Strength, Weakness, and the Strength of Weakness

I spent part of the spring and early summer doing a little physical therapy because lately my elbows and right shoulder have been bothering me when I climb.  So once every two weeks I’d make my way to see a man who I consider to be a genius when it comes to helping people heal and maximize the capacity of the their body.  It turns out that his assistant attends the church I lead, and so we ended up having all kinds of brief discussions during my visits about school, literature, calling, vocation, the mountains, and more.

My last visit led to a conversation about a mission trip she’d made to Central America, and a discussion of how vast the needs are down there for physical therapy.  You see, the stakes are so much higher there.  They’re not trying to sustain an esoteric hobby into their senior years like I am – they need PT so that they can do their jobs.  And then she said something that, of all the thousands of conversations I’ve had this summer, has stuck with me perhaps more than any other phrase.  She said, “they’re better at living with pain than we are”.  She walked away to see another patient as electrical impulses began stimulating my shoulder and elbow.  I tried to check my e-mail while sitting there, but her comment had pierced me  Better at living with pain.

Later in the summer, I had a brief conversation with someone who was helping us move our piano from the living room to the bedroom because we were getting our floors refinished, and though I can’t remember the exact words, he was questioning our western obsessions with retirement, security, and the pursuit of “the good life”.   His words also struck a chord.

The very next day, I hopped on a float plane to go speak on an island for a week, and since the subject was the minor prophets, a single phrase in Zechariah 8:9 (“let your hands be strong”) served to bring the summer’s two powerful phrases together and force the question:  What exactly does it mean to be strong? 

Though the answer is surely worthy of more than a blog post, I’d suggest that it’s critical for us in the west to deconstruct our notions of strength, clearing the deck so that we can think more like Christ followers, and less like people insulated from the ravages of the fall that affect the vast majority in our world.  Strength, in other words, isn’t really about machismo – climbing into your sixties or seventies, running marathons, doing cross fit.  Those aren’t inconsequential or meaningless, and they’re perhaps a form of strength (for another post sometime) but when Zechariah says “let your hands be strong”, he’s speaking of something different.  I know these because just a few paragraphs earlier in his writings, the Lord says that the mountains will become a plain, “not by might, nor by power, but by my spirit”.

In other words, there’s a strength available to us in Christ that’s independent of bench pressing, or machismo:

Strong enough to confess, or forgive, to say the hard thing or hear it.

Strong enough to serve others even when you’re in the midst of your own deep valley.

Strong enough to rejoice and get on with what needs to be done, even if you’re in pain.

Strong enough to be grateful, joyful, and persevere through trials with grace.

Strong enough to open live with the intention of being a blessing to others.

Strong enough, yes, even to lay down your life.

These strengths are seen at the best when the strength of Christ is free to shine through us, and here’s the kicker:  Jesus tells us that His strength is made perfect right in the midst of our weakness, and this leaves me wondering if our obsessions towards a weakness free, and suffering free life, aren’t in fact making us weak.

Perhaps this explains why the hearts of joy, generosity, forgiveness, and servant hearts in Rwanda seem so to be much stronger than my own.  Helmet Theilicke said that one of the major problems in the western church is that we have an inadequate view of suffering.  I’m beginning to understand what he means, especially when our attempts to avoid all personal suffering create a sense of withdrawal from joy, service, and so much more as we tell ourselves, “as soon as I fix this, I’ll get back to serving and rejoicing”.  The trouble is that in this fallen world, tendonitis goes away, and then it’s allergy season.  After that there’s a ski injury, 0r worse, a real disease, and we’re back on the bench, out of God’s story.

No – we’re in God’s story today, or should be – right in the midst of our weaknesses.  That’s why Paul said that he’d learned to glory in his weakness rather than obsess about fixing it.  “For when I am weak, then I am strong” is whathe said, and I think that many of us in the West will spend the rest of our lives trying to fully understand what he meant, and live into the reality of it.

