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
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?