Friday, March 15, 2013

The Power of Weakness, the Wisdom of Foolishness

In his letter to the first century church in the city of Corinth, the apostle Paul constantly comes back to four words (and their cognates):
  • weakness
  • power
  • foolishness
  • wisdom
Worldly people, with shrewdness and cynicism, have their ideas about where wisdom and strength lie.

The worldly believe in themselves as the ultimate arbiters of what's best for them, looking out for their own interests above all, and being comfortable.

The worldly place their highest hopes in the things they can see, acquire, touch, or use. If they ever consider the God Who made them, their accountability to Him, or the needs of others, it's only in fits and spurts.

Such considerations leave them uncomfortable and they move to push them out of their minds.

From a worldly perspective, it's total foolishness to believe that a Savior Who died on a cross, a condemned man, could do anything to change my life, my perspective, my eternity. When you die, you die, the worldly say. Crosses bring an end to the human "pursuit of happiness." Until death comes, they strive to "build large barns" (think: self-storage units, pole barns, and junk rooms and rooms junked up with stuff) and say to themselves, "Soul,...relax, eat, drink, be merry," never dreaming that, at any moment, God could say to them, "You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?" (See Luke 12:13-21)

The worldly extol what Jesus calls "making provision for the flesh," by which He means, I think, pursuing more than what we and our families need--Jesus calls it "our daily bread"--to pursue what we want.

When the worldly pursue what they want, whatever it is, they foolishly crowd out the only God, revealed in Jesus Christ, Who can give meaning to our lives here on earth and life with God beyond death.

Jesus' crucifixion proves how horrific and destructive the worldly life--sin--is. On the cross, Jesus experienced the death and condemnation that awaits anyone who insists on living this life on the basis of their own supposed wisdom and strength, by their own wits. Jesus died bearing our sinful worldliness. The Bible says that, "For our sake [God] made [Jesus] to be sin who knew no sin, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God" (2 Corinthians 5:21).

Jesus paid the price for human worldliness. "For the wages of sin is death," the Bible says, "but the free gift is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord." Through what the world consider His foolish submission to the cross, Jesus, sinless human and perfect God, paid the debt each of us owes for our worldliness and opens the way to eternity to all who will renounce their worldliness (repent for their sin) and believe in (or surrender their lives in trust to) Jesus.

When we come to faith in Christ, there begins an ongoing process that the worldly consider foolish, that those who rely on their own strength deem weak: Ongoing submission to Christ. It can be a painful process, bringing our sinful self to God to be crucified by God as we confess and trust in Christ for forgiving grace. But it's the only way to life!

Of course, we are all born worldly. We're all born looking out for number 1. Our human inclinations will always be to do what we want to do. We will even argue that a behavior that God has called sinful must be OK because we were, we claim, "born that way." It seems foolish to us to turn from behaviors that we were born inclined to pursue.

But Jesus Christ came to justify sinners, transforming those who surrender to Him from enemies of God to God's friends. Jesus did not come to justify our sins.

The God we meet in Jesus Christ is not an indulgent uncle who covers our selfish pursuits with a veneer of heavenly approval.

The only way we sinners will be justified, counted innocent and set free from the slavery of worldliness, is to submit daily to the crucifixion of our old sinful selves, so that the new self--foolish and weak in the eyes of the world, but redeemed, eternally alive through God's power and wisdom--can rise to live with God.

Through Christ and His cross and the daily crucifixion and repentance we undergo as we submit to Him as Lord, we live and see God "through a glass darkly" in this world, but perfectly on that day when, with all the risen in Christ, will see Jesus face to face.

In eternity, the difference between wisdom and foolishness will be on full display. And we will see that the lifestyle of daily repentance and renewal that the Lord Who set His Church to "turn the world upside down" commands of and commends to us, is the way of the only life worth living. "I am the way, and the truth, and the life," Jesus says, "no one comes to the Father except through Me."

And He says, "If any want to become My followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow Me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose it for My sake will find it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life?" (Matthew 6:24-26a)

That's why in 1 Corinthians, part of God's inspired Word in the Bible, Paul spends a lot of time setting us straight on the difference between our wisdom and God's wisdom, between our strength and God's strength.

God's wisdom and strength, he insists, is seen in Christ, the man of tears well-acquainted with grief, and in His cross, where He bought back from sin, death, and the devil all who believe in Him.

Paul says, for example: "...the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God" (1 Corinthians 1:18).

In the next verse he remembers God's promise from Isaiah in the Old Testament, "For it is written, 'I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart'" (1 Corinthians 1:19).

And then, "...since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided through the foolishness of our proclamation to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks [by which Paul here means Gentiles, all non-Jewish people] desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to the Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jesus and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God" (1 Corinthians 1:21-25).

My experience is that wisdom and power are more likely to be seen at the deathbed of a person who trusts Christ than they are in the halls of economic or political power, or displays of military conquest, or the ringing words of idealists touting the so-called rights of human beings.

God's power and wisdom are seen in those who are humble enough to own that they are imperfect, worldly sinners whose only hope for this life and the next is Jesus Christ.

A friend of mine, Chris Wissmann, has written her autobiography, My Life: A Testimony of His Love. There, she recounts something I've shared before about visits I paid to her husband, Sig, as he lay dying at Good Samaritan Hospital in Cincinnati. She recalls that many of us, friends of Sig and Chris, "did not want to leave because it was so peaceful. The atmosphere was God's atmosphere..." She remembers me telling her, "I don't want to leave; it is so holy in here."

Holiness is the opposite of worldliness. That person is holy who has believed in Jesus Christ. They entrust their sins, their desires, their pretensions to perfection, their arrogance to Christ, trusting that not only will He no longer hold those things against us and allow us to be eternally condemned for them, He will set us free from all the compulsions of this sinful world.

Those compulsions place demands on us. They tell us to perform, to be, as I've said in a phrase I stole from somebody, human doings, rather than human beings.

They even (always) come disguised as good things, like good works done for the applause of others instead of the glory of God; like sex to placate a pressuring partner rather than the expression marital fidelity between a husband and wife it was intended to be; like working hard to make a comfortable mark in the world instead of providing for the needs of our families and ourselves while dedicating some of the income to the work of God in the world.

True power and true wisdom is seen in Jesus and His cross. True power and true wisdom is experienced by those who follow the Christ of the cross and surrender their sins and their whole beings to Him and to the crucifixion of our inborn worldly passions and desires.

It was so that none of the people in Corinth with whom he first shared the good news, the Gospel, of Jesus, would be confused about what's truly important in the message about Jesus that Paul made a firm resolution:
"...I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified...I came to you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling. My speech and my proclamation were not with plausible words of wisdom, but with a demonstration of the Spirit and of [God's] power, so that your faith might rest not on human wisdom but on the power of God" (1 Corinthians 2:2-5).
Yesterday, in a homily delivered during Mass with the College of Cardinals, the new pope, Francis 1, said,
"When we walk without the cross, when we build without the cross and when we proclaim Christ without the cross, we are not disciples of the Lord. We are worldly." 
"In the cross of Christ I glory, tow'ring o'er the wrecks of time!" a Christian hymn proclaims. Follow the crucified and risen God of all creation, Jesus. Learn the power in admitting your weakness, the wisdom in acknowledging your foolishness. See how God gives the foolish and the weak His wisdom and His strength.

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