In the minds of many people inside the Christian community, “strength” is the essence and goal of the Christian life. We like our Christianity to be muscular, triumphant. We’ve come to believe that the Christian life is a progression from weakness to strength—“Started from the bottom, now we’re here” (Drake) seems to be the victory chant of modern Christianity. You even hear this obsession in our lingo: We talk about someone having “strong faith,” about someone being a “strong Christian." We desperately want to think that we are competent and capable. We’ve concluded that our life and witness depend on our strength. No one wants to declare deficiency. We even turn the commands that seem to have nothing to do with strength (“Blessed are the meek” or “Turn the other cheek”) into opportunities to showcase our spiritual might. I saw a church billboard the other day that said, “Think being meek is weak? Try being meek for a week!”
As my friends at Mockingbird write, “American Christianity is now in crisis, in large part because people have marketed it as a religion of good people getting better, when in fact it is a religion of bad people coping with their failure to be good,” (Law and Gospel, 21). We are all by nature, in the terminology of Martin Luther, theologians of glory—not God’s glory, but our own.
But is the progression from weakness to strength the pattern we see throughout the Bible?
Take Samson, for instance. As a kid growing up idolizing Rocky, Rambo, and Conan the Barbarian, the story of Samson was right up my alley. I may have been bored by the rest of the Bible, but not the Samson narrative. Anybody who could kill a thousand bad guys with the jawbone of a donkey had my respect. He was the Wolverine of the Old Testament and I wanted to be just like him. Samson seems, at first blush, to be an exemplar of “Livestrong” Christianity.
The story of Samson is actually the exact opposite of the “weakness to strength” paradigm that has come to mark our understanding of the Christian life. Samson’s story shows us that the rhythm of Christian growth is a progression from strength to weakness, rather than weakness to strength.
Samson starts off strong. He’s invincible. Seemingly indestructible. Clearly unbeatable. He’s what we all want to be—what, down deep, we’re all striving to be. Maybe not physically, but spiritually.
We think his strength is in his hair (even Samson thought that!), but before every great deed Samson performed, we read, “The Spirit of the Lord rushed upon him.” Before he tears a lion apart with his bare hands (14:6), before he kills the 30 men of Ashkelon (14:19), and before he kills a thousand men with the jawbone of a donkey (15:14), the exact same phrase is used: “The Spirit of the Lord rushed upon him.” The author of Judges is at pains to make it clear that these feats of strength are not Samson’s, but God’s.
Think about the times in your life when other people have told you that your faith was strong. Aren’t people always saying that when you feel the weakest? When you feel like you’re barely hanging on? There’s something to be said for the real-world truth of Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 1:27—“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.” It is when we feel foolish that God shows himself to be wise. It is when we feel weak that God shows himself to be strong.
The Philistines are not defeated until Samson is weakened. His hair is shaved, his eyes are gouged out, and he’s chained up like an animal in the zoo. He finally realizes that he is weak and that God alone is strong and so he prays and asks God for a generous portion of strength. God answers his prayer and Samson brings the building down on himself and all the lords of the Philistines. It is when Samson is at his weakest that he is most powerfully used. The less Samson is, the more God is in him.
Gideon experienced something similar to Samson. Gideon is prepared to fight a battle. He’s got his army ready—32,000 strong. But God reduces his army from 32,000 to 10,000 by getting rid of everyone who’s afraid. Then he reduces the army from 10,000 to 300, keeping only those who drink “like a dog.” Then he reduces their weaponry to trumpets and empty jars. No knives, no swords, no spears. God wants to make it obvious that their promised victory is owing to his strength, not theirs. This is the Lord’s way: he strips us everything, that he might be our everything. He reduces us down to nothing, the he might be our all.
We see this same pattern in the life of the Apostle Paul. By his own admission (Phil. 3:4-6) he started off strong. His spiritual resume was more impressive than anybody else’s. And yet God systematically broke him down throughout his life so that by life’s end he was saying stuff like, “I’m the worst guy I know” and “I’m the least of all the saints” and “For when I am weak, then I am strong.”
The hope of the Christian faith is dependent on God’s display of strength, not ours. God is in the business of destroying our idol of self-sufficiency in order to reveal himself as our sole sufficiency. This is God’s way—he kills in order to make alive; he strips us in order to give us new clothes. He lays us flat on our back so that we’re forced to look up. God’s office of grace is located at the end of our rope. The thing we least want to admit is the one thing that can set us free: the fact that we’re weak. The message of the Gospel will only make sense to those who have run out of options and have come to the relieving realization that they’re not strong. Counterintuitively, our weakness is our greatest strength.
So, the Christian life is a progression. But it’s not an upward progression from weakness to strength—it’s a downward progression from strength to weakness. Our spiritual maturity is not growing more independent, but a growing awareness of our complete dependence on Christ. A growing awareness of our incessant need of more and more of Jesus and his grace. This is why our Lord holds up children as examples of the greatest in his kingdom. They have nothing of which to boast, no moral resumes to brag about, no jaw-dropping feat of spiritual prowess. What do they have? Empty hands waiting to be filled, empty mouths waiting to be fed. They are paragons of reception. And Christ’s kingdom is all about God giving and us receiving, not us accomplishing and God applauding.
And this is good news because "muscular" Christianity is exhausting and enslaving. It demands more and more us. It’s all about us doing “enough”: enough works, enough prayer, enough sacrifice, enough offering, enough witnessing. But in this twisted, egoistic version of the faith, there’s a terrible catch: there never is enough! It always demands more and more and more.
But the grace of God says that our enough is Christ, our enough is his grace. He is more than enough because in him, all God’s promises are “Yes!” The strength of God alone can liberate us from the burden of needing to be strong—the sufficiency of God alone can relieve us of the weight we feel to be sufficient.
As I’ve said before, Christian growth is not, “I’m getting stronger and stronger, more and more competent every day.” Rather, it’s “I’m becoming increasingly aware of just how weak and incompetent I am and how strong and competent Jesus was, and continues to be, for me.”
Because Jesus paid it all, we are set free from the pressure of having to do it all. We are weak. He is strong.