the strength of weakness

All of us, to one extent or another, are encouraged to downplay our weaknesses.  In a more positive light, they can be called “growing edges.”  (Banu has said by calling them “growing edges” we’re being more honest.  I don’t really mind calling them weaknesses, since I have plenty to choose from!)

In any event, sometimes there’s the temptation to focus on, and even to exaggerate our strengths and abilities in order to impress others and to make a name for ourselves.  We might even want to fool ourselves.

As you may or may not have guessed from our epistle reading in 2 Corinthians, the apostle Paul doesn’t like to operate that way, and for what it’s worth, he doesn’t shy away from speaking of his own “weaknesses.”

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He starts the chapter by saying, “It is necessary to boast.”  But he quickly adds “nothing is to be gained by it” (v. 1).  Why does Paul say he has to boast?  He’s dealing with the Corinthian church, a group of people that are being wowed by preachers Paul sarcastically calls “super-apostles.”  They are superheroes in eloquence!  Unfortunately, some of the stuff they articulate so well is more focused on themselves than on the gospel.

Several times I’ve mentioned church consultant Peter Steinke.  In the epilogue of his book Congregational Leadership in Anxious Times, he talks about “people of the charm.”  It deals with narcissistic, self-centered qualities.  It’s about people who are charmers and those who want to be charmed.  He describes a charmer as one who “can thrive for years without realizing that the core of his or her life is empty and that beneath the narcissistic glitter is a false and an impaired self.”[1]

The charmer projects charisma, which in reality can be “a cheap substitute for charis, the [New Testament] word for grace.”  The charmer uses charisma “to control and manipulate other people…  In the circle of charm, there is no freedom.”[2]  But that’s okay, because as I said, they admire the charmer—they enjoy being put under the spell!

Steinke quotes someone who made a nice little pun.  He said such relationships are “gilt by association.”[3]

So getting back to Paul, when he says he’s forced to brag, for a moment he decides to play their game.  He has some credentials himself that aren’t too shabby.  He can be a show off with the best of them.  Seriously, how many of these characters can honestly claim they’ve had visions of being taken to heaven and hearing “things that are not to be told, that no mortal is permitted to repeat”? (v. 4).  Let them try to match that!

Still, despite his visions, he says there’s nothing to brag about.  There’s no reason to play the role of charmer.  If there is anything to brag about, it’s his weaknesses.  If that’s his focus, I don’t think the apostle’s LinkedIn account would be very impressive!  I’m not sure how well he would do interviewing for a job!

2 2 co 12And just in case he’s tempted to draw attention to himself and “the exceptional character of the revelations,” he adds “a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me, to keep me from being too elated,” from getting too big for his britches (v. 7)!

No one really knows what he means by this “thorn in the flesh.”  Some have speculated it’s an illness.  In Galatians 4, he says, “You know that it was because of a physical infirmity that I first announced the gospel to you; though my condition put you to the test, you did not scorn or despise me” (vv. 13-14).  Another version says “you resisted any temptation to show scorn or disgust at my physical condition” (REB).  It seems like, for a while at least, Paul wasn’t very attractive.

The thorn could be something else Paul admits: he’s not a very good public speaker.  In chapter 11, he says, “I think that I am not in the least inferior to these super-apostles.  I may be untrained in speech, but not in knowledge” (vv. 5-6).  Eugene Peterson puts it like this: “if you put up with these big-shot ‘apostles,’ why can’t you put up with simple me?  I’m as good as they are.  It’s true that I don’t have their voice, haven’t mastered that smooth eloquence that impresses you so much.  But when I do open my mouth, I at least know what I’m talking about.”

Whatever the thorn in the flesh might be, Paul begs God three times to take it away.  But the response is, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness” (v. 9).  Paul eventually accepts it.  And his conclusion?  “Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong” (v. 10).

The apostle discovers, and teaches, the strength of weakness.

On the face of it, “the strength of weakness” seems to be completely ridiculous.  It’s like saying, “as clear as mud.”  But Paul has learned from the vision he saw on the road to Damascus.  He has learned from the one who, as he says, “was crucified in weakness, but lives by the power of God” (2 Co 13:4).

