Among the Apostle Paul’s most famous sayings is “When I am weak, then I am strong”, found in 2 Corinthians 12:10. The context is a discussion of power being made perfect in weakness, and of Christ’s power dwelling in the Apostle.
This saying has widely been interpreted to mean that when we lay aside our own human “strength” – which could figuratively be taken to mean our skill, ability, confidence… more generally, our ability to take things into our own hands and get things done – we open ourselves up for the power of God to work through us. Conversely, when we rely on our own strength, skills and abilities, we fail to make room for God’s power to work through us. While this seems a reasonable enough interpretation on the face of it, I’d like to suggest that it has some serious weaknesses.
The main problem I see with this understanding is that it tends to assume that the divine power that is made room for by human weakness is a kind of controllable substance or flow, perhaps a bit like an electrical current. If the switch is in the “on” position, the power will flow; with the switch in the “off” position, there will be no divine power. To turn the switch on, all we have to do is make sure we are not operating out of our human strength and abilities, and God will provide the power. (If I had a penny for every time I’ve heard someone say “Let go and let God”, I’d have a lot of pennies). This is a totally transactional view in which if we do X, God is duty-bound to do Y. Because God cannot be controlled in this way, and because, in any event, God simply does not engage with us at a transactional level, this view is bunk.
But there is also another problem with this interpretation: namely, it generally assumes that the kind of power that is being referenced is some sort of superhuman strength. The idea is that God is just itching to give us superhero powers so we can perform all kinds of amazing exploits, if only we will relinquish our human strength and abilities to make room for his magical divine power fu.
I may be caricaturing ever so slightly here, but I’m sure you get the picture.
I have a problem with this because Jesus’ ministry and death show us very clearly that if God does, in fact, exercise power at all, the kind of power he exercises is completely at odds with our human perceptions of power. God’s power is not human strength and ability elevated to a divinely supercharged level; if it was, Jesus would have overcome his enemies by smacking them in the face, not by bleeding out and dying at their hands. God’s power is found in the renunciation of power as humanly conceived; it is a kind of non-power. In short, it is the power of love.
Anyway. Back to Paul and his crazy idea that “When I am weak, then I am strong”.
Here’s what I think Paul may have been getting at: when I am weak, I have the opportunity to become strong in precisely the way that God is strong – which is to say, not strong in physical strength or in any kind of prowess or dazzling power, but rather strong in humility, in self-denial, in other-centredness, and so forth. If I want to be strong in these things, I have to renounce strength as the world understands it. That sounds fine and dandy, except that the way the world sees strength is how I see it too, because I’ve been bathed in that worldview since the cradle. So while laying aside human strength might seem perfectly logical in theory, in practice it feels like… weakness. It feels like death. (Hint: it feels like death because it is death – ego death.)
Yesterday’s Old Testament lectionary reading was about Solomon and his exploits: his incredible wisdom, how successful he was in all his endeavours, his indescribable wealth, and the near-universal adulation that was heaped upon him because of all this success. Yet in today’s reading, in the very next chapter, we learn of how Solomon amassed hundreds of wives and concubines and as a result ended up turning away from Israel’s God and building shrines to other gods, including those, like Molech, who demanded child sacrifice. Quite the turnaround, you might say. What went wrong?
I have a hunch, quite simply, that Solomon began to believe his own press. As he surveyed the world from his position of strength and power, he began to believe everyone who told him what a supremely awesome dude he was, and basically how he could do no wrong. And the moment he began to see the world that way, it was only a matter of time until he fell.
This resonates with me because I see a similar pattern in my own life: when things are going well, when I feel in control and successful and strong and everyone is saying nice things about me, before long I start to relax into the security of how terrific and admirable I am. And that’s when the wheels are guaranteed to come off in short order.
Conversely, when I screw up in ways that make my weakness and selfishness plain to both myself and others, I find myself in a position which, although it feels intensely uncomfortable, makes me much more open to the gentle work of the Spirit as she seeks to cultivate Christlike humility in me and replace my self-regard with regard for others.
I don’t like feeling weak, and I like admitting to it even less. It sucks. But it seems that it’s only really when I’m in that place of weakness that God can actually produce substantive fruit in my life. Of course, because I don’t like to be in that place, as soon as I find myself in it I tend to try to haul myself back to a position of strength as quickly as I can. And when I’m once again seated atop my mountain of strength and success, I feel relieved to no longer be suffering the indignity of weakness and failure. I start to enjoy being strong and successful… and so the cycle continues.
For me, this plays out in very practical ways. Let me give you an example. I need to get comfortable admitting to myself and others that I can’t handle alcohol, even in small quantities and in safe social environments, because the moment I think I can handle it, I start to feel confident and strong and in control, and before I know it I’m a slave to alcohol all over again. That’s not a cycle I can afford to repeat. However, if I can learn to admit and even embrace the weakness I have in this area rather than running away from it, there’s a chance I’ll be able to develop some humility, some self-denial, and some other-centredness. There’s a chance that I may learn to live from a tender, open-hearted place without it taking a crisis or a crash-and-burn every time to drag me back to that place.
The issue for you may not be alcohol. It may be something else entirely, or a hundred and one different things. But the bottom line is the same: if what you desire is the wholeness that comes from dwelling in Christ and him dwelling in you, you’d better get used to being around your own weakness. In fact, you’d better start welcoming it as your friend. Why? Because when you are weak, then you are strong.
[ Image: Wayne Stadler ]