The theology of weakness is threaded from Genesis to Revelation.2 It is found in its most developed form in the Pauline epistles and peaks in the Corinthian correspondence with Paul’s exclamation, “For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Cor 12:10). This revelation provides a lens through which to understand the theology of weakness throughout Scripture.
In the Corinthian letters Paul addresses a church that looks a lot like the church of today. The Corinthians church was divided and factious, split over moral and liturgical issues, mired in sexual sin, fighting over spiritual gifts, opposing and undermining leadership, capitulating to the patterns of the world. Fueling this brokenness, the church had embraced the world’s understanding of strength and weakness:
To a church absorbing the surrounding Zeitgeist rather than confronting it with the upside down message of the gospel, Paul seeks to expose the Corinthians’ subtle capitulation to worldly notions of strength and weakness. Corinth was famous for lusting after wealth, religious power, athletic glory, and impressive speech—in a word, strength. The apostle’s strategy is to turn this mindset upside down by showing the Corinthians that true strength and glory are found in the very weakness and suffering so despised in their social context.3
Paul challenged this mindset not by appealing to strength—listing his impressive qualifications which was well within his rights—but by counter-culturally boasting in his weaknesses (2 Cor 12:9). But why?
Earlier Paul had urged his readers to imitate him as he imitates Christ (1 Cor 11:1). Paul’s boasting in weakness reflects what is involved in imitating Jesus’ life and ministry. Paul was imitating the posture of Jesus, who “made himself nothing by taking on the very nature of a servant” (Phil 2:7). Rather than rely on his own capabilities, Paul exposed his limitations, an act which invites the “tabernacling” of Christ’s power. Paul boasted in weakness in order that Christ’s power would rest upon him (2 Cor 12:9-10). Paul is drawing attention to one of the many important reversals present in the kingdom of God: “the way of true spiritual strength [is] the way of consciously recognized weakness.”4
Paul was imitating Jesus who himself embraced weakness. Having every right to grasp at his equality with God, Jesus humbled himself by becoming human (Phil 2:6-8). He was born in weakness (a vulnerable baby) and later died (the ultimate experience of weakness). He embraced not only the weakness involved in human embodiment, but also social weakness: born to a poor family (Lk 2:24), raised with the stigma of being conceived out of wedlock (Mt 1:19), lovingly surrounded with the marginalized and ostracized (Mk 2:15-16). He divested himself of heavenly glory to live in the “form of a slave” (Phil 2:7) and from this low position, “became obedient to death—even death on a cross” (Phil 2:8). He died the most painful and humiliating death, experiencing the magnitude of human powerlessness as he suffered, entering into the depths of human weakness and shame to become the solution for this fallen world. It was in his most profound identification with weakness that God’s most decisive victory was won.
Jesus, the second person of the Trinity, willingly plunged himself into human weakness. Since God is unchanging and Jesus is the same yesterday, today and forever (Heb 13:8), this willingness was not a new character trait. It was an outworking of the humble, self-giving, mutually submissive character of God that has always existed within the Trinity. Even in his ascension Jesus remained in a humble posture of service, playing the role of intercessor at the Father’s right hand (Rom 8:34). In both his incarnation and ascension, Jesus is the perfect advocate precisely because he chose to embrace weakness (Heb 4:15).
The Christian life is a “cruciform” life.5 Luke’s Gospel is explicit that taking up one’s cross is a daily requirement (Lk 9:23). Becoming spiritually mature involves continually dying to self—death of desires, of sinful habits, of self-centered living—in order that the way of Jesus would reign. To persistently self-deny and self-empty in order to align with Christ is a reversal of Eve’s actions, giving up autonomous strength and acceding to creaturely weakness.
Jesus, reflecting on the victory on the other side of his impending crucifixion, said to his disciples, “I assure you: Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains by itself. But if it dies, it produces a large crop” (Jn 12:24–25). The resurrection power of God could only come after Christ’s death on the cross, just as God’s transforming power in the disciple’s life comes only after the admission of weakness. The discipleship fruit we desire comes through our willingness to die. There, in brokenness and surrender, accepting God’s cruciform way as his chosen pattern for releasing transforming power, students of Jesus will be gradually conformed to the image of the Son.
This does not mean we do not exercise our gifts or wield any power. Power in Scripture, rightly engaged, is also cruciform (cross-shaped)—self-emptying, self-giving, self-sacrificing in love for others. When we reach the end of our own power, and/or when we submit what power we have to God for his purposes, there Christ’s power is most free to work. In a world blinded by the allure of strength, we must walk the countercultural Way of the Cross, a way that embraces rather than demonizes weakness.
Defining a Theology of Weakness
The theology of weakness accepts that a fully human life as God intended is a life of dependence on his strength in my weakness. It accepts that God created us with morally neutral weaknesses (reminders that we are creatures with need) intended to stimulate dependence on God. It understands that both the pattern of living exemplified by the cross and the reversals brought on by the kingdom of God are essential for human flourishing, precisely because they correctly identify creaturely weakness as the locus of God’s empowerment. It sees Christ’s voluntary embracing of weakness in the incarnation and culminating in his victory through the cross as the ultimate example of cruciform living. It accepts that God reveals himself to those who are willing to be weak and admit their need; and that he uses human weakness as the channel of his grace and power in a way that magnifies his glory. Finally, it admits that growth in the life of disciples happens as they embrace weakness, allowing them to experience his power at work in and through their weakness.
More succinctly, the theology of weakness is a framework preeminently exemplified in the cross, which holds that God intentionally created humanity with needs and limitations which invite dependence on him, reveals himself in weakness, modeled the embrace of weakness in his incarnation, intends to use human weakness for his glory, and brings about growth in the life of a disciple as they experience his power in their weakness. It is ultimately “a theology of divine empowering.”6
So I leave you with some questions to ponder: Is our discipleship training people to become self-reliant or God-dependent? Is it pushing people toward prideful mastery or ready acknowledgement of one’s creaturely limitations? Is it inciting division or is it leading to humility and love? Is our discipleship predicated on strength, or is it helping us to be people who experience God’s strength in our weakness?