Every Monday and Thursday morning here at the school, a student gets up in front of the forty-or-so other students. Sometimes haltingly, sometimes with great animation, they impart a little message to the rest of us. In French.
Last Thursday was my turn. Heather and Alyssa have already gone, and John (a.k.a. "Jean Valjean") is on deck for this week. It was a good exercise and I enjoyed learning the vocabulary and phrases of a topic that is dear to me and that I anticipate talking about in the future.
I have three favorite topics for such occasions: Suffering, Weakness, and the Kingdom of God. Rachel laughs at my uncommon choices (at least for the first two), and I guess it's warranted. But I hold to their necessity and for a bunch of adult missionaries stumbling around making countless mistakes and feeling often the fool, weakness seemed an a propos topic.
If you read the mission statement of our agency, World Harvest Mission, the most unique thing you will find is the phrase "ministering from weakness". More and more, I'm coming to believe that this is the ground on which we stand. Truly, it must be, since there isn't any other.
We come to France and we become like little children. We can no longer have basic conversations. We sit in the classroom and say the wrong things again and again. And we trust that Jesus actually meant something valuable when he said that we need to become little children to enter the kingdom of heaven. It's a good lesson. But later we will learn French. We will re-enter our professional roles. And we will be tempted to think ourselves strong again. Because we have to be, right? In order to accomplish the work God desires?
2 Corinthians 12:9 records God telling Paul that, in the midst of his problem, his "power is made perfect in weakness." For a long time, I assumed that this meant that, despite my weaknesses, God will use my strengths and virtues to show his power. However, the idea of "ministering from weakness" fits the quote better. God can demonstrate his power through our weakness, our mess-ups, our failures. (World Harvest has a great little story on their website to demonstrate this. I used it in my talk and you can read it here.)
When this happens (and when we accept it as a phenomenon in our lives), there are several implications: God is glorified, and we are not, because it is very clear who the goodness belongs to in the situation. This is in opposition to ministering from strength, where there is greater temptation to praise the person. Also, we become God's tools, but with no reason for pride, since it is our very weaknesses that are the tools.
And perhaps most significantly, this frees us (like Paul) to celebrate our weaknesses, to hide nothing and speak the truth about our weakness and our sin, because we trust that God is stronger than our weakness. In a general sense, the church suffers from the idea that God's strength and glory is wholly dependent on our own strength. This can lead to a serious aversion to being honest about my own failures and problems. However, the realization that God's strength is made perfect in my weakness means that I can humbly and boldly live, knowing that it is God, and not me, who is going to complete the work that really matters.
As I write this, I feel my own insufficiency once again, since this concept is bigger and deeper than something I can wrap up in a blog post. But, by my own explication, that is surely OK. We desire to live this out in our lives and work, so I'm sure you will find the topic resurface over and over (such as in John's broccoli story).
And for those who are eager to use our lives here to vicariously resurrect their own French studies, you can read my French devotion by clicking here.