“A humble man is not afraid of failure. In fact, he is not afraid of anything, even himself, since perfect humility implies perfect confidence in the power of God.”
— Thomas Merton
Primary Scripture: Genesis 3:6-11, 3:21, 4:1-16
And Psalm 33:13-22, 2 Corinthians 12:1-10, Matthew 11:25-30
A friend recently told me a funny story about an application for a mission trip that he had to fill out. The first question on the form was, ‘what are your strengths?’ And it gave a list of many potential strengths with a box to check for each. So, my friend went through and checked the boxes for his strengths. Then the form asked, what are your weaknesses? And my friend said, well, my weaknesses are all the boxes I didn’t check!
And I thought, yeah, that’s about right for all of us, isn’t it? We have our strengths, and it feels good to check off those boxes. But what are our weaknesses? Everything else! To be human is to be finite; it’s to be limited. God is infinite, and we are not. From the most meager single cell organism to the greatest archangel, all of God’s creatures have limitations. Before our infinite God, we are all weak.
But, of course, God gives us many strengths; those are not incidental. And we all love our strengths, we’re very grateful for them, and that’s as it should be.
But the question I want to put in front of you today is this: we can love our strengths, but can we love our weaknesses? Our inadequacy? Our frailty? Even our moral weakness, can we love that?
Paul said to the Corinthians, “I boast in my weakness.” What a statement that is! And it’s not just a throwaway line. Paul spends a lot of time in his letters to the Corinthians highlighting his weakness. He truly does boast in his weakness. Are you able to do that? I’ve often read that line in Paul and felt like, I believe that Paul could do that. I’m not sure I believe that I can.
We talked last week about Adam and Eve, and how in desiring to become shrewd, they found themselves nude. The fruit of the good and evil knowledge tree gave them eyes to notice something they never had before: their nakedness, their frailty, their weakness, their vulnerability. Rather than trusting in the good word that God had spoken over them, rather than trusting God’s judgment about their worth and abilities, they began to judge one another and themselves, and it was suddenly apparent to them that they could be found wanting. Suddenly they noticed how naked they truly were.
So, they covered up. They hid from God and each other. And humanity has been finding new ways to hide and new, more elaborate coverings ever since. We change our clothes, we change our bodies, we give ourselves fancy titles. We act tough; or we play dumb. And like Adam and Eve, we’re always pointing the finger of blame at somebody else.
I used to do poorly on applications and interviews, because when they would ask about my weaknesses I would begrudgingly answer the question honestly – like a dummy! But then somebody told me that you’re not supposed to do that. When you tell them about your weaknesses, always make it a weakness that in some way highlights one of your strengths. “Oh, I have this terrible habit of always being right on time to work!”
We live in a culture that teaches us to love our strengths, to use them as coverings, but to hate our weaknesses. Don’t let anyone find out about those. And the reason we’re so guarded, is that we so often find ourselves in competition with one another.
Today we read the age-old tale of brothers in competition. When Cain feels that Abel has one-upped him, he murders him. When someone else’s success reveals our inadequacy, it’s as if they’ve ripped off our covering. We feel naked and vulnerable, and our instinct tells us fight or flight – or even revenge. Most people these days don’t use physical violence, but we look for ways to tear that other person down, to cut them down to size.
It seems to me that our contemporary culture is now in a somewhat extreme place about this. As we’ve turned away from God over the last century, the idea that our value was rooted in a loving God who made us has gradually disappeared. So, the burden of self-esteem falls more and more on the individual.
And that’s what has given rise to things like the self-esteem movement. Do you remember that? It began in the late 60s and had its peak in the 80s and 90s. It’s what taught the school teachers and parents of my generation that the way to make sure your kids grow up happy, healthy, and successful was to boost their self-esteem with much praise and never let them feel like they were inferior to anyone else.
So, we were showered with compliments and given trophy after trophy just for showing up. New games were invented for us that did not involve competition. Some schools did away with grades altogether. And we were often instructed to sit in a circle and give one another lavish compliments.
Whenever we spotted an example of our own inferiority to another person, we were implicitly taught to say, “I’m as good as you,” “I deserve as much success and praise as anyone.” Not from the perspective of all people being equal in God’s sight, but just as a matter of principle. But that is a fiction that is hard to maintain. C.S. Lewis’s demon character, Screwtape, explained it like this:
“No man who says I'm as good as you believes it. He would not say it if he did. The St. Bernard never says it to the toy dog, nor the scholar to the dunce. The claim to equality is made only by those who feel themselves to be in some way inferior. What it expresses is precisely the itching, smarting, writhing awareness of an inferiority which the person refuses to accept.
