would call Jesus. “You shall call his name Jesus for He will save his people from their sins” (Matt 1:21).

The name Jesus has Hebrew roots, it literally means “God saves.” God the Father makes clear what the saving work of Jesus is focused on…sin. His name indicated the reason for his coming. His name was a constant reminder of why he was born. Jesus came to deal with sin, this is absolutely central to his purpose. In the context it is very interesting to see that the author moves on to state that his name will be called Immanuel, which means “God is with us” (Matt 1:23).

Placing these two names side by side is instructive, something the context also seems to require. God is with us and God saves us from sin. Jesus is the God-man who enters the fray, he comes alongside and is present with us even in our sin. To save us from our sin he must walk with us as we struggle and falter. The saving work of God is not accomplished at a distance. He is uncomfortably present…so much so that “he who knew no sin became sin so that we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor 5:21).

When we speak of the God who is with us, we mean to say that he is with us in our darkest moments, our greatest sins, our desperation, our brokenness, our weakness, our pain, our grief, our suffering…he is with us in the places where we need him most. Luther was right, God is “with us in the muck and in the work that makes his skin steam.”