The Strength We Find in Weakness

Abba Poemen believed that the only time you could observe a person’s true character was when that person was tempted.

From the Sayings of the Desert Fathers

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There is obvious wisdom in the saying about Abba Poemen: it is not our strengths that best define us, but our weaknesses. In our culture, where virtual reality – both of the entertainment world and the political world – are defined by carefully managed personalities (not to be confused with “person”), it is hard for us to deal straightforwardly with our weaknesses. There is a tendency to think of our weaknesses as something lacking – “what I am not good at” – and to define our reality by our strengths – “my talents, my gifts.”

I have long observed that a person’s strengths are rarely the things that comprise the gate to the Kingdom of God. People rarely turn to God or the Church because of the success of a “strength.” Frequently, we come to God in desperation in the midst of failure where our own frailty and mortality are best revealed.

St. Paul heard from God, “My strength is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor. 12:9).

I suspect that I am no different than others and that I prefer for people to see my strengths and talents and to cover my weaknesses as any other shameful thing. But it is a habit that hides from us the truth of ourselves. Not that we are defined by our weaknesses – but our weaknesses reveal the true character of who we are as we stand before God.

What would it mean for me to stand before God and say I have a talent for writing? Before Christ Who is the Word and Wisdom of God – what boasting would there be in a mediocre talent? In what way would such a talent, even a great talent reveal to us anything of who God is or who we are in Him?

And yet as we come to God in our weakness and in our failure, there we frequently find the door to our heart and the beginning of true prayer. Man’s proper existence before God is a state of constant repentance (not a cosmic guilt but a constant sense of our need of God and our emptiness before Him). What is there in our strength that ever brings us to repentance?

I have always found it troubling that many in our modern culture judge St. Paul rather harshly. He is caricatured as a misogynist, as judgmental, as very harsh. In truth, we know more about him than probably anyone in Scripture apart from Christ Himself. And we know much about his weakness – and only through his own testimony.

What humility is found in his words to the Corinthians (first letter)!

And I, brethren, when I came to you, came not with excellency of speech or of wisdom, declaring unto you the testimony of God. For I determined not to know any thing among you, save Jesus Christ, and him crucified. And I was with you in weakness, and in fear, and in much trembling. And my speech and my preaching was not with enticing words of man’s wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power: That your faith should not stand in the wisdom of men, but in the power of God (2:1-5).

I try to imagine a modern day evangelist describing himself in such terms. We value success and crave to hear stories of success.

Life goes on, and despite our championing of success and strength, our weaknesses are often revealed, accompanied by shame and embarassment. For some, such revelations are the destruction of all they valued. But of course, all that is revealed is true character. For others, such revelations are like a new birth, the beginning of true knowledge and the gate of paradise.

But who would accept an invitation to shame?

Christ did.

Comments

  1. Chrys says

    Father, I am grateful for your posts. They are insightful, moving and true. This reflection looks at an issue I have been wrestling with myself.

    We usually bemoan our weaknesses. While we celebrate our strengths, we treat our weaknesses as if they were defects, often with shame or defensiveness (since they often elicit criticism).
    It is natural to celebrate strengths – these are the means by which we offer value. But weaknesses are a whole different matter; we wish to be rid of them.
    Yet God does all things well.
    It seems that I am a very slow learner since it has taken me a very long time to realize that our “in born” weaknesses are also gifts from God, not mistakes to be corrected.
    In fact, they may be much more valuable gifts than our strengths.
    This is because our weaknesses are the catalysts that lead us to God. These areas of (often acute) need are guides that lead us to grace.

    Were we all “strengths” as we wish we were or seek to be, we would have no need of others, of God. With nothing but “strengths,” we left almost defenseless in the face of the delusion of our own self-sufficiency. Our weaknesses expose this delusion for the lie that it is, and drive us to find a solution to the needs they expose.

