A Meditation on Strength and Weakness

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The two churches in Revelation that have no positive qualities mentioned are the two churches that look the most outwardly impressive—Sardis and Laodicea. And the two churches with no negative qualities are the two that appear the most harassed and helpless—Smyrna and Philadelphia. The strongest churches have the most weaknesses, and the weakest churches have the most strengths.

Or at least, in a way.

As Christians we know that weakness is good. But then, the Bible isn’t always down on strength either. So which is it? Should we try to grow, to mature, and to fan into flame the gifts we’ve been given? Or should we boast in all our limitations and failures?

If we’re honest, we all want to be strong—not all of us in the same areas, but all of us in some areas. We wish we were thinner and more attractive or beefed up and more muscular. We’d like to be smarter, more athletic, more musical, more successful at work, have better kids, get better grades, make more money, have a bigger house and newer car, or simply a better church parking lot. We’d like to have more influence, more sway, and more followers. In some or all of these areas, each of us desires to be strong, or at least stronger than we are.

But, as we know, the Bible speaks more highly of weakness than strength.

Matthew 5:3 Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

2 Corinthians 11:30 If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness.

2 Corinthians 12:9 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.

So it seems that we are to prefer weakness to strength. And this is surely true, but also potentially misleading. While God’s power is made perfect in our weakness, it is not always true that being ugly is better than being beautiful, that poor is better than rich, that unintelligent is better than smart, that shabby is better than solid, that feeble is better than powerful, that being oppressed is better than being in authority, that having few gifts is better than having great gifts.

Because the Bible prefers weakness over strength, we are tempted to think that the first half of these pairs is inherently more spiritual than the second half. But this would be to ignore the heroes and heroines of the Bible. Abraham was rich. David was a king. Moses was mighty in power. Solomon was wise. Esther was beautiful. Samson was strong. Paul was supremely intelligent. And even Jesus himself demonstrated great power and authority. So I don’t think you can make the case from the Bible that if we were all just dumber, uglier, and less successful then the church would reach its full glory.

So the question I ask myself is, “Why does the Bible prefer weakness to strength, and in what way?”

For starters, the weakness applauded in the Bible is primarily a spiritual weakness. By spiritual weakness I don’t mean that we are spiritually weak. I mean that we are humble in mind, broken in heart, and poor in spirit. This is the intrinsically good kind of weakness—to be empty of self, lowly, meek, and despising of our own sinfulness.

Moreover, weakness is better than strength because the temptation to forsake the Lord is greater when we are strong, and the opportunity to rely on God is more obvious when we are weak. For example, I don’t think that being rich is evil. It is possible to be rich and generous. The Bible doesn’t teach that being rich is the same as being wicked. But the Bible does teach, and Jesus more than anyone else, that riches are a great danger. I dare say that more people have been gone hell by getting rich than by getting poor, not because riches are bad, but because being in a position of strength is spiritually dangerous.

The danger of money is the danger of strength. The temptation for someone who is strong—be it financially, academically, musically, athletically, or artistically—is to rely on self and not on God. So as much as we want strength, we are usually opened up for more spiritual good when we are weak.

Strength is not the problem. Looking for strength in the wrong places is the problem.

Jesus and the whole New Testament are constantly appealing to our desire for victory and vindication, for rule and authority, for success and endurance. We are not Buddhists; having desires is not intrinsically flawed. The problem is that we look for these things—victory, authority, success—in the wrong places.  We want strength and we think money, position, and size, when God wants us to think faith, hope, and love.

Strength is good, but for the Christian, strength is found in weakness, in despairing of ourselves instead of applauding ourselves. Suffering, therefore, is one of God’s chief ways of leading us to spiritual success. Likewise, God uses failure to bring us to hope, and death to give us life. A perfect example of all of this is Hebrews 11:32-34:

And what more shall I say? For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets who through faith conquered kingdoms, enforced justice, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions, quenched the power of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, were made strong out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight.

These men are not heroes because they were mealy mouthed, passive, and incompetent. They conquered kingdoms and shut the mouths of lions and routed foreign armies. But it was God’s work. He turned their weakness into strength. That’s what we want, both weakness and strength, at the same time, in the right order.

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