During a late-night conversation a few years ago, my husband and I realized that any time we commit to doing service for the kingdom, we seem to get slammed. The days leading up to ministry are full of mini-disasters. The kids get sick. We get sick. The car breaks down. The water heater conks out. Jon’s insomnia kicks in. Our budget takes some unexpected hit. My stomachaches kick in. And everyone in our support network is simultaneously out of town. Sometimes the disasters aren’t so miniature, and the pain is amplified.
Many friends of ours describe this kind of barrage as spiritual attack. If so, we wondered aloud that night, what exactly is the point of the attack? Is the Evil One trying to prevent us from finishing the ministry at hand? That rarely works. Does he want to distract us, so that we won’t do it well, or so that we won’t abide in the Lord while we’re doing it? Or is the point to discourage us from saying “yes” to anything like this ever again?
That night, we concluded that if this is Satan’s tactic, it might just work.
There are many reasons that kingdom work is so often surrounded by personal difficulty. But that week the Lord highlighted one particular reason for me, and it was the one I most needed to see.
Shortly after our late-night conversation, I was reading 2 Corinthians 12. It felt like the Lord had delivered it to me by carrier pigeon. In this passage, Paul describes not the Enemy’s but the Lord’s purpose in allowing hardship to surround kingdom service. Paul discovers that the Lord is allowing his troubles in order “to keep me from becoming conceited” (v. 7). While Paul’s mysterious “thorn” may be the Enemy’s work (he calls it a “messenger of Satan”), God has repurposed it. He is using it for his ends, namely to rescue Paul from arrogance. Often my depletion coming into ministry has had the same humbling effect.
But Paul’s hardship has a double purpose. Not only is God using it to work in Paul, he is using it to work through Paul. Jesus tells him: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (v. 9). Paul’s difficulty paves the way for God’s power to be at work, perfectly, through his life.
So, our personal troubles can accomplish two things. Trouble thwarts our conceit, and trouble lets God show off his strength. In both ways, it disabuses us of the notion that serving God is all about us.
In fact, Paul wasn’t the first one to discover these truths. The Old Testament is crowded with people who saw God work powerfully in their weakness: Abraham the childless, Joseph the trafficked, Moses the stutterer, David the shepherd kid—the list goes on and on.
But my favorite is Gideon the wimp. I identify with his sheer incredulity at what God asks him to do. His story, which appears in Judges chapters 6–8, is perhaps the clearest visual aid demonstrating God’s strength in our weakness. The New Testament speaks of Gideon as one “whose weakness was turned to strength” (Heb. 11:32–34). In his story, I see both roles of weakness at play: weakness makes space for God’s power, and weakness curbs our conceit.
Our Weakness: God’s Stage
Just as Paul describes his hardship as a thorn in his flesh, so Gideon was living among Israelites who suffered what the Old Testament refers to as thorns in their sides (Num. 33:55; Judges 2:3). Their thorn was harassment from the Canaanites. When we meet Gideon, his people are desperate after seven years of the Midianites raiding their harvest.
Gideon’s story begins in a winepress, where he is threshing his grain to hide it from the enemy. The angel of the Lord appears to him and says, “The Lord is with you, mighty warrior.” Really? This particular “mighty warrior” is hiding out—not exactly a valiant act. Gideon’s answer is surprisingly frank: “Pardon me, my lord, but if the Lord is with us, why has all this happened to us?” (Judges 6:13, emphasis mine). Often this is our first question too. How could God’s presence and my hardship occupy the same space?
Gideon wrestles to reconcile God’s actions in the past with his apparent silence in the present: “Where are all his wonders that our fathers told us about when they said, ‘Did not the Lord bring us up out of Egypt?’ But now the Lord has abandoned us and given us into the hand of Midian” (v. 13). At this point in the story, we find out that Gideon is speaking to the Lord: “The Lord turned to him and said, ‘Go in the strength you have and save Israel out of Midian’s hand. Am I not sending you?’ ” (v. 14).
The Lord’s question—“Am I not sending you?”—echoes the question Gideon has just asked him: “Did not the Lord bring us up out of Egypt?” Both questions begin with the same Hebrew particle, halo’. It’s a word used to introduce a question when the speaker assumes that the answer is going to be “yes.” My husband jokes that we should translate halo’ into the English, “Hello?!” So Gideon says, in essence, “Hello?! Didn’t the Lord bring us up out of Egypt?” Yes, he did! And the Lord replies, “Hello?! Am I not sending you?” It’s just as obvious an answer, Gideon. Yes, I am! I’m intervening. I haven’t abandoned you.
Gideon is not convinced. He replies, “Pardon me, my lord, but how can I save Israel? My clan is the weakest in Manasseh, and I am the least in my family.” Gideon’s question, “How can I save Israel?” is literally, “With what can I save Israel?” It’s a direct response to the Lord’s commission: “Go with the strength you have and save Israel.” The preposition is the same in the Hebrew. God says, “Go with your strength,” and Gideon replies, “With what?” In other words, “What strength? I’m the weakest guy in the weakest clan. What strength exactly are you referring to?”
The Lord answers simply, “I will be with you, and you will strike down all the Midianites, leaving none alive” (v. 16). In other words, the Lord says: Don’t measure yourself, Gideon. Measure me. Take whatever you have, go with the little strength you have, and get yourself to the battlefield. I’ll be there.
