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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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Love Is Kind

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… love is kind. 1 Corinthians 13:4

If you’re like me, you’ve seen memes on Facebook declaring that “kindness costs nothing.” But of course kindness is often costly. Kindness requires that you have another person’s best interests in mind rather than their approval or admiration. The question is, “What is good for this person?” not “How can I get this person to like me?” Love is careful not to assume it knows what is best for another. That’s why patience—allowing others to make their own choices—has to come first. But kindness cares more for the well-being of the beloved than for their friendship or attachment. So kindness may, in fact, do things that the beloved perceives as unkind—at least in the moment.

We see this dynamic best in the way parents discipline their children. Keeping in view the well-being of the child, they may forbid activities that could seriously endanger the child—activities such as playing in the street or starting fires or throwing knives. The child may perceive the parent as unkind, but in fact the parent is showing genuine love and kindness for the child by preventing them doing something dangerous.

What about friendships, however, where the relationship does not include the unequal power dynamics of parent and child? Can kindness still be perceived as unkind? Of course it can. For example, you might warn your friend against making a risky investment, even though pundits and economists are describing it as safe. Or you might do all you can to dissuade a friend from committing to a relationship that you and other friends can see is plainly doomed. Or you might advise your friend that he endangers his own soul by continuing unrepentant in sin.

Kindness extends beyond mere warnings or advice, however. You might attend a protest for racial equality but find that people of color regard your advocacy as officious or patronizing because you are white. Kindness makes sacrifices for the good of the beloved, including bearing their recriminations, their misunderstandings, and even their hatred. This is the way God treats us, and he expects us to treat others the same way. This does not mean that you become a doormat and simply accept the ill treatment of others. But it does mean that you might withhold the exercise of your power and choose to appear weak rather than endanger the good that will come of doing what you know is right.

Kindness offers help but does not insist that its offer be accepted. Remember that Paul is describing love, which is always other-centered, never self-centered. Love must start with patience. You must respect the autonomy of those you love. Yes, it feels good to be needed, but as soon as something feels good, it becomes a temptation. Beware the seductive power of what feels good! Helping so you can feel good is not kind or loving. As Anne Lamott says, “Help is the sunny side of control.” If we ignore the autonomy of those we love, we risk creating a codependent relationship punctuated by continuing failures and rescues. Indeed, if we ignore their autonomy, our love will come to look an awful lot like hatred, and our sense of being in control will become increasingly unsatisfying. True kindness leaves the ones we love in control. They determine what help they will accept and how they will use it. Of course, this does not mean simply enabling them to do as they please. The offer of help may come with conditions, and there may be milestones that must be reached for help to continue. The goal of help offered in kindness is independence not dependence.

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Love is Patient

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Love is patient…. (1 Corinthians 13:4)

When Paul embarks on a description of the characteristics that distinguish love from other virtues, he begins with patience. This seems at first counterintuitive. What has patience to do with love? Shouldn’t he begin with doing good and being generous? We commonly think of patience as waiting without getting upset. So if I spend an extra 15 minutes at the doctor’s office waiting to be called but don’t get angry, it’s because I’m patient. This is certainly an aspect of patience, but I don’t think it is what Paul has in mind when he says, “Love is patient.”

The King James version has “Charity suffereth long,” and I think the concept of long-suffering gives us a clue to why Paul chose patience as the first characteristic of love. Today the concept of suffering almost always has to do with experiencing pain, but it was not so when the King James version was translated. It meant “to let, to allow.” So when Jesus said in Mark’s gospel, “Suffer the little children to come unto me.” (Mark 10:14 KJV), he meant let them come. Jesus instructed his disciples not to control access to his presence. He had a genuine open-door policy, and he meant to see it enforced.

Therefore, patience is not primarily about waiting. It is about letting events take their course. It is about not trying to control what happens. Since love is other-centered rather than self-centered, it means specifically that love does not try to control other people. It allows people their own agency. It does not seek to manipulate, coerce, or cajole others into behaving as you want. Rather, it lets people make their own decisions, take their own actions, and suffer their own consequences.

This exactly describes the way Jesus behaved toward the rich young man who came to him asking how he could have eternal life. Jesus begins by giving him the standard religious answer: follow the rules, and you will live. But the man is not satisfied. He tells Jesus that he has kept the Law since he was a boy. Then Mark tells us, “Jesus looked at him and loved him.” It is this love that motivates Jesus to tell the man about the one thing he still lacked. And it is because of that same love that Jesus watches the man walk away sad. Jesus does not do any of the things we are tempted to do for those we love. He does not pursue the man and try to talk him into making a different decision. He doesn’t lower his standard for entrance into the kingdom so the young man could meet it. He doesn’t try to trick him into changing his mind. He lets the man be sad. He lets him walk away.

I am convinced that the single greatest mistake that parents make with their children is in ignoring their child’s agency. They seek to control their child for any number of reasons—because they find their child’s misbehavior embarrassing, because they fear what may happen if their child makes bad decisions, because their own parents used deceit and manipulation to control their behavior. Of course, parents are legally responsible for their children, and they need to exercise a certain level of control. The aim of parenting, however, is the freedom and independence of the child. How can the child learn the self-discipline necessary to become an independent adult if the parents are always stepping in to impose artificial consequences or averting the natural consequences of their child’s behavior? It is only natural, then, that the child eventually reaches an age where they resent their parents and rebel against them. Our culture tends to consider this progression a natural part of growing up, but it is actually the result of a faulty concept of parenting that does not begin with the patience of love.

Before Paul says “Love is kind,” which introduces our own agency in doing good for others, he insists that love recognizes and honors the agency of others and does not try to subvert it or diminish it. Love begins with letting other people be and allowing them to decide and act in ways they think best. This is the love God has for us, and it is the same love he requires of us toward others. Love is patient because God is patient.

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