This is the final post of a series called “Wanted: Weak Christians.” Here are the other posts:
Wanted: Weak Christians (1 of 5) — Introduction
Wanted: Weak Christians (2 of 5) — Who Are They?
Wanted: Weak Christians (3 of 5) — How Are They Indispensable?
Wanted: Weak Christians (4 of 5) — Advice to the Strong
Wanted: Weak Christians (5 of 5) — The Power of the Powerless
He is blind and has been blind since birth. He can neither see nor speak, though occasionally he laughs. His head is large, and his hands are small. His legs are twisted, and his feet are as tiny as a five-year-old’s. He can’t learn. He can’t even lift his head. He has to be spoon-fed and sponge-bathed, and someone has to change his diapers. Sometimes he has convulsions, rattling not only the frame of his bed but the hearts of those who love him…
Who would think that in that bed was the power to move presidents? Who would think that muteness could be so eloquent? That blindness could open so many eyes? Who would think that so many lives would be uplifted by someone who couldn’t lift his own head?
You would. You would think those things. If you had been to Oliver’s room…
So writes Ken Gire, in his forward to Christopher de Vinck’s memoir about his brother, Oliver. Few books have moved me as powerfully as this one.
From the bed in Oliver’s room comes a glimmer of Bethlehem. If you will not look away, you will see something of what was revealed in the straw and swaddling clothes of the manger.
You will see the power of the powerless.
It is the way God works in a world that idolizes strength and worships the means of attaining it. “His strength is perfected in weakness,” is the way the Bible puts it. And weakness is what you find when you come to Oliver’s room.1
The book is called The Power of the Powerless. Henri J. M. Nouwen writes the introduction:
Chris… writes about… people who by many are considered misfits, vegetables, tragic flaws of nature, people about whom many feel that it would have been better if they had not been born. But for Chris these people are God’s messengers, they are the divine instruments of God’s healing presence, they are the ones who bring truth to a society full of lies, light into the darkness, and life into a death-oriented world.2
If the words of Gire and Nouwen resonate with you, read de Vinck’s book for yourself. His brother Oliver illustrates the central point of this blog series: “weak” people are indispensable in Jesus’ church.
“In patristic thought the theme recurs that believers need those to whom they can show active care, protection, support, and love,” writes Thiselton. “Otherwise they cannot serve as Christ served ‘for others.’” 3 We need “weak” Christians, and God intentionally composed Christ’s church to include them.
“The church is a school for sinners, not a museum for saints.”4 This witticism, Thiselton notes, “underlines that a church made up only of self-styled ‘gifted’ elite would not be the church of Christ.”5
IS WEAKNESS ALWAYS GOOD?
Weakness and mutual suffering are not the sum total of God’s purposes for us, of course. His eternal design includes much more. That body you inhabit, which is the scene of so much dishonor and weakness? “It is sown in dishonor; it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness; it is raised in power” (1 Cor. 15:43).
Even now, what was true of the blind man in John 9 is also sometimes true of us: He was born blind, not because he or his parents had sinned, true enough, but also not because God intended for him to remain blind his entire life. Rather, he was born blind “that the works of God might be displayed in him”—the works, that is, of God healing him and thus demonstrating that Jesus was sent from God (John 9:3).
If this blind man had resisted being healed by Jesus, his weakness would have missed its purpose. What about us?
And should we really lump all forms of weakness together as equal? Surely it is not only the “strong” who should seek to become skilled physicians of the soul who can distinguish between different soul diseases. Those who are “weak” must likewise seek to be honest about the mix of physical, emotional, and spiritual causes of their weaknesses, submitting to God’s grace for each.
It is also true that, though weaknesses need not destroy our usefulness in the church in general, they may limit our usefulness for specific missions. Well-meaning Christians won’t always agree when this is the case; recall Paul and Barnabas splitting ways over John Mark (Acts 15:37-40).
We do not know what sort of weakness (spiritual? emotional? physical?) caused Mark to “withdraw” from the “work” of Paul’s first missionary trip. Whatever the cause, Paul experienced Mark’s withdrawal as an indication that he could not be trusted to persevere in the hard work of traveling gospel ministry. Yet Mark’s life contains many lessons for both “weak” and “strong” Christians. Consider:
- Barnabas took Mark with him on a mission trip to Cyprus; quite likely he proved useful there under his cousin Barnabas’s softer leadership.
- Mark later proved to be “very useful” to Paul “for ministry” (2 Tim. 4:11).
- Mark was humble enough that, despite having been rejected by Paul, he was willing to again be one of Paul’s “fellow workers” (Phm. 1:24).
- Paul was humble enough to call Mark “very useful,” to count him as a “fellow worker,” and to make a special point of insisting that others “welcome him” (Col. 4:10).
