Friday, January 11, 2013

Weak = Strong

When things seem to be going well and we imagine ourselves to be standing on our own two feet then we are inclined to feel strong.  However, when things seem to be going poorly and we have been knocked down, then we feel weak.

Bodily infirmities can be ignored sometimes.  Other times a person can rise above the limitations or pain, perhaps even putting them out of mind, coping with whatever the person faces.  A person can feel as though anything can be overcome.  A person feels as though one can stand against anything.

This can apply to other areas of life, too.  A person can often overcome serious adversities.  Overcoming life’s difficulties can lead a person to begin to count oneself as strong and able to stand against whatever may come.

But this only lasts for as long as the person’s own strength does not fail.  Eventually one cannot ignore one’s own limitations and frailty.  This is true physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually.

St. Paul wrote warning against trusting in one’s own strength, especially in spiritual matters. “Wherefore let him that thinketh he standeth take heed lest he fall.”  (1 Corinthians 10:12)

St. Paul was one who knew.  He had been a Pharisee, named Saul.  He had studied the Scriptures intensely.  He had devoted himself to the most stringent adherence to the Law of God as given through Moses.  He counted himself to be exemplary among the people of God.  He was influential to the point of being intrusted with letters to pursue and take prisoner those who were following in the way, the faith of Jesus.

On the way to carry out this mission, the Lord Jesus stopped Saul in his tracks and confronted him.

And Saul, yet breathing out threatenings and slaughter against the disciples of the Lord, went unto the high priest, And desired of him letters to Damascus to the synagogues, that if he found any of this way, whether they were men or women, he might bring them bound unto Jerusalem. And as he journeyed, he came near Damascus: and suddenly there shined round about him a light from heaven: And he fell to the earth, and heard a voice saying unto him, Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me? And he said, Who art thou, Lord? And the Lord said, I am Jesus whom thou persecutest: it is hard for thee to kick against the pricks. And he trembling and astonished said, Lord, what wilt thou have me to do? And the Lord said unto him, Arise, and go into the city, and it shall be told thee what thou must do. And the men which journeyed with him stood speechless, hearing a voice, but seeing no man. And Saul arose from the earth; and when his eyes were opened, he saw no man: but they led him by the hand, and brought him into Damascus.
  (Acts 9:1-8)

    The rest of this account tells how weak Saul suddenly realized himself to be.  Not only was he now unable to see, but he had just learned that his entire life had been in vain.  All of his efforts were worthless, even worse than worthless.  All of his efforts to serve God were actually damned!  All of his pride was shown to be idolatry.  All of his devotion was shown to be false worship.  He had actually been an enemy of God rather than God’s friend!

    After this Saul (asked for or desired) began to be known as Paul (little or small).  With his conversion and baptism and ordination as the apostle of Jesus to the Gentiles, Paul was now very small in his own eyes and his own efforts and devotion were counted as skubalon (crap).  Thus he writes:

Wherefore let him that thinketh he standeth take heed lest he fall. There hath no temptation taken you but such as is common to man: but God is faithful, who will not suffer you to be tempted above that ye are able; but will with the temptation also make a way to escape, that ye may be able to bear it. Wherefore, my dearly beloved, flee from idolatry. I speak as to wise men; judge ye what I say.
  (1 Corinthians 10:12-15)

First is the warning against relying upon one’s own reason and strength.  Then is the promise that God is faithful and will limit one’s encounters with temptations to the strength that He Himself gives to the beloved believer.

In the verses that follow, he explains this further, pointing to the means through which this strength is given to the believer.

The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not the communion of the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not the communion of the body of Christ? For we being many are one bread, and one body: for we are all partakers of that one bread.
  (1 Corinthians 10:16-17)

This is the means through which God strengthens His saints for all that they encounter in their daily lives.  This begins with being baptized into the body of Christ.  It extends into the life of worship that flows from this regeneration into God’s kingdom.  As a living member of Christ’s body, this holy supper is the means through which God renews His saints in the faith in which they stand and live.

