Yeah, yeah! I know the Bible verses (2 Cor 12:8-10). Christ is made strong in our weakness. It’s all well and good. I love it when others are weak, Christ is strong. I teach it, I preach it. I just don’t like it when I am the one feeling weak. I especially don’t like it when I am so weak I feel helpless. But I was reminded this morning in our staff devotion time that this is exactly what Paul is talking about. And he is talking about it for me.
George, our student ministries director, was leading devotions and asked the question, “When was a time in your life when you felt most led by the Spirit, like Romans 8 says, “walking in the Spirit”? I thought about it. Of course the immediate response from a pastor is some superspiritual thing like, “I am led by the Spirit every moment of every day.” Yeah, right! I confessed that when I think about feeling led by the Spirit I am more like a cell phone with poor reception. The connection comes and goes. But as I thought more, I remembered a time when I really felt connected and totally led by the Spirit of God. It was during the most difficult time in my fifteen years of ordained ministry. It was a time of explosive conflict in a church I served as an associate. What had been little brush fires around the congregation for years (we learned later) erupted into an inferno one August following a seemingly routine issue in the life of ministry. Within hours the conflict became personal and pointed. Though I was not directly involved in any of the related issues, my convictions about what had happened made me one of two targets for all the rage. And the battle raged for over two years. There were days when I did not want to get out of bed. There were times when I was paralyzed in an attempt to avoid those who were on the attack. I never knew who I would run into at the grocery store or bank, and even in the halls of the church I served I could suddenly be confronted with a very angry person. There was also the deep sense of sadness over the loss of people who were so confused by what was happening that they withdrew from fellowship. When it was all over about 100 people left the church of 700. It felt to me like 100 deaths without goodbyes. Though I was not suicidal, there were days when I felt as though I did not want to go on living. The pain was so deep and I could see no end in sight.
As George continued to push the question I realized that this was the time I remembered most feeling the Spirit leading me. In fact, I remembering telling someone that I felt so weak I did not know if I could walk. But I did walk. And I did work, and I did go on. But I felt numb, like I was floating around from place to place. That is when I realized that the Spirit of God was carrying me. I was walking in the power of the Spirit and completely led by him. My absolute weakness allowed Christ to be my strength. I was living out the poem Footprints in the Sand.
I have been a Christian since a very young child, and I have studied Scripture since I was a teenager. I know that one of the dominant themes of Scripture is about suffering and weakness, and that we grow most in our faith when we are tested. I know that the very heart of the gospel is that through death life emerges. Through the Valley of Achor there is hope. I know this and love the truth. I don’t like living it out! It is painful. And yet this is exactly what Easter is all about. Through Lent we prepare to realize the weight of our sin and the price for its eradication on Good Friday. Easter morning, resurrection, is only possible because, as Jürgen Moltmann said, Christ suffered godforsakenness for us. Total weakness and defeat leads to absolute strength and victory. I hate it. But it is the way of the cross and it is the way of Christlikeness.
The church I served during those years grew stronger through those days of agony and pain. So did I. And I have been strengthened to travel with others walking that way of agony. Christ is sufficient. Most of the time it requires our absolute insufficiency to experience this kind of walking in the Spirit.