The Weakness of Man

It is counter-intuitive that God saves man through His own weakness. The irony of the Divine Reversal has provided endless material for the hymnographers of the Church through the centuries. The Strong becomes weak, the Sinless takes on our sin, the Rich becomes poor, God becomes man – the whole of the gospel seems to be a Divine irony.

This irony has a beauty that has always drawn me. Sometimes the imagery drawn out in a hymn within the Church becomes so poignant I want to stop the service just to savor it (of course I can’t do this).

However, I think there is something that makes us want to keep our irony Divine and minimize it in our own lives. St. Paul says that he “glories in his weakness,” but I find that few other people, including myself, want to do so. The irony that despite our intelligence, we are foolish is not our favorite topic. The embarrassment that often accompanies confession is the irony of our sin – it contradicts the image we want to hold of our own ego – or that we at least want others to hold.

At some level, we believe that we are not saved through our weakness, but will be saved through our strength, and that the whole life of grace is God’s effort to make us stronger – never suspecting that God’s grace may actually be purposefully developing our weakness.

I do not mean that the grace of God causes sin to abound. But I find it interesting that the work of grace makes sin less opaque – more apparent to ourselves. The greatest saints also seem to be those who are most aware of their sins – and aware of their true sins.

I often tell people who say they are struggling with prayer to quit trying to pray like a Pharisee and learn to pray like a Publican. We often want to pray from strength – to approach God when we at least feel spiritually alive. The Publican refuses to lift his eyes to heaven. The contradiction of his life and the goodness of God are more than he can bear. And yet he prays. And, ironically, it is he who goes down to his house justified rather than the Pharisee.

“My strength is made perfect in weakness” is the word God gave to St. Paul. I pray that it is so, for I find times in my life that what I have to offer to God and to others is my weakness – or so it seems. I have been ill (off an on) for about 2 months – nothing serious or life-threatening – just weakening and occasionally embarrassing. I approach Holy Week and Pascha with a prayer for strength (the services are long and require endurance). But I do not want to pray for a strength that prevents the weakness of my life being available to God and to others. I would not want to miss the Divine Reversal.

In the better than 30 years that I have been in ordained ministry, I have learned that I am not alone in my weakness. All of us share common problems and brokenness, even if they are not identical. But the great irony is that it is precisely those problems and brokenness that Christ has made His own. There is nothing abstract about Christ’s union with our sin (2 Cor. 5:21). The great joy (and irony) is that we are heading to Pascha to share in the victory of life in the midst of weakness – not despite weakness.

Glory to God for all things!

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a priest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present and the Glory to God podcast series.





27 responses to “The Weakness of Man”

  1. Donna Avatar

    Thank you for this, Father. I am having a rough night tonight, where weakness and loss abound. Your words encourage me to embrace it — or at the very least, face it — instead of running in the other direction. By staying in it (“it” being the awareness of how weak I am) I may encounter Christ there.

  2. Selena Avatar

    This was brought home to me very clearly this morning as I saw a motorist smash into a young woman on her bicycle. As she lay on the ground in a pool of blood, unconscious, he was collapsed on the ground beside his car for the next hour, sobbing and pounding the ground with his hands, like he was in his own personal hell. My heart was wrenched and at the same time I felt that it is horror like this that is redeemed by Christ, to be a turning point of some kind for that motorist. I also felt that I could easily have been in his position. Until the moment of the accident, everyone on the block had possibly only been thinking about their hair, makeup, or lunch menu, and had been completely forgetting God. In the rich comfortable West, I often forget that I could die or lose everything at any moment.

    Thanks Father for this post.

  3. Yudikris Avatar

    It’s so beautiful and true, father. I’ll take time to ponder upon this beauty :).

  4. Eleftheria Avatar

    …seems I cannot do without your posts. May God bless you for your ministry to those of us reading them on the internet…
    and may God grant you strength to glory in His weakness that is THE strength for us all.

    Kali Anastasi!

