Weakness is confusing. It comes in different forms and those forms differ in significance. Some weakness enables God’s grace to shine: God’s power, Paul says, “is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9). Which means that he declares, “if I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness” (2 Corinthians 11:30). This weakness, and its admission, seems to be a good thing.
But that isn’t the only weakness the Bible describes. In the Garden of Gethsemane, when Jesus finds his disciples sleeping instead of praying, he appeals to them, saying: “Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak” (Matthew 26:41). This weakness is clearly more of a threat. It prevents them from doing what is right and good. Their desire to pray isn’t matched by their ability.
This kind of failing – the failing that arises out of weakness – forms part of a famous Anglican confession. In it the penitent acknowledge to God that we ‘have sinned against you and against our fellow men, in thought and word and deed, through negligence, through weakness, through our own deliberate fault’.
Here is sin that arises not from forgetfulness, nor from wilfulness, but from some kind of incapacity. That presents us with a rather different way of thinking about sin. Not our usual: ‘God expected one thing, I chose to do another and in this I committed sin’. But a much more nuanced failing that is more inability than iniquity. What might this look like? Let me suggest some examples.
Often, I think, this kind of sin concerns omission rather than commission. That is, they are the good things a person failed to do, rather than the bad things they did do. We might think, for example, about kindnesses a person could have shown had shyness not got in the way. For some people, walking across the room to speak to someone they don’t know to offer words of comfort can just seem beyond them. They feel too self-conscious, too fearful, too timid and can’t overcome their shyness enough to launch into conversation with someone they don’t know. And so a good they could have done, a kindness they could have shown and, perhaps to push it harder, a deed God would have wanted as a demonstration of love of neighbour, never happened. It was less than God wanted.
Or think of a person wrestling with anorexia nervosa – with very low body weight, little energy and all the physiological manifestations of living in a starvation state. Their mind and body are dominated by the need for food and the determination to resist that need. There is barely any space or time for anything or anyone else. Many with anorexia feel this failing very acutely. They lament their own failings and despise themselves for showing what they describe as ‘selfish preoccupation’. Yet in their starving state they are weak. Stuck in a cycle that, regardless of how it all began, now has a life of its own with powerful physiological drivers. And the self-preoccupation they exhibit has significant differences to that shown by the pompous, self-important religious leaders Jesus condemned in the gospels.
Or think of a disabled person with challenging behaviour who assaults their carers and inflicts significant physical harm. Is what they have done wrong? Does it fall under the category of sin? Our experience with our own disabled daughter suggests to me that it does – not least because of the evident remorse she displays (expressed not with words, because she has none, but with the Makaton sign for ‘sorry’). The physical violence she exhibits, however, does seem different because of her profound learning disability. A sin that is better described in terms of ‘weakness’ than ‘her own deliberate fault’.
A good confessional prayer knows this. It provides a comprehensive survey of sin. It invites us to admit the way in which we have ‘left undone those things which we ought to have done; And we have done those things which we ought not to have done’. Accenting negligence and weakness alongside deliberate fault helps us to feel the breadth of our failings. We are not essentially excellent people who just occasionally slip up. We are fallen creatures living in a fallen world and part of our failing is incapacity.
How does this shape our discipleship and our ministry? It makes more room for compassion because it allows for, and sympathizes with, the category of weakness. It encourages us to sympathize with others, just as Christ sympathizes with us. Hebrews tells us that “we do not have a high priest who is unable to feel sympathy for our weakness, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are – yet he did not sin” (Hebrews 4:15). Jesus knows what it is to be afflicted with weakness – for he was tired and he was hungry – but in his weakness, he never stumbled into sin.
When we engage with the experience of weakness we should do so full of sympathy and compassion, but never overlooking the many ways that weakness can lead a person into sin.