    The risk (often realized) that results from having weaknesses in a fallen world is that we seek to address them with our strengths, or to look to the most “powerful” experiences (such as alcohol, ambition, sex, entertainment, wealth, or any other potent stimulus). It is natural that we would try to “fix” them ourselves, since this effort is consistent the desire to be all “strengths,” to gain control of them and our lives. That is, it is natural that we would try to “fix” our weaknesses in a manner consistent with the fallen, sinful self – that self that seeks to grasp control, to be god in our own right. Thus our weaknesses, in sinful hands, pursue compelling, powerful but ultimately false solutions that quickly become passions. When this happens, what we thought were “defects” become real liabilities which are destructive to both us and those around us. Yet still, in the providence of God, these often so painful that even the most obdurate may cry out to God.

    It is usually these needs – fallen (impassioned) or not – that are the very things that drive us to God.
    And yet God does not seek to “fix” them, but to use them to lead us to much greater blessings: to grace and communion and transfiguration. Thus with St. Paul we often plead, “God, please take these away from me.” Or “please fix this” or “please change that.” (Even after returning to God, we often still want to be “all strength” – and have no REAL need.) Yet God answers us as He did St. Paul: “My grace is sufficient for you.” In fact, our growth in God’s grace is perfected in weakness.” Once we realize then that God has designed these “defects” as “portals” for His grace, we realize that we have been given a much greater gift than the “strength” that we sought – we have been given a gift that can lead us to True Life, to Real Life, to a Life that is greater than anything we can begin to imagine. Then, like St. Paul, we will embrace these costly gifts that yield such incredible blessings and say “Therefore, I will most gladly boast all the more about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may reside in me. So I take my greatest pleasure in weaknesses, insults, catastrophes, persecutions, and in pressures, because of Christ. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” (2 Corinthians 12:9-10) As for those strengths, those assets, that we cherished, cultivated, glorified and used to establish our value in the world, we will say – like St. Paul: “Whatever was a gain to me, I have considered to be a loss for the sake of Christ. More than that, I consider everything to be a loss in view of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. Because of Him I have suffered the loss of all things and consider them dung, so that I may gain Christ and be found in Him, not having a righteousness of my own from the law, but one that is through faith in Christ—the righteousness from God based on faith. My goal is to know Him and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death, in order that somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead.” (Philippians 3:7-11)

    Thank you, Father, for an illuminating and important reflection.

  2. Darlene says

    Dear Father Stephen,

    I really needed to read this today. I am reminded of St. Paul’s proclamation: ” ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for My power is made perfect in weakness.’ I will all the more gladly boast of my weaknesses , that the power of Christ may rest upon me.”

    Whatever talents we have, are they not from God? Your writing talent is from Him, that you may use it to His glory. All that we have, weaknesses and strengths, are from God our Maker. The problem is when we use these gifts, talents, and skills our Lord has given us to promote ourselves, to boast and make much of who we are. Yet, when we acknowledge the Giver of all these good things, and point to Him as their source, it is then that we learn of genuine humility.

    Keep on writing, Father, and continually give the glory to God our Maker.

  3. Dee says

    I remember being pleasantly surprised every time I witnessed how a truly saintly athonite Elder, who was most advanced in spiritual life, was completely accepting of his weaknesses and human frailty, -as well as of all others’. One would say that all he knew is that we are completely helpless creatures, (but he knew this in a godlike super-sweet, disarmingly loving manner) yet, within that knowledge hid a kind of omniscience, and exactly because of being completely convinced of that fact -of our total powerlessness-, it becomes safe for God to grant us astounding powers.
    The respect he commanded sometimes was awesome -in the true sense of that overused word- yet, one knew that he had the total freedom to slap him (!) without in the least altering his love towards you…
    Does remind you of our Prototype doesn’t it!?
    If, as they say, Humility really contains within it all virtues, Saint Anthony’s well know saying, about how to overcome the innumerable snares of the enemy through it, can be seen both ways: humility both protects and humility fortifies.
    We (hopefully) grasp humility’s beauty fairly easily with our intellect, but in more practical terms, can we accept the slap in meek, accepting and loving silence?
    May the Lord fortify us with SUCH strength!

