Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Understanding Strength And Weakness

In Ephesians 4:1, Paul urges the believers in Asia Minor to live a life worthy of the calling they have received.  What is that calling?  Certainly, he speaks of unity and of maturity, but that is not our primary calling: rather, Paul goes on to speak in terms of specific calling – to be an apostle, a prophet, an evangelist, a shepherd or a teacher – a calling which is to be expressed in unity with the specific calling of other believers, for the purpose of attaining the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.  Paul knew his calling – to be an apostle – and urged others to discern their calling too.  How can we live a life worthy of the calling we have received if, unlike Paul, we don’t know what our calling is?

Here, at least in England, we run into a particular difficulty: a pious obsession that our gifts, strengths, and areas of competence are at worst a trap, causing us to operate without God; and at best irrelevant, because God’s strength is made perfect in our weakness.  After all, didn’t Jesus say this very thing to Paul himself?

No, he did not, and this pious obsession is a gross distortion of the passage it cites (2 Corinthians 12).

The weakness Jesus refers to in addressing Paul is a position of weakness that is caused by external opposition.  Writing to a church he established and where, in his absence, others have come in who oppose him, Paul recognises that this has been a recurring pattern in his ministry.  Indeed, he had broached the subject with Jesus no less than three times, making use of a scriptural phrase - ‘barbs in your eyes and thorns in your sides’ (Numbers 33:55, 56) – referring to people who, unless driven out, will lead God’s people away from him and into trouble.  In the past, Paul had followed the instruction of Numbers 33:55, 56, in persecuting the dangerous followers of the Way.  Such action is no longer open to him; instead he pleads with Jesus to intervene on his behalf.  Jesus responds (on the third occasion? repeated three times?), “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”  That the weakness he refers to is external is clear in Paul’s response, to “delight in weakness, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties.”

Commentators have tended to ignore the plainest meaning of Paul’s case, engaging in speculation as to the possible nature of a bodily condition that afflicts him (an eye complaint? malaria?).  While such suggestions are still distinguished from personality preference, they are sufficiently internalised as to facilitate the interpretation of ‘weakness’ as being ‘those things we are not gifted in’ and the case is therefore presented that God is more able to work through our incompetence.  If I had a Pound Sterling for every time I have heard such an argument, I’d be a rich man.

This may well tie in with a very English unease with competence (though if we are ever going to address that, the summer of our best ever Olympic performance – not to mention, delivering a spectacular Games – is as good a time as any).

Throughout history, God has looked for people to partner with him.  The idea that he would make you as a person with particular gifts and then prefer to ignore what he had made is ludicrous.

God will invite you to step outside of your comfort-zone, the sphere of your present competence, for a number of reasons including these:

because discovering what you are not gifted for is one of the ways in which we discover what we are gifted for;

because experiencing those things we are not gifted at is one of the ways in which we grow to appreciate the different gifts of others;

because persevering for a season in what is not our best preference adds depth and roundedness to our strengths;

because the starting place for all competency is incompetency.

However, Jesus’ intention for you is neither naive incompetence nor omni-competence.  It is that you discover your calling and grow into it, so that you can live a life worthy of that calling.  It is that each member of the body of Christ should fundamentally be the particular gift they were created to be, learning to work together as opposed to trying to be and to do what someone else was given to be and to do.

Too often we ask people to operate in what is not their calling, because that seems easier than identifying the person whose call is best suited (and, after all, Jesus’ power is made perfect in weakness).  It never seems to work in the long-term, but if we just do a better job of explaining why we need them perhaps we can keep them in that role longer...

When Paul wrote to the church in Asia Minor, he was experiencing the particular weakness of another external constraint: he was in prison.  This, however, did not equate to an undermining of his internal strength, his calling to be an apostle.  It simply meant that how that calling was worked-out looked different from when he was free – writing rather than travelling.

Right now, your external circumstances might be such as to put you in a position of weakness.  If so, know that Jesus’ grace is sufficient for you.

But that is not the same thing as having no regard for strength, for the gift Jesus has given you to be.

Play to your strengths.  Invest in them.  Allow the Lord to train you in them.  Let other people seek to constrain you with weakness if they so choose; but don’t give weakness your energy.  To paraphrase Jesus, “let it go: you attend to whom I have made you to be, and do it to the fullness of the gifting I have given you.”

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