This is why we dare not compromise it through any form of idolatry.  For this meal is the Communion with God that Christ restored for us and to which we are regenerated and reconciled through Baptism.

This is why it is so sad, even heart breaking, to observe the many ways that those professing to be Christians continue to turn back to ways of seeking to be strong through their own reason and strength.  Even the Holy Supper itself they turn into a work of their own rather than the means through which the merits of Christ are given to us by God.  Worship and devotion and prayer are turned into the idolatry of imagining that these are somehow worthy of merit in themselves.  And so these become means of making oneself better and stronger through one’s own efforts rather than being God’s gifts through which He Himself regenerates us and renews us and strengthens us and keeps us in the one true faith of Jesus.

This faulty and idolatrous mindset is demonstrated in the way that Philippians 4:13 is usually translated.  The KJV is representative of this: “I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me.”

What St. Paul actually writes directs us to a very different mindset: “For all things I am strong in the one empowering me, Christ.”

The mindset that St. Paul teaches is one of what the Lord works for us rather than what we work for ourselves and for God.  St. Paul teaches us to know God as the one doing the work in us rather than looking to find a way to use God like a helpful tool.  St. Paul very specifically avoids this idea that God gets us started and we must continue to work to complete what God begins by saying that we are strong IN the one empowering us.  He very carefully and deliberately avoided using the word THROUGH.  We are IN Christ through His means of grace, through which He works these blessings for us and in us.  We are made to be IN Christ through Baptism.  We are renewed IN Christ through His body and blood administered to us IN the Holy Communion.

When we understand this and believe it even as the Lord and His apostles declare unto us, then we begin to see that indeed God does provide the strength and the means of escape from all temptations.  Then we begin to see that we truly do not need to be strong on our own and that we do not need to stand by our own strength.  Then we begin to enjoy our life in Christ rather than striving to make it real for ourselves.  Then our times of weakness become times of true strength.

It is not expedient for me doubtless to glory. I will come to visions and revelations of the Lord. I knew a man in Christ above fourteen years ago, (whether in the body, I cannot tell; or whether out of the body, I cannot tell: God knoweth;) such an one caught up to the third heaven. And I knew such a man, (whether in the body, or out of the body, I cannot tell: God knoweth;) How that he was caught up into paradise, and heard unspeakable words, which it is not lawful for a man to utter. Of such an one will I glory: yet of myself I will not glory, but in mine infirmities. For though I would desire to glory, I shall not be a fool; for I will say the truth: but now I forbear, lest any man should think of me above that which he seeth me to be, or that he heareth of me. And lest I should be exalted above measure through the abundance of the revelations, there was given to me a thorn in the flesh, the messenger of Satan to buffet me, lest I should be exalted above measure. For this thing I besought the Lord thrice, that it might depart from me. And he said unto me, My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness. Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in necessities, in persecutions, in distresses for Christ's sake: for when I am weak, then am I strong.
  (2 Corinthians 12:1-10)

The Lord Jesus declares in response to our prayers and all of our efforts: “My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness.”  How did He triumph over the powers of the devil, sin, and death?  Not through visions or miracles or even prayers answered as He willed for Himself.  He triumphed through the weakness of subjecting Himself to the Father’s will which carried Him to the cross where He suffered an ignominious death after many hours of injustice, torture, and ridicule.

He continues to work His blessings and to display His victory in the same way.  Not through visions or grandiose miracles or answering our prayers as we present them, but through the means of grace He gives us the victory that He won for us.  Thus St. Paul directs us to rejoice in our weakness, for then we do not try to win the battle for ourselves nor even to glorify God through our own efforts.  Then instead we look to Christ and rely upon His grace in all things.  Then we receive the strength that knows no limits, even as Christ lives and reigns to all eternity.

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