Saved in Weakness

It is counter-intuitive that God saves man through His own weakness. The irony of the Divine Reversal has provided endless material for the hymnographers of the Church through the centuries: the Strong becomes weak; the Sinless takes on our sin; the Rich becomes poor; God becomes man – the whole of the gospel seems to be a Divine irony.

This irony has a beauty that has always drawn me. Sometimes the imagery drawn out in a hymn within the Church becomes so poignant I want to stop the service just to savor it (of course I can’t do this).

However, I think there is something that makes us want to keep our irony Divine and minimize it in our own lives. St. Paul says that he “glories in his weakness,” but I find that few other people, including myself, want to do so. The irony that despite our intelligence, we are foolish is not our favorite topic. The embarrassment that often accompanies confession is the irony of our sin – it contradicts the image we want to hold of our own ego – or that we at least want others to hold.

At some level, we believe that we are not saved through our weakness, but will be saved through our strength, and that the whole life of grace is God’s effort to make us stronger – never suspecting that God’s grace may actually be purposefully developing our weakness.

I do not mean that the grace of God causes sin to abound. But I find it interesting that the work of grace makes sin less opaque – more apparent to ourselves. The greatest saints also seem to be those who are most aware of their sins – and aware of their true sins.

I often tell people who say they are struggling with prayer to quit trying to pray like a Pharisee and learn to pray like a Publican. We often want to pray from strength – to approach God when we at least feel spiritually alive. The Publican refuses to lift his eyes to heaven. The contradiction of his life and the goodness of God are more than he can bear. And yet he prays. And, ironically, it is he who goes down to his house justified rather than the Pharisee.

“My strength is made perfect in weakness” is the word God gave to St. Paul. I pray that it is so, for I find times in my life that what I have to offer to God and to others is my weakness – or so it seems.

In the better than 30 years that I have been in ordained ministry, I have learned that I am not alone in my weakness. All of us share common problems and brokenness, even if they are not identical. But the great irony is that it is precisely those problems and brokenness that Christ has made His own. There is nothing abstract about Christ’s union with our sin (2 Cor. 5:21). The great joy (and irony) is that we are heading to Pascha to share in the victory of life in the midst of weakness – not despite weakness.

Glory to God for all things!

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27 Responses to “Saved in Weakness”

  1. handmaid leah Says:

    thank you Father Stephen.

  2. Daniel Says:

    This is of great encouragement to me. Thanks!

  3. Aunt Melanie Says:

    “… but will be saved through our strength.” Yes, and through our ‘goodness.’ If I could just be good enough, then God would like me and want me. If I could just be obsessive enough over every little nit-picking fault and never do it again. And then the comparisons, perhaps in contrast to the Pharisee: comparing oneself to those who are better. If only I could be liker her…. She has everything…. And then the long-ago voice of a parent or teacher: why can’t you be more like….

    “….we are heading to Pascha to share in the victory….” May it be so. Wishing everyone that victory personally and in common among us all.

  4. Rebecca Says:

    Thank you, Father. It seems the longer I am Orthodox, the more sinful I feel. It was never quite this difficult as a Baptist, but I know this is the way to Salvation.

  5. Steven Clark Says:

    Thank you Fr. Stephen (from still another recovering baptist)

  6. Susan Cushman Says:

    The “divine irony” is a paradox, I think. Yes, we are saved through weakness, but St. Gregory of Nyssa also says, “Courage and confidence are our weapons to deflect the enemy’s surprise attacks.” As converts to Orthodoxy, I think we sometimes have to be careful not to lose the delicate balance that Orthodox spirituality encourages. Thanks, always, for your thought-provoking posts.

  7. Mary A Bongiorno Says:

    Courage and confidence are our weapons to deflect the enemy’s surprise attacks.” As converts to Orthodoxy, I think we sometimes have to be careful not to lose the delicate balance that Orthodox spirituality encourages. Thanks, always, for your thought-provoking posts.

