Weakness is the New Strength

And he ate nothing during those days. And when they were ended, he was hungry.-Luke 4.2

About a year ago Jed, a sophomore, and I had a heart-to-heart talk about the struggle of grades, the highly competitive nature of getting into universities, and the pressure to cheat for the grade.  At one point his eyes welled-up with tears, his voice got quivery, and he said, "You don't understand what it's like being a kid in my world, at my school, and with my pressures.  I try so hard, I study so hard, I put the work in, it's not fair.  Other kids who are much smarter than me don't have to work as hard and coast to 4.0s; when I'm studying on the bus after a late LAX game some of the guys ask why am I studying when there are other ways to get the 4.0.  Dad, I refuse to cheat, but it's so hard.  Academics just isn't my strength, athletics aren't my strength either, how will I get admitted into a college?"

I walked away from that conversation, proud of my son, but very upset at the "world".     

Several weeks ago Jed, now a junior, wrote this article, that he posted on a fundraising site, articulating his struggle and weakness in academics.  It was really courageous.  I thought about retelling his story in my words here, but just felt that it would be better coming from him:

A couple weeks ago as I sat in my dad's office working on homework at 2 AM I was overwhelmed with my workload and my head and heart were filled with stress and anxiety.  Thinking of all the work and not enough time brought on a flood of worries related to my future.   What college would accept me?  How would I do on the ACT and SAT? 

 These thoughts became deeper and darker and I had this candid look into my soul.  Then I was gripped with the feeling that when I get older am I going to be successful or become a failure.  As the darkness and despair hit my heart, I started to cry wondering why God had left me alone in this struggle.  I just wanted to hear his voice.   As I cried out of this despair my attention was drawn to one book on my dad's shelf.  I opened it to a random page:

"And do not keep striving for what you are to eat and what you are to drink, and do not keep worrying. For it is the nations of the world that strive for these things, and your father knows that you need them. Instead, strive for his kingdom, and these things will be given to you as well."   

I think I heard God in that moment.

My stress and anxiety went away.  I realized that God was right there giving me direction.  I didn't need to despair I was free to hear God's voice and in that moment he was telling me to put his kingdom first in my life and he would direct my college, my life, and my future.   

This trip to Bangkok, Thailand is my feeble attempt at seeking God's kingdom first with my life.    God's kingdom is with those who are refugees, impoverished, parentless, and hungry.  I am going to go this summer and serve God's kingdom by serving and caring for refugees in Bangkok.  

Jed's 2am homework vigils, unbeknownst to Julie and me, were becoming a pretty regular thing as Jed stressed and overworked and strove because he felt that colleges wouldn't accept him for what he was good at only what they were good at.   As I read his words I was struck by how his weakness really was a strength.  His weakness pushed him to embrace his limitations and cry out for God, and it was in his weakness that God drew near to him.  This weakness was a window into a special gifting that opened up into a supernatural world.  In other words, his weakness made him sensitive to the Voice.  

Henri Nouwen, in his book the Wounded Healer subverts the notion of weakness being a weakness:

Jesus [has made] his own broken body the way to health, to liberation and new life. Thus like Jesus, he who proclaims liberation is called not only to care for his own wounds and the wounds of others, but also to make his wounds into a major source of his healing power.

a deep understanding of our own pain makes it possible for us to convert our weakness into strength and to offer our own experience as a source of healing to those who are often lost in the darkness of their own misunderstood sufferings.

A Christian community is, therefore, a healing community not because wounds are cured and pains are alleviated, but because wounds and pains become openings or occasions for a new vision. 

Carl Jung created the term "wounded healer" as a way of describing the place from which he cared, helped and mentored others.   

The doctor is effective only when he himself is affected. Only the wounded physician heals. . . The pains and burdens one bears and eventually overcomes is the source of great wisdom and healing power for others. 

Jesus is the wounded healer archetype.  
"by his stripes, you are healed."  
"wounded for our transgressions, bruised for our iniquities."  

I think Luke has an intention and agenda behind these words, "and when they were ended, he was hungry."  We all know that one would be hungry after not eating 40 days, but Luke really underscores Jesus' weakened condition by reminding us that Jesus was hungry.   Jesus' transformation in the wilderness did not come from physical strength, but physical weakness; and isn't it interesting that it's from this posture of weakly hunger that Jesus defeats Satan. 

We will see this transformative insight of weakness as the new strength get played out again and again and again.   Said and resaid, lived and relived.  In the Kingdom weakness is the new strength!

