Our Discomfort with the Strong and Joyous

Protestant theology and preaching do better with the person in the gutter than with the person at the top. Our Augustinian horror of human pride and self-assertiveness prods us to tell strong and joyous persons in our midst that they are really weak and miserable. We seem to have good news only for the wretched, dependent, weak, and poor. What do we say to the strong?

In my role as a parish pastor, I frequently meet men and women who, from all that I can observe, are happy and fulfilled human beings. Some of them are rich, some poor. Some are well educated, some poorly educated. They seem to be the kind of mature, sensitive, integrated, caring people that the churches need. And yet they do not relate to the church. And I rather doubt that they would relate to most Protestant preaching that I hear (or that I preach). They would not respond well to the kind of parent-child relationship that is the psychological basis of much of our evangelism.

No doubt some of these strong people have hurts, deep cares, and an assortment of big and little sins within. In fact, in their strength and maturity they are likely to be more aware of their needs, more candid in admitting them, than other less secure people. But it seems a bit contrived to insist that they admit some wretchedness or weakness before they can hear the good news.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, certainly a person of strength himself, discusses this area in some of the writings collected as Letters and Papers From Prison (quotations will be from the revised edition, Macmillan, 1967). Bonhoeffer notes that even though the Scriptures frequently tell us to “be strong” (1 Cor. 16:13, Eph. 6:10, 2 Tim. 2:1; 1 John 2:14), many pastors and Christian apologists (“psychotherapists” and “existentialists” as he calls them) prey upon people’s weaknesses and “spy out” the secrets of their inner lives in order to “expose their true wretchedness.” These efforts to “prey upon the vestigial weaknesses” of mature persons Bonhoeffer denounces as poor efforts to turn people back into infants who are in need of dominance and deliverance.

If a person feels neither guilt nor despair, we try to produce some in order to deliver our Christian package. Added to our theological problems in dealing with the person of strength are our current obsessive fear of power and our romantic notion that to be poor and powerless is to be morally pure.

Bonhoeffer notes that Jesus called people out of, not into, despair: “Never did he question a man’s health, vigour, or happiness, regarded in themselves, or regard them as evil fruits; else why should he heal the sick and restore strength to the weak?” (p. 189). We have lost the Old Testament category of blessing, which looks upon strength and prosperity as gifts of God.

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Like Bonhoeffer, I would dispute his friend Bethge’s statement that “the Bible has not much to say about health, fortune, and vigour.” Particularly in the Old Testament, and scattered throughout the New, we find the assertion that God is the source of our blessings and strengths, both material and spiritual, and is very interested in our use of them. Our strengths are gifts from God, and our weaknesses are opportunities for God-given healing and growth. We need a theological perspective that speaks to persons in their strength and prosperity, not only in their weakness and poverty. We need to announce the good news that calls persons from strength to greater strength.

A theology that speaks to the strong will take seriously the fact that power, strength, and self-discipline are not hinderances to living the Christian faith but are gifts to be used gratefully and sacrificially.

First, I think such a theology would see gratitude as the foundation of its response to God. Gratitude claims nothing more for itself than its undeserved receiving of gifts. Our strengths are not our personal achievements. We are who we are by God’s grace (and certain quirks and inequalities of history). We must call persons of strength first to be honest about how they got what they have. Call it an accident of birth, call it superior advantages, call it fortuitous circumstances; but be sure to call it a gift.

This sense of gratitude must be at the heart of our Christianity for the strong. It can lead to a generous life-style that is lived in “continual thanksgiving,” to use St. Paul’s phrase. Gratitude is the basis of praise, which is the basis of joyful, celebrative worship. Could the reasons why much of our worship (especially in middle-class white congregations) is dull and lifeless be that (1) we have forgotten that God is the source of all blessings and therefore the object of our greatest shouts of praise and (2) we are not inclined to praise God for anything so basic as our families, our homes, our education, our food? Gratitude makes artists of us all, asking us how we can more fittingly fashion our lives into the offerings of praise and thanksgiving that they are called to be. Praise God from whom all blessings flow!

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Karl Barth said that every sermon should begin by speaking of grace. Only after grace is experienced can one be open enough to God to do any genuine repenting. Too often we reverse the sequence, holding back grace as if it were a bit of candy offered to a child only after the child takes the bad-tasting medicine of repentance. I think strong people who are guilty of the sins of strength (such as pride, complacency, claims of self-sufficiency) will be better able to repent of these after we have first spoken of their strength as a gift from God. Zacchaeus repented in word and deed after he felt the accepting, affirming love of the Lord, who invited himself to dinner.