And true to Lewis’s words, the self-esteem movement has since been widely criticized by researchers, because far from building self-esteem, it fostered a sense of insecurity and helplessness in our generation as we transitioned to adulthood.
I dredge all of this up not to criticize; Millennials get a lot of flak for being coddled, but keep in mind they weren’t the ones doing the coddling. This has roots in cultural trends that go back decades if not centuries, and it affects all of us.
The point I’m making is this: People in our day, perhaps more than any other, are taught to hate our weaknesses. We’re taught to make excuses, to cover our nakedness, to deny it, or to pretend that our nakedness is actually fine clothing. And that gets exhausting. It’s spiritually draining. And woe to us when we are inevitably confronted with a deep personal failing that we cannot explain away, because we are among the least prepared of all generations to handle it.
To this, Jesus says, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”
And we might want to say, well, at least our Christian culture is a cure for all of that. It can be. It can be a wonderful cure. But I wonder if some of our American Christian culture hasn’t been one of the roots of this cultural trend. Too often, Christian communities have been known as places where people put on a good face, where we look good on a Sunday, where we wash our hands of our most inoffensive sins and then point our fingers at the world. It’s not for nothing that people don’t think of the church as a sanctuary for sinners.
Like Paul, in following Christ we must learn to boast in our weakness. How then, can we get the confidence to do that?
Look again at Genesis and see what God does in the face of human failings. He doesn’t say to Adam and Eve, you’re supposed to be naked, so take off those fig leaves. Nor does he allow them to make their own clothes. Instead he condescends to clothe them Himself.
Many commentators say that the use of skins is a kind of sacrifice of atonement, a sacrificial death was necessary to cover their nakedness. This points forward to the OT sacrifices of atonement in the temple, which in turn points us to Christ. And look what Paul tells the Galatians, “all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.” That’s God’s ultimate response to our nakedness. Christ goes in our place, naked to the cross – so that we might be clothed in Him.
Finding us naked, suffering under the burden of our limitations, faults, failings, sins, and all our many methods of covering up and hiding, God clothes us with Christ. His fullness covers us, and whatever gain we had in our earthly accolades we can count as loss because of the surpassing greatness of being found in him.
It’s life changing to know that our faults and sins are covered, but Paul is not only saying that his nakedness has been covered, he’s saying that in Christ, it becomes for him a strength. Paul says he wants to boast in his weakness so that the power of Christ may dwell in him more powerfully. How does that work?
Well, it can be a bit mysterious. Something very powerful happens in community when we become honest about our weaknesses. It gets our egos out of the way. We allow Christ to work in our lives, and we allow others to see that happening. We stop taking credit for the things that God has done and is doing in us, and start glorifying Him through both our strengths and weaknesses. Thomas Merson would say that we can appreciate and love our moral weakness when we see how it points us toward God’s mercy. And when I am able to let that moral weakness be known, to let it be known that any moral strength I have comes from the power of Christ working in me through the Holy Spirit, when I let it be known that I am weak, but He is strong, God can use that to minister through me to other people.
That’s still a bit abstract, so let me give you an example of what that can look like. A great example of ministering out of weakness is seen in Alcoholics Anonymous. AA doesn’t attempt to cure people of their addiction. Instead it encourages members to own their weakness and trust in a higher power to help them stay sober.
I have a good friend who has been in AA for years, and it’s amazing to see the way that he and these other long term guys minister to one another. Their awareness of their own limitations becomes a powerful tool of encouragement and support. When they see one of their fellows starting to slip, they don’t say, ‘be strong like us.’ They say, ‘Remember that we are weak, remember that we are dependent. Remember that our strength comes from a higher power.’
AA is, of course, based on what the church should be like. The church is a hospital for sinners, where everyone is both a nurse and a patient. You can only be a nurse if you can admit that you are a patient. And the more you know that you are a patient, the better of a nurse you will be. It’s an amazing sort of hospital that is full of nurses, but where there is only one doctor, Jesus himself.
Therefore, nourished in the sacraments and empowered by the Holy Spirit, we have incredible potential to be a community of healing for a hurting world. We can take this gospel into our lives, our workplaces, our family life and neighborhoods, and be known as people who aren’t afraid to be vulnerable, people who can take criticism or fail with dignity and grace, and respond to insults with love. In this way, we are all ministers through whom Christ works in our communities.
Henri Nouwen puts it like this:
"Ministers are powerless people who have nothing to boast of except their weaknesses. But when the Lord whom they serve fills them with His blessing they will move mountains and change the hearts of people wherever they go."