In II Corinthians 12:9, Paul shares a message he received from God in response to his personal struggles: “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.”
It’s no small thing to trust that God’s grace is sufficient for us regardless of what we’re going through. To accept that God’s grace is enough—no matter how difficult or painful our circumstances—is a radical way of life that completely changes how we perceive and interpret everything.
It’s what opens our eyes to see that “all things work together for good.” It enables us to stop judging experiences as negative or positive, because we know everyone and everything has a gift to offer us that will help us to grow and experience deeper peace, joy and communion with God. We slowly see that all of the things we thought we needed to be happy are illusions or prisons.
History demonstrates again and again that people with the least power and most suffering tend to understand this more than those of us with privilege, wealth, comfort and power. There is something about weakness that seems to increase the flow of God into our lives.
There are many opinions on what Paul means by weakness in this passage, but I believe he means the absence of power to do what we want to do, need to do or feel we ought to do. Our weaknesses are what we tend to despise about ourselves because we can’t control or fix them. They’re not choices we make or habits we develop. They are inherent inadequacies within our very beings. They are what’s wrong with who we are, in our eyes. They are where our shame lives.
To be naked and ashamed is the epitome of our fallenness and weakness. To be naked is to see our weak and vulnerable parts and realize how easily we can be hurt. Our default response is to pile on the fig leaves, to put on the protective armour to cover the tender parts. Out of sight, out of mind. We deny, hide and avoid our shame.
Some of our cultural attempts to mitigate shame may be making things worse. Being bombarded with mantras like “You can be anything you want to be” is inadvertently setting people up for disappointment and more shame in the end.
Research professor Brené Brown says that she sees a rising epidemic of narcissism rooted in the fear of being ordinary. She writes, “I see the fear of never feeling extraordinary enough to be noticed, to be lovable, to belong, or to cultivate a sense of purpose. . . . I see the culturing messaging everywhere that says an ordinary life is a meaningless life.”
Being ordinary is now perceived as a weakness you can—and should—transcend, because you are so amazing. This mindset makes accepting our weakness much more difficult. It depicts weakness as obstacles we can power through rather than realities we must accept and grow with. It also results in projecting our weakness onto others. Instead of dealing with our own shame, we shame others.
Brown observes that when we feel good about who we are, we don’t feel the need to judge or shame others. However, we tend to judge people in areas where we’re vulnerable to shame ourselves.
When we deny or avoid our weakness, we end up judging others and ourselves as unworthy, which only leads to more shame. Shame is essentially rooted in the belief “I’m not enough.” I’m not good enough, smart enough, attractive enough or spiritual enough. Most of us don’t feel worthy of love and acceptance as we are. Yet Brown observed that some people do feel deep love and belonging in their lives, and she was surprised to discover that the only difference between these people and the rest of us who struggle to experience worthiness, is belief. The difference is that they believe they are worthy of love and belonging.
The value of belief has been overvalued in the church for centuries, but we would be foolish to dismiss it entirely. One of the greatest gifts God’s Spirit gives us is the power of belief. Not only beliefs about God, but about ourselves. Like the belief we are worthy of love, acceptance and belonging, just as we are. Yet we only experience this sense of “worthiness” through weakness, by entering our shame and accepting the areas in our lives where we are powerless.
I didn’t learn this from the church, though. I learned this through addiction recovery.
Troy Watson is a recovering addict and pastor of Avon Mennonite Church in Stratford, Ont.