When I am weak, then I am strong
North Carolina basketball fans are a humble bunch these days. Roy Williams, or The Man Who Would Be King, has humiliated us by choosing to stay at Kansas – wherever that is. Maybe you Wahoos out there are right — maybe God ain’t a Tarheel.
I just started learning to play golf this year – began right after the new year – and let me tell you, there’s no easier way to humble yourself than to pick up a golf club for the first time. Swinging a golf club is kind of like holding a divining rod – give him a club and any fool will find water every time.
I’ve just purchased a book by that great pop-psychiatrist-slash-theologian, M. Scott Peck, called Golf and the Spirit. Figured he could help me out, maybe let him get inside my head.
Peck talks of golf as a kind of a Golden Path to Spiritual Humility. He explains that golf is a mortifying process of ego-deconstruction, whereby the layers are painfully pulled off that giant smelly onion of human pride.
He says, “now why would anyone spend an enormous amount of time and money playing at something he will never be very good at, something that may often be humiliating?” He answers himself, “I play golf precisely because it is humiliating. While I don’t enjoy being humiliated, I do need it.”
It’s like the old T.V. ads where a man is slapped on the cheek, only to reply, “thanks, I needed that.”
They say golf started in Scotland among the shepherds, but I think it really started with the monks, as part of their routine of self-mortification and discipline of humiliation.
Interestingly, Dr. Peck talks about this self-humiliating process with the Greek work kenosis, which means “self-emptying.” This kind of self-humiliation isn’t so much getting really embarassed or ashamed, it has to do with a “self-emptying” process, whereby a person can let go of their pride, their hurt, and their self-concern and come down to earth for a little while.
Indeed, Dr. Peck has managed to adapt one of the oldest principles of Christianity for our pop-psychology culture. And you can see it pretty plainly in today’s Epistle, where Paul writes that “power is made perfect through weakness.”
Which is to say that, for whatever divine reason, God choses to send His redeeming Grace into a world dominated by great powers and principalities, by means of the most weak and fragile human vessels.
In Philippians, Paul writes that this is the whole mystery of Christ’s saving work, he says: “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves … and let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on the cross.”
It is this teaching of “power through weakness” that undergirds Paul’s writings to the constantly divided church in the wealthy and powerful provincial capitol of Corinth.
In today’s Epistle, in prophetic language which reminds me of Ezekiel, Paul recounts a vision he once had of God. He says “I know someone who 14 years ago was caught up to the third heaven, … where he heard things that are not to be told, and that no mortal is permitted to repeat.”
Paul gives this testimony of a prophetic vision to assert his apostolic authority to doubters in Corinth. The Scriptures show that in the Church that Paul founded in Cortinth, a small group of naysayers and subtle slanderers had made every effort to divide the congregation, and undermine the authority of Paul and his colleagues.
Yet instead of beating them over the head with his religious credentials, he referred to his divine commission, but also to his sense that he had no right to boast of any special power for his own sake. Moreover, instead of saying how strong he is, he says how weak he really he is. Paul talks about a painful affliction, which he calls a “thorn in the flesh,” an ailment which keeps him ever mindful of his mortality, weakness, and uncertain future on this Earth. Interestingly, many Bible scholars wonder if his ailment wasn’t some kind of chronic disease or disfigurement.
But despite very real anguish about his lot in life – and Paul makes it clear he does not wish to suffer – he has come to see that by Grace alone, “God’s power is made perfect in weakness.”
And in a reversal of the expected, Paul reveals himself to be truly wise. He does not go flaunting his special knowledge and experience — showing off his credentials and his unique friendship with the risen Lord, like some kind of bogus first century shaman.
Instead he says, yes, I have seen the risen lord – somehow – and while I can’t tell you much about it – I can show you that I am willing to accept any suffering and pain if that’s what I am called to do to proclaim the Good News of Jesus Christ.
Paul shows that a deep religious experience or even a once in a lifetime religious vision of God is not “the way” Christ calls people to pursue.
For certainly, if simply seeing Jesus is enough, what happened to Judas? What happened to Pontius Pilate? What happened to the people of Nazareth who could not see the power of the man Jesus, because they refused to hear and to see out of their pride of place which told them they did not need to stoop so low as to hear the son of the carpenter whom they had known all their lives?
No it was not just seeing that was believing for Paul. Rather, it was the fact that Grace found him in his humiliation and weakness, and empowered him to accept his humble place, with the hope that by his endurance in the name of the risen Lord, God’s will would be done on Earth.
What Paul actually did was to forsake his former life of privilege as a well-to-do citizen of Rome and Pharisee, to take on the heart of Jesus’ teaching that “the meak will inherit the earth,” by becoming an itinerant preacher and tent-maker. His life proclaimed the paradox that while faith in Christ is laughed at as weakness by the Powers and Principalities of this World, it is that weakness which has won the universe.
So what does this have to do us? We who live in a nation where the majority of people are simultaneously Christian, well-off and unpersecuted?
The Gospel message of “power in weakness” makes obvious sense to millions who suffer persecution for their faith in Africa and Asia. It made sense to those millions who heard the Gospel for the first time while in bondage to white slave-holders from Maryland to Brazil. I have met people in Honduras and Africa who have connected to the Gospel in this way.
But what sense can it make to us? The powerful ones?
Well, I think Dr. Peck is on to something. Not golf exactly, but the idea that those of us for whom power comes freely, for the sake of the Gospel, we need to be humiliated once in a while. Not just embarassed mind you, but humiliated.
Clearly, it was a lack of humility which prevented Jesus’ hometown folk from recognizing him. It was a lack of humility which prevented the people from hearing Ezekiel. And I know in my case when I’m not feeling a heart of Grace somedays, it’s probably because my heart is already filled up with boastful or bitter pride.
Yes, Paul could have boasted of his unique Spiritual gifts and his special knowledge. Likewise, he could have been bitter-proud of his suffering and sorrow, in the way that some deeply wounded people hold their pain inside until it becomes a spiritual cancer, pushing aside any room to receive the resurrecting graces of peace, joy and love.
But instead, Paul permitted himself to be weak, and he heard the voice of God who spoke to him in his weakness. He allowed God to fill the space created by an absence of Worldly powers with the true Spiritual power of grace.
Now we are not all so puffed up that we need to invent a way to humble ourselves. Indeed, life seems to offer plenty of thorns in the flesh to keep us from boasting of how great we’ve got it. Health, children, finances, jobs, relationships – they can humble us just as much as we need I think.
But whether we find our puffed up hearts are popped by thorns in the flesh, or just the real life brambles of being human, let us recall the good news. We were not created to possess the power of this World.
Rather, we were created, as fragile Earthen jars, for God to infuse with love alone.
And as the pop-psycologists might say, “hey, don’t think take real-life humiliation in a bad way – think of it as a first step towards eternal life.”