  8. Mary A Bongiorno Says:

    Susan do you attend Father Troys church? Mary

  9. fatherstephen Says:

    But the courage and confidence called for are the courage to accept our weakness and the confidence in Christ’s strength. Humility has no balance that I know of, and it thwarts the attacks of the enemy for he can do nothing against true humility.

  10. TheoRadical » Blog Archive » Divine Irony Says:

    […] This irony has a beauty that has always drawn me. Fr. Stephen […]

  11. omninescience Says:

    If god wants our minds like serpents, then how does being weak fit into the picture?

  12. Nicole Troon Says:

    “The courage to accept our weakness and the confidence in God’s strength”. “Humility has no balance”and “the enemy…can do nothing against true humility”. Thank you as always Fr Stephen.

  13. fatherstephen Says:

    omninescience,
    Christ said we should be as “wise” as serpents and as “meek as doves.” This does not call for us to have “minds” as serpents. It’s not craftiness nor wisdom even (at least as the world counts wisdom) that is of benefit to us. St. Paul makes it clear that the wisdom of this world is as foolishness with God.

    Weakness, if you will, is Divine wisdom. The wisdom to speak the truth and the trust in God that He will use our foolishness to save us. This is a consistent message in St. Paul.

  14. mike Says:

    …this is such an uplifting/nourishing post Father Stephen..I appreciate it so much..this post transcends any and everything that would divide and sequester the Body of Christ and presents to us the pure unadulterated message of Grace…..Thank you! and Glory to God!

  15. Elisabeth Khadijah Says:

    Ironically. Ironically it is this very concept that played a part in my leaving the Christian faith for the Muslim one. The fundamental difference between Islam and Christianity is that we (Muslims) do not believe in this paradox, of God becoming human, God becoming weak, God dying. We believe Jesus was not some ironic paradox of God, but a prophet. Otherwise, the faiths are quite similar. Ironically enough, I have never better understood the New Testament (and the Old for that matter) than since I became a Muslim because the doctrines and practices of Islam are so clearly portrayed and supported in the NT. One does not find the doctrines of the trinity, nor the deity of Christ, nor of salvation through faith, in either the Gospels or the book of James, the brother of Jesus. Jesus himself does not claim to be God, nor portrays God as 3 in 1, nor tells us to believe in him to be saved – instead he tells us in the sermon on the mount and other places to perform almsgiving, prayer, fasting, as we do in Islam. Ironically, outside of a few drastically misinterpreted passages, we can find no indication of these Christian doctrines until the arrival of the apostle Paul, who I believe is singlehandedly responsible for corrupting the message of the prophet Jesus. Who ironically, was fully human, not God.

  16. Metanoia53 Says:

    Father Stephen, in my heart and soul I completely understand what you are saying. However, as a convert to Orthodoxy, I see a huge need for strength–strength to stand during Liturgy, strength to attend church even though the nearest one is a 60-mile round trip for me (with an old car that I’m never too sure is going to make it), and strength this week to attend as many services as I can that go on for hours. I also have a disorder that’s been in the news a lot (bipolar II), which makes it VERY difficult for me to do all of the above while on meds that completely wear me out.

    Some people say that I need to stop being so weak, have more faith in God, just BE STRONG! And many of these people are Orthodox.

    Thoughts?

  17. Orthodoxmom Says:

    Elisabeth, your mindset and opinions about Christian teaching clearly reflect Muslim propaganda, just as you seem to think Christian Trinitarian beliefs reflect St. Paul’s propaganda. Orthodox Christians know that St. Paul was firmly in the tradition of Christ’s Apostles and taught the same faith–see Acts 15, for instance. This Muslim propaganda is simply not credible for thoughtful Christians knowledgable about their own Scriptures and also knowledgable about the history of the Church and the history of Islam.

