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The Weakness of God

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“…the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.”
—1 Corinthians 1:25

It is tempting to regard what Paul said in 1 Corinthians as meaning that God, at his weakest, is still stronger than all the strength humans can muster. After all, God is reputedly all-powerful. Surely human strength can be no match for God’s infinite power. Yet I don’t think that is what Paul had in mind at all. This whole passage argues that God’s wisdom and power displayed in Jesus Christ is of a different order altogether from the wisdom and power of human beings.

Our heroes are men and women whose accomplishments stand out from those of their peers. Generals who lead troops into battle, statesmen who avert war, women who overcome misogyny and make significant contributions to science, famous poets or novelists, even accomplished athletes—these are our heroes. They makes us want to emulate them. Jesus was like none of these. He did not lead a nation or an army. His followers were mostly poor and of little account. He made no significant discoveries, never wrote a poem or a book. He didn’t even do what his enemies accused him of: he didn’t lead a rebellion against Rome. If you ignore his teaching, the only noteworthy things he did are almost too improbable to be believed: healing the sick without medicine and feeding the hungry with scant resources, walking on water, raising the dead. Most improbable of all, his followers claim he rose from the dead after being tortured to death and buried for three days. Everything about his life and work reveals a man who was evidently a lunatic with nothing to show for his years on earth except an unusually devoted following. As a representative of God, he comes across as weak, even feeble.

His strength, which became the true strength of the Church, was in two things, both of which Paul goes on to foreground in 1 Corinthians 2, his teaching and the power of the Spirit of God. Yet even his teaching was weakness and foolishness. He taught that we should love our enemies instead of trying to get the better of them. He taught that we should forgive those who offend us instead of retaliating. He taught that we should oppose violence with acquiescence to violence. If we made movies with Jesus’ conception of how to live a good life, at the end the good guys would lay down their weapons and submit to being killed. Likewise, the power of the Spirit of God was not to subdue evil in the world but to overcome it in one’s own heart. God’s Spirit enables Jesus’ followers to live, however imperfectly, in accordance with his teaching.

When Paul lists Christian virtues, they are too weak to even be called virtues. Paul calls them fruit of the Spirit: “love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control” (Galatians 5:22, 23). Notably absent are classical Greek virtues such as courage, prudence, and justice. Only self-control gets a mention, and it is last. Paul even boasts about his own weakness. and declares that when he is weak, he is strong. We tend to value defiance, seeing it as a sign of courage. Our movie heroes are almost always defiant when captured and almost always have to be physically subdued. Yet Jesus taught meekness and humility and persistence in the face of powerful injustice. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. learned from Jesus’ example and used nonviolent protest to dismantle segregation and Jim Crow in the American south. His followers, far from being defiant, endured beatings and police brutality to awaken the conscience of the nation and shame the powerful for allowing injustice to continue.

Again and again throughout history the weak prevail against the strong not by force but by persistence and love. It is not the rich and powerful who end injustice; they too often benefit from its continuance. It is the poor and weak who unite against injustice and shame the powerful into doing what is right.

We Christians are taught to expect persecution for our faith. Some have taken that to mean that we suffer for our moral high-mindedness and piety, but those were characteristics of the Pharisees and religious hypocrites whom Jesus excoriated. No, the persecution we Christians—especially American Christians who enjoy so many protections under our Constitution—should expect to endure is for standing with the weak and powerless, for lifting up the cause of the widow and orphan, for advocating for people of color, for taking to the streets to protect the rights of women and immigrants and poor people, for continuing to feed the hungry when city ordinances forbid it.

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How Great is Our God?

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O magnify the LORD with me, and let us exalt his name together.   —Psalm 34:3

The idea of magnifying God always seemed a little odd to me. We don’t typically talk of magnifying except in the sense of making something appear larger or nearer. How can God be made to appear bigger than he is? Is he not infinite? Or how can he be made to appear nearer? Is he not everywhere present? What can it mean to magnify the all-knowing, all-powerful, ever-present God?

Then I recall the language of lovers. Lovers extol what they love. Ask a lover about something he loves—it need not be a person but a hobby or vocation—and prepare to hear his love magnified as if it were the only thing in the universe. For in a sense it is; it fills his own universe. Those who love God cannot help praising him. Everything that happens in their lives will be found to connect in some way to the God they love.

They will speak of the glory of Your kingdom
and will declare Your might,
informing all people of Your mighty acts
and of the glorious splendor of Your kingdom. (Psalm 145:11-12)

But there is more.