I welcome your thoughts…

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  • Alana

    Great thoughts, Richard, thank you. I especially like this observation: “Jesus tells us that His strength is made perfect right in the midst of our weakness, and this leaves me wondering if our obsessions towards a weakness free, and suffering free life, aren’t in fact making us weak.” It is good to be reminded that we need to daily (even moment to moment) rely on Christ’s strength, not our own. This is something I am trying to do more and more – especially as I am constantly reminded of my own weakness, selfishness, and shortcomings in parenting 3 young children.

  • Sonya


    I’m going through a particularly tough time right now in big foundational stuff: work satisfaction and relationship, so your words remind me that I reap what I’ve sown. I need to feel this pain and stress right now to fully integrate what I want and don’t want in my life. At times I don’t feel strong enough. Like i just want to disappear for a little while, run off to Italy and redefine myself. However wonderful that may sound (Italy is always an option), running away from my problems only delays the inevitable. By embracing my discontent and my weakness, i can fully move into my strength.

  • Good thoughts and observations, thank you for writing. I’ve noticed in the preceding months that I’ve been reading your writing that you often write through a sociocultural and global prospective. You seem to have a real interest in history, global concerns, and teaching. All good qualities and topics to take into account, especially when ministering to specific communities, such as Bethany in the PNW.

    I’m often drawn to your comparisons between Western and developing societies, such as Africa and Rwanda, and the comparisons you make to the differences in quality of life, access to resources, ect and the almost inverted relationship these individuals have with forgiveness, mercy, hope, love (etc)–the point being that, while there is an obvious and immense amount of outward suffering, lending to a view of disappointment, anger, frustration (etc) that would be justifiable by most, there is actually a greater sense of the virtues mentioned above when *compared to our own circumstances and suffering*.

    It is the *when compared to our own* framework that I am zoning in on. Do you think it is possible–I want to say in addition to, or beyond the framework or objective to broaden perspectives, help people immerse from their own grievances and come to understandings of the greater, cumulative suffering of mankind we all share, etc. (all of which are efficacious and quality approaches to both teaching and ministering)–that there is also a possible effect of missing and/or perhaps even invalidating (though not intentionally) the types or portions of suffering or strength others or yourself (as I notice you referenced) are experiencing or encompassing? It is, of course, impossible to make statements or send clear messages without contradicting some other perspective or message that you may in fact agree with, too, which I understand. On one side of a true statement often lays another contradictory truth which, given an alternating perspective or context, we often agree with, too.

    However, is “pain” not “pain” regardless of the situation causing it? Is “strength in weakness” not seen in innumerable forms, even if some are less equally recognized than others? What is painful or struggling for one individual may be less physically or emotionally provoking for another, and various outward situations may indeed impact individuals exactly the same, regardless of the objective experience. For example, a mother than lose a son in an accident in which he died, and another lose one’s presence in her life for some reason and though he physically still lives, *experience* the same loss, grieving, and trauma as the mother whose son was killed.

    I just wonder if–given that we live in a society obsessed with comparisons, good or bad, prideful and arrogant or insecure and undermining–continuing that approach is beneficial or if we are missing the opportunity to see the commonalities and shared experiences among us all, despite our tendency to “measure” or differentiate our portions. Both approaches have a time and place, and it is really more of an open-ended and rhetorical question than anything…

    I appreciate the re-iterated message that we should find the Lord and His strength across all settings and in all situations. Thank you for sharing.

  • Richard, this post resonates with me so much… First off, living in Costa Rica currently, I totally agree with what your PT said about people down here being able to live with pain better. It’s so true. And because I recognize this reality, as well as my own propensity to run away from any pain or suffering, it’s something that’s really been on my mind lately as I’ve struggled with my own ‘trials’ and even just petty discontentment. I just wrote about it on our blog actually… I feel like as a ‘missionary’, or really just as a Christ-follower, I should be super awesome at ‘practicing contentment’ or ‘rejoicing in my sufferings’ but in reality like everyone else (especially Westerners) I feel so weak when I’m struggling and when I don’t ‘have it all together.’ But I’m realizing more and more to be okay in my weakness, and I’m really learning that like you said that Christ’s strength will be made perfect in the midst of our weakness. We just have to be strong enough to admit our weaknesses and to let Him work in them. Thank you so much, as always, for your blog posts and teachings. Joe and I miss Bethany a lot!