    I can’t help wonder if we might encounter some true irony if you were to answer some of the following questions: In what Christian tradition were you raised? What was the extent of your instruction in the meaning and language of the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures prior to becoming Muslim? Did your family threaten or try to kill you when you converted to Islam? What will happen to you if you live in a country that is historically Muslim, under Islamic law, and decide to change your mind about your conversion?

    There are indeed many superficial similarities between Islam and particularly Orthodox Christianity because Islam borrowed many externals from Orthodox monastic practice (the hours of prayer, head coverings for nuns/women, prostration in prayer, etc.). On the other hand, as you have pointed out, there are also fundamental differences, and those differences have consequences.

    This Holy Saturday at my Orthodox Christian parish, a woman (refugee actually) from a middle-eastern nation, who was raised Muslim, will be baptized into the Christian faith. I think probably the two of you could have a much more interesting conversation than I could have with you, but because it would no doubt put her life in danger I can’t tell you who she is. As you may know, many Muslims today are continuing the long tradition of risking their lives, possessions, and freedom to become Trinitarian Christians, who believe Jesus Christ was not just a prophet, but also both fully human and fully God. Maybe one day you will have the chance to ask one of them why.

  18. mike Says:

    ….that window to heaven is closing just now

  19. fatherstephen Says:

    Elisabeth,
    Much that is “ironic” is because God is beyond our understanding. Even so, ironically, He has made Himself known in the God/Man, Christ Jesus. There is only true knowledge of God through Jesus Christ. It is interesting to me that the paradox of which I’ve written makes it possible to understand the commandment to love our enemies – a paradox that is sadly missing in much of the modern world.

    The idea that the NT represents a corruption of the teachings of Christ is simply not upheld by historical studies. Your experience of Christianity was far from traditional Orthodoxy. You are still young. There is much to learn even about Islam. What you share now seems like a very simplified version (rather common) but there are Muslims who do understand paradox and irony.

  20. Weakly Entering Good Friday « Pray for Lucy Jarrett Says:

    […] the brief article from yesterday, Saved in Weakness by Fr. Stephen […]

  21. Dennis Says:

    You have very eloquently presented one of the tensions of the Christian life. For this non-Orthodox Christian, the loss of the illusion of power (control, strength, etc.) has come as I have gotten older. I said good-bye to my sixtieth year sometime back, and I’m learning afresh day by day to become clearer in mind and soul just how little actual power I have – by myself. Learning this lesson well and graciously doesn’t come without some dying to self. What comes from that death, though, is infinitely more satisfying. It is an open window into true Reality, the Reality that St. Paul describes. This is truly a gift from heaven.

  22. Elisabeth Khadijah Says:

    orthodoxmom and fatherstephen…

    You are correct – I was not Orthodox before my conversion, I was in fact Protestant, raised partly Brethren, partly Baptist (it was an Orthodox friend of mine that linked me to this article). To answer a few more of your questions, my entire family is very involved in the church and in missionary work, and I was also. I was raised to believe that the Bible is not only completely infallible and inspired by God, but I was instructed extensively in it from a very young age, memorizing whole books and listening to many expository sermons every week. Furthermore, as a teenager, I devoted myself to the study of Koine Greek, and some ancient Hebrew, in order to read it in its original languages. My conversion, though it completely broke my family’s hearts, did NOT bring about death threats or anything half as ridiculous, but instead continuing attempts to convince me logically to return to the Christian faith.

