I am about halfway through Eric Metaxas’ biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. It is a fascinating read, one filled with tidbits of information I did not previously know, as well as fuller explanations and backstory regarding things I did know.
Metaxas is walking through Bonhoeffer’s life chronologically, and I have read as far as the mid-1930s. By this time, Adolf Hitler has recovered from earlier defeats, risen to power, and has been democratically elected by the German people. He is now slowly closing his grip around the throats of those who oppose him, or who do not fit his agenda.
Metaxas is thorough in providing detail of the Nazi rise to power, in particular the back-room analysis, scheming, and political alignments, but what I have found most fascinating is Hitler’s view of, and use of the Christian faith.
Hitler did not consider himself a Christian, and actually held a deeply seeded disdain for any “mystical” religious system. To him, the Christian faith was nonsensical, and “what annoyed Hitler was not that it was nonsense, but that it was nonsense that did not help him get ahead. According to Hitler, Christianity preached ‘meekness and flabbiness,’ and this was simply not useful to the National Socialist ideology, which preached ruthlessness and strength.” (Metaxas, pg. 168)
Publically, Hitler made occasional overtures toward the German Christians, because for a time, he needed their duped support. But that need eventually waned as the democratically-elected leader morphed into an iron-fisted dictator.
Though he bristled at the characterization, Hitler was actually a Nietzschean, and the core principle of Nietzche’s worldview was power and strength – the utter destruction of anything perceived to be weak – polar opposites of the message of the cross.
In stark contrast to the Nietzschean social Darwinism embraced by Hitler, the apostle Paul teaches us that our weakness is our strength.
Therefore I am well content with weaknesses, with insults, with distresses, with persecutions, with difficulties, for Christ’s sake; for when I am weak, then I am strong. – 2 Corinthians 12:10
The quote above is spoken with reference to something Paul refers to only as his “thorn in the flesh.” We do not know what this thorn was, but we do know that Paul pleaded earnestly, and repeatedly with God to take it away. God’s message to Paul was, “Paul, you do not need me to take away your thorn. All you need is my grace, because my strength is made complete in your weakness.”
Not all translations show it, but Paul actually says twice in this passage that the thorn was given to him to “keep him from becoming conceited.” We sometimes hear public speakers in the Christian community extol the blessings God has poured into their lives. “Look how good the Lord has been to me!” But have you ever heard that same person explain to you exactly what God has done to keep them humble? To keep them from becoming conceited? That is rare!
If a man like the apostle Paul needed to be kept humble, how much more do I need that same humbling?
God’s strength is made complete in our weakness, and with our thorns, we are granted grace, because grace is all we need. Neither do we receive simple, meager portions of grace. No.
For from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. – John 1:16, ESV
Grace alone would have been more than sufficient, but this is grace upon grace.
Our society may endure fuel shortages, paper shortages, character shortages … but there will never be a shortage of God’s grace. Grace ever-growing in supply, flowing toward us, upon us, and around us like a plummeting waterfall. Grace upon grace.
And just as God is gracious in our sinfulness, God is strong in our weakness. Indeed, his power is made perfect, or complete in our weakness.
Warren Wiersbe once said, “Strength that knows itself to be strength is actually weakness, but weakness that knows itself to be weakness is actually strength.” And again, “He does not remove the affliction, but He gives us His grace so that the affliction works for us and not against us.
Too often we pray, asking of God that he will remove our afflictions, weaknesses and thorns, when we would be better served to ask God to use the afflictions, weaknesses and thorns to transform us, preparing us to meet the challenges that are bringing us grief.
This is where weakness becomes strength, and defeat becomes conquest. This happens, not when God removes our affliction, but rather when he infuses our distressing circumstance with his grace! In that, his power is perfected in my weakness. It is God, not me, who is adequate – no, more than adequate – triumphant!
But he gives more grace. Therefore it says, “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.” – James 4:6, ESV
We are not talking about mere survival, as though God “gets us through” the tough times. No, this is about jubilant living that causes us to rise well above whatever vexing circumstance is dumped upon us. It is the grace of God flooding upon us that causes us not only to survive our struggles, not only to rise above them, but to actually glory and boast in them.
Most gladly, therefore, I will rather boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. – 2 Corinthians 12:9, NASB
In God’s grace, our troubles become our triumphs. The struggles that threaten to drown us become servants that buoy us and strengthen our character. The grace of God turns our afflictions into assets.
Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might. Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil. – Ephesians 6:10-11, NASB