“Moderate strength is shown in violence, supreme strength is shown in levity.” Chesterton masters paradox once again in his book ‘The Man Who was Thursday’. I want to submit that people define this word ‘strength’ by their strengths. For example, while I agree wholeheartedly that supreme strength is shown in levity, we all have to admit that Chesterton was a master of levity. Most importantly, I want to submit that strength is defined by Scripture.
This is why a definition of strength is hard to find. Merriam Webster defines it very generally as “the quality or state of being strong: capacity for exertion or endurance.” Other descriptive words include: force, firmness, solidity, toughness. In our world, strength could be intellectual abilities, physical muscles, mental toughness… But what are these “strengths” grounded in? Is that intellectual ability or mental toughness focused on pushing away what is true, good, and beautiful, or defending it? It takes much more strength to defend what is true, good, and beautiful than what it takes to mock it.
Strength in North American society can be hard to locate. Is it political power? Money? Intellectual power? I would like to say that it is all of these. One of the undercurrents for strength in our society is a tough-mindedness towards sin, that is, an open embrace of sin. A “strong man” in our society is a bulldozer. He runs over everything that gets in his way: employees, employers, girls, alcohol. Welcome to Trump’s America. A place of “strength.” And somehow America is gonna become great again?
What Chesterton points out is that strength is paradoxical. Chesterton was often found laughing at himself. You are strong when you are the brunt of the joke. It is a lesser strength that expresses itself in violence. In fact, it is weakness because it expresses a lack of self-control. That doesn’t mean it can’t be turned into strength. But often strength represents itself in the apologies, in the ability to make peace, in the ability to take a hit.
The Apostle Paul was found preaching to the world while he was in chains. King David overthrew his enemies when he humbled himself before the Lord. King David took down the biggest giant when he went out without armour. Jesus defeated death itself on a cross when He was beaten, scourged, and stretched in agony for the world to see what seemed to be His defeat. That’s why Paul tells the Church in Corinth: “For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God.” (I Cor. 1: 26-29) He says this as a logical result of the first premise of his argument in vs. 18: “For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” God chooses to defeat the “strength” of this world expressed in sinful pleasures and folly, through those who are in the place of weakness, found at the cross.
But what does that look like? It looks like the cross. Christian strength isn’t working harder to salvage a sinful action which took a wrong turn. It is repenting, and giving over power to God. It doesn’t mean being thick-skinned when someone calls you out on a sin. It means being both thick-skinned toward sin and thin-skinned to righteousness. It is anchored to Christ and the foundation of His Word. It is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, and self-control. Strength is worked in us by the Spirit, that is why we are promised in Acts 1 that we will be clothed with power from on high. That way the surpassing power belongs to God.
This prayer from Thomas Chalmers represents something of that Christian strength: “In this New Year, O God, make me to live to Thy glory. May I be clothed with the armor of faith; may I grow more and more in the grace of Thy Son’s Gospel; and may a manly and vigorous orthodoxy fill me with the courage to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with Thee.” We admit our weakness and the need for Christ. By His strength we are able to never give up when evil bombards us with all its creepy darkness.