The Strong and the Weak
In The House at Pooh Corner, the second of A. A. Milne’s enchanting collections of Winnie-the-Pooh’s adventures, we meet fussy mother Kanga, who deems it vital that, whatever else he does, her happy-go-lucky, into-everything offspring Roo should regularly take his strengthening medicine. Why? To grow up strong, of course. And what does that mean? Strength is physical, moral, and relational. Strong people can lift heavy objects, stand unflinchingly for what is right against what is wrong, lead and dominate groups, and in any situation, as we say, make a difference. Strong people carry personal weight, which, when provoked, they can effectively throw around. Strong people win admiration for their abilities and respect for their achievements. Kanga wants Roo to be strong, as other parents want their children to be strong, and as commandants and coaches want those they instruct to be strong—strong, that is, in action.
This is the way of the world, and from one standpoint it is God’s way too, as the following exhortations show:
- God to Joshua, whom he was installing as Moses’s successor: “Be strong and courageous” (Josh. 1:6–7, 9), said three times for emphasis.
- Paul to the Ephesians, preparing them for spiritual warfare: “Be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might” (Eph. 6:10).
- Paul to Timothy, encouraging him for the pastoral role to which Paul has appointed him: “Be strengthened by the grace that is in Christ Jesus” (2 Tim. 2:1).
Clearly, it is proper to aim at being spiritually strong and improper to settle for being anything less.
But now look below the surface. Why were these exhortations necessary? Answer: to banish, if possible, the sense of weakness that was there before. It is likely that Joshua, listening to God, and Timothy, reading the words of Paul, were feeling panicky deep down. To follow up Moses’s ministry as Israel’s leader and Paul’s as a church planter were two tremendous tasks; it would be no wonder that neither man felt up to the job. In other words, they felt weak. And there is no doubt that in relation to their assignments they really were weak, and had they not found strength in God, they would never have got through.
We need to be aware of our limitations and to let this awareness work in us humility and self-distrust, and a realization of our helplessness on our own.
Why We Need Weakness
For what is weakness? The idea from first to last is of inadequacy. We talk about physical weakness, meaning that there is a lack of vigor and energy and perhaps bodily health so that one cannot manhandle furniture or tackle heavy yard jobs. We talk about intellectual weakness, meaning inability for some forms of brainwork, as for instance C. S. Lewis’s almost total inability to do math, and my own messiness in that area. We talk about personal weakness, indicating thereby that a person lacks resolution, firmness of character, dignity, and the capacity to command. We talk about a weak position when a person lacks needed resources and cannot move situations forward or influence events as desired. We talk about relational weakness when persons who should be leading and guiding fail to do so—weak parents, weak pastors, and so on. Every day finds us affirming the inadequacy of others at point after point.
A Peanuts cartoon from way back when has Lucy asking a glum-looking Charlie Brown what he is worrying about. Says Charlie, “I feel inferior.” “Oh,” says Lucy, “you shouldn’t worry about that. Lots of people have that feeling.” “What, that they’re inferior?” Charlie asks. “No,” Lucy replies, “that you’re inferior.” As one who loves witty work with words, I plead guilty to finding this exchange delicious. But some, I know, will find it a very weak joke, unfeeling, unfunny, and indeed cruel: vintage Lucy, in fact—no more, no less—mocking Charlie’s gloomy distress and implicitly endorsing his lugubrious self-assessment. It illustrates, however, how easily those who, rightly or wrongly, think themselves strong can rub in and make fester the sense of weakness that others already have. If people who feel weak did not very much dislike the feeling, the joke would not work at all; and if people who at present have no sense of weakness were more careful and restrained in the way they talk of others and to others, the world might be a less painful place.
Often linked with the sense of weakness—sometimes as cause, sometimes as effect—is the feeling of failure. The memory of having fallen short in the past can hang like a black cloud over one’s present purposes and in effect program one to fail again. Christian faith, prompting solid hope and promising present help, should dispel all such fears and expectations, but does not always do so, and the encouragement that one Christian should give to another who needs it is frequently in short supply.
The truth, however, is that in many respects, and certainly in spiritual matters, we are all weak and inadequate, and we need to face it. Sin, which disrupts all relationships, has disabled us all across the board. We need to be aware of our limitations and to let this awareness work in us humility and self-distrust, and a realization of our helplessness on our own. Thus we may learn our need to depend on Christ, our Savior and Lord, at every turn of the road, to practice that dependence as one of the constant habits of our heart, and hereby to discover what Paul discovered before us: “when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Cor. 12:10).
This article is adapted from Weakness Is the Way: Life with Christ Our Strength by J. I. Packer.
- Are Christ’s Human Limitations Permanent? (Stephen J. Wellum)
- An Open Letter to the Pastor about Embracing Weakness (Jeff Robinson Sr.)
- J. I. Packer on One of the Most Urgent Needs in the Church Today (J. I. Packer)