There is indeed power in weakness.  When we’re able to admit our mistakes, to acknowledge our weaknesses, there is a sense of liberation.  When we’re freed from the compulsion to project a false front, to put on a show, to trust in our own achievements, we begin the journey of discovering who we truly are.

As Thomas Merton says in No Man is an Island, “If I do not know who I am, it is because I think I am the sort of person everyone around me wants to be.  Perhaps I have never asked myself whether I really wanted to become what everybody else seems to want to become.  Perhaps if I only realized that I do not admire what everyone seems to admire, I would really begin to live after all…”[4]

“Why do we have to spend our lives striving to be something that we would never want to be, if we only knew what we wanted?  Why do we waste our time doing things which, if we only stopped to think about them, are just the opposite of what we were made for?”[5]

3 2 co 12The strength of weakness is daring to be who God created us to be.

And it also applies to congregations.  It’s okay to admit your struggles; it’s okay to admit your weaknesses—or at least, your perceived weaknesses.  It’s okay to be who God created, and is still creating, you to be.

We can speak of many things, but one of those qualities is being able to say goodbye to the past.  This is a challenge in many congregations.  One way this presents itself is in programs and activities.  These are things that, for a long time, have been a source of health and vitality.  But at some point, they outlive their usefulness.  Participation wanes, and they become something that is too inwardly-focused.  They no longer serve the gospel imperative to go forth into the world.

Being able to say goodbye also applies to pastoral boundaries.  In many congregations, there might be “beloved former pastors” and not-so-beloved former pastors.

It’s up to ministers to respect proper pastoral boundaries.  And even though it can be tough for the congregations, they also have a role in doing it.

And being able to say goodbye applies in other areas, as well.  But identifying it as a growing edge, and working on it, is yet again a case of the strength of weakness.

As intentional interim pastors, saying goodbye is part of the job.  Saying goodbye really goes with saying hello, right at the beginning of the ministry.  Some people might not understand and think of it as a weakness.  But even if someone looks at it that way, it’s a weakness that, if honored and embraced, shows it’s a sign of strength.

Many of you have seen each other’s weaknesses.  It’s just a fact of life.  We can fall into the trap of defining people solely on that basis.  It’s like taking a photo of someone at their worst—or in their most embarrassing situation—and saying, “This is who they are, forever and ever!”  Still, if we are in Christ, we live as those who believe and expect renewal and resurrection.  In many ways, we keep on being raised from the dead.  And thinking of weaknesses, there’s nothing weaker than death!

To make it real, we have to love one another.  We must learn to love God in each other.  It’s not always easy, but if we do that, we draw out each other’s strength from weakness.

It’s been said about weaknesses that they “play a most important part in all our lives.  It is because of them that we need others and others need us.  We are not all weak in the same spots, and so we supplement and complete one another, each one making up in [him- or herself] for the lack in another.”[6]

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That is why the apostle Paul says, “on my behalf I will not boast, except of my weaknesses” (v. 5).  That includes identifying and laying down improper or unfair claims, identifying and laying down our pretensions, identifying and laying down our striving which kills us and others.

It’s not enough to embrace our weaknesses; we can do it and actually hold on to them.  We embrace our weaknesses—we own them, so to speak—but then turn them over to Christ.  We yield all of that stuff to the Lord.  And when we do, we are enabled to enter a new world, the upside-down world of Jesus in which when we are weak, we are strong.

That is the strength of weakness.


[1] Peter Steinke, Congregational Leadership in Anxious Times: Being Calm and Courageous No Matter What (Herndon, VA:  The Alban Institute, 2006), 169.

[2] Steinke, 171.

[3] Steinke, 175.

[4] Thomas Merton, No Man is an Island (New York:  Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1955), Kindle edition, chapter 7, section 8, paragraph 2.

[5] Merton, 7.8.3.

[6] Merton, Prologue, paragraph 25.

be a man

Be a man.  That’s part of the closing message St. Paul gives in his first letter to the Corinthian church.

This, from the same guy who sounds like he’s downplaying being a man.  He says, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Ga 3:28).

And this, from the same guy who admits at times his frail and even sickly appearance.  People say of him, “His letters are lengthy and strong, but his bodily presence is weak, and his speech contemptible” (2 Co 10:10).  He thanks the Galatians for not being disgusted by him.  He says, “though my condition put you to the test, you did not scorn or despise me, but welcomed me as an angel of God, as Christ Jesus” (4:14).

