More About Weakness

“I would have liked to have heard more about weakness.” Rose Marie Miller said these words at the end of a conference with the theme of “Faith, Power, and Weakness.” Miller recalls enjoying parts of the conference, while also not feeling well, and missing her late husband. “At one point I wanted to get up and shout, ‘Is no one here weak?’” she writes.

I can relate. One of the best conferences I’ve ever attended took place two years ago when I was feeling particularly weak. The theme of that conference was Sifted. Instead of speaking about their successes, speakers shared about their struggles and their weaknesses. You would think a conference like this would be depressing. Instead, I found it hopeful. As a weak person, I can relate.

“I would have liked to have heard more about weakness.” I wonder how often these words could be said at the end of a Sunday worship service? I’ve attended a lot of services. I’ve been weak at all of them. I’ve felt weak at some of them — the ones in which I’ve been accurate in my self-assessment. I have a feeling that a lot of people come to church weary, beat up, and weak, and are asking the same question Miller did: “Is no one here weak?”

The great thing about our weakness is that it is a great match for God’s strength. In their profound book Beloved Dust, Jamin Goggin and Kyle Strobel write, “Our great mistake is to see our brokenness, our finitude, and our sin as things that keep us from God rather than as opportunities to throw ourselves at the foot of the cross and grasp his grace.” Also:

Our fragility should lead us to trust in the One who is infinite. Our brokenness and weakness should lead us to glory in the fact that God listens to his dust and calls us beloved. Our weakness should lead us to proclaim God’s praise. It should harness reverence and delight in our hearts rather than frustration and discouragement.

We are weak, but we are beloved in our weakness. We were made to be weak from the start, and we’re even weaker as a result of sin. But God meets us in our weakness, and he calls us his own.

We’ve tried strong churches and strong pastors speaking at strong conferences. Maybe we need to try weak pastors preaching at weak churches about God’s grace that meets us not in the middle of our strength, but in our weakness. And how that grace really is better than any strength we could ever muster, and is readily available to any weak person who needs it.

The Value of Weakness

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I’ve seen a lot of values listed by churches. Most of them sound lofty. I’ve only seen weakness listed as a value by a church once. The church is Holy Trinity Chicago, and this is what they say:

Irony of Weakness
While common wisdom places a high value on strength, our church is learning to live in weakness. Why? Because when we are weak, we are actually strong. You might call it the irony of weakness: God uses humble, reliant people. Weakness is divinely intended for us by God.  Indeed, a life of dependence on the Holy Spirit, of devotion in prayer and a willingness to suffer for Christ is a beautiful life. So we value dependence on the Spirit rather than dependence on self. We value prayer, which is the opposite of pride and self-sufficiency. And though we do not seek out suffering we know that it is a part of a gospel-centered life.  Our true strength is in Jesus Christ!

I love the three implications listed in this definition:

  • Weakness implies dependence on the Holy Spirit. Ministry is not simply a matter of best practices. It is a spiritual enterprise. As Francis Schaeffer said, “And as Christians, we too must comprehend something of our need for spiritual power. If we think we can operate on our own, if we do not comprehend the need for a power beyond our own, we will never get started" (No Little People).
  • Weakness implies devotion in prayer. When we comprehend that we are weak, we turn away from pride and self-sufficiency to our true source of power. A prayerless life is a life that fails to recognize my true condition.
  • Weakness implies a willingness to suffer. The illusion of strength and an unwillingness to suffer go together. Weak people, it seems, are less surprised by suffering. Ajith Fernando writes, “In a world where physical health, appearance, and convenience have gained almost idolatrous prominence, God may be calling Christians to demonstrate the glory of the gospel by being joyful and content while enduring pain and hardship.”

It’s been years since I noticed that Holy Trinity values weakness. I’m not sure if any other churches have included it in their list of values, but perhaps many more should.

Weakness Evangelism

Like you, I’m a fan of being strong. I love all this talk about crushing your goals and building a strong week. I always enjoy being competent and having my life fairly together. It’s how I thought I would live most of my life.

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It turns out that life’s not like that. The past few years I’ve been learning lots about weakness. It hasn’t come easily for me, but I’ve had to learn how to acknowledge my limits. My weaknesses have been on display. It almost seems that God has been working to strip me of any pretense that I have it all together.

