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 thi