Weakness, strength and the “end of self”
Have you read the comments to my post about finding strength in weakness? If not, you must. They’re so good.
How good? Thanks to reading all the responses to that post, I think I might actually be groping my way towards understanding how you can be strong in Christ, even when you’re physically weak.
One of the things that came into sharp relief for me last week was just how much I associate strength with action. Even when it comes to letting God work through us, I assumed that that pretty much always meant doing something: speaking just the right words, physically assisting someone in need, etc. So when I tried to imagine God working through me in my weakness, I assumed that it would involve supernatural strength to do stuff: through God’s power, I’d suddenly jump off the couch and go help my neighbor move a refrigerator; or my nausea and fatigue would miraculously disappear and I’d be filled with the energy to make an impassioned and eloquent Youtube video that would convert 10 atheists to Christ. Or something like that.
And so when nothing like that was happening, I was left frustrated and confused. I felt like I just wasn’t able to tap into God’s strength, whatever that meant.
It seems to me that being a mother is like any form of asceticism in the Church. The struggle isn’t aimed at causing us pain for the sake of punishment, but for the purpose of bringing us to the end of ourselves.
Bringing us to the end of ourselves. When I read those words, something clicked. To build on the example I used in my post last week, let’s imagine that I’m at the grocery store and the cashier starts chatting with me about Christmas. Let’s say, hypothetically, that she is a nonbeliever who’s been longing for something more in her life, and that this is the moment that God has chosen to open her eyes to his existence. Let’s look at two possible ways it could play out:
I feel great and energetic. In my enthusiastic state, I feel moved to mention how special Christmas is to me since I converted to Christianity as an adult. She asks me what I converted from, I say I was an atheist. She asks how I made that leap, and God inspires me to give an eloquent two-minute testimony in which I elucidate the reasonable basis for belief in God and the compelling case for Christianity, topped off with a brief but moving story of some amazing thing God has done in my life.
Two months later I see this same checker again, and she tells me that she is in RCIA at her local parish and will receive her first Communion in the spring — and adds that our little chat was part of what inspired her to make that decision. I smile inwardly and give all the credit to God. Although. You know. It was a good testimony. And I did use my free will there to choose just the right words.
On some level I would understand that my conversion, indeed my whole life, are gifts from God, and in that sense of course every single good thing comes from him. But I am dense and prideful, so while I gave lip service to simply being an instrument of the Lord, in the back of my mind my fallen nature would be smirking and noting that, hey, I was a pretty dang good instrument, if I do say so myself.
Now let’s look at another way it could play out:
I’m about to throw up. I’m so exhausted that it feels like hard work to lift the green beans onto the conveyor belt. In response to the cashier’s talk about Christmas, I say, “Unnnngh.” However, that morning I’d randomly felt inspired to slip on a watch that I hardly ever wear. The cashier sees this watch, and it is the exact one owned by her aunt, whom she’d just spoken to that morning. Her aunt had recently become a devout Christian, and Miss Cashier had been noticing how much more joyful and peaceful she’d been ever since her conversion. She keeps pondering this for the rest of the day.
Two months later I see this same checker again, and she tells me that she is in RCIA at her local parish and will receive her first Communion in the spring — and adds that seeing me at the grocery store that day was the spark that ignited her newfound faith.
Simply, fundamentally, at the very core of my being, I would know: THAT’S GOD. I was just going through a routine task of my vocation — going to the grocery store — and was used as an instrument in my utter weakness. I did nothing but put on a watch and say, “Unnnngh.” Once again I would smile inwardly and give all the credit to God — only this time it would be with trembling, staggering sincerity.
The end of self. In both situations, God got the job done. But only in Situation 2 did I really understand my role in it all. Only Situation 2, in my weakness, were the cashier and I both brought closer to God.
I’ve been taking halting steps toward just doing the simple things I can do it my weakened state, and keeping my eyes out for God’s movement all around me. And I’ve started to see it. Though nothing quite as obvious as the hypothetical situation above, I’ve witnessed all sorts of small examples of God working things out and making pieces come together, in my life and the lives of those around me, with little to no action on my part.
This period of weakness is shattering my usual way of looking at things. I’m coming to see that doing God’s work can sometimes mean not doing much at all. As ridiculous as it sounds, I think that I’m only now beginning to understand on a visceral level that, though God may sometimes use my big efforts and actions and ideas, he does not need them to enact his will. It is, as Katherine said so well in her post, bringing me to the end of my own self-importance. And in those moments, when I see God’s hand orchestrating the world around me while I sit still in silence, I begin to understand the true power of being weak.
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