“I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” (2 Corinthians 12:9-10).
I have been ill. I am better and it is nothing serious. But the battery of seemingly futuristic tests for which I got lined up, along with symptoms that were temporarily debilitating, triggered an interior spiral of obsessive worrying that I suspect is pretty common for people facing health difficulties. I tried to identify mistakes I had made – in diet and lifestyle particularly – that could be blamed for causing these problems. I made vows to myself to be better, to be heroically healthy going forward. I felt guilty about letting people down and imagined that I was being judged as weak and unreliable. I compared my own lack of energy accompanying my rather mild illness to all of the people I knew battling way more serious problems than me and seemingly managing much better. I became hyper-aware of each little twinge of a symptom, imagining what horrible diagnosis my body might be signalling to me. There is, of course, a common core connecting this whole set of obsessions: it is all about me, and it is all on me to figure out the path back to wellness too.
I often pray at the bedside of the sick. And more often than not, I include a request for strength in my prayers for the person who is sick. I visualize the word “strength” as encompassing physical, mental and spiritual well-being. However, it has been in my own prayers in the face of illness that I have realized asking for strength isn’t helpful. It’s not that I don’t need strength. But asking God to give it to me feeds exactly into the self idolatry into which illness has been so effectively seducing me: I am the problem. I am the failure. And I need enough resilience and grit to push on through and get better.
The Biblical witness suggests a very different understanding of both illness and wellness. The prophets and the psalms affirm that our strength is not in ourselves, but in God: The Lord is my strength and my shield, my heart trusts in him and he helps me (Psalm 28:7); The Lord is my strength and my defense; he has become my salvation (Isaiah 12:2); The Sovereign Lord is my strength; he makes my feet like the feet of a deer, he enables me to tread on the heights. (Habakkuk 3:19). Jesus expands on that understanding of strength as he roams the lakeshores of Galilee healing and casting out demons. Oftentimes in response to the gratitude of one newly healed, he says, “Your faith has made you well.” In each case, the healing that is enacted is only partly physical. He is touching the untouchable; he is making visible the invisible; he is restoring relationship. The faith to which he refers is not about individual achievement. Strong faith can only ever be revealed in the context of community; strong faith rests on the ability to surrender to the blessing of the Other.
Jesus’ famous prayer, passed down through the generations and still known and used well outside of the circle of practising Christians today, gives words to Jesus’ offering. “Our Father,” it begins. We meet and know God only in community. “Give us today our daily bread, forgive us our sins, save us from the time of trial and deliver us from evil.” At every point in the prayer, the requests are simple and individual needs cannot be divorced from the needs of neighbour. The Biblical witness smashes the idolatry of individualism by locating the source and possibility of our strength always and only in God. Jesus enriches that picture of God’s strength by binding the self into community, by showing that we only can know and receive God’s strength by refusing to stand alone.
Jesus searches the highways and the biways calling to the weary and the burdened. He reaches out and touches them. He restores them to community. He treats them with dignity, respect and a soft touch. He never asks for them to be made strong. He never even asks that they be made physically well. He tells them, “I will give you rest.” He invites them to “take my yoke upon you and learn from me …For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30) In doing so, he shows them that their prisons of self-concern – and all of the fear and loneliness and self-obsessing and worry that fills those prisons – have been broken open and they are free to stand up and walk.
As I grapple with a mild but lingering uncertainty about my health, I have found myself deliberately praying not to be strong. It’s that same need to be strong that occasionally keeps me up at night worrying in circles about all of the needs of all of the people that I am not able to meet. In juggling a life full of responsibilities, as in facing illness, the only way out of the circles is in realizing that being stronger isn’t going to get me through. I need to figure out the hope inherent in being weak. Something in that weakness allows me to place myself in the service of God, trusting that if God’s power can be revealed in a battered and beaten peasant dying on a cross two thousand years ago, surely God can do something with my little life too.
More importantly, something in my weakness necessarily opens my eyes away from my own self involvement to assume that God is also working in those around me, that I am not in this alone, that I really am part of a great cloud of witnesses, part of the global and timeless Body of Christ. My friend and colleague Alan shared with me his own practice of praying the psalms. “I like praying through all of them,” he said to me, “even, or maybe even especially, the ones that are awful. The angry and vindictive and despairing. I think that they might not represent how I feel, but they will represent how someone is feeling. And maybe my prayer can lift something of that burden of feeling off someone else.” It is a beautiful approach to prayer. On the one hand, this is not all riding on me, and on the other hand, because God’s power is always and only revealed in relationship, even my fragile and ill-equipped prayer can participate in easing the pain and loneliness of another. As I offer this prayer for others, I can assume and then receive the prayers that are also being offered for me. Deliver us from evil, Jesus prays. Save us from the time of trial. Don’t give us strength, Lord. Make us light. And show us we are not alone.