    Thank you Father Stephen for reminding us of what matters most.

  4. Karen says

    Dear Father, bless! Thank you for reminding us of this beautiful, but difficult, truth. The life of repentance is a constant turning from our own perceived strengths to a state of total dependence, trust and reliance on Christ–on His virtues and energies, His Presence within us.

    I entreat your prayers for the faithful servant of Christ, Deborah, departed this life at the age of 58 almost a week ago now after over a year long battle against cancer and for the family members she leaves behind, including her husband and three wonderful (mostly grown) children. Her life, through the energies of Christ at work within her, became a prime illustration of the truth you have shared in this post. As her husband shared at her memorial service yesterday, the cancer that ultimately completely debilitated her physically and every human level (she is one who had many very obvious strengths, gifts and talents), and led her into the very darkest chapter of her life in terms of suffering, only served to put Christ at work in and through her life in higher relief. In keeping with the commitment to Christ begun decades before in her life, she yielded her considerable will with all her strength to her Lord and determined to make her suffering and trials, her weakened and embattled state, serve only to glorify and make Him known to those around her. Accordingly, though she suffered greatly, her thoughts and efforts turned always to the spiritual care of those who were caring for her physically–her family, church family, friends, and the healthcare staff. Though negative side effects and dangerous interactions of medications as well as a stroke suffered during that final year interfered with her speech, memory and often her lucidity, she learned and remembered the names of the staff of hospitial and hospice from doctors to janitors, consistently expressing interest in their lives and well-being, gratitude for their work, praying for them and seeking to make the love of Christ known or more real to them by her words of testimony, kindness and prayers. At one point near the end seeing her struggle with exhaustion, her pastor exhorted her to take a break from her efforts for the spiritual care of those around her and just rest. He said it is one of the rare times he could bless the failure on the part of one of his flock to comply with his pastoral instruction–it was not in keeping with her character to allow her weakness to interfere with doing her utmost to carry out the command of Christ to actively love those around her. I had the great blessing of having her for my mentor and boss for six years at my former employer, my sister in spirit, and one of my dearest friends. (Nearly 17 years ago now, she was the Matron of Honor at my wedding.) May Christ grant her a rich entrance into His Kingdom. May her memory be eternal!

  5. dinoship says

    I was very touched, and glorify the Lord, for His servant Deborah, He always has His ways of multiplying his servants indeed…

  6. Chrys says

    Dee and Darlene – both comments beautifully expressed.
    Dee, I wish I could have the elder to whom you refer. Reading about Elder Porphyrio, whom I dearly wish I could have known, I have come to believe that he shows what we are all called to be. If we could truly let go of this ego-centric grasp for divinity and embrace genuine humility, making real space for God in our lives, the gifts that God has lavished on each of us would be released to the blessing and edification of all. As you say, it isn’t safe – or feasible – when the ego blocks and diverts everything it touches. (As bad: it elevates the gift and forgets about the Giver.) Yet in Elder Prophyrios’ life – as in all like him – these miraculous powers were just the “natural” overflow of a life fully absorbed in the love and service of God.
    Again, thanks!

  7. Chrys says

    Oops. I forgot a word.
    It should read: “Dee, I wish I could have known the elder to whom you refer.”

  8. Tony Rodolakis says

    What the world sees as shameful, God sees as worthy of His esteem. The world has got it all backwards, and Jesus and Jesus alone has got it right. We should not only not be ashamed of Jesus and His Cross, but, rather, we should be proud of Him and His bearing it for us; for He, through His work on the Cross, has freed us from captivity to the evil one. To say that He and His work on the Cross is worthy of all of our gratitude, would be a gross understatement. Amen.

  9. dee says

    Chrys,
    I couldn’t agree more, Elder Porphyrios does demonstrate just that!
    May we all have his intercessions!
    But so do many others too…