This past year, as we went through another round of confronting our weaknesses, my wife said something profound to me. What if our weaknesses aren’t a distraction from ministry? What if our weaknesses are actually part of the way God wants to use us in ministry? I know this conceptually, but I haven't always been great at remembering it when I'm weak.

I’d always thought you have to be strong to be a church planter. What if weakness is actually part of God’s plan for church planters, and for ministry in general?

With that in mind, I was encouraged to discover that the last chapter in the Sonship training manual. Sonship is “designed to help you take some of the glorious theological truths of the gospel - truths that you may know in your head - and apply them to the nitty gritty reality of daily life.”

The last chapter is called "Weakness Evangelism", and it includes this paragraph:

The most important thing about repenting and living by faith as a child of God is that dependence on God gives him glory and provides us an opportunity to experience closeness with him. But it also seems admitting our weakness before God and being willing to fail in front of people is an invitation to experience closeness with them.

This completely changes our posture when it comes to evangelism in particular, and ministry in general.

The key to evangelism and ministry, it turns out, isn’t that I am strong and a never-ending source of competence and strength. It is that I have discovered a gospel for weak people like me, and that I am living in a strength that is not my own. I don't have to pretend, because there is no need to pretend. It isn’t that I have my life together; it is that I am experiencing God’s power and strength in the middle of my own struggles and sanctification. I don’t approach others from a position of strength; I approach others with the sense that we are alike in our sinfulness and our weaknesses, and that we both can find all the grace we need in Jesus.

I’m embracing my weaknesses. I’m discovering that they bring me closer to my Savior. My weaknesses change my posture as I relate to others. They also remind me to never think I can minister to others out of my own strength. The strength and the glory all belong to someone else, and I never want to forget that.

Making Sense of Weakness

My latest column at ChristianWeek:

I spend so much time trying to be strong that I have a hard time making sense of what the Bible says about weakness.

"I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling," the apostle Paul writes. Later he says, "For when I am weak, then I am strong." What kind of Kingdom math is this? And if it's true, why do we try so hard to be strong?

Rose Marie Miller, in her book Nothing Is Impossible with God, helps me make sense of this. There are three kinds of weakness, she writes.

The first kind of weakness is presumptive weakness. It's what we usually think of as strength. "Presumptive weakness is when I am strong in myself. I think, 'I have the ability, the gifts, the understanding, the wisdom to get the job done or get on with life.'" It turns out that our strengths, until surrendered, are liabilities, because "it is impossible to fully trust in God while you still cling to something in yourself."

The second type of weakness is despairing weakness. This is usually what we think of as weakness, but it's not what we should aim for. When we despair, we look at our own resources and discover they're not enough, and we begin to lose hope.

I find that I tend to alternate between these first two types of weakness. I try to make it on my own strength, or give up. There's a third way, though.

The third type of weakness is what Paul talks about, and it's what we should aim for: true weakness, "born out of a deep sense of inadequacy and need, which drives us to Christ and unleashes all the redeeming energy of God's grace in our lives."

Charles Spurgeon put it this way in his sermon "Paradox": "We are strong when, under a sense of absolute inability, we depend wholly upon God...When we are weak we are strong, again, because then we are driven away from self to God."

What about our abilities and talents? Oswald Chambers writes, "God can achieve his purpose either through absence of human power and resources, or abandonment of reliance on them...He chose and used nobodies only when they renounced dependence on their natural abilities and resources."

The exciting part about true weakness is that it's freeing. We don't have to pretend to be more than we are, or that we have it all together. I spoke to a man last week who with genuine joy said to me, "There's nothing you could tell me about yourself that would surprise me, because there's no way that you're a worse sinner than me." He had encountered God's grace and strength in his weakness, and it set him free.

I'm a weak pastor in a land of weak churches. That may just be my greatest strength. I'm slowly learning to turn away from my own resources and despair, to find that God's strength really is enough and more.

You're Weak Enough

A note to pastors and others in ministry:

You and I will never be gifted enough. The job will always be more than what we can handle. We will never have what it takes, and God help us if we ever think otherwise.

We can, however, be honest about our weakness. I read these words from Steve Childers last week: "Don't hold your weakness in disdain. That is God's plan so that through your weakness he might manifest his strength."

You will never be strong enough. You're already weak enough, though, and so am I.

Bill Kinnon posted this tweet last night:

Praise God for preachers like this. It's the kind of man I aspire to be.