Conversion for the person of strength might involve not a denial of strengths but rather the kind of humbling gratitude that comes when one realizes that one’s gifts have a divine source and purpose. To be gifted, from a Christian point of view, is to be held responsible for the use of those gifts. “To whom much is given, of him shall much be required.”

From gratitude our theology for the strong would move on to call for the ethically responsible use of strength. People today are suspicious of power. Some Christian thinkers like William Stringfellow and Jacques Ellul identify power with Babylon, contenting themselves with the rather elementary assertion that power corrupts. As Richard Neuhaus has noted, it is despicable for us to condemn the strength of others as being immoral while we exercise power in our blanket condemnation of the power of others. I confess that most of my own sermons to businesspersons on the evils of the business world usually lead me into this type of sinning.

After a recent sermon of mine on “World Famine as a Christian Concern,” an exasperated layman met me at the church door and said, “All you’ve done is to make me feel guilty that my family has enough to eat. I can’t help that. You told me nothing that I could do to help a man in India keep his family from starving.” Obviously, I had failed to get beyond preacherly scolding and guilt-building. Such preaching is less than the Gospel.

The ethical responsibility to which we call the person of strength takes the stress off mere rules and regulations. Mere rules may not be demanding enough (of him who has much will much be required). How trivial of us to encapsulate Christian morals into petty individual codes of personal behavior rather than demand the kind of ethical boldness that Jesus demonstrated. We must rise above Nietzsche’s charge that Christianity fosters a mere “slave morality.” Children need rules; mature adults need challenges. The person of strength will be urged to ask: “What is God asking of me in light of my God-given talents and abilities and in light of my neighbors’ needs?” Throughout the Bible, prosperous persons are entrusted with great responsibility. The poor are the responsibility of the rich. It is not the responsibility of the widows and orphans to fend for themselves.

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The immature, weak person is fragmented and enslaved by immediate concerns, conflicting loyalties, and a need for the approval of others. Our world needs mature, integrated, disciplined Christians who have a source of strength greater than that which the world gives. These are the tough ones, willing to let others lean on them, willing to have their strength used by someone else who may not be as strong. Such strength can be an instrument for the achievement of social justice and human liberation. Let us call upon the strong ones among us to rise from strength to greater strength, to risk bold, decisive deeds on behalf of their neighbors.

Secure, strong persons have the freedom to love others selflessly. Other love is likely to come from the insecurity of self-disparagement, or from guilt, or as an attempt at works righteousness, instead of from freedom and gratitude. It is done for compensation or expiation; hence it can never do enough, and it smothers the other person with solicitude. The blacks have been right in recent years to point out that the love of many white liberals either is degradingly patronizing or attempts to make some claim on its recipient. It is selfish love that comes from the weakness of white guilt, whereas genuine love is selfless and gives without expectation of return.

Finally, when speaking to strong persons, we must speak not only to their strengths and gifts but also to their particular needs. Many strong persons, because they have the resources to handle most of the problems that bedevil weaker people, think they have the strength to handle every problem.

Many people whose lives are spent gaining power in such areas as education, business, and politics will always feel weak because they can never get enough power. Many rich people will always feel poor because they can never get enough money. A materialistic, consumptive society will invariably be an impoverished society, always getting but never getting enough.

This is the note of judgment that must be heard by persons of strength. Their strength, when misdirected, is weakness. The poverty of the poor is tragic; so is the peculiar poverty of the rich. The intellectual can never know enough. The businessman climbs to the top of the organizational pecking order only to find that, rather than running the organization, he is now run by it. We must be able to see the starvation behind the faces of the “fat cows of Bashan.”

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Paul’s letter to the Romans is the testimony of a strong-willed person who thought he was a self-sufficient man of great strength and conviction. This strong man found his assumed strength brought low by the love of God on the Damascus road. He found his peculiar need. Paul found that often the person of strength is in reality a slave, held in bondage to such things as earthly wisdom, temporal success, pride, and constant activity. What the world calls strong is not always strong. Romans is a hymn of thanksgiving sung by a strong person who had his strength transformed by the source of true strength. Paul’s gratitude for his salvation becomes the ethical basis for what he calls his “new life in Christ.”

Jesus showed us true strength. He showed us that real strength lies in having so much power within oneself that one is free to be carefree about power, to give power away, to “empty oneself.” He showed us that the one who can dare to serve others totally is the real master. The one who is master of all is the one who is servant of all. He is richest who knows how limited our checkbooks are in helping us to solve our deepest problems.

Paul, writing to that gifted, boastful, exasperating, inspiring, partly weak and partly strong crowd at the First Church of Corinth, closed his letter with challenging words that all Christians, strong and otherwise, need to hear again and again: “Stand firm in the faith, be valiant and strong. Let all you do be done in love.”

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