An important spiritual principle is suggested in the famous passage about the great heroes of our faith, Hebrews 11. The writer summarizes this principle in just three Greek words: ἐδυναμώθησαν ἀπὸ ἀσθενείας (edynamothesan apo astheneias), “whose weakness was turned to strength” (Heb. 11:34).
Only when we realize our spiritual inability can God operate in us and through us. Only when we look to God rather than relying on our own strength can God use us. Even that is not enough. Not only must we recognize our weakness, we must be content with the situation and give God thanks for it. (For a personal example of realization of inability, see “To Be, or Not to Be, in the Driver’s Seat?“)
Paul the apostle had learned this principle when he wrote his letter to the Corinthians:
Closely related to spiritual weakness is אֱמוּנָה (emunah, faith, belief). Biblical faith is not so much belief in someone or something as persistence. It is “hanging in there” in spite of the circumstances. But faith is also the recognition of our dependence on God.
The story that best illustrates Abraham’s faith is his response to God’s promise that he would have a successor. When the three angels visited his encampment, he was 99 and Sarah was 89! There was no chance of Sarah becoming pregnant: “Abraham and Sarah were already old and well advanced in years, and Sarah was past the age of childbearing” (Gen. 18:11; NIV). Abraham knew that God would have to perform a miracle. He knew his own weakness—and that was precisely where his strength lay.
When the Israelites stood before the Red Sea with the Egyptian army behind them, their only hope was the LORD—but that was their strength.
Samson was strong only when he trusted in the LORD. When he began to trust in his own strength, he was defeated. He was humbled and punished with the loss of his sight, but when he finally began again to trust in the LORD, he gained his greatest victory.
At Penuel Jacob was so desperate, so afraid of what his brother would do to him the next day, that he refused to go on without meeting the LORD. In so many words, he said, “I can’t face tomorrow without you, LORD.” This was the beginning of his dependence on God and the beginning of victory for him. I don’t completely understand this story, but its significance seems to be that the angel weakened him by crippling him. He went away from that meeting limping, but spiritually he was a new and stronger man.
In the Bible, widows are often used as examples of faith. Consider the Parable of the Unjust Judge and the Widow in Luke 18:1-8. In ancient times, a widow’s situation often was hopeless; and yet when a widow depended on God, out of her hopelessness came deliverance.
The ultimate example of weakness was Jesus on the cross. He was nailed down, unable to move. No one could help him. Even God did not save his life. Yet out of this ultimate weakness came the ultimate victory: “For to be sure, he was crucified in weakness, yet he lives by God’s power. Likewise, we are weak in him, yet by God’s power we will live with him to serve you” (2 Cor. 13:4).
The Samson syndrome is a great danger for us. When Samson was strong he began to depend on his own strength. This is our natural tendency. The minute God does something for us spiritually, we begin to think we are strong and independent. The Pharisee thought: “Thank you, Lord, that I am not as bad as that tax collector.” And likewise, we often think to ourselves, “Thank you, Lord, that I am not as bad as this or that sinner,” or “Thank you Lord that I am not like the Pharisee in Jesus’ parable.”
We must continue to believe every moment of our lives, just as we did in the first moment we met Jesus, “I cannot make it on my own.” The minute we give up and admit our weakness, victory reigns.
The Bible uses many synonyms for spiritual weakness. These are words often used in the book of Isaiah and the Beatitudes of Jesus: “poor,” “poor in spirit,” “lowly in spirit,” “broken hearted,” “humble,” “mourner,” “hungry for righteousness.” These synonyms indicate that the people of God are those who realize their utter dependence on him. They realize that by themselves they are nothing, they have nothing, they can do nothing unless God enables them.
Only when we admit our inability and weakness can we live victoriously. But not only must we be aware of our total weakness, we must even view that weakness as a blessing.
Just as our first confession in coming to Jesus brought great release, so the confession of our limitations and total dependence on God brings great release and spiritual freedom. Now we can stop striving and relax. It’s the Greyhound bus mentality: “Take a bus and leave the driving to us.” We must relax and let God do the driving— let him have full control (cf. my “Haste Is of the Devil”).
I can do all things through the Messiah who gives me strength, but without him I can do nothing. Paul summarizes this well in 1 Corinthians 1:25-27 (RSV):
For the foolishness of God is wiser than man’s wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than man’s strength. Brothers, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong.
The recording below is of sermon preached on April 17, 1999 by David Bivin at Jerusalem’s historic Narkis Street Congregation.