We’ve recently been hearing about the ways sacrificial love plays out in middle class Tanzanian marriages. And Tamie’s been reflecting on American Gospel, a polemical film dealing with prosperity teaching.
And I’ve been thinking again about how my understanding of ‘weakness’ in the New Testament has changed.
In Australia, we have a theological shorthand surrounding the phrase ‘God’s power is made perfect in weakness,’ and we use this as a response to our false belief in our self-sufficiency. We are ‘strong’ when we expect to achieve things by ourselves, but this fails to account for our inadequacies and failings. Therefore we appeal to ‘weakness’ when we’re feeling at our limits, when we’re tired, when we’re overwhelmed, when things start to go wrong. When our efforts fall short, God can carry things forward—and that’s the power of weakness, of knowing that it’s not all up to us. God works through our failures and fallibility. I saw this expressed very recently by Michael Jensen:
What I needed to know was, once more, another theological, deeply Biblical reality: that where I am weak, he is strong. I needed to know that his treasure is in a jar of clay. My fragility is real and is my strength. And God is not thwarted in his purpose by either of them.
This is weakness as personal fragility, and it certainly rings true theologically. Yet I also reckon that our source material is getting at something other than this, something that’s hard to put our finger on because it comes from a different cultural mindset, one in which talk of weakness is also a question of honour and status.
Let me float a few pieces to the puzzle.
Immediately following the phrase ‘My power is made perfect in weakness,’ Paul says that he delights ‘in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties’ (2 Corinthians 12:10). This connects weakness not with things arising from within, but things done to him or thrust upon him. When in the preceding passage Paul ‘boasts’ about his weakness (chapter 11), he speaks of his life being in danger. Already this takes the sense beyond that of personal fragility as we use it.
Yet weakness also seems to go beyond physical and emotional hardships. Paul apparently speaks of his escape from Damascus as a weakness, as well as a visionary experience, and also a tormentor (I understand the ‘thorn’ to be a person). He refers to ‘insults’ and ‘persecutions.’ Weakness thus seems to encompass social hardships, things that make Paul an object of ridicule and contempt, and/or result from that. These may be lasting: social handicaps that people can continue to hold against him long after his body and mind have recovered.
We get a stronger sense of all this when we look at the crucifixion and Paul’s desire to walk Jesus’ path of suffering for himself. Think of the crucifixion less in terms of a breakable body, and more in terms of a naked man pinned up for public degradation and humiliation. The Gospels concentrate on not the physical injuries done to Jesus but the social injuries: the public spectacle, the insults and mockery, the awful coronation role play. We may assume these are the kind of weaknesses Paul is registering for himself in pursuit of a Christ-like death.
The clay jars add to this social sense of weakness. We typically read the image as one of fragility because we see clay jars as breakable. Elsewhere however, Paul draws a different distinction: the clay jars are contrasted with gold and silver jars because of their purpose and status (2 Timothy 2:20-21; Tamie first got us thinking about this in 2010). Clay jars are mundane, low, dirty, unseemly—it’s the compost bucket in contrast to the tableware. Except, again, they are dirty not hygienically so much as socially (and in this instance, curiously, Paul does NOT want clay jars!). Treasure in clay jars is not likely to fall out, but it is likely to be seen as something cheap and nasty, something beneath us. What today might carry that social ick-factor? Styrofoam cups perhaps?
A final piece of the puzzle comes in 1 Corinthians 1:18-31, where the flipside of weakness is said to be wisdom, influence and privilege. What is being challenged here is not simply competence, ability and effectiveness, but social status.
In light of all this, weakness seems to have the sense of something more like ‘social disadvantage.’
How does that sound? God’s power is made perfect in social disadvantage.
The point is not that God is able to work through our human failings, but that God has made a point of using people and ways considered marginal, foreign, socially unacceptable—or was doing so at that particular juncture at least.
In what sense then is weakness really a form of strength? I suppose it is that, most obviously, God’s new work was beginning not in the halls of power, but ‘from below’, because ‘my Kingdom is not of this world’. God’s power somehow found its fullest expression among the people society looked down on.
Of course, weakness as personal fragility is a truth that continues to resonate in our individualistic, self-absorbed world—in particular for us as middle class Christians who are already prosperous and comfortable.
The truth of weakness as social disadvantage, however, seems more obscure. If this is not something confined to the apostolic era, what might it actually mean today in the elite world of the university, or for urbane, middle class Christianity? I think that’s a genuinely difficult question! But let me venture this as a starting place:
Brothers and sisters, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were tertiary educated; not many of you had generational wealth; not many of you had strong social capital. But God chose the Pentecostals to shame the wise; God chose the lower SES brackets to shame the strong. God chose the indigenous communities and those with no purchasing power – the things we’d rather not worry about – to make a mockery of the ‘significant’ things, so that no one may boast before him. It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God—that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption. Therefore, as it is written: “Let the one who boasts boast in the Lord.”
Arthur Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.