Gideon continues to navigate uncertainty about God’s instructions. He decides to obey God and destroy Baal’s altar, but only in the middle of the night, so nobody will know it was him. Then he utters his famous “fleece” prayers to make double and triple sure that God will do what he has promised. But in the end, Gideon obeys. He summons an army and prepares to engage the Midianites. God uses the least likely candidate—the weakest of the weak—to accomplish a rescue for his people.
The first part of Gideon’s story teaches us to be wary of our insecurity. We learn to distrust the voice that tells us we’re insufficient for the assignment the Lord has given us. When we feel we have no strength, when we are convinced we have nothing left to give, we remember that it’s worthwhile to simply schlep (to borrow a good Yiddish term) ourselves to wherever God is sending us. If he is with us, that will be strength enough. If we start to measure ourselves, the danger is that we won’t move, we won’t risk, or we won’t go. We’ll do the math, conclude that the assignment is too big, and stay home. Gideon reminds us to measure God instead. If he’s with us, it doesn’t matter how little strength we have as we head out.
I think of the evening when my husband and I were on our way to dinner with a couple we’d met through Craigslist. Even though we found them to be difficult, they seemed spiritually hungry, and we wanted to hold out the Word of Life to them. But we’d just emerged from one of many hospital stays with our newborn and were utterly exhausted.
In the car, we reminded ourselves that our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit. If we could do nothing more than lug those temples along to a place of need, just doing that would give God the opportunity to do something powerful through us if he wanted to. If we’d measured our own resources that night, we would have stayed home.
Our Weakness: Pride-killer
While Gideon was well aware of his own weakness, Israel wasn’t as humble. The next part of Gideon’s story shows how God uses depletion to thwart conceit. Gideon recruits an army of 32,000. Meanwhile, we’re told, “the Midianites, the Amalekites, and all the other eastern peoples had settled in the valley, thick as locusts. Their camels could no more be counted than the sand on the seashore” (Judges 7:12).
But the Lord says to Gideon, “You have too many men. I cannot deliver Midian into their hands, or Israel would boast against me, ‘My own strength has saved me.’ ” Gideon has too many people? You can’t even count the other guys’ camels! But Gideon listens to the Lord and applies two successive litmus tests to his soldiers. In two waves, he sends 31,700—over 90 percent—of them home.
Why is God dramatically shrinking Gideon’s resources on the eve of the fight? Why is he peeling away Israel’s assets? So that Israel may not boast. Or, in Paul’s words, to keep them from becoming conceited. This way, when Gideon confronts the sand-on-the-seashore camels with a mere 300 guys, there will be no doubt whose strength is on display.
And what a display it turns out to be. This tiny band of Israelite warriors arrives at the edge of Midian’s camp, blows its trumpets, uncovers its torches, shouts, then simply looks on as the Midianite soldiers turn on one another with their swords and begin to flee. This victory, “the day of Midian,” becomes the signature example of God’s ability to overcome the odds and rescue his people (Ps. 83:9; Isa. 9:4; 10:26).
If Gideon’s conversation with the angel teaches us to doubt our own insecurity, the whittling down of his army teaches us to be wary of our conceit. Overconfidence seems to be a big deal to God. It’s something to be avoided at all costs. It poses a serious danger to our souls. Look at the lengths God goes to in order to help his people avoid it. Gideon’s army is shrunk. Paul’s “thorn” is allowed to persist. God permits dramatic challenges in our lives, a significant reduction of our resources, in order to save us from arrogance.
This is a kindness. Our conceit and the critical spirit that comes with it get in the way of God’s good work in and through us. Pride is sin, and it can kill us. When we face seasons of weariness, of weakness, of wave after wave of depletion, we can assume that God is at work. In the words of a church sign that I recently drove past: “When you’re down to nothing, God is up to something.”
The Pride of Insecurity
As we look at Gideon’s story, we discover that both insecurity and conceit are forms of pride, in that both display the sin of thinking that it’s all about us. Insecurity says, “It’s all about me, and because I’m weak, the day will be lost.” Conceit says, “It’s all about me, and because I’m strong, the day will be won.” But humility says, “It’s not about me at all; my only hope is that God is strong.” God’s strength is the measure that matters. And he has said to us, as well as to Gideon: “Surely I am with you always” (Matt. 28:20). We have even more reason to believe him, having watched “God with us,” Emmanuel, come in the flesh. Jesus has shown us what God’s power in weakness looks like at its best. There is no better visual aid than the weakness and power of the Cross.
In the past few years, the experience of everything falling apart around ministry has only accelerated in my life. With a pocket full of Ivy League degrees and a desire to serve the church, I’ve spent much of the past decade navigating special-needs parenting, fighting an autoimmune disorder, and living on a shoestring budget amid my husband’s call to seminary and church planting. Many of my waking hours are spent on things that were never part of the plan, things that can (on my worst days) seem like a waste of time. I identify with Gideon, watching the resources I counted on dissipate before my eyes. I often feel like I’m staring down the valley at a beach-load of camels with nothing but 300 foot soldiers at my disposal.
While I mourn the losses inherent in these troubles, I also see how God might be repurposing them for my good. Weakness is doing its double work in me. The Lord is knocking the edges off my life-threatening conceit. And I’ve watched him show off his strength in the midst of my depletion. To paraphrase Paul, I’m learning to be okay with operating at diminished capacity, operating within serious limitations, because when I am at my lowest ebb, God’s work through me is at its best.My weakness gives God a chance to show up and show off.
Sarah Lebhar Hall is an adjunct professor of biblical studies at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and Trinity School for Ministry.
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