1 be a manHaving said that, I admit he says some stuff which seems to demean his sisters in Christ.  One example would be, “Let a woman learn in silence with full submission.  I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she is to keep silent” (1 Ti 2:11-12).  That doesn’t appear to line up with his other thoughts.  It’s been said he’s referring to a particular situation, but I won’t get into that now!

You might ask, “Where does he say, ‘Be a man’”?  Most translations don’t use that phrasing.

There are four commands in 16:13.  “Keep alert, stand firm in your faith, be courageous, be strong.”  It’s that third one—be courageous—which comes from the Greek word, ανδριζεσθε (andrizesthe).  And it literally means, “be a man.”  I don’t suppose it would be a big surprise to hear “being a man” linked with “being courageous.”

If you’re wondering what the command to “be a man” has to do with the other half of the human race, don’t worry, I’ll get to it in a few moments!

Recently, conservative columnist David Brooks published an article entitled, “Before Manliness Lost Its Virtue.”[1]  He uses as a starting point the ancient Greek concept of manliness.  I wouldn’t say the ancient Greeks’ point of view is the epitome, or the final word on the subject, but since there is that cultural background in the apostle Paul’s world, maybe it deserves a look.

“Greek manliness,” he says, “started from a different place than ours does now.  For the ancient Greeks, it would have been incomprehensible to count yourself an alpha male simply because you can run a trading floor or sell an apartment because you gilded a faucet handle.

“For them, real men defended or served their city, or performed some noble public service.  Braying after money was the opposite of manliness.  For the Greeks, that was just avariciousness, an activity that shrunk you down into a people-pleasing marketer or hollowed you out because you pursued hollow things.”

2 be a manI think we definitely can see some parallels with our society.  We even see it mentioned sarcastically in the psalms: “you are praised when you do well for yourself” (Ps 49:18).

Brooks talks about certain traits the ancient Greeks considered indicative of a manly man: being courageous, assertive, competitive, demonstrating his prowess, being self-confident.  Still, there is something else about the manly man.  “[H]e is also touchy.  He is outraged if others do not grant him the honor that is his due…  They are hard to live with.  They are constantly picking fights and engaging in peacock displays.”

When he says, “Be a man,” I really don’t think Paul is telling us to act that way!  He’s had plenty of run-ins with characters like that.  For example, in a couple of places, he mockingly refers to “super-apostles” (2 Co 11:5, 12:11).  These guys are flexing their apostolic muscles!  (Like bragging about the size of their audience.)

Brooks mentions a corrective the Greeks had.  They “took manliness to the next level.  On top of the honor code, they gave us the concept of magnanimity…  The magnanimous leader possesses all the spirited traits described above, but uses his traits not just to puff himself up, but to create a just political order.”

And accordingly, Paul warns us, “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up” (1 Co 8:1).

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Has there been a leader in recent history who better defined magnanimous than Nelson Mandela?

Here’s where I get back to the question of what “being a man” says to women and children.  Clearly, the apostle is addressing the whole church.

He praises women who have served Christ and the church, sometimes at personal risk.  Paul refers to Chloe as one of the church’s leaders (1:11).  And in his closing statements to the church in Rome, he gives God thanks for Phoebe, a deacon, for Mary (one of several Marys, we don’t know which), the sisters Tryphaena and Tryphosa, and the beloved Persis, among others (16:1,6, 12).

It’s safe to say these women have demonstrated, they have lived, the four-fold command of verse 13.

What they have not done is spread gossip, look with a greedy eye at their neighbor’s possessions—or at their husband (if they’re in the market for that sort of thing!)  Their favorite song is not “Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend.”  (Apologies to fans of Marilyn Monroe.)  And they don’t have as many shoes as Imelda Marcos did.

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Something else about this business of being a man is the term “son of man.”

In the book of the prophet Ezekiel, “son of man” (בֶן־אָדָם, ben ’adam) appears 93 times.  For him, it simply means “mortal.”  It doesn’t have the messianic tone it takes later on.

