For you are a people holy to the LORD your God; the LORD your God has chosen you out of all the peoples on earth to be his people, his treasured possession. It was not because you were more numerous than any other people that the LORD set his heart on you and chose you—for you were the fewest of all peoples. It was because the LORD loved you and kept the oath that he swore to your ancestors, that the LORD has brought you out with a mighty hand, and redeemed you from the house of slavery, from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt. Know therefore that the LORD your God is God, the faithful God who maintains covenant loyalty with those who love him and keep his commandments, to a thousand generations, and who repays in their own person those who reject him. He does not delay but repays in their own person those who reject him. Therefore, observe diligently the commandment—the statutes and the ordinances—that I am commanding you today.
One of the things that I have had to work out in my understanding of faith in God is why God works through our weakness more than our strength. On one level, when I heard this with a psychological lens, it sounded more like a form of consolation for those who are struggling with weakness and suffering to make them feel better about their plight. No doubt, such a positive reframing may at times be a motivation for believing such with people who feel weak. However, throughout the Scriptures, we see God works through the weakness and signs of apparent inferiority. Moses struggle with speech, Gideon’s army whittled down to only 300 men, Paul’s thorn in the flesh, and most centrally, Jesus’ death on the cross. Why is it that God works this way?
I think an answer can be gleaned from the Deuteronomic passage quoted above. In it, God explains to Israel why he chose them to be a treasured possession. It wasn’t because of their strength in numbers, but it was because of God’s love and oath to their ancestors, both of which combined can be summarized as God’s covenant loyalty. Then, God says that He is in relationship to the people of Israel and that he is going to extend a covenant with those who love him that will call for the observance of commandments. What I would suggest is implicit in God’s speech is that it is Israel’s relative weakness that will motivate them to depend upon God, which therefore entails their participation in the way of life that God instructs them in through Moses. Because Israel does not have great power, they are the type of people who will live in a relationship with God and follow God’s teaching. Yet, there is perhaps more to this than just their living in relationship to God.
The story of David’s census in 2 Samuel 24 and 1 Chronicles 21 serves as an illustrative contrast. Whereas the people of Israel that God had redeemed were a small people who had to rely upon God’s deliverance to make their way out of Egypt and to eventually take the promised land, David’s census works from a different motivation: to assess the military strength of those under his authority. We see throughout the Scriptures a consistent warning against trusting in human power, but that God’s people are reminded that they should instead truth in the Lord. In Jeremiah 17.5-8, the prophet contrasts the desolation that occurs for those who trust in human power and the blessed state of that those who trust in the Lord receive. The calamity that is nearly brought upon Jerusalem in David’s story is illustrative of the problem with trusting in human power.
To that end, it seems that God works through human weakness for more reasons than just to have a relationship with His people, as true as that is, but that there is also something problematic about trusting in human strength. The dependence upon human strength and power regularly has a terrible social consequence: it leads to people setting themselves over and against others in a zero-sum battle for superior strength and control. At the core, the accumulation of power is how empires form and how it is that people who have little power become oppressed. Consequently, the desire for human power and control is at conflict with living in righteous, peaceful relationships with those around you.
By becoming the type of people who trust in God to protect and deliver, we become people who do not seek out strength and power, but rather become focused upon love and peace. When one ultimately and genuinely appeals to God as one’s protector, deliverer, and vindicator, it doesn’t deny all human agency and influence, but it makes it such that being powerful and having authority is not a value we seek after. The desire to increase our stature, to increase our influence, to increase our resources, to increase our authority insulates us from feelings of threat, meaning that we become much more emotionally fragile when it comes to facing situations that are perceived to be some sort of challenge or threat to us.
When we look more closely at Jeremiah 17.5-8, we can make an observation about the fates of those who trust God and trust in human power. Those who trust in human power rather than God move towards a desolate state where their life becomes increasingly fragile. Reliance upon human power has a way of making us fragile and highly reactive to situations where we feel vulnerable. God will make them face their own fragility by putting them in a place of desolation. By contrast, those who trust in the Lord not only become blessed, but grow to become people who are able to face the difficulties of droughts. However, nothing in the prophet’s discourse suggests this is an immediate outcome of faith in human power or in God, but rather that these are the future outcomes of their faith.
Similarly, in his Corinthians correspondence, the apostle Paul twice distinguishes between those who are perishing and those who are being saved (1 Cor. 1.18, 2 Cor. 2.15-16). For those who are perishing, the cross and the people who are an aroma of Christ perceive foolishness and knowledge of death, whereas those who are being saved see God’s power and life. Underlying one’s response to story of Christ’s crucifixion can be an attitude of fragility and anti-fragility. For those who fragility makes them to be the ones who are perishing, even if they have high status and power, they see something that does not accord with glory and power but as a threat to their life: the message of God’s power through the resurrection seems foolish to them, perhaps because their own fragility doesn’t allow them to embrace the risk of trusting in God’s resurrection.
By contrast, anti-fragility, a concept that Nicholas Nassim Taleb popularized, allows one to face and grow from the challenges and stresses in life, We hear such an idea echoes in the words of the Lord to Paul when he faced the thorn in the flesh: “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor. 12.9). God’s grace allows people to face the trials of life and not just simply face them, but to grow in the midst of them. In Philippians 3.10, Paul expresses that he wants to know Christ and the power of the resurrection, to which he then pairs with that sharing in Christ’s sufferings to death. Paul understanding of one’s life lived by the grace of Jesus Christ through His cross can be defined as anti-fragility, where human weakness is a place where one is paradoxically strengthened by God’s grace.
So, in human weakness, God isn’t leaving His people mired in powerless and helplessness. Rather, as His people do not seek after human power and strength to enforce their will, they instead trust in God and are free to focus on love and peace. Then, God will strengthen them through their sufferings that emerge as a result of their weakness. Such people may go through the throes of pain and strongly negative emotions in the short run, but emotionality itself is not a sign of fragility; it is not one’s emotionality that indicates whether one is fragile or anti-fragile, but rather how one ultimately faces those things that stress and threaten that determines the long run trajectory of their life. Those who ultimately trust in themselves are emotionally formed in such a way that one’s ability to face challenges and stress depends on the positivity of the outcome, making the experiences of uncontrollable stresses lead to a downward spiral. Meanwhile, those who trust in the Lord rather than in their own strength learn to face challenges as something to be endured, allowing them the place to become anti-fragile and grow from the trials.
Perhaps through depending upon the Lord, God’s people become properly empowered to genuinely love in the way God loves so as to be agents of peace and reconciliation in a world that so often finds such a message threatening. Without trusting in God and relying upon His grace, we can not possibly learn and grow to be agents of shalom that brings well-being when so many people will resist shalom for those they deem unworthy. God’s relationship with His people leads empowers us to live as reflections of His image in the present world where other agendas and purposes other than God’s life-giving purposes so often prevail.