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).