Last weekend I headed to Houston for a wedding. I bought the plane tickets just four days before Hurricane Harvey; I hadn’t been paying attention to the forecast. Then it made landfall as a category 5 hurricane, dropped over 33 trillion gallons of water, and caused over $190 billion dollars in damage. Instead of a vacation, I’d unknowingly booked a trip to survey the damage. In the weeks after the storm I watched helplessly from behind my computer screen across the country as friends piled their sheetrock, sofas, antiques and photo albums on their curbs like leftover rotting banana peels and then waited weeks for trash trucks to clear their yards of the painful reminders of destruction. Last weekend I was finally able to see, hear, and touch the remnants for myself.
I connected with friends who’d used their homes as staging grounds for disaster relief. Friends who’d delivered hundreds of meals to teams cleaning up flooded homes. Friends who’d hosted families whose homes were destroyed. I smelled the rotting mildew by the curbs piled high with worldly possessions waiting to be taken to the dump. The amount of physical loss is overwhelming.
In the face of such destruction and devastation, #HoustonStrong has become the unofficial mantra of the people as they rebuild. And while it certainly sums up the spirit that’s alive and well, and has been observable on a national level through the weeks of rallying, rescuing, cleaning, and caring since Harvey hit – it isn’t the whole story. Amidst the camaraderie and teamwork, questions still hang in the humid air. How will Houston rebuild? How long will ‘normal’ take? How can we keep going at this pace? People are emotionally exhausted and physically drained. #Weak just isn’t as fun to hashtag.
Call It Anything But Weakness
We aren’t a people who excel at weakness. We cover it up with all kinds of other, more palatable, words like tired, sick, stretched-thin, overly busy, or stressed. I think I’ve said them all over the past two years of moving cross-country, having a fifth baby, and planting a church. Even though I’ve felt like I was running a marathon under water – I wrestled to view my situation as weakness. I’d rather press past my humanity in hopes of finding my own God-like strength.
We lament our circumstances as if they are wholly responsible for our feelings of weakness. I privately lamented“If only I didn’t feel so alone in this new move. If only I wasn’t pregnant and sick all the time. If only we had more help planting this church. If only I wasn’t such a people-pleaser. If only I wasn’t so easily exhausted.” My post-Harvey friends voice similar laments. If only things would just get back to normal. If only I could get back into my house. If only we weren’t having to worry about money.” Don’t we really mean if only I weren’t so weak?
When circumstances don’t subside as fast as we’d like them to, we are quick to gloss past weakness or make light of it. Weakness is never fashionable to confess. It’s never convenient. When is the right time to cry or express your need for help? There’s always work to be done or people to take care of. There’s always someone worse off than you. There is always gratitude to be cultivated in favor of complaining. And so not only do we fail to excel at weakness, we shy away from even admitting it.
But weakness isn’t shameful. And it isn’t the opposite of strength. Weakness is merely the precursor to strength.
Take the Place of Helplessness
In God’s kindness, he allows situations in our life to remind us we are not super-human. The gift of weakness is actually an invitation to experience God’s strength, which is far greater than any strength we could muster up ourselves. So let’s begin by owning our weakness. Theologian A.W. Pink writes:
“Before He furnishes the abundant supply [of strength], we must first be made conscious of our emptiness. Before he gives strength, we must be made to feel our weakness. Slow, painfully slow, are we to learn this lesson; and slower still to own our nothingness and take the place of helplessness before the Mighty One.”
Before God gave Joshua the command to “be strong and courageous,” Joshua’s circumstances were most likely wrought with his own list of extenuating circumstances: If only Moses hadn’t died. If only I’d had more time to mourn. If only I’d had more training. If only the walls around Jericho weren’t so large and impenetrable. And yet God’s repetitive instruction to Joshua was “be strong and courageous.” Not because Joshua was awesome, but because of an existential source of awesomeness. Instead of giving Joshua a pep talk or pumping him full of “You got this” propaganda, God promised Joshua His presence. “The Lord your God is with you” and that is enough.
For the Christian, the testimony of our faith is not in our strength or resolve, but in our helplessness. We aren’t expected to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps. We are beset with weakness just like Jesus, and bound by the frailty of our human flesh. And by design, weakness serves to point us to the unique strength of Christ Jesus on our behalf: “For he was crucified in weakness, but lives by the power of God. For we also are weak in him, but… live with him by the power of God ().”
Boast In This
While all of Houston is brandishing their t-shirts and drink tumblers with #HoustonStrong, I’m taking a moment to brandish the lesson my heart has been learning both over the last two years of life and on my trip last weekend. It’s a lesson I’m learning through tears and pain and it doesn’t look very pretty. Whether you’re in Houston or wrestling with weakness anywhere else, I hope you’ll learn from scripture too.
Take a breath. You don’t have to pretend to be strong when you’re not. You don’t have to deny your feelings of weakness. Instead, pull up a chair and get comfortable boasting in weakness with the Apostle Paul (). Because it’s here you’ll find the sufficiency of God’s grace – through His presence and His power made perfect in your weakness.
4 For he was crucified in weakness, but lives by the power of God. For we also are weak in him, but in dealing with you we will live with him by the power of God. (ESV)
30 If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness. (ESV)
9 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. 10 For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong. (ESV)