Just what sort of power is it that St. Paul understood is made perfect in weakness – is made complete, full-grown, mature; achieves its purpose? What ultimate success is attained in weakness? Paul was not using language that people like Donald Trump understand. Even I didn’t grow up understanding it, and you probably didn’t either. Only now as I face the latter season of life am I coming to understand it enough to practice it. And it’s a hard lesson, although I’m also learning the surpassing value of it.
Paul was anything but weak, as we commonly understand weakness. In his competition with those he called “super-apostles” for credibility in the church, Paul boasted of his strengths: his ethnic and national connections; his lineage in his faith tradition; his vigor as a minister of Christ; the street cred he earned laboring and suffering and sacrificing for the gospel, surviving ordeals, overcoming danger. Oddly, he even saw his weakness as strength (2 Cor. 11:21b-33).
Power, not weakness, is what I need, l learned from life early on, power to control life and the world, at least the part of life and the world that affected me the most: the power of wealth, at least enough to fend off hunger and homelessness; the power to develop the right relationships, to keep me in the right place in society; the power to project the right image – the right clothes, the right car, the right haircut, the right neighborhood – to prevent people seeing anything in me they might judge and reject.
Power keeps fear at bay, the world taught me. The more power I have to control life in my surroundings, the less I need to fear, and the better my life will be. The trouble is, although that’s what the world teaches, life teaches something else. It’s not perfect power that casts out fear, but perfect love (1 John 4:18), the kind of love God has shown for us and that we are to show for one another, the kind of love in which every disparate, contradictory person and part of creation and experience in life is held together in one perfectly reconciled, harmonious whole (2 Cor. 5:17-19).
Maybe we need to find a better word than “weakness” to describe the condition in which power is made perfect. In fact, the word Paul used for “weakness” doesn’t refer to the absence of power; it refers to the voluntary surrender of power, the submission of one’s own will to the will of another, in this case God. The power of life is made complete when we surrender ourselves completely to God’s unfolding, creating will. True power of life reaches its fullness when I choose to dial my power back to empty.
It’s what Mary did when she learned she would bear a child called Jesus and said to Gabriel, “Let it be with me according to your word” (Luke 1:38). It’s what Jesus did on the night of his betrayal and arrest when he prayed, “Father, not my will but yours be done” (Luke 22:42). It’s what every one of us does – but do we really mean it? – when we pray, “Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (Matt. 6:10).
Real power, the power of God, the power of life, finally comes to perfection for us when we trust that God is acting somehow in every experience of life – every experience – and when we surrender ourselves fully to God’s will in each moment. I think that’s why Jesus was able to sleep while a storm was swamping the little boat in which he and the disciples crossed the lake one night. It was only because of the disciples’ fear, rooted in their desire to control life, that he grudgingly calmed the storm (Mark 4:25-41). He was content to sleep in the storm and let God’s will play out, whatever came.
In the book, Abandonment to Divine Providence, one of the great classics of Western spirituality, the author writes of such trust: “It is true that a canvas simply and blindly offered to the brush feels at each moment only the stroke of the brush. It is the same with a lump of stone. Each blow from the hammering of the sculptor’s chisel makes it feel – if it could – as if it were being destroyed. As blow after blow descends, the stone knows nothing of how the sculptor is shaping it. . . . Leave to God what is his business and carry on peacefully with your work. . . . Let God act, and abandon yourself to him.”*
Such is the power of surrender that when we take up our cross and follow where Christ leads, when we surrender our will completely to the will of God, heaven and earth are moved, and a new life entirely begins.
* Jean-Pierre de Caussade, Abandonment to Divine Providence, trans. John Beevers (New York: Doubleday, 1975), 82.