The Way of the Weak Is the Only Healthy Way
By J. I. Packer
“It’s a grand life if you don’t weaken,” says the British platitude. It’s a good life only when you do weaken, says the Bible. Once more the wisdom of God upsets the conventional wisdom, the wisdom of this world. Christians must always be alert to points at which God’s thoughts cut across what society takes for granted and must dare to be different when loyalty to their Master so requires—which is frequently. With regard to strength and weakness, the antithesis between the world’s way and that of Christ is total and stark and may not be toned down.
The world’s stance—that is, the view of mankind in the mass, without God and under sin—is not in doubt. Ever since Lamech and the tower of Babel the world has worshipped successful strength—the physical strength of Goliath, the executive strength of emperors and generals, the strength of purpose that explorers, go-getters, and tycoons display, the mental strength of thinkers and teachers. Individuals have sought to emulate these forms of strength by gestures of self-reliance and self-sufficiency. But Scripture shows that weakness, known and embraced as such, is of the essence of right living.
The world continues as it was. That explains why body-building (gaining an intimidating physical presence) and assertiveness training (learning, by verbal push and shove, how to get your way) and the “success syndrome” are so prominent in North America today; just as it explains why an Englishman feels that his home is his castle and why an Asian cannot contemplate losing face. Our proud world, thus tuned to seek strength, sees personal limitations somewhat pitiful and its compassion for handicapped humans often has a touch of contempt mixed in. It was so when the Corinthians said of Paul, “his bodily presence is weak and his speech contemptible”(2 Cor. 10:10, NKJV) and therefore declined to take him seriously. The world never has time for weakness in any form.
In its dictatorial way, the world tries to make Christians revere successful strength. When people’s spiritual quality is measured by whether they are good speakers or outstanding athletes or great money-makers or popular TV personalities, rather than by their character as it appears in non-official relationships, the world is making headway in this. When preachers present salvation as God’s gift to us of power to use, whether in maintaining a type of euphoria called victorious living or in effectively claiming health and wealth or in ministries of evangelism and healing or in any other acknowledged type of Christian effectiveness, the world’s strategy is advanced again. To say that God gives us power to use is not at all what Scripture means when it affirms that God’s power works in us and the Christian life is distorted when it sets forth as a use of strength in this way.
Certainly, God strengthens the weak—but understand how! Strength means ability to do something that requires effort. Scripture tells us that God gives strength for three things: endurance of strain and pressure, fidelity in serving God and others, and resistance to Satanic wiles. The Lord Jesus, who showed this threefold strength to perfection in the days of his flesh, now from his throne imparts it to those who are alive in him. In them the moral and spiritual instincts of Jesus’ holy character now seek active expression, and the Holy Spirit acts in their actions to work in them the good works in which the expression of these instincts is seen.
But, and this the crucial point to grasp, what I have just formulated only becomes reality when Christians feel too weak, mentally, morally, and spiritually, and maybe physically too, to rise to the demands of each situation. Then they extend the hand of faith to God as drowning men stretch for the lifebelt. “Help!” is prayer at is truest, as it is weakness at its most explicit. And it is a prayer that God answers!
Why does God shape his children’s lives in a way that keeps them feeling weak and swamped? Why do believers constantly find thorns in their flesh and in their beds? Why does the God of sovereign love periodically plunge his beloved ones in to suffering and strain? Paul’s testimony tells us partly why. “We were under great pressure . . . this happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God.” “We who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that his life may be revealed in our mortal body.” “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 Cor. 1:8 f., 4:11, 12:10). Exactly!
What the world never understands and those who think that the good Christian feels strong and powerful and has life easy never understands is that only consciously weak souls ever lean hard enough on the Lord to stand steady or walk straight in his risen power. Weakness is the true path, the only healthy way.
How weak, I wonder, are you today?
J.I. Packer is professor of historical and systematic theology at Regent College, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.
This article was previously published in Eternity Magazine, November 1987.