The Way of Weakness

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To those who are hedged in by helplessness, the secret of God’s Power is revealed.

Billy Graham once said, as I recall it, “If God takes his hands off me, my mouth will turn to stone.” For years this remark has impressed me, and I can echo its sentiments entirely.

Neatly filed in my office are my written notes for about four hundred messages. But actually delivering any one of them is always a step of faith. The same is true for every article I write. In a small way, each one is a work of faith, requiring a step of faith I am sometimes reluctant to take. Even though there are times when I look forward to finding just the right words to communicate a certain matter, still the feeling of my complete weakness and dependence is always noticeably present as I write.

To have to be so dependent is not naturally enjoyable to me. I like to be in control of things. To possess my own power, wisdom, knowledge, and skill gives me a feeling of safety. I know these things are there at my disposal if I need them. It’s like having something put away for a rainy day.

DIVINE DYNAMITE?

When Jesus went to heaven, he made it clear to his disciples that it would be impossible for them to bear witness to a crucified and resurrected Lord in their own strength. For this new Divine work, a new Divine Power was needed—a Power they would have to wait for. “Stay in the city,” Jesus told them, “until you have been clothed with power from on high” (Luke 24:49).

About ten days later, when they were baptized and filled with the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, they experienced this “power from on high.” A new era had begun.

If I were handed a stick of dynamite, I would have to decide what to do with it. Is being clothed with power from on high like that—like being given dynamite that I must choose how to use?

It’s easy for us to think that way, and even easier to live that way, for it gives us a feeling of safety. We possess something that is at our own disposal if we need it.

The Bible teaches us something different, though, as Andrew Murray writes in Spirit of Christ. It is not that the Holy Spirit’s power, wisdom, holiness, and love are at our disposal, to use as we please. Rather, the Holy Spirit has us at his disposal. Otherwise we might become self-sufficient and less dependent on God than before.

To be filled with the Spirit means receiving a personal Power within, someone with a will of his own and a goal of his own. This Power rules over me. He is not something stored in my house, but a “General” who has made his quarters there. He is the Spirit of Christ, toward whom the appropriate attitude is, Lord, what do you want me to do?

Giving this Person room in my life does not take away my feeling of dependence—the same feeling of dependence that Billy Graham described—but rather drastically increases it.

WEAKNESS AND STRENGTH TOGETHER

Andrew Murray writes of how God thus links weakness and strength in our lives in an extraordinary way. It is not that strength follows weakness—”At first I felt very weak indeed, but then I felt strong.” No, God allows weakness and strength to exist side by side at the same time.

So it is that the apostle Paul says, “When I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:10). These words seem contradictory when we first see them. After all, when we are weak, we are certainly not strong, but dependent and vulnerable. How then can one who is weak speak of being strong?

We must look in the previous verse for the secret behind Paul’s words. There God says to him, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” The more clearly we feel and confess our weakness, the more we can look to God in faith and expect his powerful help.

So weakness has a faith-strengthening effect, if we approach it in a spiritual way. It makes us seek fellowship with God. We become more serious in shunning sin. We ask God more to help us. We gain a deeper recognition of our own powerlessness, and, consequently, a greater expectation that God’s power will work through us.

“I waited patiently for the Lord,” David says in Psalm 40:1. Why did he wait? Because he had encountered difficulties in his life, and was now reacting in a spiritual way to his feeling of weakness. David called to the Lord in his anxiety, and God heard him and saved him from danger.

“He put a new song in my mouth,” David says at the end of this dark period, “a hymn of praise to our God. Many will see and fear and put their trust in the Lord.” David was not praising his own skill or hard work, for his feelings of weakness and vulnerability did not leave him. In the last verse of this psalm he says, “Yet I am poor and needy.” But his weakness had strengthened his faith, and brought him closer to God. When David was weak, he was strong.

WHOSE PRISONER?

Paul was one who struggled much with feelings of weakness, because of the many difficult situations God allowed in his life. He faced not only his “thorn in the flesh” (2 Corinthians 12:7), but also opposition from the Jews, problems in the churches, dangers during his travels, and so on. Yet all these did not make him become “frustrated”—the word we use so often these days—but instead helped him learn to trust completely in God’s dealings with his servant.

Paul often called himself “a prisoner of Christ Jesus.” He was not the prisoner of Jews, Romans, arrogant Corinthians, or whomever else made things difficult for him. Nor was he imprisoned by sickness or any other circumstance that made an assault on his time, health, and life. Paul saw in everything and behind everything his Savior, who said of Paul, “This man is my chosen instrument to carry my name before the Gentiles and their kings and before the people of Israel. I will show him how much he must suffer for my name” (Acts 9:15–16).

In past years I have often prayed, “Lord, make me an instrument in your hand; speak through me and work through me.” I am discovering more and more that praying in this way increasingly brings me into situations in which I feel powerless and vulnerable, and therefore weak.

In such conditions we now and then think to ourselves that if God doesn’t do something soon, disaster is inevitable. At that moment we have to make a choice to either look to God, who says, “I am with you,” or else get trapped in feelings of frustration, fear, or self-pity.

BREAKABLE JARS

In 2 Corinthians 4:7, Paul said that we possess God’s all-surpassing power “in jars of clay,” so that it will be obvious that this power comes from God and not from us. The Greek word translated here as “jar” is the same one Jesus used in Acts 9 to describe Paul as his chosen “instrument.”

Paul is saying that he is an instrument of clay, vulnerable and breakable, so that it is clear that the power does not come from the weak instrument, but is rather a Power that uses the instrument. And the instrument, of course, allows this to happen through faith and complete surrender.

I recently attended a meeting of leaders of different Christian organizations. As each one spoke, I thought, We are a group of clay jars, a bunch of vulnerable, breakable instruments. We’ll have to sit carefully here or else someone will be damaged!

EMPTIED AND FILLED

May God use us in the coming years as his chosen, vulnerable instruments, helping us become more and more empty of ourselves, our dreams, our ambitions, our securities—and more and more filled with his grace and power.

Being made “emptier”—by unemployment, for example—may occasionally make us feel humiliated and even hopeless and panic-stricken. But if we learn to look to the Lord, we can say, “When I am weak, I am strong; I am poor and needy, but the Lord put a new song in my mouth. Many will see, and will put their trust in the Lord!”


On Your Own

Our experience of the Holy Spirit’s power comes not only when circumstances around us force us into weakness, but also when we willingly choose the Christlike way of weakness—regardless of the circumstances around us, and in spite of the temptations to rely on human strength.

  1. Was Christ relying on the Holy Spirit as he journeyed down his life-road toward Calvary? To help you answer this question, what evidence do you see in Hebrews 9:14?
  2. Study carefully 1 Corinthians 2:1–5. What do you find most impressive about the apostle Paul’s attitudes and actions as they are described here?
  3. Tell in your own words what Galatians 5:25 means, based on what you learn in the verses around it.
  4. How would you depict that kind of behavior that is opposite to what is taught in Ephesians 4:2–3?
  5. Perhaps our most desperate experience of weakness is our inability to pray as we desire to and need to. Notice in Romans 8:26–27 how the Holy Spirit helps us in this regard. How can the truth of this passage help you to understand and obey the command in Ephesians 6:18?

“Prayer and helplessness are inseparable. Only he who is helpless can truly pray” (O. Hallesby). Spend a few moments talking with God about your weaknesses, and asking for his help in all these areas.


This article was originally published in issue 16 of the Discipleship Journal. It’s author, Gert Doornenbal, oversaw the ministry of The Navigators in the Netherlands and Scandinavia.

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