The Surprising Thing about Strength in Weakness

I’ve been thinking a lot about weakness lately. Weakness, failure, and the terrible gap between how we hope things will turn out and how they actually do.  Motherhood and ministry—while both brimming with blessing—have also been relentless teachers that keep pointing out my weakness…

… how I can do all the research and try all the methods, and still not know how to get my kids to sleep/eat/potty train/make good choices.

… how having a kid of my own has made me realize how uncompassionate and judgmental I’ve often been towards others.

… how getting less of anything (sleep/opportunity/the nice things) reveals my jealous, score-keeping nature.

… how close I’ve come to shaking my baby at times. Didn’t know I could be that angry, or that dangerous.

… how, no matter how well I teach and explain the Bible (or try to), I can’t effect real change in people’s lives, which is really just a small subset of the bigger issue:

… how, no matter how hard I try, or how nicely I phrase things, I can’t control people’s choices or situational outcomes. Not my family’s, not my friend’s, not my church’s.

I have no power over these things. At the very most, I can hope to influence them. But the relationship between my input and life’s output is not causal. It’s correlated… at best.

Again and again, I come up HARD against the limits of my ability, knowledge, and character. And that’s just the weakness part… then there’s also the failure layer: where I try hard, and I get it wrong. Or I didn’t try hard enough. Both my wholehearted fully engaged efforts and my half-baked, lazy efforts often disappoint and frustrate.

I was talking with some friends about failure recently: situations in which we’d been overwhelmed and overloaded, and had honestly done our very best in the situation, and still… it wasn’t enough, and we received criticism (or “feedback”, if you’re in a professional setting). And I don’t know about you, but getting negative reactions or zero results when I’ve done my best just makes me want to crawl up under a rock and quit. I want to get into bed, pick at the scabs on my wounded heart, and sing “nobody loves me, I’m just going to go eat worms.” Just me? Worms, anyone? Weakness and failure feel so crushingly yucky.

But what then, we asked, about the verses in Scripture that promise that in our weakness, God is strong? Why did the apostle Paul “boast in his weakness”? And what do I make of those who say (as I have at times!) that we felt at the end of ourselves, and we prayed, and we felt a surge of energy or a help that came from beyond ourselves: such that we could only attribute it to God? If we’re feeling weak, and we ask God to be strong in that situation… will it FEEL any different?

I think sometimes, the answer is yes. Sometimes, I have asked God for wisdom or help or peace that passes understanding or the ability to not-shake-the-baby or bite-my-husbands-head-off, and I know he has provided strength-in-the-moment that I have felt at a soulful and cellular level.

But, friends, sometimes, I haven’t. Sometimes I’ve felt weak and asked God for help and I HAVE STILL FELT SO CRIPPLINGLY WEAK. Sometimes my weakness still feels like weakness to me and quite obviously looks like weakness to most everybody else. So I’ve been reflecting on that. Where did I get the idea that God’s promise of “strength in weakness” would mean that he would mask our weakness? or overcome it? Why did I have the idea that I would know God was being “strong” in my “weakness” only because I didn’t feel weak anymore?

I’ve been going back to Scripture with that question, and am realizing that God’s promise of his gracious strength and presence in our weakness doesn’t mean our lives won’t often look and feel like pitiful failure. Despite God’s help and empowering Holy Spirit, Paul still experienced being hard-pressed on every side, perplexed, persecuted, and struck down. He was disbelieved, disrespected, kicked out, spat on, and near killed. AND YET he trusted that despite all the external evidence to the contrary, inwardly God was up to good, hopeful work.

Paul took his cue from Jesus, who is the primary model and mentor of faith such as this. When Jesus went to his death on the cross: everything looked and felt like complete weakness and failure. He was at the mercy of the criminal justice system: condemned and mocked, beaten up and nailed to a piece of wood to demonstrate his shame to the world. His entire ministry of investing in 12 people for three years appeared to have been for nothing: they scattered like buckshot, denying him at the first opportunity. He had no reputation, a crowd cheering for his death, no assets, no title, and – in a very real way – he even got the silent treatment from God. The final words from his lips tell us what he felt was weakness: he felt forsaken.

And YET. In that moment of ultimate weakness, God was doing something wonderful. The sins of all mankind were being dealt with, and God’s new creation being birthed. The paradox and mystery of the cross is that the strongest work God EVER did for mankind was in and through the weakest moment for him in the flesh.

Reflecting on this is giving me hope, in a season where I feel so acutely aware of my limitations. One seminary professor described the human condition this way: we are fallen, fallible, finite and foolish. In other words, we are hot messes, and we know it. But being painfully aware of the limitations and liabilities of me being me in my oh-so-human condition does not mean that God is unable or unwilling to work.