  • The beatitudes declare this.  It's the Poor in spirit, the hungry and thirsty, the meek, the broken-to-tears, the persecuted that are considered kingdom-strong.  Weakness is the strength.  
  • The parables declare this. It's the first who are last and the last who are kingdom-first.  It's the servant, not the one with servants, who is kingdom-great. 
  • Jesus' behavior exemplifies this.  He never shuns or shirks weakness, never hires a publicity team to coach him through putting his strong suit forward, or putting a marketing spin or gloss over his weaknesses.   He embraces weakness head-on and finds courage and strength in weakness.

Sean and I were talking about this Wednesday in the context of the name "Nazareth."  There is this interesting storyline regarding Jesus' Nazareth connection.  Nazareth is where Joseph considers putting Mary away for becoming pregnant out of wedlock.   Later on, Nazareth, Jesus' hometown, rises up in mob-like-fashion and chases Jesus out of their synagogue even attempting to kill him and when that fails he is forced out of home and community.   Nazareth bears a stigma the disciple-candidate Nathanael declares, "Can anything good come out of Nazareth?"   Later in Jesus' story, the Elite class snub Jesus because of his Nazareth connection, as they use the "birther" conspiracy to disqualify him from Messianic identity.

Nazareth represents illegitimacy, weakness, shame, rejection, and is the Achilles heel to Jesus' ministry.  Nazareth is the weak link in his story.  

And yet, Jesus never disassociates himself from Nazareth.  He never sought to prove his Bethlehem birth.  He embraced the weakness and shame of what that name meant to him, absorbing it into who he really was.   He just wasn't afraid of attaching his name to that which represented illegitimacy, weakness, shame, failure and rejection.  

In fact, In every sermon preached in Jerusalem and Israel, before the people in the temple courts and the leaders in the Sanhedrin, Jesus is referred to as "Jesus of Nazareth."  When Peter takes the Gospel to the Gentiles he says, "God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power."

And consider this.  When the Pharisee Saul is on the Damascus Road and the light from heaven knocks him down, the voice says, "I am Jesus of Nazareth."

He is not afraid or ashamed of it, he redeems it. Identifying with being "of Nazareth" even more than the more cultural norm of being identified as "Jesus bar Joseph" (son of).    The weakness of his Nazareth connection becomes a strength to all of us that have been shamed by a Nazareth,  rejected by a Nazareth, illegitimatized by a Nazareth.   We can look at our Nazareth's and embrace the weaknesses.

I've often marveled at the burning bush when God reveals himself to Moses.  I know "I am" is pretty deep, but what I am drawn to is that God does not say, "I am the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel."   God doesn't pretty us up so that we will fit with him.  He attaches his name to our brokenness, "I am the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob."   He gives us a new name for us and so that we can share it with our children, that is what they are called Israelites and not Jacobites.  But God is not doing damage control with our shady, shifty, names.   He attaches himself to our weakness, thus turning it into a strength.

When the Church tries to embody the rule of God in the forms of earthly power it may achieve that power, but it is no longer a sign of the kingdom.
— Lesslie Newbigin

Paul said, "for in my weakness he is made strong!"

The early Christians embraced weakness and practiced weakness.  That is where the kingdom was.    

Embracing weakness as the new strength meant that the early believers didn't need political clout, artistic prominence, intellectual notoriety, or financial empires to be strong.  They demonstrated the divine strength by kneeling down, singing songs in Roman coliseums while being martyred.  They manifested the muscle of heaven by opening their homes to serve the orphans and widows, serving the unwanted sick.  They overpowered, outmaneuvered, outsmarted, outwitted the entire Roman Empire in three hundred years through their weaknesses.  They were not known for their massive boycotts or political influence on Roman law.   They were not known for winning cultural wars, marching on Rome.  

Roman Emperor Julian said, “[Christianity] has been specially advanced through the loving service rendered to strangers, and through their care for the burial of the dead.  It is a scandal that there is not a single Jew who is a beggar, and that the godless Galileans care not only for their own poor but for ours as well; while those who belong to us look in vain for the help that we should render them.”   

 

CHREIA OF ACTION

  • Conversation.  Have a conversation with Cleopas about the weaknesses of your life.  Where are you hungry and weak?  What would it look like to see this as your strength?
  • Reflection.   Reflect where you have been weak in your life and noticed the strength of God.
  • Prayer.  Pray a Lectio Divina of 2Cor 12.9-10.