As a child, I used to play a game of endurance with my friends. On the school playground, we would all hang from the bars of a "horizontal ladder" and see who could hang on the longest. Eventually, our hands would get tired, and one by one, we would drop to the ground. Last one hanging wins.
Unwittingly, we were preparing for life. The prize often goes to the one who persists and perseveres. We honor strength and tenacity in people, qualities that have served humankind well throughout the millennia, qualities I hope to pass on to my children by example and genetics.
We also admire people with a strong faith. In my career as a minister, I have been fortunate to meet many people whose faith I admire. I know their stories and marvel that the tribulations they have endured did not diminish their faith, but only strengthened it. I wonder if I will ever achieve the character and nobility they seem to model so effortlessly.
Unfortunately, we sometimes confuse the practice of faith with the strength of faith. We measure a person's "faithfulness" by their observable actions. We admire the faith of those who are at the church every time the door opens, and take Bibles to work with them.
I am a big fan of steady attendance at church and regular Bible study, but let us be clear. These are exercises that God uses to build us up, but they are not in themselves evidence of strength. Jesus warned us not to be like the Pharisees, who wore their phylacteries on their foreheads and said loud prayers. The more religious practices impress others, the less they impress God.
Paul had a way of turning the measure of faith on its head. To the Corinthians, who were apparently engaged in a contest to see who had the greatest faith, he suggested that spiritual gifts were only admirable to the extent they built up the body of Christ. In this way, the greatest gift is love. He went even further in saying that God does his greatest work through the weakest people. This was not an original idea. The Hebrew Scriptures give us several examples of God using weak people, like Moses the stutterer; David, whose moral weakness was legendary; and Joseph, the eleventh (and least popular) of 12 boys.
In Second Corinthians chapter 12, Paul addressed those who judged faith by the intensity of one's spiritual experience. If some trance or ecstatic experience was evidence of spiritual authenticity, then Paul measured up well against anyone. (Paul wrote in third person, "I know a man who...". But he was referring rhetorically to himself). Aside from his Damascus road experience of encountering the risen Christ in a blinding light, he also was once "caught up in the third heaven" and "heard the unspeakable spoken". But these he counted as a measure of God's grace, not his own strength. What mattered most to his faith was his weakness, not his strength. God gave him weakness to serve God's purpose. Some translations render it as a "thorn in the flesh", but I like Eugene Peterson's The Message: "Because of the extravagance of these revelations, and so I wouldn't get a big head, I was given the gift of a handicap to keep me in constant touch with my limitations. Satan's angel did his best to get me down; what he in fact did was push me to my knees. No danger then of walking around high and mighty! At first I didn't think of it as a gift, and begged God to remove it. Three times I did that, and then he told me, "My grace is enough; it's all you need. My strength comes into its own in your weakness."
On the playground of my youth, I often won the game of hanging on. But later in life, I discovered the greater prize of God's strength coming through in my weakness. Ironically, whenever my own strength fails me, God is able to do his best work. When I insist on doing it myself, mediocrity prevails. Lord, give me the strength to let go!
Brian Dale is pastor of Allen Memorial Methodist Church in Oxford.