Strength in Weakness

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Today, I would like to talk about one of the most subtle idols in the world today. People from every race, culture and creed strive after and worship it completely unawares, until it fails them and they are devastated by its loss. This idol comes in many shapes and sizes, but at its root reaches back to that first temptation in the garden, that seductive whisper that we can be God. That idol is strength or power that needs no other to sustain it. This idol is pursued in many different ways, but there are very few people that I know who would ever feel comfortable about admitting to any kind of weakness. But we serve a God who shows us a different way, it was in being weak to the point of being killed by one of the most powerful empires to exist that the strength of God came into the world and established the kingdom of the weak. When Jesus comes into our lives all that we previously understood as the source of our strength and security are shown up as the illusions they are. Physical strength only lasts for just so many years, money comes and goes, violence eventually turns around and destroys those who use it, manipulation breeds resentment, and power corrupts even the most altruistic wielder. When Jesus came into Paul’s life the strength that Paul had been pursuing showed itself to be against God and Paul came to understand that there was only one source of strength that could be relied on. In his second letter to the Corinthians he writes:

but on my own behalf I will not boast, except of my weaknesses. 6But if I wish to boast, I will not be a fool, for I will be speaking the truth. But I refrain from it, so that no one may think better of me than what is seen in me or heard from me, 7even considering the exceptional character of the revelations. Therefore, to keep me from being too elated, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me, to keep me from being too elated. 8Three times I appealed to the Lord about this, that it would leave me, 9but he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. 10Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong. 2 Corinthians 12:5b-10

 

What Paul is talking about is having a true sense of integrity. True integrity knows that you are strong in some ways and weak in others, and doesn’t see the need for boasting about strengths or hiding weaknesses. When you have a true sense of integrity you can boast in your weaknesses without fear because you know the truth of God’s design for you and you know that the source of your strength is in God and not your own ability. Paul could have boasted about his giftedness, but knew the true source of those gifts, and knew that those existed because of his reliance on God rather than from any achievement on his part. Did Paul have to work to develop his gifts? Of course, we all have work to do to hone our talents to be effective, but the gift itself and the ability to develop them come from God. It is when we rely on our ability to achieve that we stop relying on the God who gave us those abilities. It is actually through our weaknesses that God works wonders. This is why I see this as a form of idolatry: boasting about out our abilities without acknowledging our weaknesses can distract others from God and can fool us into thinking that we don’t need God or others. When this happens God sends us reminders to prompt us away from the path that leads to self-worship.

Paul is deliberately vague here about what the “thorn in the flesh” he is referring to is, and that is so that none of us can be let off the hook by saying “That thing that happened to Paul didn’t happen to me so I must be OK.” Each of us has a “thorn” that we require God and the community of faith to endure. Paul had some failures in his career of following Jesus. He lost an argument with Peter and left in a huff, he had a huge argument with Barnabus and the dynamic missionary duo split up over it, when he visited the Corinthian church (after writing his first letter to them) it was so painful for both Paul and the church that he passed them by and wrote another letter instead. Thank God that he did, because in this second letter we get a better understanding of what it means to be followers of God. It is in this letter that Paul speaks of having treasures in jars of clay, that it is through the cracks in our façade that the grace and mercy of God flood out of us, and that Paul reminds us to rejoice in restoring one another rather than leaving one who falls lying on the ground bleeding. But we as Christians have an unfortunate reputation for leaving our wounded behind. We try to be strong and cut loose the weak. We do our best to pretend that the thorns don’t exist, and because we are so bent on removing even the possibility of thorns we cut down the fragile rosebushes, plow them under, and miss the beauty of the rose in bloom. We miss seeing God’s power made perfect in weakness.

A few years back there was a guy named Ted Haggard who really messed up. He got caught out in a huge scandal involving a male prostitute and methamphetamines. He became an instant and overnight pariah and the church abandoned him. Not only abandoned him, but kicked him while he was down. No one had any grace for the fallen, except his wife and kids who stood by his side. He repented, was mentored, counseled and theoretically restored, but Christians for the most part still vilify him. This has had an effect on our witness because of how much it says about whether we truly believe in grace. In an article in Christianity Today a pastor relates a conversation he had with an atheist friend of his about Ted Haggard:

A while back I was having a business lunch at a sports bar in the Denver area with a close atheist friend. He’s a great guy and a very deep thinker. During lunch, he pointed at the large TV screen on the wall. It was set to a channel recapping Ted’s fall. He pointed his finger at the HD and said, “That is the reason I will not become a Christian. Many of the things you say make sense, Mike, but that’s what keeps me away.”

It was well after the story had died down, so I had to study the screen to see what my friend was talking about. I assumed he was referring to Ted’s hypocrisy. “Hey man, not all of us do things like that,” I responded. He laughed and said, “Michael, you just proved my point. See, that guy said sorry a long time ago. Even his wife and kids stayed and forgave him, but all you Christians still seem to hate him. You guys can’t forgive him and let him back into your good graces. Every time you talk to me about God, you explain that he will take me as I am. You say he forgives all my failures and will restore my hope, and as long as I stay outside the church, you say God wants to forgive me. But that guy failed while he was one of you, and most of you are still vicious to him.” Then he uttered words that left me reeling: “You Christians eat your own. Always have. Always will.” [1]

 

As long as the church functions this way, its leaders will have to project false images of strength. And let me assure you that any projection of human strength is false. The true strength comes when we can walk side-by-side in our open weakness so that God’s glory and power will shine through and transform us weaklings into vessels of God’s strength. The light will shine on our darkness, and the darkness within each of us will lose its power, but as long as we refuse to acknowledge our weakness we hide from the light. When areas of our life are out of the light they gain disproportionate power over us, leading us to a point at which our façade of strength crumbles and the truth comes out in the most painful way. Paul declares a different way of being here. He tells us to be content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever we admit to being weak and powerless then the power of God will flow through us, to God’s glory.

<Open Worship>

Discontent is the rule of our lives in a consumer society and it requires us to be the community of faith together to stand up to it and declare that we are weak, and that no product, no food, and no medicine will take away the truth of our weakness. We can through the grace of God be a place in which profoundly broken people can find ways to bear the healing power of God into this broken world. Jesus pioneered this for us in his humiliation and death at the hands of the powerful of his day, through his weakness came resurrected life, wholeness and the coming of the kingdom. Go and do likewise.


[1] Cheshire, Michael. Christianity Today. 12/3/2012.  http://www.christianitytoday.com/le/2012/december-online-only/going-to-hell-with-ted-haggard.html?start=1 accessed 4/13/2013

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