    Father Stephen, you said ‘The idea that the NT represents a corruption of the teachings of Christ is simply not upheld by historical studies.’ I would completely agree with you. I’ve studied the authenticity/accuracy of Scripture, the OT also, the internal/external/bibliographic tests etc. Hence why I did not make any reference in my comment to it having been corrupted – there are Muslims who make this claim, but I’m not sure to what extent they’ve studied the authenticity of the Bible. I do not claim the Scriptures have been corrupted, I claim they have been ‘misinterpreted’. I would repeat what I wrote in my last comment:

    “Ironically enough, I have never better understood the New Testament (and the Old for that matter) than since I became a Muslim because the doctrines and practices of Islam are so clearly portrayed and supported in the NT. One does not find the doctrines of the trinity, nor the deity of Christ, nor of salvation through faith, in either the Gospels or the book of James, the brother of Jesus. Jesus himself does not claim to be God, nor portrays God as 3 in 1, nor tells us to believe in him to be saved – instead he tells us in the sermon on the mount and other places to perform almsgiving, prayer, fasting, as we do in Islam. Ironically, outside of a few drastically misinterpreted passages, we can find no indication of these Christian doctrines until the arrival of Paul.”

    That’s not to say that Paul’s writing were corrupted either, simply that he was misled in his beliefs.

    Orthodoxmom, you said “As you may know, many Muslims today are continuing the long tradition of risking their lives, possessions, and freedom to become Trinitarian Christians, who believe Jesus Christ was not just a prophet, but also both fully human and fully God. Maybe one day you will have the chance to ask one of them why.”

    Interestingly enough, I am currently living in Egypt where Christians and Muslims live side-by-side and anyone converting from one to the other is in serious trouble. The recent New Year’s Eve bombing of a church in Alexandria took place on the same street where I study (the bombing was clearly a political action among many hostilities from both sides – I have no intention of going into that whole mess, the hostilities between Christians and Muslims here are mainly political, and the unity between the two groups has been phenomenal to witness since the revolution). I am personally acquainted with many who have converted from Islam to Christianity, with many, many more who have converted from Christianity to Islam, as well as with hundreds of Christians and Muslims who have been raised as such all their lives. I am not ignorant of the many viewpoints out there, and I would disagree with as many Muslim beliefs and stereotypes about Christianity as I would with Christian beliefs and stereotypes about Islam. I have had the privilege of seeing, knowing, being immersed in both sides, I have been taught and have studied extensively from all viewpoints, and my beliefs remain the same. One God, not three, a God who did not become human or die, but sent us prophets to reveal Himself to us, a God who requires obedience to His law.

  23. Miriam Says:

    Elisabeth Khadijah, (it’s Amy)

    What about John 1:1 where we see “The Word was God”? Or the times Jesus claims the divine name, “I AM”? Or also in Philippians 2 (ironically that humility passage) where we see that Christ is “in very nature God” as well as being a man?

    I mean, I sort of get how one might say there were corruptions that eked into Scripture. I have several reasons why I DON’T believe that, which I won’t ennumerate here [I can message you later if you’re really curious]…but I don’t really buy that the evidence is not in Scripture for Jesus claiming His own divinity. Perhaps not in the word “Trinity” but the concept is definitely there…especially in the Gospel of John–though in other places too.

    Miriam/Amy

  24. Orthodoxmom Says:

    Elisabeth, thank you for that elaboration. I apologize for making a couple of clearly unwarranted assumptions upon reading your first post. I was touched by the stories of mutual protection of Christians by Muslims and Muslims by Christians that I have read about during the recent uprisings in Egypt. I know that probably the majority of Muslims and traditionally Orthodox Christians are mutually tolerant even to the point of relatively peaceful intermarriage in some places (as long as, as you said, someone from a Muslim family does not convert and vice versa). As I alluded to, there is more similarity in terms of expressions of piety between Orthodox Christians and Muslims than Muslim and most other forms of Christian piety, and so I think there has historically been more common ground for mutual understanding between Orthodox and Muslims in the Middle-East, even though Orthodox Christians typically remain in the status of second-class citizens under Muslim law.

