Tuesday 20 December 2016

On the importance of ditching the stiff upper lip in ministry

High up on a list of things we don’t talk enough about are the themes of weakness and vulnerability in Christian life and ministry, so I was glad recently to discover two studies of the theme. 

The first is David Alan Black’s Paul, Apostle of Weakness. In this short book, he teases out the way in which weakness is a general way of describing the human condition, and something which has a particular significance for Christians:

“There are two counterbalancing emphases in Paul’s teaching: a solidarity with Adam by which all humanity under the influence of the natural sphere inherit the generic characteristics of weakness; and a solidarity with Christ by which human weakness under the influence of the Holy Spirit is transformed into a showplace of the divine on earth and a badge of honour.” (p155)

“Paul’s view of weakness, regardless of how highly developed it may be, is not to be understood only as an abstract doctrine, for it was developed in view of actual conditions. In the first place, weakness impresses upon us the reality of our finiteness and dependence on God. Human attempts are completely useless to please God; with all our effort, we can do nothing. It is just this attitude that Paul declares when he says that he is weak. He can claim no credit for any of his successes for he knows he has been sustained by God. If he has achieved anything, it is only by God’s power working through a weak, yet yielded, vessel. Thus human initiative, human boasting, and human merit have no place in the thought of the apostle Paul.

Likewise, Paul teaches that God’s way of exhibiting power is altogether different from our way. We try to overcome our weakness; God is satisfied to use weakness for his own special purposes. Too many Christians become disheartened over their infirmities, thinking that only if they were stronger in themselves they could accomplish more for God. But this point of view, despite its popularity, is altogether a fallacy. God’s means of working, rightly understood, is not by making us stronger, but by making us weaker and weaker until the divine power alone is clearly manifested in our lives.” (p.161-62)

There is then something creaturely about our weakness that we need to embrace. We are dependent and weak. But there is also something deeply counter-cultural here: the world wants to shake off this creaturely dependence and assert its strength and self-sufficiency. That is why we are so prone to kick against our weakness. And that is why God works our salvation in a way that confronts us with our own weakness and calls us to embrace it in the footsteps of Jesus. He gives grace to the humble but opposes the proud. 

The danger, as Black says, is that we become disheartened and buy into a different vision of life. This is where the second piece comes in: John Barclay’s superb article Security and Self-Sufficiency: A Comparison of Paul and Epictetus (in Ex Auditu, vol 24, 2008). In this article, Barclay compares two visions of human life. One involves a stability and security that is able to rise above external circumstances and maintain a steady imperviousness to grief and upset. Of course we must show outward grief to sympathise with others in their distress, but we must not let that upset our equilibrium or make our happiness dependent on another. 

In many ways that sounds wise, and very contemporary, advice, but this is not Barclay’s exposition of Paul. It is his account of self-sufficiency in the Stoic philosopher Epictetus, an outlook summarised by Socrates:

“If a person can hurt me, what I am engaged in amounts to nothing; if I wait for someone else to help me, I am nothing.”

Barclay: Epictetus thinks that it is possible to live a life free from the sorts of passions that so often shipwreck lives and ruin society: free from grief or distress that cause emotional collapse… free from fear and anxiety regarding the future; free from the anger, envy, lust, ambition that cause us to harm others; in short, free from every passion that represents the frustration that what we want to happen has not happened or may not happen.

When we turn to Paul there is some overlap of course. He believes that by the Spirit we can bear the fruit of the Spirit and put to death evil desires (Gal 5). He speaks of learning to be content regardless of material circumstances (Phil 4), and there is a confidence regarding the future (Rom 5, 8), but what Barclay develops are the ways Paul departs from Epictetus. In particular, the way in which Paul’s emotions are hitched to the welfare of his churches. “We live if you stand firm in the Lord” (1 Thess 3:8), Epaphroditus’ death would have caused Paul “sorrow upon sorrow,” (Phil 2:27), and he frequently writes with tears and in fear that his labours might have been in vain (Gal 4:11, 1 Thess 3:5). 

So, how to explain this willingness to be so emotionally vulnerable? Barclay mentions two things. First, “Paul’s vision of mutual dependence.” Epictetus’ relationships are one-way – willing to serve others but not to be affected by them but Paul constantly makes himself dependent on others, seeking their prayers, and opening his heart to them (2 Cor 6:11). In all this, the body metaphor is central. Every part of the body needs every other part. That's what life in the church is all about.

Barclay again: “Mutual encouragement, mutual struggle, and mutual dependency are for Paul core constituents of life in Christ. It is only by this means that his joy can be complete. The God on whose encouragement he relies supplies his needs through others, and he is desperately at a loss when they fail to play their part.”

Of course, with this alone, Paul would still have a hard time convincing Epictetus that his is a more excellent way, but there is an additional factor: eschatology.

“The frustration which Epictetus works so hard to eradicate is for Paul an inevitable feature of the ‘the present evil age’ (Gal 1:4). For as long as Christ is putting all his enemies under his feet, and for as long as death, the last enemy, is undefeated (1 Cor 15:20-28), there is no security in this world. In other words, it is only on the eschatological horizon that Paul sees the well-ordered universe that Epictetus takes for granted as the present condition of life. Whereas Epictetus therefore expects and finds the possibility of human fulfilment, so long as correct judgments are made in accordance with the reason we have been given, Paul is prepared to defer that fulfilment to a future that is only partially and inadequately adumbrated in the present.”

This is the secret. In the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, Paul sees that God is at work through weakness and calling out a people who are to be bound to one another in mutual dependence. In the present that will mean bearing with all the griefs and sadness that inevitably come from serving a far-from-sinless church. Epictetus would teach us to close our hearts. Paul tells us to open our eyes to the world to come and to press on, open-hearted.