“But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore, I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me.”
2 Corinthians 12:7–9 (italics mine)
The Dungeon Flamed with Light
Things were not going well. I was lying in a pool of blood on the floor of a solitary confinement cell in the Marion County Jail. My body was beginning to withdraw from massive amounts of opioid narcotics.
Then the trajectory of my life was irreversibly changed when a cherub faced black woman knelt and laid a Bible in the chow slot, smiled, rose, and walked away. I never saw her again. I often wonder if she was an angel (Heb 13:2).
My first instinct on what to do with that Bible was not a positive one. I was filled with anger that my extended suicide attempt by way of alcohol and opiates had failed. Now in my forced detox, I was spewing diarrhea and puking stomach bile—sometimes simultaneously.
But at some point, I began to read the NIV Youth Edition Study Bible with the silver hologram cover. As I hallucinated, I relived every memory and felt every feeling I had been numbing daily with hundreds of milligrams of Oxycontin for several years.
You will never understand how generous God is with a single day until you are in a solitary confinement cell for forty-five straight days. With no external stimuli, no phone calls, rare showers, and infrequent recreation times in a cage outside each week, time can be your ally or your greatest enemy.
Abba Moses, fourth-century Ethiopian ascetic monk, notable among the Desert Fathers, said, “Go, sit in your cell, and your cell will teach you everything.” I’m quite sure this was not what he had in mind. Yet my cell did teach me everything, for it was in that cell that I came to myself and felt the nail pierced hands of a savior holding me. Jesus surrounded me with light and love, in that place of darkness and death. In the words of Charles Wesley…
Long my imprisoned spirit lay,
Fast bound in sin and nature’s night;
Thine eye diffused a quick’ning ray—
I woke, the dungeon flamed with light;
My chains fell off, my heart was free,
I rose, went forth, and followed Thee.
Power Made Perfect in Weakness?
It was from that cell that these words first penetrated my soul… “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”
This statement of Jesus is preserved in the letter of the Apostle Paul we know today as Second Corinthians. Paul was once Saul of Tarsus, a kind of “Dog the Bounty Hunter” of Christians, following leads, chasing them down, and hauling them in to be executed. That is, until Saul had a supernatural encounter with the very Jesus he was seeking to discredit.
On a road leading to Damascus, Saul was thrown from his horse. Then, a bright light rendered him blind and helpless, and he was forced to fall into the care of the very Christians he sought to destroy.
He became Paul, the apostle to the Gentiles. He traveled the known world, sharing the good news of this crucified and resurrected Jesus. The same instincts and character defects that had made him such a formidable foe of Christians throughout the Roman Empire turned him into the greatest proponent of the faith. Multiple incarcerations, stonings, shipwrecks, and near-death experiences couldn’t stop him.
Yet, Paul described an ongoing struggle in his spiritual development. He had many gifts and visions and so was in the danger zone of becoming “conceited.” So, in Paul’s estimation, to keep himself in check, he was given a “thorn in [his] flesh,” a messenger of Satan, to torment him. When Paul pleads for the removal of this “thorn,” Jesus responds with “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor 12:7–9).
Paul learned that his most exceptional qualities were paradoxically also his weaknesses, not his strengths. His journey of healing was not complete with his conversion experience. It was an ongoing journey. It was his woundedness that kept him leaning ever more fully into his dependence on Jesus. He was in a position of humble submission, completely reliant upon God’s grace, a grace that was given one day at a time.
In a world obsessed with “strength finders,” is it possible that our greatest potential lies in our weaknesses? If Christ’s power is made perfect in our weaknesses, might then our wounds become our superpowers? How might this truth apply to individuals, organizations, and churches?
The Great Cloud of Withnesses
Greta Thunberg was on the cover of Time magazine as one of the “Next Generation Leaders.” The Guardian described her global impact as the “Greta effect.” Among her many accolades and awards are being the youngest Time “Person of the Year” and inclusion in the Forbes list of “The World's 100 Most Powerful Women” (2019).
