When I’m Weak

by Jason Overman

My friend Scott has Parkinson’s disease. He is only in his fifties, but the tremors are getting bad. Recently, Scott went to New York City to explore alternative treatments. When he returned, we visited — mainly about his strange encounter at New York’s LaGuardia airport.

As Scott made his way to the United Airlines terminal, his thoughts were heavy. He was surrounded by people but never felt more alone. His fears and doubts about his condition enveloped him: Where is God? But just then, his thoughts were interrupted. One stranger among many touched him.

It was a little girl.

The toddler wobbled over to him and gurgled something indecipherable. Scott smiled politely, dismissing her with a pat, and returned to his musings. But she continued rattling away enthusiastically. Finally, the little girl’s mother apologized for her daughter’s disturbance. But as they began to leave, the child started tugging earnestly on her mother’s dress. Pulling her down to her level, she whispered in her mom’s ear.

The mother turned back to Scott, smiling. “She wants you to know that Jesus loves you — that He loves you!” And then they were gone.

How like God that is! Paul, the first missionary and a prolific writer of the New Testament, tells us that God’s presence is revealed in ways we do not anticipate. Contrary to expectation, God’s redemptive power is found not in strength, but in weakness.

And He said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore most gladly I will rather boast in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. . . . For when I am weak, then I am strong (2 Corinthians 12:9, 10).

Paul goes on to explain that this is the way of Jesus and His death on the cross: “For though He was crucified in weakness, yet He lives by the power of God” (13:4a). Power in weakness is counter-intuitive, but the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus show that our conventional notions of power are gravely mistaken.

The good news about Jesus shatters our presumption and pride; it turns our hearts and habits upside-down. The gospel story subverts our self-sufficiency. The power of God is revealed in lives of humility so that “the excellence of the power [is] of God and not of us” (4:7).

Becoming children

Jesus’ view of discipleship involved this very principle. His followers, like us, understood the politics of power according to the conventional wisdom: Power is the measure of status and wealth; it is the luxury and domain of the strong. But against the traditional view, the politics of Jesus points the other way: “The kingdom and the power” that He embodied and bid us enter is the habitation of little children (Matthew 18:1-4).

The desire to be greatest is a temptation common to pride, even for disciples. If heathen kings exercised power by dominating their subjects, King Jesus inverted that policy. He was committed to the counter-cultural idea that the greatest in His kingdom is the younger that serves (Luke 22:24-27).

The New Testament emphasis on power in weakness recalls many stories from the Old Testament that rest on the prophetic maxim: “Not by might nor by power, but by My Spirit,’ says the Lord of hosts” (Zechariah 4:6). But one story, I think, tells the tale better than the rest: the healing of a leper named Naaman.

Another little girl

The tale begins with a description of just how powerful Naaman was: the “commander of the army of the king of Syria . . . a great and honorable man . . . a mighty man of valor” (2 Kings 5:1). By human standards, he was impressive indeed. But all this is undercut by the fact that Naaman was a leper. Ultimately, his strength was illusory. For all his achievements, he was powerless in the face of his disease.

Now enter a character who is the complete opposite of Naaman: a young female captive from Israel who waited on Naaman’s wife (v. 2). The contrasts are compelling. Naaman is named; she is not. He was male; she was female. He was commander; she captive. He was honorable; she was a servant. He was an adult; she was a child. He was mighty; she was weak. In terms of power relations, he was in every way superior.

As it turns out, this little girl was a repository of God’s power. Positions were subtly reversed when she took the initiative and gently spoke a word of authority that both instructed and directed her captor and master: “If only my master were with the prophet who is in Samaria, for he would heal him of his leprosy” (v. 3). These words gather even greater weight when we consider that they were spoken on behalf of an enemy.

Thus, a little girl set a general running to his king, then to a prophet for healing. Through the instruction of mere servants, Naaman discovers humility and dips in the river Jordan afterwhich he became as a “little child” (vv. 4-14). All this because of the words of a little girl.

A people of power

What Naaman and my friend Scott graciously encountered is how the power of God in the message of Jesus Christ moves unexpectedly beyond and beneath all human accounts of strength. In weakness and apparent insignificance, these two little girls were free to reveal what pride cannot contemplate — that God’s works are known in us only as we relinquish control.

Christians today are often tempted to seize the reins of power to steer their history and others, but we must recover the upside-down view of power provided by the message of Christ so that we may resist a world drunk on might. For it’s not strength or status or position or wealth that reveals true power, but humble service that locates greatness in the costly gift of Christ crucified.

 

This is an edited version of an article that appeared in the October-November 2007 issue of the Bible Advocate.