  5. Jeremiah Avatar

    This exactly answers the question I had about why I feel so wretchedly sinful, yet I experience the joy of God in Orthodox spirituality. I was caught up with thinking about how Orthodoxy at once pictures mankind more “exalted” so to speak than in many Protestant theologies, yet sees man as sinful beyond compare. I needed to thank God for my weakness and approach His grace from that weakness, instead of trying to turn that weakness into strength.
    Profound, yet so simple.
    Next time my little girls are crying and unable to fix their predicament, I will think of this when I hold them and say, “It’s okay. Daddy will take care of you.”

  6. Meg Avatar

    I suspect that we *all* needed this post, as we approach the end of Great Lent. I intend to forward it to a friend who is asking the hard questions, “How can this or that situation be ‘God’s will’?!” and it isn’t — but He can, and does, use life’s Ghastlies to our good, if we keep faith in Him. Thanks for this post, Father — I also intend to save it for my own files.

  7. Steve Avatar

    I am going to think about this line from your post today:

    I often tell people who say they are struggling with prayer to quit trying to pray like a Pharisee and learn to pray like a Publican.

    That is really good!

  8. Darrell Lahay Avatar
    Darrell Lahay

    Thank you Father,

    “The embarrassment that often accompanies confession is the irony of our sin – it contradicts the image we want to hold of our own ego – or that we at least want others to hold.”

    When all we talk about is our strengths, we create comparisonm When we talk about our weakness, we create community.

    May God bless you with an acute awareness of your weakness today!

  9. anonymousgodblogger Avatar

    “There is nothing abstract about Christ’s union with our sin…”

    !!!! Thank you!

  10. Handmaid Anna Avatar
    Handmaid Anna

    Thank you Father. I have been ashamedly praying to be strong.

  11. Merry Avatar

    Fr. Stephen, once again you speak to the pain we carry inside ourselves so well! My husband Michael sent it to me as a “Thought for the day” and I was again amazed at how you seem to say what we need to hear at that moment. You are such a blessing!
    I am facing making my first confession as an Orthodox, within a few days.
    Thinking back over 62 + yrs of life, and so many things, I wonder at what I need to say in particular. Also, because of overwhelming financial burdens left from reposed spouses, and bad financial choices we have made ourselves, we both struggle with facing our own hopelessness in solving so many problems.
    Perhaps this is exactly what God wants us to feel – helpless without Him to help us get thru things and find the solutions. We have committed ourselves to more prayer, and more trusting Him for guidance. We decided to commit all things to God, and to accept that we are in need of what only He can give. We are humbled by our own mistakes, and I feel an uplifting hope in reading your message today. God CAN do anything, we have to go to Him and say “Father I am sorry, and I truly need Your help”. Like all loving parents, I know what it is to be able to help a child in trouble, and I am sure God magnifies that beyond our ability to quantify. Thank you.

  12. Micah Avatar

    The sublime humility of Christ, the unspeakable peace of God — thank you for this, Father Stephen! May He strengthen you today and may His reversal come soon!

  13. Valentina Lotens Avatar
    Valentina Lotens

    Indeed, Father, in all of our intelligence we are still fools!
    Thank you so much for this.

  14. Lizzy L Avatar
    Lizzy L

    This post really speaks directly to me. I often pray for strength, when following Christ requires not strength but humility and trust. Thank you so much, Father.

  15. Patty Joanna Avatar
    Patty Joanna

    @ Selena–may God have mercy on both the bicyclist and the motorist. My heart breaks for both of them. We all *are* both of them–breaking and broken. It’s just that they are in the open. Lord, have mercy.

  16. Margaret Avatar

    Thank you, Fr. Stephen!

  17. Gregg Avatar


    I was touched when reading your post. Like all of us at times, I’ve had the most difficult times in my life lately with tremendous personal loss, and often have been feeling broken and weak. I’ve been given humility, whether I wanted it or not.

    But in spite of this weakness and brokenness, now especially during Lent (and becoming even more aware of my own sin), I do feel an indescribable peace and sometimes joy. And I’m sure that this peace and joy come from God. By all worldly measures, I should not have this joy and peace, but I do.

    I’ve been thinking lately of what Fr Alexander Schmemann said as he was an observer at the Vatican II council in the ’60s — “thank God I am Orthodox.” That is how I feel, and it is what your post reinforced. Going by the prosperity gospel hogwash that is prevalent in our protestantized society, it would be easy to believe that “God must not love me” if we are broken, weak, in pain. Yet how God transforms the pain that He gives us into peace and joy is no less than amazing. It is the same phenomenon that we celebrate on Holy Saturday that is coming up — transforming weakness, pain, a feeling that God has abandoned us into the Paschal joy.