- Mark’s great usefulness was revealed most powerfully when he wrote his Gospel.
Was it wise for Paul to refuse to take Mark along on his return missionary trip? We really don’t have enough data to answer that question well. What we do know is that “weak” Mark proved indispensable to the Church for all ages.
Mark’s story also suggests that “weak” Christians may grow in strength and usefulness. Similarly, right after our key passage about God honoring the weak, Paul urges us to “earnestly desire the higher gifts” (1 Cor. 12:31). We should not assume that God intends for us to remain lacking in new gifts that could equip us for new forms of service.
LOVE, WEAKNESS, AND THE GOSPEL
But something is even more important than “the higher gifts.” Something is better even than if all of us possessed all the gifts, better than if we all appeared strong and bursting with honor. “I will show you a still more excellent way” (1 Cor. 12:31).
That more excellent way is the way of love (1 Cor. 13). And in this broken world, love blossoms most fragrantly in Christ’s body when we do not each possess all the gifts that are most honored among us. Love blooms most fully when some of us appear weak.
And so we rest in God’s design. “God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose” (1 Cor. 12:18).
If simply getting out of bed in the morning to feed your family requires every ounce of your of faith, then perhaps God says of you as Jesus said of the widow who put two small coins into the temple offering box:
Truly, I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all of them. For they all contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty put in all she had to live on. (Luke 21:3-4)
Perhaps this widow overheard Jesus’ words. If so, imagine how honored she felt!
Witherington reminds us that the same sort of honor must be given to the seemingly weak within the church:
Paul’s word about giving more honor to the weaker members of the body of Christ, the less “presentable” ones, needs to be heeded. He believes that even these folk have essential gifts and functions to exercise. It is a mistake to bring the world’s evaluative system into the ekklēsia and to set up an honor roll that favors the more presentable and dignified, or those with the more outwardly showy or dramatic gifts. Paul believes that the body of Christ is only truly strong when it gives special honor and attention to its weakest members. The more presentable members do not need such attention.6
In offering honor to its weakest members, the church displays something that is essential to the gospel message itself. Listen to Paul’s description of those whom God has gathered around the “folly” of cross:
God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. (1 Corinthians 1:27-29)
Paul was speaking, in part, about himself. Later he contrasts himself and the other authentic apostles with the arrogant Corinthians:
I think that God has exhibited us apostles as last of all, like men sentenced to death, because we have become a spectacle to the world, to angels, and to men. We are fools for Christ’s sake, but you are wise in Christ. We are weak, but you are strong. You are held in honor, but we in disrepute. To the present hour we hunger and thirst, we are poorly dressed and buffeted and homeless… We have become, and are still, like the scum of the world, the refuse of all things. (1 Cor. 4:9-13, emphasis added)
Again, this “weakness” was not a distraction from Paul’s ministry. Nor was it a mere happenstance, a set of circumstances that was neither here nor there. Rather, this “weakness” was essential to the nature of the gospel Paul was preaching. It was essential for the display of God’s grace.
Jesus’ weakness in the manger was an essential element of the gospel story. His weakness on the cross was crucial for our salvation. Just so, our weakness today remains an indispensable part of the good news of God’s mighty kingdom.
“My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness,” the Lord assured Paul (2 Cor. 12:9).
The Lord’s assurance is for us, too. Therefore we, like Paul, can respond with courage: “I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me.”
Are you weak? Do others consider you weak?
Do not despair. Your weakness is exactly what God needs to complete his composition.
He chose you. He placed you. His design is that “the power of Christ” will “rest upon” you.
You may appear weak, dishonorable, and even unpresentable. But you are indispensable.
God needs you. Your weakness is God’s gift to his church.
(Dare I preach this even to myself? “God needs me. My weakness is God’s gift to his church.” I believe. Help thou my unbelief!)
Trust the Artist. Someday we will see that every shadow has enhanced his glory and our joy.
Thank you for reading this blog series. I would love to hear your feedback. What is your experience of strengths and weaknesses in the church? Where have you seen Christians do well or poorly in how we honor the “weak” among us? What have I missed in my exposition? Please share your insights in the comments below. Thank you!
- Ken Gire, foreword to The Power of the Powerless, by Christopher de Vinck (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1995), 9-10. Bold print added. ↩
- Henri J. M. Nouwen, introduction to The Power of the Powerless, by Christopher de Vinck (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1995), 18. ↩
- Thiselton, ibid., 1008. ↩
- On page 287 of The Thiselton Companion to Christian Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2015), Thiselton credits this quote to “J.C. Wand.” Though I have not been able to find the original source, my research confirms that this Wand is otherwise known as John William Charles Wand, Anglican bishop of London after World War II. ↩
- Thiselton, First Epistle, 1008. ↩
- Witherington, ibid., 263. ↩