This summer, I hope you had a chance to watch the amazing, talented young athletes who performed at the Olympic Games in Tokyo. The gymnasts, swimmers, runners, jumpers – they were incredible, weren’t they? Those female gymnasts are SO strong – they have huge thigh muscles, broad shoulders and buns of steel! They are incredibly strong!! Just watching those gals, I realized how wimpy I really am! Then, a month later, they held the (Special) Para-Olympics in Tokyo. Those remarkable athletes were able to overcome tremendous disabilities and obstacles in their lives, and they worked hard to pursue their dreams. Again, I felt like – wow – they had so much courage!! I wish I had courage like that….
Just a few weeks ago, my husband and I traveled to Indiana to visit friends. In the summer, they live on the largest natural lake in Indiana. Our friend asked me if I wanted to stand-up-paddle-board on the lake. Well, I had never done that before, so, it was really scary to me. I had to think about it for a while, and tried to find the courage to say that I really can do this. Were my legs really strong enough? My fears were lessened because our friend promised to be a really good instructor and he told me exactly what to do. I tried it; I did not fall off; it was fun! I might even do it again….maybe, someday.
We all have fears, some rational, some are not. How do we face our fears? How do we get over the dread and distresses of life? In a time when we are surrounded constantly by fear and anxiety, pandemics and vaccines, crime, inflation, and…heaven forbid…cooking the Thanksgiving turkey, just like mom used to do it – how do we cope? How do we live the Christian life with courage, strength and virtue? While strength in the physical body is important and desirable, we should also think about our mental and spiritual muscles. Do we exercise them, too? How can we build up those “mental and spiritual” muscles?
Frankly, the Bible is filled with people who felt like they lacked the strength and courage to respond to God in obedience and in the ways that would honor him. Gideon, for example, flat out refused to obey the Lord who commanded him to lead an army — with the excuse that “my clan is the weakest, and I am the weakest in my family….” Can’t you just see him pouting? But, God told Gideon to “go, in the strength he had,” and “I will be with you.” So, Gideon went, God was with him and he is uniquely called a hero, a “mighty warrior” in the OT (Jud 6:12). And, how about Joshua, the great leader of the Israelites….God clearly spoke to Joshua three times, “Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go” (Josh 1:6, 7, 9). He finally got it; he finally believed it. Wherever we go in life, whatever we do, we need a very good Instructor to help us with our mental and spiritual fitness.
We live in a world of fear, anxiety…..and we can feel quite weak and powerless against the forces of culture, of nature and the world….Just about the time that I think that I have things under control, something happens and I have those doubts all over again. Fears seem to grow rapidly; anxiety is contagious and consuming. Author Lysa TerKeurst wrote, “People can drown in things besides water. People can go under and feel that they can’t get back on top. People sometimes slip to the bottom and need to be rescued” (The Best Yes, p. 193). How true.
In the NT, the Apostle Paul used the paradox of strength and weakness to instruct his readers in Corinth. He confessed that he, the great Apostle, ministered to the Corinthians “in weakness and great fear” (1 Cor 2:3). The Corinthian believers themselves were proof that the truth he preached about the gospel of Jesus Christ was valid. They were just ordinary folks like you and me. Likewise, our Christian salvation does not depend on anything in ourselves. It was not a result of our strength, our cleverness, our human intellect, our wisdom or money. Salvation is not earned, but is given freely by a gracious God. Paul said, “think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong” (1 Cor 1:26, 27). Ultimately, he said, the physical human body is “perishable, [but] it is raised imperishable; it is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power; it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body” (1 Cor 15:42-44).
In his second letter to the Corinthians, Paul boasted about his weaknesses: “If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness” (2 Cor 11:30). “Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Cor 12:9-10). Paul told his readers that they did not need more proof about the power and truth of his ministry: “For to be sure, he [Christ] was crucified in weakness, yet he lives by God’s power. Likewise, we are weak in him, yet by God’s power we will live with him in our dealing with you….We are glad whenever we are weak but you are strong; and our prayer is that you may be fully restored” (2 Cor 13:4, 9).
Paul wrote that this paradox is pictured in the cross: the ultimate example of power in weakness is the cross of Christ. The Divine became a weak human being; “he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant…he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death – even death on a cross” (Php 2:6-8). Thus, remarkably, as believers, we are made strong because of the “weak” humanity of Christ. Paul can boast about his own weaknesses in ministry because it opened the door for people to see the strength of God’s grace in his life. Again, if we reflect on Gideon and Joshua and Paul (and so many others), we can see that the weaknesses of human beings provide the perfect opportunity for God to show his power through them.
That is, our strength and courage come from God, not from ourselves or from the world. To paraphrase Paul’s words, “Whenever we are weak, God is strong.” For us, the key is truth. We must know God’s truth, and believe in the one who is “the way, the truth and the life” (John 14:6). We must grasp tightly onto God’s truth and not drown in the lies of the enemy. God delights in demonstrating his power through weak vessels, and his redemptive love through those who believe in him and in his truth.
Paul concludes, “Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. Put on the full armor of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood,….but against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms” (Eph 6:10-12). It is God who has given us the necessary instructions to have the strength and courage to “be strong” in him. With truth, with good instructions, we will not drown; we do not have to be afraid. Amen.