J. I. Packer. Weakness Is the Way: Life with Christ Our Strength. Wheaton: Crossway, 2013. 125 pp.
This comparatively short book with its strange title delivers a powerful blow to the rampant triumphalism that has infected much of the Bible-believing world. Using Paul’s second epistle to the Corinthians as his principal resource, J. I. Packer has once again provided us with both the theological depth and practical wisdom necessary to live in a way that pleases and honors Christ.
The reader should not draw false conclusions from the title. Whereas Packer advocates a form of “weakness” as the only way in which to live to the glory of God, he does not deny the proper place of spiritual strength. The subtitle reminds us that it is in and through our weakness that Christ’s powerful presence is made known.
Packer’s decision “to take soundings in Second Corinthians” (p. 16) is a wise and helpful one, as it is in this letter that the apostle bares his soul and honestly embraces his own weaknesses. Indeed, it is 2 Corinthians that “exhibits Paul to us at his weakest situationally—consumed with a pastor’s anxiety, put under pressure, remorselessly censured, opposed outright and by some given the brush-off, and living in distress because of what he knew, feared, and imagined was being said about him by this rambunctious church at Corinth” (p. 96). Yet such weaknesses, far from a hindrance to successful ministry, are the very means by which the strength and sufficiency of Christ in the life of every believer are made known. Indeed, as Packer notes, “the way of true spiritual strength, leading to real fruitfulness in Christian life and service, is the humble, self-distrustful way of consciously recognized weakness in spiritual things” (p. 16).
But what does Packer mean by “weakness”? He defines it as “a state of inadequacy, or insufficiency, in relation to some standard or ideal to which we desire to conform” (p. 49). In the case of Paul in particular, and even of Christians in general, it means a realistic acknowledgment in facing not only our fundamental human limitations (such as those we encounter in the physical, intellectual, and relational realms of life), but more importantly our sinfulness, our transgressions, and the guilt that these entail. Paul’s counsel to the Corinthians (and to us) is that the only proper response is to “look to Christ as your loving Sin-Bearer and living Lord” (p. 50). The Christian must “love Christ, in unending gratitude for his unending love to you” (p. 51) and “lean on Christ and rely on him to supply through the Holy Spirit all the strength you need for his service, no matter how weak unhappy circumstances and unfriendly people may be making you feel at present” (p. 51).
Clearly, then, Packer is no advocate of morbid defeatism in Christian living. Taking his cue from Paul’s confession in chapter twelve (“when I am weak, then I am strong,” v. 10), he encourages us all to lean on Christ in all things, bringing our weakness to him. Here is where true comfort and joy are found. Weakness is not a cause for self-pity but for Christ-dependence.
As Packer reads Paul, the apostle “demonstrates a sustained recognition that feeling weak in oneself is par for the course in the Christian life and therefore something one may properly boast about and be content with” (p. 53; on this see especially 2 Cor. 12:7–10). It is here that we need to pay close attention to Packer’s insightful conclusion:
“In this, Paul models the discipleship, spiritual maturity, and growth in grace that all believers are called to pursue. When the world tells us, as it does, that everyone has a right to a life that is easy, comfortable, and relatively pain-free, a life that enables us to discover, display, and deploy all the strengths that are latent within us, the world twists the truth right out of shape. That was not the quality of life to which Christ’s call led him, nor was it Paul’s calling, nor is it what we are called to in the twenty-first century. For all Christians, the likelihood is rather that as our discipleship continues, God will make us increasingly weakness-conscious and pain-aware, so that we may learn with Paul that when we are conscious of being weak, then—and only then—may we become truly strong in the Lord. And should we want it any other way?” (pp. 53–54)
In the remainder of this short but superb book, Packer walks us through 2 Corinthians and demonstrates at every turn how our acknowledged weakness must become the platform for the display of Christ’s supreme and all-sufficient power for living. Christ, notes Packer, “is the source of our strength in weakness and of our hope of heaven. . . . For Paul, the Lord Jesus is the controlling center of life in every respect, being both example and enabler throughout” (p. 117).
Do not look to this brief book for a detailed exposition of the whole of 2 Corinthians. Rather, read it as a pastorally-informed strategy for living in biblically-grounded, Christ-exalting confidence that our weakness, far from serving as an insurmountable obstacle to genuine Christian growth and triumph, is the very means through which our risen Lord manifests the energizing and sustaining wonder of his grace and power.