It is counter-intuitive that God saves man through His own weakness. The irony of the Divine Reversal has provided endless material for the hymnographers of the Church through the centuries: the Strong becomes weak; the Sinless takes on our sin; the Rich becomes poor; God becomes man – the whole of the gospel seems to be a Divine irony.
This irony has a beauty that has always drawn me. Sometimes the imagery drawn out in a hymn within the Church becomes so poignant I want to stop the service just to savor it (of course I can’t do this).
However, I think there is something that makes us want to keep our irony Divine and minimize it in our own lives. St. Paul says that he “glories in his weakness,” but I find that few other people, including myself, want to do so. The irony that despite our intelligence, we are foolish is not our favorite topic. The embarrassment that often accompanies confession is the irony of our sin – it contradicts the image we want to hold of our own ego – or that we at least want others to hold.
At some level, we believe that we are not saved through our weakness, but will be saved through our strength, and that the whole life of grace is God’s effort to make us stronger – never suspecting that God’s grace may actually be purposefully developing our weaknesses.
I do not mean that the grace of God causes sin to abound. But I find it interesting that the work of grace makes sin less opaque – more apparent to ourselves. The greatest saints also seem to be those who are most aware of their sins – and aware of their true sins. If you read the full life of St. Seraphim of Sarov, the tale of his great 1,000 days and nights in prayer on a rock, are actually a long extended prayer of repentance. He saw a desire within himself – the desire to become abbot of the monastery. It was that weakness that drove him to prayer.
I often tell people who say they are struggling with prayer to quit trying to pray like a Pharisee and learn to pray like a Publican. We often want to pray from strength – to approach God when we at least feel spiritually alive. The Publican refuses to lift his eyes to heaven. The contradiction of his life and the goodness of God are more than he can bear. And yet he prays. And, ironically, it is he who goes down to his house justified rather than the Pharisee.
“My strength is made perfect in weakness” is the word God gave to St. Paul. I pray that this be so, for I find times in my life that what I have to offer to God and to others is my weakness – or so it seems.
In the better than 30 years that I have been in ordained ministry, I have learned that I am not alone in my weakness. All of us share common problems and brokenness, even if they are not identical. But the great irony is that it is precisely those problems and brokenness that Christ has made His own. There is nothing abstract about Christ’s union with our sin (2 Cor. 5:21). It is the greater pity that we fear to meet Him there.