The Face of Defeat
A few years ago Forbes magazine published a special edition issue dedicated entirely to a theme they boldly called “the biggest concern of our age.” The articles began with the blunt assertion that “we’ve beaten or at least stymied most of humanity’s monsters: disease, climate, geography, and memory. But time still defeats us. Lately its victories seem more complete than ever. Those time-saving inventions of the last half-century have somehow turned on us. We now hold cell phone meetings in traffic jams, and ’24/7′ has become the most terrifying phrase in modern life.”(1) Certainly, among other things, this statement is a telling look at some of our modern assumptions. Particularly fascinating is the categorizing of time as a monster. Time is limiting, after all, and the greatest modern monster of all seems to be to find ourselves limited in any way.
I was reminded again of this article and its fearful expressions of limitation while reading something in the book of Psalms this week. Like the candid passage above, the psalms are also known for their sincere expressions of troubling ailments and enemies. And yet the gigantic differences in narrative are not only fascinating but helpful in challenging some of the modern assumptions embedded in our telling and embodying of the human story. It is easy to be nudged along by progress and convenience such that we find “humanity’s monsters” to be the problems that need correcting—and not humanity itself. But what if it is not limitation that ails us?
Significantly, the psalmist presents his list of the various monsters that limit and block his way before the God he seeks. “Be merciful to me, O Lord,” writes the psalmist, “for I am in distress; my eyes grow weak with sorrow, my soul and my body with grief” (Psalm 31:9). Standing before one who is limitless, the psalmist casts limitation in a wholly different light. The writer powerfully concludes, “But I trust in you, O Lord, I say, ‘You are my God.’ My times are in your hands… Let your face shine on your servant; save me in your unfailing love.” Fixed upon trustworthy hands that hold fleeting days, the psalmist recognizes that, like time itself, all that limits and weakens us will also eventually fade—but God’s unfailing love will not. Limitation certainly brings the psalmist to God, but it is not what ultimately ails him.
Like the ground and grammar of the psalmist, the Christian perception of weakness and limitation is also held beside the unfailing love of God, but a God who has been given a face, a body, and a human story in the person of Christ. In his letter to the Corinthians, the apostle Paul speaks of something he calls the “thorn in his flesh.” No doubt a striking expression of limitation, scholars have debated for centuries what this thorn might have been—a physical ailment, a burdensome opponent, a disability of some sort. No one can be sure. But what is certain is that Paul was a uniquely significant influence in spite of this limiting thorn. He writes, “Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But God said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.'” “Therefore,” continues Paul, “I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:8-10).
It is a countercultural narrative to be sure. Yet what God has done through hardship, through limitation, even through seeming failure, is a restorative, re-forming story of the grace and authority, mercy and care of the victorious one the weak can proclaim.
What is in the time you hold before you this very moment? Do you see limits and fear? Or could you see, as Paul saw, limitations, impossibilities, and fears made approachable in the flesh of one who came near? Even in our weakness, maybe because of our weakness, God can accomplish far more than seems available. No one hoped for a weak Messiah. No one would have asked for a suffering servant where a military leader was needed. No one thought the death of Jesus could be the catalyst for any sort of reordering grace. The defeat of Jesus as a display of power still seems a foolish story to tell. But the love of God is jarringly given in the broken gift of the Son. And the human Christ’s defeat is also boldly the human Christ’s victory. And so it is also ours: the story in which the last are made first, the broken made beautiful, and the weak made strong in the power and the life of the Spirit.
Jill Carattini is managing editor of A Slice of Infinity at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Atlanta, Georgia.
(1) Forbes, special edition, 2000, emphasis mine.
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