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~ When Being Weak Means Being Strong ~

After 50 years of living in this body on this earth, I think I’m finally getting it. That “it” concerns what St. Paul learned through his challenges and persecutions. He quotes Christ’s answer to his prayer: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Paul then comments, “Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:9-10, NIV).

Our culture teaches what the pagan and shaman led societies taught. Are we surprised? In my late teens I studied Carlos Castaneda’s writings, an anthropologist who went to Mexico to do research for his doctoral thesis. The back cover of his 1987 book, “The Power of Silence”, states: “Millions of readers worldwide have treasured the visionary brilliance of Carlos Castaneda, who first explored the world of the Yaqui Indian sorcerer in ‘The Teachings of don Juan.’ …It is Castaneda’s unique genius to show us that all wisdom, strength and power lie within ourselves…”

I also studied the astounding demonstrations of personal power by the Japanese Ninjas, the Hindu yogis, the Shaolin priests of China and the North and South American medicine men and women. Their philosophies were impressively effective and they actualized them in their legendary feats. They were powerful people and their accomplishments garner respect. The Olympic athletes and those military warriors who achieve admission into the elite sectors of “special operations” practice the similar discipline and mental focus and training. Our current popular psychology and educational philosophy also hails the goal of self-empowerment and personal achievement.

Then there are those who are provided with power by becoming a member of a group. Police, prison guards, government operatives and the like may have no personal power of their own. Their power comes from the backing of the state. Without that, they may be people "living lives of quiet desperation” as Thoreau put it. Without the state, without power given to them through no achievement of their own, they are just one of us. The wise among them recognize that.

Among them, however, are those who do have personal power, who fulfill the obligations of their work with personal conviction and who garner respect in or out of uniform. They will follow orders, to a point. It takes a powerful and courageous individual to draw the line and say, “No, I am not going along with this. It isn’t right” despite the orders or what is expected of him or her. “Just following orders” is not always a sign of loyalty or doing a good job whether a member of the military or of a church, school or government agency. It is sometimes a sign of being a spineless wimp.

In the economy of the Kingdom of God however, we are confronted with proclamations like “Lose your life to keep it,” “The least is the greatest,” and what Paul wrote about being the most strong in our personal weaknesses, to the point of even delighting in them. All these go against our cultural beliefs and practices and are not intellectually palatable. Truth must be experienced to be understood. Experiencing truth is very threatening to many people. We are more comfortable in experiencing and dealing with appearances. We can manipulate appearances but we cannot manipulate truth.

Many of us have experienced times of great weakness and that does not feel good at all. We feel helpless, vulnerable, afraid, overwhelmed and desperate. So how can this be a source of power and strength?

The same way an ordinary person becomes invested with power from human institutions. Jesus told governor Pilate that he has no power other than from “above.” The weaker I am as a human the more I submit to the powers of the heavenly realm. They are the most formidable indeed. Personal ambition, personal pride, striving to build a little kingdom around one’s self, is promoted, encouraged and applauded by the modern culture. Lucifer and a third of the angels did that and our world would applaud him. Our world does applaud him today and his ethic that brought him down into the earthly plane. The Revelation of Christ to St. John tells how the world will embrace the likes of Lucifer in the persona of the antichrist. Jesus told His disciples, “Even the elect would be deceived if those days were not shortened.” Well, the elect who participate in the ethos of personal achievement and promotion, even in the name of evangelisms under the banner of Christian outreach, have already been snared in the net of deception.

I’m beginning to understand St. Paul and actually feel relief in my profound human weakness. Those of us who once stood on our mountain tops (and those who still do) know the work, effort, anxiety and vigilance required to maintain the firmness of the mountain and our position on it. It is an energy-draining endeavor while we feel the rushes and excitement of periodic affirmations of our work, mistakenly attributing it to the grace and approval of God. And in the economy of the kingdom of God, it is not a worthy or wise stewardship or management of our time and energy.

Those of us who canoe or kayak on white water know about submission. Novices and fools boast of “conquering the river.” Seasoned adventurers know they are essentially nothings being swept along by powerful watery forces that are everything. Going and harmonizing with the flow, not seeking to establish one’s own little place of dominance or security on the rushing river, is not only the way to survive but the way to receive the gift of energy, respect, love, and safe arrival at the destination point from the river waters.

While I do delight in the challenges of the river rapids incumbent with the risks and potential for disaster, unlike St. Paul, I have not yet learned to truly delight in the afflictions and persecutions and hardships encountered in living in this world. But I am learning to delight in my human weaknesses since my acknowledgment of them drives me deeper into trusting submission to the will and care of God.

The often quoted passage from Isaiah 40 states, “He gives strength to the weary and increases the power of the weak. Even youths grow tired and weary, and young men stumble and fall; but those who hope in the LORD will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles, they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint.” A true to the original Hebrew text would render the more accurate translation of “He exchanges the weakness of the weary with His strength.”

So, I am happy to have weaknesses. I can use them as an exchange for God’s strength. That is why I am learning to delight in them.

John S. Hilkevich, Ph.D.
Spiritual Resource Services
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