Embracing Weakness Will Change Your Life
By Jonathan Parnell | Feb 28, 2013 12:00 am
Achilles was a vicious warrior with a complicated history. In Homer’s Iliad we see him rise to the top as the preeminent player at the end of the Trojan War. His full backstory is melodramatic enough to make Downton Abbey blush, but suffice it to say that no one was quite like him. Achilles was simultaneously drunk in rage and meticulous in skill as he led the Greeks in battle. But most of us probably only know him because of his heel.
Achilles doesn’t die in Homer’s story but Greek legend says that he later suffered a mortal wound to the back of his foot. The “Achilles’ heel,” as it’s called today, has become one of the most popular idioms in Western culture. It refers to a person’s point of weakness leading to their downfall.
But that idea comes from Greek mythology, not Christian reality.
Here’s what I mean: Greek mythology shows us an invincible warrior with one weakness that when exploited leads to defeat; Christian reality shows us a dependent servant with thorough weakness that when exploited leads to triumph.
That’s our story. That’s the trail that Jesus blazes (1 Peter 2:21). A hero died for villains. Victory came through loss. Life was born out of death. Conquest was accomplished by suffering. The darkest night in history gave way to the brightest morning. In God’s economy, our weakness is one of our greatest assets.
Now what do we mean by weakness? The word has such a general meaning that we must sketch some type of definition before we go any further. First, let’s be clear about what weakness is not. The biblical concept of weakness does not mean the things we’re not good at. We’re tempted to think this way. It would be easier if weakness were contained to the things we stink at doing. But it’s much more pervasive than that. We can’t simply tip-toe around it.
Weakness is everywhere in the New Testament. Jesus told his disciples that, in contrast to the spirit, the flesh is weak (Mark 14:38). Luke, in Paul’s voice, refers to the weak as those who are economically disadvantaged (Acts 20:35). The Corinthian believers were weak in the social sense (1 Corinthians 1:26–27). The Book of Romans tells us that Jesus died for us while we were still weak, that is, while we were ungodly and lacked any possibility of deserving the slightest good (Romans 5:8). But we are also weak when we pray, when we lack the words or know-how (Romans 8:26). And then there are fellow Christians who are weak if they can’t get past judging others on matters of conscience (Romans 14:1–4). Also throw in this pile the physical infirmities that Paul seems to cite in 2 Corinthians 10:10, the thorn in the flesh in 2 Corinthians 12:7, and the litany of unpleasantness in 2 Corinthians 12:10. One way or another, we have felt the way the Bible speaks about weakness.
The context, of course, determines the specific meaning of weakness, but every use is connected back to the general idea of deficiency. If there were one broad explanation for weakness, it would be to lack. Weakness means we don’t have what it takes. It means we are neither sovereign nor omniscient, nor invincible. We are not in control, we don’t know everything, and we can be stopped. Weakness means that we desperately need God. And the plea for my own soul, and for yours, is that we would embrace weakness, not despise it.
The Impact of Embracing Weakness
When we embrace weakness, it means we’ve looked at ourselves long enough to know we can’t make it without looking to Another. Embracing weakness means we know we need God very badly. This discovery, as unenthusiastic as we may be about it, refuses to leave us alone until we’ve been changed, affecting our church, our communion, and our commission. Getting more specific, here are three ways that embracing our weakness impacts our lives.
1. Embracing weakness means that spiritual gifts are a big deal.
The church is a supernatural community, and we don’t do supernatural — God does. We’re too weak to fabricate the faith-building work we’re called to, no matter how unique our particular personalities may be. It comes from somewhere else, namely, as Ephesians 4:7–13 tells, the resurrected Christ.
In that passage, Paul quotes from Psalm 68 and pictures Jesus as a victorious king dispensing the spoils of his triumph. The ascension of Christ was his monarchial procession to the throne of Zion after defeating sin and death. This procession was more than bright lights and a hallelujah chorus. This king is a conqueror. He has scars. And one fruit of those scars is your pastor’s teaching gift. Or your small group leader’s relational wisdom. Or Mrs. Betty’s encouraging words.
When we see the victory of Christ in the gifts of others, our eyes become more grateful than critical. We celebrate instead of nit-pick. We are more moved by God’s awesome power than off-put by our arbitrary preferences. Jesus died for that gift. He died for your brother or sister to have that gift and for you to be built up by it. It’s a big deal.
2. Embracing weakness gives more vigor and peace in our relationship with God.
Vigor and peace is what John Owen says is at stake if we don’t mortify our sin. Vigor is the idea of our outward-facing activity. It is our labor in the Lord. Peace is the thing in the deep recesses of our souls. It’s the character of our silent prayers.
Embracing weakness brings a surge of vigor because we realize that our work must be in God’s power, not ours. It’s like trading in a bicycle for a Ferrari — there’s more horsepower.
Embracing weakness brings more peace because we realize afresh that God loves us by his grace, not because we’re strong. Our joy doesn’t rest in our ability, but in the approval God gives us in Christ, the one in whom he chose us before the ages began according to his own purpose and grace (2 Timothy 1:9).
3. Embracing weakness maximizes our fruitfulness.
When we are stuck on ourselves, we create a ceiling for God’s potential. We define possibilities by our capabilities, not his. And if you stare at yourself long enough, your capacity to dream will dwindle down to nothing. That is a safe and sad way to live, refusing to let your dreams extend beyond what you know for certain you can do on your own. It’s also a sign that you mistake yourself to be stronger than you are.
Knowing we are weak ruins self-sufficiency. We confess that we are severely flawed individuals who have no hope of doing any lasting good in this world unless a God who can raise the dead works through us. And that’s just it — a God who raises the dead does work through us. In fact, the immeasurable greatness of his power toward us is according to the power he worked in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places (Ephesians 1:19–20).
When we embrace our weakness, we know that God’s work must be done in God’s power. And if it’s on God, we can dream big. He is strong enough to do whatever he wants (Psalm 135:6). He is good enough to not spare his own Son but give him up for us all (Romans 8:32). And with a God that strong and that good, the question we must ask ourselves is what we are asking him. In the new heavens and new earth, when our faith becomes sight and we behold the glory of Christ, we will not think back to our time now and say, “You know, my dreams for God’s glory were way too big.”
We won’t ever say that. Because this is Christian reality, not Greek mythology.