My brother has a tattoo on his arm that reads, “Peace through Strength.” It is a beautifully created piece of art but it isn’t a good metaphor of the Christian life. The Christian life is not about your own strength or power. It is about weakness. Yes, you read right. Weakness. J.I. Packer writes in his latest work Weakness is the Way: Life with Christ Our Strength, “The way of true spiritual strength, leading to real fruitfulness in Christian life and service, is the humble, self-distrustful way of consciously recognized weakness in spiritual things.” How can Packer write this? He does so because Paul articulates a similar principle in 2 Corinthians 12 and elsewhere in his letters. In his polemic defending his apostleship, the writer mentions visions of heaven that were too grand even to articulate. To keep Paul humble, God made him weak by sending him a thorn. He writes, “So to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited. Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me (2 Cor. 12:7-9).”
How would God’s power be made evident within Paul’s Christian life? Weakness. We do not know the exact nature of the “thorn” but we do know Paul struggled. He pleaded with God to take it away but God refused. God wounded Paul that he might use him. What does this mean for us as we are called to imitate his life (1 Cor. 11:1)? It means the road of spiritual productivity leads us right through the path of helplessness and brokenness. Not around it. Elsewhere the apostle describes the Christian life as one full of groans. Creation groans (Rom. 8:18-22). We groan (Rom. 8:23). Even the Spirit groans within us (Rom. 8:26). The Christian life is not typified by a triumphant sense of having it all together but by groaning. The Christian life isn’t a downward slope of ease but an uphill battle with everything that assaults our daily joy in Christ. Again Packer admonishes us, “…lean on Christ, the lover of your soul, as Paul did, and in all your ongoing weakness, real as it is, you too will be empowered to cope and will be established in comfort and joy.” It is through weakness that God’s power is made manifest and great things are done for the kingdom.
Two wonderful examples of this come from my favorite story—Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring (the first of The Lord of the Rings series). The readers are introduced to hobbits who are small, rustic little creatures who are almost forgotten by most of the great races of Middle Earth. Who is given the task of carrying the One ring to Mt. Doom to destroy evil and bring liberation to the free peoples of Middle Earth? It isn’t the elves, the dwarves, the wizards, or the race of men. It is Frodo and Sam. They are unlikely heroes up against great foes. Why hobbits? They are the only race fit for the task. Peter Kreeft writes in his book The Philosophy of Tolkien: The Worldview Behind The Lord of the Rings, “The weakness of evil is that is cannot conquer weakness. No matter how much power evil has, it is always defeated by the free, loving renunciation of power. It can be defeated in Middle Earth as it was on Calvary: by martyrdom…Evil is limited to power; it cannot use weakness. It is limited to pride; it cannot use humility, It is limited to inflicting suffering and death; it cannot use suffering and death. It is limited to selfishness; it cannot use selflessness. But good can.” Frodo and Sam are the right creatures to carry the ring because of their weakness.
You see this so clearly in two conversations the hobbits have with others in the first book. Gandalf, the great wizard sent to aid the fellowship, and Frodo are discussing the evil surrounding the One Ring. Frodo is rightfully afraid of the task and wishes Gandalf would take it because he is more wise and powerful. Tolkien writes:
‘I do really wish to destroy it!’ cried Frodo. ‘Or, well, to have it destroyed. I am not made for perilous quests. I wish I had never seen the Ring! Why did it come to me? Why was I chosen?”Such questions cannot be answered,’ said Gandalf. ‘You may be sure that it was not for any merit that others do not possess: not for power or wisdom, at any rate. But you have been chosen, and you must therefore use such strength and heart and wits as you have.”But I have so little of any of these things! You are wise and powerful. Will you not take the Ring?’ ‘No!’ cried Gandalf, springing to his feet. ‘With that power I should have power too great and terrible. And over me the Ring would gain a power still greater and more deadly.’ His eyes flashed and his face was lit as by a fire within. ‘Do not tempt me! For I do not wish to become like the Dark Lord himself. Yet the way of the Ring to my heart is by pity, pity for weakness and the desire of strength to do good. Do not tempt me! I dare not take it, not even to keep it safe, unused. The wish to wield it would be too great, for my strength. I shall have such need of it. Great perils lie before me.
Gandalf would not take the ring because he knows he is not fit to hold it. He has too much power. Total power totally corrupts and humility and weakness are needed to complete the task at hand. The hobbits are the only ones able to overcome the power of the ring.
At the end of the book, Frodo and Sam are with Galadriel, the lady of Lórien who possessed immense powers and abilities. After peering into her magical mirror and seeing the evil of Sauron himself, Frodo and Sam freely offer her the ring. They are afraid and believe she is better equipped to take the ring of power. She refuses the ring because she knows what would happen. Sam chimes in saying, “But if you’ll pardon my speaking out, I think my master was right. I wish you’d take his Ring. You’d put things to rights. You’d stop them digging up the gaffer and turning him adrift. You’d make some folk pay for their dirty work.” I would,’ she said. ‘That is how it would begin. But it would not stop with that, alas! We will not speak more of it. Let us go!’” Galadriel would right the wrongs of Sauron but she would not be able to stop herself. She is just too powerful. Only the hobbits can carry the One Ring. Only the weak can conquer the evil of Middle Earth. This is true in Middle Earth because it is true here and now.
If you feel weak, powerless, insecure, spiritually inept, downtrodden, weary, fickle, frail, small, wounded, broken, and lowly in your Christian life, rejoice. I say it again, rejoice. It is then God’s strength will be made plain. It is in the crucible of weakness that the dross of pride is melted away and the refined gold of God’s power can be seen so clearly. Rest in the power of God and rejoice that you have been put in a place where God can use you mightily. The world does not need any more triumphant, boastful men and women who pretend they have not been profoundly wounded in this dark place. It needs to see weakness because weakness is the way. Again Kreeft notes, “Only this willing weakness can defeat strength and force. Only hobbits not men, nor elves, nor wizards can get into Mordor. And only a hobbit can complete the task at the crack of doom. Unless you become like little hobbits you cannot enter the Kingdom. For Christ became a little hobbit.”