My boss is in the hospital. Anyone who’s heard me talk about my job knows how much I respect and admire and appreciate my boss. He is a godly man with a zeal for Christ’s kingdom and a tender heart for people in need. I have learned so much from working alongside him for the past three years. Yesterday he took his first sick day in the six years he’s worked for our organization. This reveals two things: first, he’s the kind of guy who will push through just about anything in order to fulfill his commitments and get the job done; second, this time he’s really ill. His body is fighting an infection and he’s got a dangerously high fever. He’s sick. He’s weak.
He called me earlier today from the hospital; the voice that’s usually so strong, so jovial, so purposeful, was slow and quiet and weak. It was disconcerting. I could tell it was taking a lot of effort and energy for him to think clearly and say what he needed to say. I strained to listen and understand and respond to his concerns gently but confidently.
It catches us off guard when strong men are made weak. I remember last fall when I went to visit my dad in the hospital after his hip replacement surgery. Lying there, wearing a thin hospital gown, my tall, strong father looked so tired, so vulnerable. As his daughter I’d been aware of my own growth over the years, of course, but my perception of him had always been kind of frozen in time—he was perpetually the age that fathers are supposed to be. He was just my Dad. He is who he is, and he does what he does, usually without any complaint or commentary. Yet there he was—weak, uncomfortable, in pain. It was hard to bear. Friends of mine have recently faced the similar hard realities of their fathers’ or grandfathers’ limitations and mortality. Though illness and infirmity touches all men at some point, there’s almost this feeling that we should look away, lest they be made to feel ashamed of—or we to feel uncomfortable with—their weakness, their humanity.
When strong men are made weak, we get this sense that something isn’t right. It’s not the way it should be, the way we want it to be. We want to be able to count on someone to always be strong, always be there, always be adequate to the challenges that face us.
I know that some women are offended that Paul refers to women as “the weaker vessel.” It may sound strange, but I actually take some comfort in it. Not that I don’t think women are strong. Not that women are relegated to the role of damsel in distress until Prince Charming—or the plumber, policeman, mechanic, or what have you—comes to her rescue. Not that I can’t be strong myself when life calls for strength, resiliency, and fortitude. I think my life experience shows that, by God’s grace, I’ve made it through some difficult times, and am a stronger person for it. But at the same time I’m relieved to be identified as the weaker vessel, because that implies there’s someone else to be strong on my behalf.
Now, I realize that on the human level, there are a lot of holes in that implication. For starters, where Paul refers to women as the weaker vessel, he’s addressing husbands. I’m single, i.e. no strapping husband to swoop in and save the day. Secondly, as I explored above, even strong men are sometimes made weak by illness or circumstance, and all men are, well, human and therefore inescapably fallible and subject to weakness, temptation, and failure. Thirdly, I know it’s unhealthy and unfair to expect any man—husband, father, boss—to be unflinchingly strong. Fourth, strength comes in a lot of different forms. Fifth, the same Scriptures that describe women as the weaker vessel also call women to be strong and courageous as co-heirs of the promise, to put on the full armor of God and enter into battle, to live in the power of the Holy Spirit who dwells within them. And the same apostle who identifies women as the weaker vessel says that it’s when he is weak that he’s strong, that if he’s going to boast in anything at all he’ll boast in his weakness, that he became weak to win the weak. So while women are weaker than their husbands, men are to be weak to start with? It’s confusing to say the least.
At the times when the discontentment and loneliness of singleness creep in, more often than not that which I find myself longing for is not the companionship, the affection, or the intimacy, though each has its appeal. Rather, I most yearn to have someone who will be strong for me; who will honor and respect me as the weaker vessel and yet his equal as a co-heir of Christ. Who will stand firm so I can relax. Who will keep watch so I can let my guard down. Who will walk beside me so that we can go farther together than we could alone. While I do not know when or if the time will come that I’ll have some measure of this on a human level (i.e. a husband), the truth is that from the day I gave my life to Christ and was given the right to be called a child of God, I have had this in my heavenly Father. When I am weak He is strong. And yet we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with us in our weaknesses.
This strength-weakness thing is one of the many paradoxes of faith that get my head spinning when I start to really consider all of the seemingly contradictory (emphasis on the seemingly) exhortations. We are to be strong and courageous and yet boast in our weakness. We are to lay ourselves low that we might be lifted up. What anchors me when the concepts start swirling is my confidence that God is who He says He is and that He will do what He says He will do. He is strong. He is mighty. He is all-powerful. He will give me His strength when I need strength. He delights when I come to him in my weakness. He will give me His rest and relief when I am burdened. He will be faithful when I am faithless. He neither slumbers nor sleeps and He does not grow weary. He is strong. I can be weak. And yet I can also be strong.
When I set out to write I usually like to come to a conclusion. To wrap things up nicely with a summary statement. But today I just have thoughts. Considerations. Worries for my boss that I need to convert to prayers. Realizations about my God that I need to convert to gratitude and praise.