Christianity flies in the face of our natural thoughts and inclinations time and again. We are told to be holy, but then told that we are not; we are told to be strong, but then told that we are weak. Weakness so often seems to be the ally of sin. Most of us put on some sort of show of bravado, but all of us can identify with Frodo in the Lord of the Rings: ‘I suppose I must go alone, if I am to do that and save the Shire. But I feel very small, and very uprooted, and well – desperate. The Enemy is so strong and terrible.’
The apostle Paul must have felt a little like Frodo as he preached in the pagan and immoral confines of Corinth. Hence the Lord spoke to him one night in a vision: ‘Do not be afraid; keep on speaking, do not be silent. For I am with you, and no one is going to attack and harm you, because I have many people in this city’ (Acts 18:9-10). Isaac, like his father Abraham, knew fear in his dealings with the king of Gerar (Gen.26:7); Gideon was afraid although he still destroyed the altar of Baal with the Asherah beside, albeit by night rather than by day (Judges 6:27); and David felt obliged to tell his son and successor, Solomon not to be afraid or dismayed (1 Chron.28:20). Even the Lord Himself could say in the Garden of Gethsemane: ‘The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak’ (Matt.26:41).
Nowhere are we are told to be weak. Quite the reverse, we are told to strengthen our feeble arms and weak knees (Heb.12:12). We are to ‘be strong in the Lord and in His mighty power’ (Eph.6:10). The language is that of the military: ‘Be on your guard; stand firm in the faith; be men of courage; be strong’ (1 Cor.16:13). One of the most impressive and startling prayers in the book of Acts occurs when the apostles were under threat for preaching that Jesus is the Messiah, crucified and risen, the only Saviour of sinners. They turned to God: ‘And now, Lord, look upon their threats and grant to Your servants to continue to speak Your word with all boldness’ (Acts 4:29).
Yet the remarkable fact is that God so often deliberately works through weakness. In the incarnation, the one who was in the form of God took the form not of an emperor or a general but a servant (Phil.2:7). He who is Lord of the universe owned no real estate here on earth (Luke 9:58). And the way of salvation has ‘weakness’ written all over it. The Son of God gave Himself up to be crucified on a cross, the epitome of weakness, folly and shame (1 Cor.1:18-25). In the words of Cicero: ‘How grievous a thing it is to be disgraced by a public court; how grievous to suffer a fine; how grievous to suffer banishment; and yet in the midst of any such disaster we retain some degree of liberty. Even if we are threatened with death, we may die free men. But the executioner, the veiling of the head and the very word “cross” should be far removed not only from the person of a Roman citizen but his thoughts, his eyes and his ears. For it is not only the actual occurrence of these things but the very mention of them, that is unworthy of a Roman citizen and a free man.’
God does not even seem to elect the right sort of people. He chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong (1 Cor.1:27). Furthermore, he made this gospel known through a man who simply preached ‘in weakness and in fear and much trembling’ (1 Cor.2:3). In Gideon’s day, God deliberately reduced Israel’s army from 32,000 to 300 in order to demonstrate that the victory was His, not Gideon’s (Judges 7). The apostle Paul too found that the Lord refused his lawful request that his thorn in the flesh be removed in order to keep him humble and dependent on Christ. Friedrich Nietzsche damned Christians as weaklings and fools, but it was he who ended his life in the madhouse. A paradox has surprised and sustained many a Christian down through the ages: ‘when I am weak, then I am strong’ (2 Cor.12:10).
It is strange to be strong in weakness. Yet it is the way of Jesus. In Amy Carmichael’s words: ‘If I belittle those whom I am called to serve, talk of their weak points in contrast perhaps with what I think of as my strong points; if I adopt a superior attitude, forgetting “who made thee to differ? and what hast thou that thou hast not received?” then I know nothing of Calvary love.’
With warmest regards in Christ,