For a few weeks during my freshman year of college, I was a man at war.
You could find me in the campus library, hunched over a book, my fingers furiously scanning the page. Never had anyone consumed Victorian literature and oceanography textbooks so quickly, so intensely. Nor, perhaps, had anyone retained so little.
The path was well-worn. As with so many other students of merely average reading abilities, I was working to master the art of speed. And, along with the majority, my reading legs eventually couldn’t handle the sprint, and I returned to walking through books.
Looking back, those weeks appear to me now as a skirmish in a larger war — one I’ve been waging for a long time, one many of us give our whole lives to. Too often, we spend our days on the battlefield, waging war against our own weaknesses.
At War with Weakness
By weaknesses, I mean those parts of us that keep us from doing what we want to do or being who we want to be. Unlike sins, weaknesses are morally neutral, traits that usually do not (and need not) change as God’s grace renovates us.
We are, for example, not as intelligent as we wish we were, not as athletic, not as good-looking, not as musically gifted, not as charismatic in front of a crowd, not as witty, not as productive, not as skilled at leading, not as fast at reading, not as creative in writing. Although some of these weaknesses yield to disciplined attempts to overcome them, many of them are firm as a rock face. We may push, strain, and put our shoulder into it with a running start, but we find over time that the rock is going nowhere. This weakness is our lot.
Our war with such weaknesses is understandable. The tamest of them can be embarrassing — the sort of thing that gets you laughed at in middle school. The worst of them can act like a collapsed bridge, keeping you from the only road you ever wanted to take in life. So, instead of learning to boast in our God-given thorns (2 Corinthians 12:9–10), many of us spend our time, energy, and money trying to pull them out.
But Christians need not fight a war we cannot win. While many in the world respond to weakness by gathering more troops for battle, Christians remember that some weaknesses are there not to be warred against, but to be welcomed.
Fearfully and Wonderfully Weak
God, in his good creation and providence, sends us into this world beset with weaknesses. “Who has made man’s mouth?” he asks Moses, the meekest of men with the weakest of speech. “Who makes him mute, or deaf, or seeing, or blind? Is it not I, the Lord?” (Exodus 4:11). What’s true of our mouths, ears, and eyes is true of the rest of us. None of our weaknesses escaped God’s notice when he stitched us together in our mother’s womb. We are fearfully and wonderfully weak (Psalm 139:13–14).
The new birth, for all of the radical change it brings, rarely erases the weaknesses we received at our first birth. God’s redeemed community, in fact, is a kingdom of glorious inequality, where one’s weakness is complemented by another’s strength (Romans 12:3–5). God has made some of us feet, some hands, some eyes, and some mouths — and he expects the mouth to have a hard time walking, and the eyes to struggle with words (1 Corinthians 12:14). Some in the church can preach, and others shake at the sight of a microphone. Some administer with excellence, and others have a hard enough time remembering their children’s names.
When, for one reason or another, we continue our attempt to overthrow the weaknesses God has given to us, even after all reasonable efforts have failed, we are probably being driven less by faith than by discontentment. And discontentment never did anyone good. If persisted in, we risk spending years of our lives trying to become someone God never made us to be.
There’s only one sane way forward: Give up the war. Raise the white flag. Call for a treaty. Make peace with weakness.
Many of us have spent untold months and years trying to overcome our weaknesses, and now we must embrace them? Even become well pleased with them (2 Corinthians 12:10)? Yes. For when we do, we will find that God never sets a boundary that is not for our flourishing.
We will find that great relief comes from dropping the false standards we have raised for ourselves — perhaps even mistaking them for God’s. Some of us have carried such standards like a boulder on our backs for years and years, and what a relief to cast it alongside the path! The new mom need not be as productive as the seasoned mother of five. The firstborn need not live up to his parents’ vocational hopes. The man made to be a deacon need not become a pastor. The high-school girl need not aspire to look like the prom queen.
What a relief when Peter stops trying to be John, and John stops trying to be Peter, and both hear Jesus say to them, “What is that to you? You follow me!” (John 21:22). Our glory is not to acquire the strengths of so and so, but to pursue actual righteousness with all of our hearts, and to become the most Christlike versions of ourselves — with all of our strengths and weaknesses — that we can be.
Live for His Good Pleasure
When we stop trying to make other peoples’ gifts our own, we can finally embrace those gifts God has given to us (1 Corinthians 12:4–7). The foot, done trying to be a hand, can start to get good at walking. The eye, finished with trying to talk, can hone its ability to see.
Of course, this brings us back to the nub of the issue, because our war against weaknesses so often begins by despising our strengths. Our strengths, we fear, would not go for much at an auction. Perhaps they are mundane, unseen, and underappreciated: we stand in the sound booth and not on stage; we clean the hallways rather than teach in the classroom; we balance the checkbooks instead of leading the meetings. These are the sorts of gifts people rarely notice until they’re gone.
But contentment never comes from having a certain gift or skill over another. Contentment comes, rather, from receiving every gift with thanks, discharging our duties faithfully, and praying all the while that God would take these meager offerings and turn them into something corresponding to his great worth (1 Peter 4:10–11). Contentment comes from making much of Christ — in our strengths, however great, and in our weaknesses (2 Corinthians 12:9–10).
Teach Me, My God
We would all do well to adopt the posture of that humble poet George Herbert, who prayed,
Teach me, my God and King,
In all things thee to see,
And what I do in anything
To do it as for thee. (“The Elixir”)
Those who can pray such words from the heart, and then use their gifts in God’s strength, will find soon enough that they hear the words “Well done,” whether their talents were ten, five, or just one (Matthew 25:21). And they will feel down to the depths of them that his good pleasure cannot be matched by the world’s applause, though the ovation should last till kingdom come.