    I understand part of where you are coming from because I, too, was once a Protestant, and spent most of it in conservative Evangelical traditions stemming from the anabaptist movement and was taught many of the same things you were. In some ways, from my Evangelical family’s (mildly hostile, worried and concerned in the case of my parents, deeply fearful and at first hurt on the part of my husband) response to my wanting to and then becoming Orthodox, you would think I had decided also to become a Muslim, too!πŸ™‚ (Obviously, my husband’s concerns were mostly resolved before I actually joined the Orthodox Church, and it was with his blessing/consent that I did so.) My conversion to Orthodoxy was not without its difficulties, so I can appreciate the sense of spiritual need and eventually conviction that might have spurred you on to Islam. Would I be wrong to suspect by your last name that a Muslim fiance or husband might have had something to do with motivating your research and journey to Islam as well? (I think that’s quite common.)

    The woman raised Muslim who was baptized an Orthodox Christian at my parish this last weekend fled from one historically Christian, now Muslim, country to another where she was instructed in the Orthodox faith and sought baptism. For fear of Muslim reprisal, no Orthodox priest in that country would agree to baptize her, so after four years of seeking, she found her way here to the U.S. and a priest (mine) who could (relatively) safely baptize her. I wish you could have seen the joy on her face as she recited the Nicene Creed in Arabic.

    Your testimony bears witness, as does Jesus in Matthew 16:17 and St. Paul in 1 Corinthians 2, to the Orthodox conviction that it is impossible to properly understand Who Jesus is and the full meaning and intent of the Judeo-Christian Scriptures apart from God through the Holy Spirit opening the eyes of our spiritual heart through the demonstration of His love and power. I don’t doubt that as a Muslim, though, you have seen some aspects of the Jewish and Christian Scriptures that were obscure to you as a Protestant Christian (even a well-educated one). There is no bifurcation of “faith” and works in the Orthodox understanding of the nature of salvation as tends to be typical in the Protestant circles we grew up in, though Orthodox do not teach salvation by works (as Protestants understand that) either. I know that as an Orthodox, I’ve seen many things in the Scriptures that I did not notice as a Protestant (even though I graduated from a major Evangelical college and like you spent decades sitting under very well-educated pastors and Bible teachers), and some things in Scripture that never made complete sense to me as a Protestant suddenly did make sense in the context of Orthodox teaching.

    Thanks for being willing to relate your experience and story.

  25. Miriam Says:

    @Orthodoxmom

    Thanks for your comments. My friend Elisabeth converted before getting married, she took the name Khadijah when she converted, it’s not her last name.πŸ™‚ [kind of like when we take names at our christmation.]

    It’s so true what you said about not understanding certain things about Scripture as a Protestant. I grew up in the same Baptist church as Elisabeth, and went to an Evangelical college and even studied theology there. [Which actually ended up prompting me toward Orthodoxy, ironically].

    Sometimes, I read Scripture, and I think, “How did I ever understand this before without having any concept of theosis?”πŸ™‚ I’m very thankful to finally be “home” in Orthodoxy.

    Miriam

  26. Orthodoxmom Says:

    Miriam, thanks for the clarification about Elisabeth’s name and for sharing a bit of your own journey! (I’d love to read more about that, but obviously this isn’t the place.) Elisabeth’s comment about her family’s reaction that they are trying to convince her to return to Christian faith through “logical argument,” along with her own admitted attraction to the Muslim reading of the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures and teaching about God as a simple unity, and obedience to the law, etc., (which, I observe, is much more containable and comprehensible from the standpoint of merely human logic) sounds very familiar. I’m sure this is not the only factor, but I can’t help but feel that such extreme of dependence upon our own “logic” in approaching God, the Church, and the Scriptures (and which is characteristic of so much of Evangelical apologetics) is a set up for the sort of conversion Elisabeth has experienced. I think this can be instructive for us all.

  27. George Says:

    Here is a prayer God gave me to use when I am tempted beyond my own strength to resist:
    Here is my weakness, Lord God. I offer it to You as a sacrifice of myself. Fill it with Your strength and grace. Use it for Your purposes in me and in the world. Amen

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