Strength in Weakness

By Matt Thomas

Upon completion of my final season working in Alaska, I was welcomed back to the mid-west by a 5-6 month demoralizing season of unemployment.  During this season I discovered that one of the primary tasks in interviewing is discovering what the interviewer wants to hear and then convincing yourself, at least for a few moments, that you agree completely.  Furthermore, when the potential employer asks about your weaknesses, you lie.  You can be honest about your strengths, but they don’t really want to know about your weaknesses.  So identify a few strengths that you can tweak and articulate in a way that makes them look like weaknesses. 

This is the common expectation in our world:  Hide your weaknesses, highlight your strengths.  Appear strong, even if you’re not.

The Apostle Paul was a man well acquainted with hardship and suffering.  The book of Acts highlights some of these troubles. But in his letters, Paul goes into much more detail describing his weaknesses and reveals that they were numerous. 

Here are just a few examples:

1 Corinthians 4:11-13: 11 To the present hour we hunger and thirst, we are poorly dressed and buffeted and homeless, 12 and we labor, working with our own hands. When reviled, we bless; when persecuted, we endure; 13 when slandered, we entreat. We have become, and are still, like the scum of the world, the refuse of all things.”

Galatians 6:17: “I bear on my body the marks of Jesus.”  His hardship wasn’t just emotional, but his physical body was broken and scarred.

2 Corinthians 1:8-10: 8 For we do not want you to be unaware, brothers, of the affliction we experienced in Asia. For we were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself. 9 Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death. But that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead. 10 He delivered us from such a deadly peril, and he will deliver us. On him we have set our hope that he will deliver us again. 11 You also must help us by prayer.

I love that Paul never hides from these weaknesses.  In what appears to be naive honesty he says, “This is what we are facing.  It’s unpleasant.  It’s difficult.  We are weak.  Pray for us.  Pray that we may be strengthened.”

But he also practices what he preaches and prays for the same thing on behalf of believers in Ephesians 3:14-16:  14 For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, 15 from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named, 16 that according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being,

Paul prays that his dear friends would be strengthened.  And why would they need to be strengthened unless they were experiencing weakness?  I find it interesting that Paul prays not that their hardship, pain, and struggle would cease, but that they would have strength to endure, through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.  Paul had many scars showing where he had been in the past, yet he doesn’t ask that God would spare his friends even from painful experiences like his.  Instead, he simply asks that they might persevere, keep the faith, and continue working out their salvation, whatever may come. 

As I reflect on Paul’s words and my own experiences with weakness, I am convinced that the first step in being strengthened to endure hardship gracefully and maintain faith in the midst of pain is to admit and even embrace wounds.  Avoid the temptation to hide scars, even though they reveal your weakness. We don’t have it together and as believers the appropriate response to this reality is not to brush our weakness under the rug and cake makeup on our scars to hide who we really are. 

Consider Jesus and his work.  We find in Jesus a God who achieved victory in giving his life and enduring tremendous pain, humiliation and weakness.  His scars weren’t an embarrassing condition to hide.  They didn’t point to his failed campaign as a potential Messiah.  The scars that mark Jesus’ body are a part of him and central to his mission.

One other selection from the writings of Paul:

2 Corinthians 11:23-29: I am talking like a madman—with far greater labors, far more imprisonments, with countless beatings, and often near death. 24 Five times I received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. 25 Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I was adrift at sea; 26 on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers; 27 in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. 28 And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches. 29 Who is weak, and I am not weak? Who is made to fall, and I am not indignant? 30 If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness.

Boasting in weakness contradicts everything we know and are raised to believe. The fear most of us deal with when it comes to our scars is that others might lose respect or love for me if they know who I really am and what I am really struggling with, because it isn’t a pretty sight.   

But remember, your wounds and scars tell stories of God’s grace and love.  They don’t have to be hidden.  In fact wounds often make it possible for God to work in us and through us.  As Paul says elsewhere, God’s power is made perfect in our weakness. 

I believe Paul provides the key to finding strength in pain in Ephesians 3:17-19:  17 so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith—that you, being rooted and grounded in love, 18 may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, 19 and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.

As a pastor I am constantly reminded that I am incapable of providing an explanation for the pain, weakness, and wounds you are suffering from.  I can’t provide some ground-breaking, cutting edge strategy to conquer the pain quickly.  And even if I could, I don’t know that it would be beneficial for you.  Nor can I promise that you will even find meaning in your suffering this side of the resurrection.  You may never know why God allowed wounds to scar your body and your soul in such profound ways. 

But the assurance I can offer is that God will give you strength to endure.  And I believe that as we are honest about our weaknesses we find strength to face those realities in growing in our understanding of the breadth, length, height, and depth of the love of Christ.  His love for you is unfathomable.  I read a book in college by J.I. Packer entitled Knowing God.  The following selection from that book continues to comfort me:

“He knows me as a friend, one who loves me; and there is not a moment when his eye is off me, or his attention distracted from me, and no moment, therefore, when his care falters. This is momentous knowledge. There is unspeakable comfort — the sort of comfort that energizes, be it said, not enervates — in knowing that God is constantly taking knowledge of me in love and watching over me for my good. There is tremendous relief in knowing that his love to me is utterly realistic, based at every point on prior knowledge of the worst about me, so that no discovery now can disillusion him about me, in the way I am so often disillusioned about myself, and quench his determination to bless me.” 

When you are tempted to become disillusioned and disgusted by your unsightly scars, remember that wounds often lead to a greater awareness of the love of Jesus.  Enter into your weakness and find strength in Christ’s utterly realistic love. 

Paul concludes this paragraph with these words in Ephesians 3:20-21:  20 Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us, 21 to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen.

God is powerful to do much more than we can imagine.  He can turn our scars into incredible reminders of his love.  He gives strength to face the most difficult battles imaginable.  He won’t always remove pain, but he will strengthen us to persevere. 

Honesty about our weakness is healthy.  There is great relief in throwing off the burden of hiding who we really are to earn love and respect. 

It is also healthy for the body.  Others will be inspired and strengthened in seeing your wounds, hearing your stories of failure and hurt, and observing the ways in which Christ carried you through the storm.  It may be that your wounds and weaknesses will do much more for our family than your strengths ever could.  As a community, we need your weaknesses.  In understanding and facing our brokenness we come to understand the love of Christ in its immeasurable greatness.  In our weakness, he is made strong.