However, for Jesus there is a sense of being the messiah, the Christ.  Still, aside from that, “Son of Man” describes him as the essence of what it means to be human.  It’s Son of Man as opposed to Son of God.  He is “the human one.”  To the extent we are like Jesus, to that same extent we are human.

Jesus embraces, personifies, both what are often thought of as masculine and feminine qualities, such as might and meekness.  Over and over in the gospels, we see him moving beyond what his culture rigidly assigns as the realm of men and the realm of women.  He welcomes women as his disciples; he actually teaches women!  That’s a big no-no.

So, having said all of that, we immediately have verse 14.  “Let all that you do be done in love.”  That comes right after being told, “Keep alert, stand firm in your faith, be courageous, be strong.”  Be a man.  Be courageous, but do it in love.  Maybe we can say, as we saw earlier, be magnanimous!

What does all this mean?  Well, let’s look at Ezekiel and Jesus again.

The first time the Lord calls Ezekiel “son of man” is when he gets his commission.  He’s given quite a task.  “Mortal [son of man], I am sending you to the people of Israel, to a nation of rebels who have rebelled against me; they and their ancestors have transgressed against me to this very day.” (2:3).  Hmm, I’m not sure I like where this is going.  Is there anything else?

“The descendants are impudent and stubborn.  I am sending you to them, and you shall say to them, ‘Thus says the Lord God’” (v. 4).  It doesn’t sound like the prophet will get a welcome reception.

Hostility is not the only reaction.  Later in the book, we see him being disregarded.  In chapter 33, the Lord tells him about the people, “To them you are like a singer of love songs, one who has a beautiful voice and plays well on an instrument; they hear what you say, but they will not do it” (v. 32).  These folks aren’t mad at him.  They applaud and say, “Wonderful job,” and then go on about their business.

Even so, Ezekiel loves his people.  He demonstrates loving courage.  Love is no easy thing.

What about Jesus?  He tells his disciples, his friends, something that will shock and dismay them.  He lets them know what is in store.  Jesus will be betrayed, condemned to death, mocked, flogged, and crucified.  Now there is the tiny bit about being raised from the dead, but they can’t get past the laundry list of insane stuff coming first.

Knowing what’s ahead of him, Jesus demonstrates loving courage.

What does loving courage mean for us?  What does loving courage mean for me?  I wonder, in what ways do I ignore St. Paul’s call to live a life of courage, shot through with love?  How often do I imitate the admirers of Ezekiel, finding joy in art, books, film, and music­­—even the scriptures—and yet not allowing it to change me?  How often do I lack that courage—to not fully be a man—to not fully be human?

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What does loving courage mean for all of us?  Do we have the courage to ruffle some feathers?  When the loving Holy Spirit prompts us, do we change the way we’ve been doing things?  Do we make room for others?

These are questions to ask the person in the mirror.  Do I help others to be courageous?  Do I help others to be human?

In his final words, Paul cries out, “Maranatha” (v. 22).  Maranatha means two things.  “Come, our Lord,” and “Our Lord has come”!  May we be people who find the loving courage to live out those words.



systematic strongholds

When I was in college, I took several philosophy classes.  In one class, we looked at logical positivism.  Very roughly speaking, it holds that a statement is meaningless if it cannot be verified in an empirical, or experimental, manner.  It has the effect of ruling out, for example, theology.  When our professor asked us to critique this philosophy, I responded by saying that it simply chooses to ignore what doesn’t fit into its system.
In chapter 10 of 2 Corinthians, the apostle Paul deals directly with his opponents among the “super-apostles” and their followers.  Here is his reminder:  “The weapons of our warfare are not merely human, but they have divine power to destroy strongholds.  We destroy arguments and every proud obstacle raised up against the knowledge of God, and we take every thought captive to obey Christ.” (vv. 4-5) 
We don’t often think of “strongholds” as “arguments.”  But we are more than capable of letting a philosophy or a system of thought become a “proud obstacle.”  It can be a proud obstacle that hinders the flow of wisdom which opens us to “the knowledge of God.”  It can be an obstacle in other ways.  It can close our minds to other possibilities—possibilities which our self-imposed system doesn’t allow us to explore.  Maybe we think those other possibilities are meaningless.
And maybe those other possibilities never occur to us because we only know our own system!