Weakness Will Change the World — Will We Let It Change Us?
If Jesus were with us in the flesh today, I wonder if we would accuse him of being un-American.
For as long as I can remember, I have loved being an American. And yet, I have often been caught in characteristically American trappings such as the pursuit of power, money, recognition, prestige, selfish ambition, making a name for myself, and advancing my interests, my agenda, my goals, my comfort, my privilege, and my view of the world.
As a young man, I took a trip to Jamaica with a few friends. Part of our visit included a brief stop in a Jamaican art gallery. As an American follower of Jesus, I was alarmed when I encountered a Jamaican painting of Jesus and his twelve disciples. To my surprise, all thirteen men in the painting (including Jesus) had brown skin, brown eyes, and black hair—thus betraying my long-held image of the white-skinned, blue-eyed, light-brown haired, English speaking, American Jesus who could have easily passed as the fourth member of the Bee Gees.
As I imagined him, Jesus was decidedly American like the Bee Gees, never mind that the Bee Gees are from Australia. But I digress. With respect to the Jamaican painting, my gut told me that something was off—perhaps even wrong—about its ethnic portrayal.
But perhaps the fault was not with the Jamaican artist. Perhaps the fault was with me.
Now, more than twenty years since that Jamaica visit, I have come to see that my home country is not and has never been the center of the Christian story. Rather, we in America are from the periphery of that story — members of the “ends of the earth” about whom Jesus spoke in the Great Commission of Matthew 28:16-20.
It turns out that the Jamaican image of Jesus was much more true to reality than my culturally-biased American one. It turns out that the Jesus of Scripture — the one of Middle Eastern descent — is in all likelihood a brown-skinned, brown-eyed, dark-haired man. Most certainly, he was a first-century Jewish rabbi who never married, was materially poor, experienced homelessness, was more homely than handsome (see Isaiah 53), never spoke a word of English, and never stepped foot on American soil.
Realizing these things does not take me to a place of shame. Rather, it takes me to a place of deep awe, gratitude, and worship because of the utter expansiveness of his love and his reach. Through the corridors of time, from the other side of the world, and across language and ethnic and cultural and religious and economic barriers, this same Jesus purposed to include people like me—Americans like me—in his great story of redemption. Though Jesus is in many ways un-American, he is by no means anti-American. He is for people like me just as he was for his own contemporaries. Through sheer grace and based on nothing that I have contributed, he has grafted me in to his everlasting family which, although it is first for the Jew and then for the Gentile (Romans 1:6), is no less for us ends-of-the-earth Gentiles than it was for first-century, Middle Eastern Jews like Joseph, Mary, Peter, and Paul.
As someone who has been given a certain degree of influence, it’s also important for me to see that Jesus offers a radically different vision for being a leader. His vision for leadership, too, parts ways with the typical American view of such things. For example:
In America, credentials qualify a person to lead. In Jesus, the chief qualification is character.
In America, what matters most are the results we produce. In Jesus, what matters most is the kind of people we are becoming.
In America, success is measured by material accumulation, power, and the titles that we hold. In Jesus, success is measured by material generosity, humility, and the people that we serve.
In America, it is shameful to come in last and laudable to come in first. In Jesus, the first will be last and the last will be first.
In America, leaders make a name for themselves to become famous, and sometimes treat Jesus as a means to that end. In Jesus, leaders make his name famous and treat their own positions, abilities, and influence as a means to that end.
In America, leaders crave recognition and credit. In Jesus, leaders think less of themselves, and give credit to others.
In America, leaders compare and compete so they will personally flourish. In Jesus, leaders sacrifice and serve so others will flourish.
In America, leadership often means, “My glory and happiness at your expense.” In Jesus, leadership always means, “Your growth and wholeness at my expense.”
In America, the strong and powerful rise to the top. In Jesus, the meek inherit the earth.
The Apostle Paul enjoyed great professional success and all the position, power, and recognition that a first century rabbi could have dreamed of, yet he declared:
But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord (Philippians 3:7-8).
For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men. For consider your calling…not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God (1 Corinthians 1:25-29).
The record of Scripture confirms Paul’s words to be true. Time after time, the greatest and most influential leaders were imperfect, un-credentialed men and women who would never be candidates for our “Who’s Who” and VIP lists. Joseph, who was disowned by his brothers and thrown into an Egyptian prison, later became the prime minister of Egypt. Noah, a man who got drunk and passed out naked, rescued all the species on earth from extinction. Abraham, at times a cowardly husband and dysfunctional father, became the spiritual forerunner of all who have faith. Isaiah, a preacher who was rejected by his contemporaries and sawn in half at his execution, became one of the most influential voices in the history of the world. David, the youngest of seven brothers and son of an obscure shepherd, became the king of Israel and writer of over half the Psalms. Peter, a hot-headed fisherman and erratic disciple, denied Jesus three times, later became a bold truth-teller who courageously gave up everything for Jesus, being crucified upside-down. Mary, the unwed teenage girl from a small town, became the mother of God’s Son. Ruth the foreigner, Rahab the prostitute, and Bathsheba the adulteress were honorably included in the family tree of Jesus. Paul, once a blasphemer and persecutor and bully and racist toward Gentiles, became Apostle to the Gentiles and writer of one-third of the New Testament.
And then there was Jesus, who came to his own but his own did not receive him, who had nothing in his appearance that we should desire him—who died on a trash heap as a condemned criminal. Through this excruciating loss, Jesus won salvation for billions of souls, and prepared the way for all things to be made new. Now and forevermore, the government of the whole universe rests squarely on the shoulders of the One who was despised and rejected by men.
Indeed, the most impactful, life-giving, and lasting leadership rests firmly on the shoulders of weakness. God chose the weak things…
…including me. How often I have pleaded, as the Apostle Paul did, for the Lord to remove my thorns, my struggles and obstacles! Yet, it has been in these very weaknesses and challenges, even heartbreaks, that God has revealed his power, strength and sufficiency. Although the thorns are painful, they are a gift of grace to grow me into the kind of leader that I could never become without them.
If history repeats itself, then in all likelihood leaders like me will discover in the end that it was not chiefly through our great plans, preaching or vision that God brought life into the world–but through our weakness.
For specifics on how this lesson of strength through weakness has played out in my life, you can read more about that story here. Otherwise, let’s be careful to remember that God has not chiefly called us to be awesome or to be “winners.” Rather, he has called us to live humble, faithful, forgiven, and free. For that, in truth, is where all the true power is.