    Yes, thank God I am Orthodox.

  18. Micah Avatar

    Amen Gregg, the Cross is a wondrous thing — He is Risen!

  19. februarysecond Avatar

    I could be wrong, but personally, I think it’s because of this weakness that Christianity is despised by those who are not of the Christian faith, and even by many who claim to be Christians. No one likes feeling weak, or even appearing weak to others. While other faiths might preach a submission to a god, the adherents can still retain a sense of…honor I guess? But in Christianity, the only true way to have an intimate relationship with God is through treading the path of the Cross, of humiliation, of pain, of death. I guess that’s why the “Prosperity Gospel” is so attractive. It offers the option of serving a crucified Lord, while retaining dignity, and even ending up in a better position than that of the unbelievers.

    Maybe I’m off-base. I can’t say I know anything about being crucified, physically or spiritually. But I was just thinking “what is it that makes other faiths more attractive than Christianity” or even “what makes having no faith more attractive”? And I remembered reading this post earlier today. And I have to say, that’s the only thing I can think of. Christianity offers all that a person could ever ask for: the God of the universe loves man so much that He is willing to send His Son to die for him. But at the same time Christianity demands the one thing from man that he hates to give up more than anything else: his sense of ego, power, and self-sufficiency.


  20. februarysecond Avatar

    P.S. Fr. Stephen, I hope you all are takin’ care of my boy Jacob down there! 🙂

  21. Nicholas Avatar

    Father Bless,
    If I may father and I hope not to get off point but maybe you can help me with something which I am having a little difficulty with I think because of my former protestant background and my weakness as a man, I am trying to understand Gods judgement in relation to my sinfulness, I go back and forth between a merciful Lord who gives me rest and forgiveness and love and a judgemental God who is angry at me for the blatant sins that I have commited, I know that the second is wrong, and that this also has something to do with my repentance, I read something yesterday about Gods judgement being more about his discernment and this word made me think of the judgment in a more merciful way, It let me look at it differently, not in a way that caused me to not feel responsible, but in a way that caused me to be able to deal with these things and get through them. Father I pray that you can help me with this and that maybe you could point me to a resource that also could possibly help.

  22. fatherstephen Avatar

    There is a very strong current among many of the fathers that clearly teaches that God’s judgment or chastisement is only for our salvation and never for our destruction. He is merciful in all things and kind. Even His correction for us is a kindness. The image of the angry God can certainly be found, but should, I think, be read in a manner consistent with His mercy rather than consistent with our projections of angry parents, teachers, etc. that we have endured in our lives. You might find this article of mine and its references of use.

  23. Andrew Avatar

    I’m perfect, I’m sure I don’t know what your talking about!
    Ps. get well and many years.
    Christ is among us!

  24. Robert Avatar

    Dear Father,

    My name is Robert, I live in Egypt, also a coptic orthodox, i hope you get to read this simple THANK YOU reply, you have touched the hearts of many Christians here in Egypt, we keep posting your notes on Facebook for their beauty and the spirit of God we find within

    May God Bless your heart and mind

    P.S: I’m commenting on my fav post 🙂

  25. Micah Avatar

    A truly wondrous post Father Stephen.

    We are told (in no uncertain terms) in Matthew 5:1–13 that the poor in spirit are the rightful inheritors of the kingdom. We should not be surprised that Divine Reversal is also Divine Order (cf. Genesis 1:2).

    Glory to God for all things!

  26. Kirk Avatar

    Father, this inspires me deeply. I am not of your faith, but am rather a Mormon. We have a scripture, attributed to Jesus, that says, “If men come unto me I will show unto them their weakness. I give unto men weakness that they may be humble…if they humble themselves before me, and have faith in me, then will I make weak things become strong unto them” (Ether 12:27). I used to think this meant that he would make me strong, that he would remove my weakness, but your discussion helps me see that this may not be the case, that the weaknesses are strengths in themselves. Thank-you for helping me understand this concept.

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