Scripture is both shocking and ordinary, which is what we would expect from a book that is of divine origin.
It is shocking; it takes us to places that no human mind could conceive.
It is ordinary; it reveals miracles in everyday life that seem very human and common.
And both of these are on display when the Apostle Paul writes to the Corinthians about power in weakness (2 Corinthians 12).
Who would have thought that the power of God would be best displayed in human weakness? After seeing some dramatic healings in the New Testament we might be anticipating that the power of God would look . . . more powerful. Every worship service would be an all-out love-fest, and the watching world would flock to our churches. Bodies would be strengthened, memories of abuse wiped away, we could guarantee great spouses for whoever wanted to get married. But our God has a much better way.
Jim had emotional ups and downs before he was married, but that was in the mid-1970s before anyone thought about the hazards of bipolar. So the couple went into marriage with everyone’s blessing. Within the first year of marriage his wife became a Christian. That was good news to Jim. He was a moral man who was a life-long member of a mainline church. He thought his wife’s religious zeal was a marital asset, and it was.
Three children were born in the first four years. His emotional ups and downs were getting more extreme. There was one hospitalization, weekly appointments with a psychiatrist, a diagnosis of bipolar disorder, and daily medication. Meanwhile, Jim’s wife was steady and loving during his sudden changes.
Then, as happens far too often during manic phases, Jim went outside the sexual boundaries of his marriage. He was contrite, but “the mania did it,” and they separated for the next six years.
Why, after that amount of time, did they begin to talk about reconciliation? There were no obvious reasons. Jim’s bipolar phases continued. But the Spirit was doing something in both of them.
There was only one question. Could Jim maintain his sexual boundaries if he had a manic period? This question raises other questions. For example, is that the same as asking Jim to swear off sin for the rest of his life? Can mania disable in such a way that we are no longer active, decision-making agents but victims of our minds? These are important questions that I will postpone for later. For now, let’s allow the clear teaching of Scripture to break through the complexity. We are certain of this: though our bodies (and brains) can make life difficult, they cannot make us sin.
Jim stumbled on the question about fidelity at first. Without mania, he could make a promise to be sexually faithful. With mania, he was not so sure. But he had the heart of a Berean, and he was soon persuaded that the Spirit could empower him to be faithful no matter what the temptations. He also began to see that sexual sin came out of his sexual imaginations, and he began to take those imaginations to task.
Three weeks later he flew into a manic phase that no amount of medication could subdue. Friends and relatives formed a relay to stay up with him until the most intense period ran its course. It was exhausting for everyone. Jim was nonstop action, nonstop speech, nonstop ideas for how to change the world. Yet there was something he was not. He was not flirtatious or sexually inappropriate in any way.
That was reason to celebrate.
Most Christians would pray for a certain kind of power for Jim. Power would mean that he would no longer experience the ups and downs of bipolar. He would be miraculously healed, and those who knew Jim’s story would then be irresistibly brought to Jesus. The Apostle Paul, however, had something else in mind. Power would mean that Jim would continue to have weaknesses, which means bi-polar episodes in his case, and he would have power to fight temptations. He would continue to experience times in which he felt unusually confident and was unable to imagine any repercussions from his behavior — that is what happens with mania. He would have times when he felt like he was more right than any other human and he alone truly understood the deep logic of the world. But, in that state, he would receive power to submit to the Lord and run from sexual temptations. Once you hone your spiritual vision, you will notice that this power is extraordinary.
It is shocking, isn’t it? There is power to resist temptations when temptations run strong. Which is a greater display of power? Complete remission of bipolar symptoms or spiritual fidelity in the midst of them? Power in weakness is inspiring.
It is also ordinary. Most observers of human behavior will be careful to say that we can have many influences on our behavior. Some of those influences will be very powerful, but they cannot force us to do things that are wrong. Otherwise, we could blame our sin on the cold we had last week.
The questions keep coming. What about those who harm others when they have delusions of persecution? What about those who are angry and paranoid? Scripture does not shy away from these. Wise pastoral care must consider them. We will start by taking seriously both power and weakness. We will keep both in view, though sometimes we must emphasize one and sometimes the other. When we minister to a person like Jim, whose weaknesses are challenging to understand, we will take special care to study his weaknesses and learn compassion. And we will celebrate the power of God as we watch the Lord use weakness to reveal his strength.