We live in a world that belittles God. Our culture for the most part considers God as unimportant and regards people of faith—especially those whose faith impels them to public action—as dangerous lunatics. God is okay as long as he is the private delusion of a few fanatics. He is tolerable as long as he doesn’t matter in any meaningful way to the life and business of the world. Let God have his little corner in religion. Let him make his rules and have his “kingdom,” but let’s not have any nonsense about absolute truth or a universal moral law. Looking at God through the lens of our culture is like peering into the wrong end of a telescope. God seems small and distant, parochial and insignificant. His acts aren’t mighty; they’re puny. He is weak and stupid, perhaps even evil.

Consider what Christians credit God with: he created everything that exists; made a way through the Red Sea so the Israelites passed through on dry ground; he sent fire from heaven to consume Elijah’s offering; he shut the mouths of lions; he raised Jesus from the dead. But these things are all in the past. What has he done lately? What do we credit him with today? He gave me a parking place near the door so I wouldn’t get rained on; he reduced the severity of the flu I had; he provided a grocery gift card anonymously when I really needed it. While these acts reflect a personal care seldom found in the old stories, they don’t seem to magnify God. They make him out to be a kind of doting nanny, more concerned with our comfort than with our character. Perhaps the culture is only reflecting back the smallness in the testimony about God that Christians have given. Sometimes in our zeal for his omnipotence, we Christians even credit him with evil—at least with what the world regards as evil.

God intends that his children be like him, that they exhibit his character. In doing so, they reflect his good character and bring credit to his name. This is why Jesus told his followers, “Let your light shine before men, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.” The world unacquainted with God knows him by the deeds of his sons and daughters. It is by our good works that we show the world how merciful and loving is our God, how forgiving and patient, how terrifying and awesome. If our deeds are evil, we discredit God. One does not have to look far to see how much discredit Christians have brought to God. In the world we are known for bigotry and intolerance, hatred, ignorance, and ineffectiveness. So let us turn back from condemnation and from evil deeds that discredit God, and let us do good: bring health and healing to those who are sick, bring life and hope to the discouraged and depressed, love and accept the outcasts, set people free from systems that confine them. Let us magnify the Lord and exalt his name together.

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Them

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Read and comment on my blog.

Every group has its insider language, its set of assumptions about what insiders know and outsiders do not. For some groups the distinction between insider and outsider is so important that the groups incorporate secret rituals to ensure that outsiders don’t penetrate into the inside without first becoming insiders. Other groups require specialized knowledge, but they make no secret of it, and it is effectively available to all who take an interest in learning it. A few groups, however, actively recruit new members and claim a universal appeal. Such groups require a highly permeable perimeter where the distinction between insider and outsider, between us and them, is essentially fuzzy. The New Testament church is such a group.

In the New Testament, exclusive language occurs almost always in the context of describing heretics or apostates. These are not people who have never been welcomed into the Christian faith; they are people who were welcomed in but turned out to be pursuing their own agenda. They might be the Judaizers  of Paul’s letter to the Galatians or the proto-Gnostics of John’s letters. In nearly every case, though, they are former insiders who left or were forced out because their beliefs or teachings did not match those of the apostles.

Apart from these few, the New Testament church is very inclusive. Paul claims that the Christian faith encompasses every social and economic class and every ethnicity. “Here there is no Greek or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all.” What characterizes a Christian is not circumstances of birth or station in life but rather virtues that Jesus himself embodied: compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, patience, forgiveness, forbearance, peace, and love. These are characteristics that are universally admired but not so universally practiced. (In fact, one of the great conundrums of life, effectively answered in Christ, is why people so much admire virtues they themselves do not practice, even to the point of pretending to themselves that they do practice them.*)

Every unbeliever is potentially a believer, and every believer is potentially a fraud. Since we do not know people’s hearts, we need to treat everyone alike with dignity and respect, just as God treats us. He keeps providing opportunities to trust him even to those who have never yet trusted him. We need to rid ourselves of the smug superiority so common among evangelical Christians; it is offensive to everyone. We are none of us so righteous we cannot fall nor so wicked we are past redemption. If we want to persuade anyone that Jesus Christ is worth living for, we must treat everyone with genuine love and kindness, not considering ourselves better but only as recipients of an undeserved pardon. On earth the kingdom of God includes everyone, even those who persecute it. Just ask Paul.

*For more information, see the works of C. S. Lewis, especially The Screwtape Letters and Mere Christianity.

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