To be strong in every area of our lives—physically, mentally, spiritually, financially—is a desire we all share. We are instructed from a very young age to hone our natural strengths and shed our weaknesses, or if we can’t shed them, at least keep them tucked away from view. With the 2016 election season drawing near, it becomes quite apparent how little tolerance we have for weakness, as politicians are placed before the hyper-focused lens of an incredulous public for purposes of dredging up and broadcasting their character defects and personal flaws. Weakness is always assigned to the “con” column, something we see as only detracting from who we are meant to be. We don’t envy others’ weaknesses, and we surely don’t revel in our own. We are told that in order to be successful, we must be strong. Yet strength doesn’t correlate to how strong we actually are, rather to how cleverly we can hide our weaknesses: the survival of those who seem fittest.
Of course, it would be absurd and highly imprudent to blatantly brandish our weaknesses or moral shortcomings in any and all contexts. And the honing of our strengths as we work to remedy our flaws is a virtuous, necessarily practice. Many of us want to be powerful as to employ some great good. And there is something noble about desiring to shed our weaknesses to become more like God—to become more perfect. We see such a desire regularly alluded to in film and TV, especially with the recent influx of mythology-inspired superhero movies and shows. If we can’t be superheroes ourselves—gifted with supernatural power and unrivaled might—then we at least want to root for one. Humanity has always dreamed of reaching the stars and beyond, which affirms our desire for greatness. It can be a good thing as we strive to be powerful like God. Although, it’s only a good thing when we see what being powerful like God actually means in this world. God desires us to be like him—there is no question—but to be like God, well, is not often what the world points to as mighty and powerful.
“It is much safer to be feared than loved because…love is preserved by the link of obligation which, owing to the baseness of men, is broken at every opportunity for their advantage; but fear preserves you by a dread of punishment which never fails.”
― Niccolò Machiavelli, The Prince
These words from this very famous 16th-century political treatise encapsulate the world’s advice on how to gain and keep power. I don’t mean to focus so much on the use of fear to control others, but rather, the advice to refuse love because of its danger. And Machiavelli is absolutely right—love is a very perilous thing indeed.
“Maybe it is that power offers an easy substitute for the hard task of love. It seems easier to be God than to love God, easier to control people than to love people, easier to own life than to love life.”
― Henri Nouwen
Even though we should strive to overcome our flaws and weaknesses by God’s grace, we will still always be hampered by our weak and fallen nature—left entirely dependent on God, whether we know it or not. And as St. Paul can paradoxically attest, Christ’s power is made perfect in weakness. Our acknowledgement of our weakness allows God to work in our lives for his purposes. If we refuse to accept and acknowledge our weakness, then how can God work through us?
Christ was the incarnation of love. He came into the world with a fierce love for others—one instilled with fiery passion and anchored firmness. If we review his life of ministry, we see that he also was a tremendously powerful figure. He commanded large crowds with authority and charisma. He silenced even the most astute and learned scholars with wit and wisdom. And of course, he miraculously refashioned creation—healing the sick, calming the sea, and raising the dead. The world would agree, Christ was a powerful—even at times frightening—figure.
However, Jesus then showed the completeness of his power—the full depth and breadth of his love—by dying naked and alone on the cross at the hands of fallen humanity. Just as his followers awaited the spoils of the Roman authorities and the forging of an invincible Israelite kingdom, he allowed men to beat, mock and kill him.
“I gave my back to those who beat me,
my cheeks to those who plucked my beard;
My face I did not shield
from buffets and spitting.”
― Isaiah 50:6
God become the epitome of weakness—the complete and utter opposite of the world’s power while nailed to a tree.
If we believe that being powerful is giving less and less to others, storing up who we are—especially our willingness to expose our weaknesses and be vulnerable—in order to prevent being manipulated or hurt, then we become less like God. We may be successful in avoiding being hurt, persecuted, or made a fool out of—in other words, from being nailed to the cross that Christ calls each of us to in this world—but we sadly won’t be partaking in the divine life.
Often our culture categories vulnerability as a weakness because it gives power to others to accept or reject us. If we are honest about our struggles, shortcomings, or trials—a difficult marriage, a disappointing professional career, a family member struggling with mental illness, an addiction to drugs or alcohol—as an attempt to form solidarity with others, we risk rejection. I can’t help but think of Jesus washing his disciples’ feet. He washed their feet, removing his “outer garment,” leaving nothing between them and himself as to expose his true self completely out of love. He loved all of them, washing their feet—even the feet of Judas. And that’s what’s so incredible about God. He knows, with absolute certainty, that Judas will betray and reject him, yet he still exposed his heart to him, loved him and allowed him to reject him.
Jesus asks us to wield the power that he did—the power of a love that burns with vulnerability. He asks us to let others into our lives because that’s what he did—because that’s what love does. When we’re vulnerable we hold nothing back, we give ourselves out of love—offering to those who receive us the opportunity to return that love back to us.
“The leaders of the future will be those who dare to claim their irrelevance in the contemporary world as a divine vocation that allows them to enter into a deep solidarity with the anguish underlying all the glitter of success, and to bring the light of Jesus there.”
― Henri Nouwen
Are we willing to enter into the power that God wants of us—one that seeks to love at the risk of everything, even our lives?
Through accepting our total humanity—both its glory and weakness—we come to experience Christ fully in this life. The world prods us to preemptively bring our glorified selves into the world now through might and worldly power, but as we learn from Christ, the way to glory is by picking up the cross with a heart of humility, vulnerability, and love. We show our wounds as to help others see they are not alone in their suffering, even if it results in them stuffing our wounds with salt and spurning us.
This is one of the hardest things about our faith. Christianity doesn’t guarantee that by living lives of love we will be loved in return by others. If we love more deeply, we will have more fulfilling lives as children of the Father—enjoying the pearl of great price—but we still may die alone and broken according to the standard of the world. Jesus did. And where Jesus went, we too are called to go.
As I pray for the strength and courage to love as God does, despite my weaknesses and flaws, I try to imagine Jesus on the cross, arms spread out to embrace the entire world, exposing himself completely out of love, holding nothing back—not even his own life. If I’m able to do that—even if only for a moment—then I can’t help but realize that to be weak and vulnerable—to pour our heart out to others—is to be like God.
“God would have given us something greater if he had something greater than himself.”
― St. John Vianney