Thursday, 26 March 2015


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’s power 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 12:9-10

We are surrounded by images of perfection. Beautiful people, fit bodies, lovely homes, successful careers, fulfilling relationships, happy families. Such images are used to sell us every kind of product, and those who present ideas and ideologies, parties and movements, had better come up to standard. 

Christianity is shockingly counter-cultural at this point. We worship a despised, rejected, crucified God who called a motley bunch of men to be his first spokespeople. They in turn struggled and suffered, both with persecution and illness. None appears to have had a comfortable, ideal life. Their relationships with one another were not without incident - rows and misunderstandings occurred, partnerships broke up, and they saw many colleagues fail and drop out. But through them the church took root across Europe and further afield. 

Christianity holds before us the greatest ideals of all. It presents us with the eternal hope of perfection. But on the way there, its followers and its preachers suffer persecution, they are subject to tiredness and illness, they are attacked by the devil and many temptations, and they are not, in this life, ever free of sin. (I realise that the last clause is not in sync with SA Doctrine 10 as read in accordance with the Founders' intentions. As one retired DC said to me, that doctrine is unbiblical. It is the main obstacle to my involvement as a soldier.) 

We create intolerable tensions and pressures in the church when we import the world's model of "perfection" - young, fit, shiny, beautiful - into our expectations and ministry. In the SA it may be the greater expectations of those with an impeccable Army pedigree and who look good in uniform. In the reformed scene of my background it was, to quote a former boss, "a perfectionist view of sanctification with a worthless worm view of salvation". Whether the drivers are sub-cultural or theological, we place ourselves under a terrible burden. 

We are not helped by the tradition of Christian biography which glosses over the weaknesses or even moral failings of great leaders of the past. Sometimes we are not even allowed to see them as people of their time. It took a long time before I could come to terms with Martin Luther as an anti-Semite, John Wesley as having a terrible marriage, George Whitfield as a slave-holder, William Wilberforce as a racist and so on. And it isn't just the more moral or ethical weaknesses that are missed; we may be familiar with William Cowper as suicidally depressed, but we may be less conscious of mental frailty when we think about John Bunyan, Lord Shaftesbury, Amy Carmichael, CS Lewis or Martyn Lloyd-Jones. And yet we know in experience that Christians we have known who we have admired greatly have been real people - sometimes clearly proud, or tetchy, or down, or selfish or whatever, and subject to the prejudices and blind spots of the prevailing general and church culture.

I am not trying to tone down the shock and disastrous impact of my own serious sin by saying that in some way we are all the same. Not at all. But I do think that the expectation of perfection makes it so much harder to talk openly about weakness and temptation - and the brittleness and precariousness that such lack of mutual support produces makes a truly disastrous fall that much more likely. If one is scared to talk about any weakness in marriage, any struggles with personal prayer or devotion, any tendency to anxiety or depression - if there is a fear that admission of ANY problem could be career-threatening - then the stage is set for a very lonely walk deeper and deeper into the ravine of danger. 

God has seen fit to use the weak things of this world. He uses the flawed, the hurt, the fragile. Illness, depression, insecurities, struggles, temptations and persecutions are the norm, not disqualifications. He reaches the broken through the broken - broken people who speak of the Crucified through the Spirit and so become strong for the task in hand. But supermen they are not. Mutual care which acknowledges that will help us stand; mutual care that pretends we are above failure will contribute to our destruction.
It is an amazingly alleviating thing to let go of the need to appear strong and perfect. It is such a relief to get the mask off after years of worries when it occasionally slipped. It is wonderful to rediscover the honesty of grace, and to acknowledge weakness and failure, and still to press on, trying to live for Jesus and point people to Jesus.


  1. I agree. But with the breaking down of the expectations comes the necessity of being able to give, and take, firm words of guidance and discipline. That's partly why, I think, the masks are there.

  2. I agree too. But don't forget the motley band of women Jesus called who didn't "rank" as anything much in the culture of their time and yet got to be the first to share the resurrection news etc. :-)

    1. Well yes. I was just thinking of the apostles per se. The wider apostolic circle had many women, who I am sure were also occasionally weak and prone to failure.