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The Weakness of Strength

by | Feb 17, 2021

Today is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the Lenten season in our church. I hope at some point today you will have the opportunity to watch our Ash Wednesday service. Ken Hockenberry, Judy’s husband and the Stated Clerk of our Presbytery, preached an excellent sermon to begin our Lent sermon series Parables of Jesus. He starts with the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector. The point of Jesus’ parable is that those of us who own our mistakes and admit how we’ve wronged other people are those who are on the path to healing. 

One of the most fundamental aspects of being a Christian is coming to terms with how your faults and flaws have harmed yourself and others. This is no simple matter. Obtaining a clear perspective on our faults is incredibly difficult. We like to think that we know where our weaknesses lie, but often, our weaknesses are the flipside of our strengths, which makes them hard to see. Let me give you an example.

In the 1870s, the American novelist Henry James was living in Paris and became good friends with the Russian novelist Ivan Turgenev, who is considered one of the greatest writers of the 19th century and the fathers of Russian realism. James loved Turgenev’s measured, serene writing style. As they became friends, James realized that the Turgenev’s work was so far above his contemporaries because he labored over every sentence. Whereas most authors would write rapidly and edit later, Turgenev would weigh different word choices, order and reorder the sentence until everything was perfect before moving onto the next sentence.

This perfectionism allowed him to create remarkable novels like Father and Son and First Love. However, this same virtue that made Turgenev such an amazing writer made him a social nightmare. For instance, James would invite Turgenev to lunch. Turgenev would accept the invitation, then send a letter canceling, then send another letter accepting, then finally he would show up two hours late. This didn’t just happen once. It happened all the time to the point where Henry James stopped inviting Turgenev to anything because he was so unpredictable and indecisive.

Unpredictable and indecisive is a great virtue when you’re writing a novel and can take endless amounts of time to figure out exactly what you want to say. Unpredictable and indecisive is a horrible virtue when it comes to maintaining relationships where people are depending on you. Turgenev was exhibiting a theory called The Weakness of Strength: every strength you possess brings with it a corresponding weakness.

This is why it can be so hard to see our weaknesses. The traits of our weaknesses are often the very things that make us successful. For me, I am a perfectionist. I am very hard on myself and push myself to produce the best possible product. Although you probably wouldn’t know it, I spend a lot of time beating myself up over how I botched this phrase or that word when I preach. I spend close to 20 hours preparing every sermon I preach, so I want it to be the very best that it can be.

The flip side of striving for perfectionism in my work is being controlling in my life. For instance, there is a right way to load the dishwasher. The manufacturer designed the dishwasher so that plates go in a certain place, bowls in another, glasses in another, etc. Mixing them in different patterns can result in the dishes not being properly cleaned and a grumpy expression on my face. Although this is a silly example, I have learned that when I impose my method of loading dishes on my wife, this can result in unnecessary arguments and hurt feelings. I’ve come to terms with the fact that my way works for me and attempting to control others will achieve antithetical results. Instead of gaining control, my world devolves into chaos.

This is one of many weaknesses I’ve had trouble seeing, but the effort to isolate those weaknesses and understand how they impact me and others has been a very humbling exercise. It’s hard to become like the tax collector in Jesus’ parable and see your weaknesses for what they are. However, Ash Wednesday is the first step in that process. Recognizing our own frailty is the best starting point for gaining perspective on our weaknesses and how we need to make amends for our mistakes.

So my suggestion today is to take a moment and list all of your strengths. What are the things you do well and why are you so good at them? Then ask yourself, “How are those same traits possibly leading me in the wrong direction in other areas of my life?” You may come to realize that your flaws are more hidden than you realize.

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