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Today I’m going to look at “leadership capacity” as a function of strength – strength to carry the responsibilities that we feel called to shoulder.
Physiologists and fitness experts tell us that muscle pain is not a prerequisite for muscle growth. Stretching the muscle fibers – whether it causes pain or not – is what is needed. But for those of us committed to physical fitness, we take the muscle pain as a “medal of honor.” “No pain …” Well, you know the rest.
This seems to be a principle of both spiritual and physical growth. In the same ways that we stretch ourselves physically, we challenge ourselves spiritually, trying to do things that we’ve never done before.
Perhaps we try to share our faith for the first time, with someone we know.
Perhaps we try to heal the sick.
Perhaps we try to engage a new community or culture with the Gospel.
We stretch into uncharted territory and inevitably find ourselves reaching the point of inadequacy. We find the point where we can stretch no further. Paul spoke very honestly about this when he said:
Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. (Philippians 3:12-13)
Paul recognized that he had not “taken hold” of that for which he had reached. Should he be content? Should he recognize his limitations? Listen to what he says:
But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 3:13-14)
Paul believed that God wanted greater things for him and so he stretched himself to try to attain them – even though it seemed impossible!
There is something deeply mysterious here. But if Paul is our example, then pain, failure and inadequacy is the beginning of something, not the end. He speaks very candidly of this in 2 Corinthians:
To keep me from becoming conceited because of these surpassingly great revelations, there was given me a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But He said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for My power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ 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 12:7-10)
Paul came to understand that his weaknesses – the point at which he could go no further in his own strength – was the point where God’s power began to flow.
Here is the open secret of the New Testament: Our weakness is the beginning of God’s strength.
If we are going to live like Paul then we stretch to find our limit and having found it we embrace it. As we do this we discover an incredible power beyond anything that we could muster from within – the power of the resurrection.
So here’s the pattern: Reach and Stretch, Embrace and Receive.
We reach for what we have not seen, stretch beyond the limits of our experience, embrace our weakness, and receive his power!
As Paul embraced the place at which everyone assumed he was inadequate, he pointed to the fact that God was releasing power through him. And for Paul this was not some trite form of “letting go and letting God,” it was much more. It was an active engagement in his weakness. He says, “I delight,” which suggests an active choice – turning away from the obvious response, and fully embracing one which is counter-intuitive. But of course this means that he understood that his life would often look paradoxical. Perhaps that’s why he said:
But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body. (2 Corinthians 4:7-10)
When Jesus died on the cross it was the ultimate portrayal of human frailty and weakness. As we “reach our limit” we participate in this frailty and have the opportunity of embracing afresh the death of Christ. As such, embracing our weakness becomes an opportunity to “carry around in our body the death of Jesus” and this means that we are but one step away from seeing His resurrection power.
Paul goes on to say:
Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day.
For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal. (2 Corinthians 4:16-18)
Of course I could also quote several other passages from Paul’s writings, not the least of which is Romans 8:31-38. But by now you probably get my drift.
To grow spiritually means growing in the confidence and experience of seeing God work through you powerfully. This occurs by stretching ourselves for the goals of Spirit-empowered discipleship and finding our inadequacy. As we embrace this inadequacy it means we discover God’s power.
Of course it requires determination and discipline to continuously return to this process. But as we do we discover the sovereign breakthroughs for which we long.
Let’s make it personal ‒ where is the place in your life where you regularly experience “weakness”? Is it a learning difficulty (for me this was dyslexia)? Is it a physical disability? Is it a slur against your character? Is it an addiction? You get the idea. Whatever your weakness happens to be, that is the place where you will see your greatest breakthroughs. It’s the crack in the vessel of our life through which the power of heaven flows. Embrace it – yes even “delight” in it – and God’s power will flow.
This approach to life can become an ingrained pattern if we attend to it with diligence. In time it even becomes an “unconscious competence” to which we return time and time again.
This is the “open secret” known to the spiritual giants of the past. Antony the Great, Francis of Assisi, Julian of Norwich, Smith Wigglesworth, Kathryn Kuhlman, John Wimber, Mother Theresa – you name them, they knew it.
Reach and stretch, embrace and receive – these are the keys. I know it seems counter-intuitive but if we reach for what we have not seen, stretch beyond the limits of our experience and embrace our inadequacy we will receive his power! And so leadership capacity for the Christian disciple is not so much about the acquisition of skills – though they may be important – but about learning how to receive the power of God in our weakness.
So, what do you think about that?