As a child, Greta suffered from depression and was diagnosed with Asperger syndrome, a mild form of autism. She famously refers to her medical condition as a “superpower.” She has transformed her challenge into an opportunity, what some would consider a weakness into a strength. Through her climate change activism, she is making an impact on a global scale.
In Painting with Ashes, I share the stories of people across the ages who used their greatest wounds, struggles, and challenges to paint the world better with goodness, beauty, and truth. Desmond Tutu, Maya Angelou, Henri Nouwen, Martin Luther King Jr., Bill W., Fred Rogers, Catherine Booth, Malala Yousafzai, Jeanne-Marie Bouvier de la Motte-Guyon, Vincent van Gogh, Antonio Vivaldi, Ignatius of Loyola, Augustine, Paul, Mary, Joseph, and Moses are just a few of the people I examine.
I call this group the “great cloud of withnesses” who surround us as we make our own journey of faith. These people changed the world for the better not because they were stronger than others, but because they were aware of their woundedness and found a way to use it in the service of healing for others.
Creating Communities of Healing
The world we once knew has been laid to waste, its demise accelerated by a global pandemic. A globalized, hyper-connected network society is emerging. We live in the exile lands between what was and what’s coming soon. We sit in the ashes of post-Christendom, post-truth, and post-progress.
Our world needs healing, and this calls for the cultivation of communities of wounded healers.
One among the great cloud who can serve as our guide is Henri J. Nouwen. Nouwen’s concept of compassion encourages us to be weak with the weak, vulnerable with the vulnerable, and powerless with the powerless. We can call this a “theology of weakness” or even a “spirituality of imperfection.”
For Nouwen, the true Christian community is a place of hospitality, where people can welcome one another in grace and love. The focus is not the “curing” of wounds, but rather seeing them as openings for solidarity in our flawed condition. Every person is disabled in some way, whether physically, emotionally, or spiritually, because our “very good” creation (see Gen 1:31) has been fragmented by sin. Our theology of weakness forces us to acknowledge our dependency on God and one another. As we offer each other gratitude, encouragement, and hope in a circle dance of reciprocity, we become a community of healing for each other.
Nouwen’s best-known work, The Wounded Healer, powerfully resonates with many precisely because there are only wounded healers. There is no such thing as unwounded healers, particularly for those of us who are taking our cues from Jesus of Nazareth, the resurrected, ascended, and still-wound-bearing Lord (see John 20:25).
I used to think that if I could just be righteous enough I could please God. Now I realize it’s not my righteousness that delights God, but my brokenness. It’s the cracks that let the light in. I can’t be good enough, long enough, hard enough to make God love me. God already loves me, just as I am, not as I should be. It’s more a matter of grace than of effort, of receiving rather than giving.
I've discovered it’s the epic failures, struggles, and ongoing challenges that I want to hide from others that have those most potential to create true communion. When I yield my brokenness to God, God uses it in incredible ways to bring healing to others.
Weakness is transformed into superpower in a communal atmosphere of grace where people are free to be vulnerable.
When we share our brokenness with others, God does God’s best work through us. This doesn’t mean we go around spewing our woundedness upon others. Pain, trauma, and loss require an appropriate process of grieving. Untreated wounds keep us sick. As we say in recovery, “hurt people hurt people.” But paradoxically, God uses wounded healers to heal other wounded people.
For many, the church is perceived as a place of harm rather than healing.
How do we help each other share our own stories, come to terms with our woundedness, and find healing with others? In a world fascinated with authenticity, how can we help each other share openly about our deepest struggles rather than concealing them? How can we cultivate new forms of church for people who don’t go to church?
We live in a world that is wounded and weeping. Our pace rarely gives space to grieve. But there is a wounded healer who longs to hold us in our tears. Healing takes place in communities that are accessible, safe, and real, that can allow people to process their trauma in an unfiltered way. Cultivating these healing communities, where people can discover their weakness is their superpower, can help heal the world.
I hope you will find this book [Painting with Ashes] a helpful resource toward these ends. Come join a community of people who are learning to be artists of life and hope together.
Order your copy of Michael's newest book, Painting with Ashes to learn more about his vision for culitvating communities of healing, where people can discover their superpower within their weakness.