In different ages and continents, societies have been categorized as shame-based, reward-based, etc. I’m sure there have been similar evaluations of our American society today by experts who performed studies. I am not one of them, but from my own observations and life experience, I would argue that our society is strength-based. We have an aversion to weakness. Yes, we are suckers for the underdog victory, but not because the underdog is weak. Rather, it is because the underdog finally proves its strength.
As a woman in our culture today, I am very aware of my own insecurity at being perceived weak and the need to prove any misogynist wrong. I am strong! This is why when I read 1 Peter 3:7, my feathers get ruffled:
“Husbands, live with your wives in an understanding way, showing honor to the woman as the weaker vessel, since they are heirs with you of the grace of life, so that your prayers may not be hindered.”
The weaker vessel! Yes, physically I may be weaker (though not necessarily, I’m sure there are exceptions), but not necessarily even emotionally, mentally, spiritually, or professionally. Oh it makes me burn!
Here though, I am frustrated. Why am I incited by a verse which is a call to love and respect women? It declares us equal heirs in Christ! There is so much good toward women in this verse. So again, why am I incited? Well, because our society mandates strength, and, if we accept weakness, we lose value.
In response to my ire caused by this verse, which I know is wrong, I decided to do a study on what scripture says about weakness. I will disclose my presupposition going into this:
I believe my placement of value on strength over weakness is misplaced. It is a lie propagated by our culture. I do not believe Peter was devaluing women in the above passage. Thus, I presume my study will reveal a message contrary to the world’s. I believe I will find that weakness has its place and can be a good thing and isn’t intrinsically bad as our culture would have us think.
The number one passage you think of when I say think of a Bible verse on weakness is most likely, “For when I am weak, then I am strong.” This, of course, comes from the larger passage of 2 Corinthians 12:9-10, “But he said to me, ‘my grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weakness, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” This passage doesn’t leave Paul in weakness, but it is his very weakness that makes room for God’s strength and power in him.
The first thing I find scripture saying about weakness is that it is an opportunity for God to manifest his power in us and equip us with his strength. Let’s not stop there.
- Weakness can lead to sin.
Most passages in scripture that caution against weakness surround weakness of the flesh—the sinful flesh of the old creature. This weakness leads to sin. As humans, we easily cave to our fleshly desires, we lack the resilient self-control to stand fast.
Take for instance, Matthew 26, where Jesus is in the garden praying before his arrest. He tells the disciples to keep watch, but when he returns to them, they are sleeping. He rebukes them, “So, could you not watch with me one hour? Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation. The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.” Weakness in flesh leads to weakness in spirit later as they were not protected from temptation and fear—to the point of denying Christ in Peter’s case.
Even though this weakness is negative, it can be redeemed through Christ who is not “unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.” (Hebrews 4:15) Furthermore, Paul writes in Romans, “For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly.” God has a way of taking our weakness and turning it around in his power and by his action.
- Weakness in others isn’t something to look down on, but an opportunity to be like Christ.
The Bible has a lot of instruction on how the faithful ought to approach and act toward those who are weak. That weakness may be physical, social, spiritual, or emotional. No matter what weakness it is, the scriptures are clear that the weak are not to be devalued or condemned. Rather listed below are a sampling of the right responses to the weak:
- Give justice to the weak (Psalm 82:3)
- Help the weak (1 Thessalonians 5:14)
- Show patience to the weak (I Thessalonians 5:14)
- Do not quarrel with the weak (Romans 14:1)
- Welcome the weak (Romans 14:1)
- Bear the failings of the weak (Romans 15:1)
- Become weak to win the weak (1 Corinthians 9:22)
I ordered these passages this way to show a progression of command that goes from just acting rightly towards the weak to giving to them to giving up of oneself for them to actually give up one’s strength for them. I love what Paul says in the 1 Corinthians passage, for beyond just the merit of obedience, these actions have a greater purpose of winning souls to Christ! Our behavior, reflecting Jesus’ own, is a compelling testimony of the gospel. Thus, it is again in weakness that God’s work of salvation is made manifest—this time through human to human interaction.
- Instead of devaluing, we actually should value weakness.
Paul illustrates this in 1 Corinthians using the human body as comparison to the church body. He writes, “The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.” On the contrary, the parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and on those parts of the body that we think less honorable we bestow the greater honor, and our unpresentable parts are treated with greater modesty, which our more presentable parts do not require. But God has so composed the body, giving greater honor to the part that lacked it, that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another.” What appears to be weak and potentially less essential, is not the measure God uses. He has purpose for weakness in the body, for earlier in that letter, Paul writes, “But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong.”
Again in a society that values strength, it can be hard to admit weakness. However, it is weakness that makes room for God’s strength, and God’s strength is far greater than any human strength. So as the strong need to be weak to win the weak, the weak made strong can win the humanly strong.
- Many people who were weak in their own right were use by God is his might.
The writer of Hebrews beautifully sums up illustrations of this in the hall of faith: “And what more shall I say? For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets— who through faith conquered kingdoms, enforced justice, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions, quenched the power of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, were made strong out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight.” The writer may have run of time, but I want to go further and look at Gideon. He is a perfect demonstration of how God takes the weak, makes them strong, uses them to humble the arrogant, and bring him glory.
In Judges 6, the angel of the Lord appears to Gideon while he is discretely threshing in the winepress. He is hiding his grain from the Midianites who have depleted the food in Israel for years. With this setting, it is thus ironic that the angel says to him, “The Lord is with you, O mighty man of valor.” Gideon is not so impressed with himself, for he questions God’s presence with him due to the circumstances and also his own standing in the people of Israel. He says, “Please, Lord, how can I save Israel? Behold, my clan is the weakest in Manasseh, and I am the least in my father’s house.” He is honest about his weakness, but the Lord responds, “But I will be with you, and you shall strike the Midianites as one man.” The story goes on with Gideon asking for validation through multiple signs, to following the command to destroy the false gods (though under the cover of night), to leading an army which God whittled down to three hundred men, to God giving Gideon the victory by turning the Midianites on one another and fleeing in fear.
This story is a story about God using what was weak in a powerful way. Gideon with three hundred men rid the country of the oppressor whom had taken their food for years and had not been challenged successfully. Clearly, the point God made to the people of Israel was that he was the one who would save. There was no way Gideon could rightfully claim ownership for that victory. God got the glory!
In our own lives, we have weaknesses, and rather than hide, we need to acknowledge them. We need to embrace the possibility that God has power beyond those weaknesses, that our value, our part in God’s plan isn’t hindered by our weakness.
This has been a very long post, so I will wrap it. From what I see in the Bible, weakness of flesh—the old self which leads to sin—is bad if left alone, but it also shows our need for God’s salvation. The law shows we cannot merit salvation, none of us. Praise the Lord, this weakness is redeemed in the work of the cross!
Other weaknesses—physical, spiritual, emotional, social—are opportunities yet again to recognize our inadequacy and need for Christ’s power in our lives or opportunities to emulate Christ to others. Our weakness is not a value measure—sure, it may weaken our pride—but pride keeps us from God anyway. Therefore, this weakness is good. The more weakness we have, the more we rely on God and less on ourselves.
Back to the first verse. Drawing from my study, it is evident that husbands are to emulate Christ to their wives by being gracious to their weaknesses. To myself in reading this, I am called not to take it as a challenge to prove myself. Instead, I can rejoice that any weakness I may have doesn’t have to hinder me or keep down, but that Christ by the Holy Spirit can turn my weakness into his great glory! What a joy that would be and what an honor to have that approach be a seed to lead others to him.