3 – Strengthened to accept weakness

May you be made strong with all the strength
that comes from his glorious power,
and may you be prepared to endure everything with patience,
while joyfully giving thanks to the Father.
Colossians 1:11-12

In the city where I lived, many people looked down upon the Christians. This is because the Christians were from a minority, low caste ethnic group, and many were poor and uneducated. Due to a lack of opportunity for upward social mobility a number of Christians worked as street sweepers and as cleaners. One would see them out sweeping the streets before dawn each morning. These jobs were demeaning. In my second year in the country I lived in a second story apartment. One day I was sweeping the stairs up to my apartment. A neighbor saw me and said: “Why don’t you get one of the Christians to clean your steps?” I replied: “I am a Christian.” He was taken aback by my response, stuttered a bit, and then said, “No, I don’t mean Christians like you, I mean the kind who do the sweeping.”

It wasn’t only the local Christians that were disdained. Many also held demeaning stereotypes of westerners. Holding these stereotypes was completely understandable. They hadn’t lived in the west; so, they didn’t know the actual diversity that exists in western communities. The information they received about the west came through movies and through newspapers. They had seen objectionable movies, read about the decadent lives of musicians and movie stars, and heard about the “growing” social problems that existed in the west- the breakdown of families, increasing divorce rates, high rates of immorality, tales of children and elderly being neglected and abused. Therefore, it was entirely natural for them to fear westerners coming into their communities, bringing social disorder.

Due to my skin tone and hair color, there was no way I could hide the fact that I was a westerner. There were times when I would get on a bus and feel the tension my presence created. Men would look at me with disdain, wipe their beards, and chant something under their breath. Once a university student spit on me. Another time a group of Arabs who were training for jihad in Afghanistan entered the bus I was on, saw me, and came and surrounded me. They yelled at me, hit me, and threatened to kill me.

Why would I put myself in a context where I could be disdained and even abused? Many of us in the US have social power and can protect ourselves from situations where we can be abused. We don’t willingly give up the social power we have. In contrast, Paul was one person who willingly gave up his social power. Why did Paul do this? He had access to a completely different kind of power- the power of God.

I taught English. Each semester I would interview potential students, 99 percent of whom were Muslim. A small portion was ideologically Islamist. They would tell me that the reason they wanted to learn English was to go to the west and evangelize for Islam. I never turned away applicants who came for this reason; in fact, I was drawn to them. The new semester would begin with the ideologues eyeing me with a certain level of hostility. After a few weeks of classes their countenance would soften. I expected this because God was with me. God himself worked in their hearts, and they gradually accepted and respected me. This was the power of God with which Paul was intimately acquainted; and for this he was willing to give up any natural power he had.

Without my presence, the selective information they received about westerners would not have been countered. Their stereotypes would not have been challenged. They would have continued to disdain all westerners and the Christian faith. Since Jesus had led me there, they had the opportunity to see that followers of Jesus did not match the negative stereotypes. They could tangibly experience the presence of God in my life, and see fruits that distinctively accompany that Presence and are universally fragrant.

In writing this I do not want to give the impression that the mistreatment didn’t faze me. There were times that I would get angry. However, at these times the Spirit would encourage me to pray for help and to forgive the culprits. As I responded, God would calm me and fortify me. His love would assist me to look past the insults and see people being human.

Looking past the ill treatment enabled me to stay there. Being there gave me opportunities to interact with those naturally inclined to disdain me. This interaction was vital. They were impacted by it; and, I was also impacted.

Through the interaction people brought me into their lives. They showed me the heartache that so many of them carried. Almost everyone I met had immense heartache. When I saw their pain, the words of Ecclesiastes became alive:

I saw all the oppressions that are practiced under the sun. Look, the tears of the oppressed—they have no one to comfort them! On the side of their oppressors there was power—and they have no one to comfort them (4:1).

The writer of Ecclesiastes, Qoheleth, noticed that even though the oppressors had the power to inflict pain on others, they themselves had no power to stop or diminish their own pain. He noticed that everyone had pain and no one had comfort. This insight led Qoheleth to despair even of life. He wrote:

And I thought the dead, who have already died, more fortunate than the living, who are still alive; but better than both is the one who has not yet been, and has not seen the evil deeds that are done under the sun (4:2-3 NRSV).

In contrast, when God’s love enters and shapes our hearts, we don’t share Qoheleth’s depressing perspective. This is because God’s love is unconditional, and it is impartial. God cares equally for those who oppress as well as those who are oppressed. And words are not adequate to convey this truth; it can only be perceived through a person willing to absorb oppression and not turn away, just as Jesus did.

In addition, God’s love is hope-filled. Paul describes God’s love in this way in 1 Corinthians 13:7: Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. God is constantly moving forward in hope. He knows better than we that the conditions of people’s lives and their resistance to his Christ are not fixed in stone; change is possible. And God draws us into having his hope-filled perspective. Paul also tells us that God’s love is able to endure all things. Since he can endure all things, he makes us able to endure them as well. Even though we intensely sense our weakness, he gives us the power we need to patiently endure things with joy.

So, those of us who believe in Jesus are a walking bundle of potential to endure hostility and abuse. We just need practice. We can look past the affronts we receive because God is within us, giving us what we need to patiently endure what we experience with joy and thanksgiving. And we find Paul’s prayer for us in Colossians 1:11-12 actualized:

May you be made strong with all the strength that comes from his glorious power, and may you be prepared to endure everything with patience, while joyfully giving thanks to the Father.