Strength in weakness doesn’t always feel strong. Sometimes weakness still looks and feels pitifully, painfully weak.

But the same God who raised Jesus from his weakest place is powerfully at work in us, says Ephesians 1:20. It’s true that he’s at work when we’re feeling energized by Him, with that joyful energy of feeling gifted and called and excited to partner with him in the world. But this is just to say: he’s no less at work when we’re in a heap on the floor, wishing we could eat worms. My weakness is not an obstacle to him, it’s an opportunity.

This is part of the Christian hope: believing that the God who began a good work in me will bring it to completion (Philippians 1:6). He is faithful, and he will do it (1 Thessalonians 5:24).

7 thoughts on “The Surprising Thing about Strength in Weakness

  1. I spent the week in a 5-day quiet time series on this topic and your post captured everything so eloquently and really met my soul more than the study did over these last days. Thank you for sharing.

  2. “Wait upon the Lord . . .
    “Lean not on your own understanding . . .
    “Be still and know that I am God . . .

    These are some of the hardest and some of the most important scriptures for me to obey.
    For months, nothing much seemed to be happening. I labored at the umpteenth expression of my new paradigm of human behavior, 76 pages of carefully chosen words in Awakening Normal (available as a download from my website or from me). I was ready to give up and I have at least half-a-dozen solid reasons for throwing in the towel. A friend who is not a Christian said to me before Christmas, “You know, one person running across a blog post could read about your work and everything could turn around.” I heard her, but didn’t really believe her. She brought me a gorgeous amaryllis that helped me to think happy thoughts during frigid weather between Christmas and New Years. (Thank you, Sherry.) Right after New Years, a Canadian in Switzerland was directed by a Swiss to a blog post I wrote years ago to a schizophrenic in the US. She asked if she could reproduce one of my blog posts on her site. Within two weeks I had eight relatives of schizophrenics seeking help, starting focused listening, referencing other people. And groups. And a psychiatrist, who wants to run focused listening with some patients in the US. People in Europe, Canada, India, and the US interested in low-drug and non-drug treatments for mental illness want to hear from me. One of those schizophrenics who had some prior binaural treatment already is showing signs of improvement. It’s early days in a treatment that can take from a few months to a year for schizophrenics (much less time for less serious conditions), but a testimonial came in yesterday from a young man I started helping a little over a year ago. You can read Ian’s story under “Testimonials” on my blog. And stay tuned. The best is yet to come,
    “. . . all so that people may see and recognize,
    perceive, consider, and comprehend at the same time,
    that the hand of the Lord has done this,
    and that the Holy One of Israel has created it.”

  3. Oh, this is such a good post! You’ve really nailed it.

    2017 was probably the most difficult year of my life. There are so many details I could share, but the most important, perhaps, are that I became acutely aware of what you said here: “the relationship between my input and life’s output is not causal. It’s correlated… at best.” I’ve felt that often times the relationship is completely unrelated. I am at a point where I quite literally don’t know what tomorrow will bring. I have seemingly zero control over many of the circumstances and concerns our family is facing. As I’ve been struggling with the stress of this “not knowing” as well as with the stress of dealing with what is immediately in front of me (three small children, one who has special needs and almost no immune system, and a whole host of other things “unrelated” to the kids) the Lord has impressed upon me my utter and complete dependence on Him. AND the fact that my belief in myself (my strengths, my abilities etc.), is false. It’s idolatry, really. When all my comforts are removed, when my fears become my reality I am not only crushed, I am downright nasty (like a God out of Greek mythology or something; to go with the idol idea). I have no flesh left with which to muscle through these situations with any semblance of grace; I cannot pretend to be the version of myself I’ve tried to create, because all my props are gone. I find myself being impatient, angry, bitter, resentful, etc.. Because, of course, I am not the source of any grace I might have. As we know, it is He who is at work in us. . .

    In His mercy the Lord has impressed upon me how truly like a child I am, and how/why Christ calls us to be like children (Matt: 18:3). I realized that my kids, unless I tell them, have no idea what each day will bring. They don’t know what the plans are. They don’t know what we’ll eat. They don’t know where we’re going. Who is coming. Who isn’t. The list is endless. And yet, they’re not freaking out. They trust me and my husband. Granted, my oldest “does better” when he has a sense of what we’re doing, of what’s ahead, but the fact remains that neither he nor his siblings know and they don’t have any control.

    Anyway, I am sorry for the super long comment. Your words here really spoke to my heart. I also want you to know that what you wrote in your last CT piece have been a deep source of encouragement for me. In the moments where I find myself despairing I find great peace in the reminder that “He is the Alpha and the Omega. The ending is secure.”

    Blessings to you!

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