What is Powerlessness?

I have been reminded recently that the Christian faith is as offensive and outrageous as it has always been. It is still, as the Apostle Paul put it, a kind of foolishness. That the weakness of the infant Jesus could contain the power at the heart of all of creation is sheer foolishness. That the weakness of the cross could possibly constitute the decisive victory over the forces which oppose God’s rule seems preposterous. Indeed, it is rare today to find anyone, either within the Christian community or elsewhere, who speaks in praise of weakness. Our understanding of power has become decidedly unparadoxical. We want our power untainted with anything as undesirable as weakness. We prefer peace through strength and salvation through self-reliance.

A growing critique of the recovery movement makes precisely this point. Stan Katz and Aimee Liu put it this way in their book The Codependency Conspiracy: “relationships that are based on mutual weakness cannot serve as sources of strength or enrichment”. This is a remarkable conviction – and one that is quite contrary to my personal experience. But it is a very popular conviction. Recovery through strength is much more appealing than recovery which begins with the appalling weakness of ‘admitting powerlessness’.

I don’t mean to quibble over language here. Those who critique the notion of powerlessness have a point. It is true that ‘powerlessness’ can be (and is frequently) confused with passivity and irresponsibility. It is true that some people understand powerlessness to be a life style rather than a step towards empowerment by God. But it is not true that the goal of recovery is merely to acquire the strength to be autonomous and self-reliant. The pursuit of self-reliance and autonomy can easily lead us back into isolation, denial and silence. It was Alexis de Tocqueville, the early 19th century observer of the American character, who commented that this kind of individualism can easily cause a person to become “shut up in the solitude of his own heart”.

I am convinced that God wants more for us than self-reliance. Recovery means more than achieving the hollow purity of personal autonomy. Self-reliance and autonomy are for many of us just fancy words for the survival skills we learned in dysfunctional homes. We learned to manage by ourselves. We learned not to need anyone. It is an achievement to survive, of course, and there are times when these skills can be put to good use. But recovery means moving past self-reliance and autonomy into intimacy and community. And that means facing our weakness. We cannot build intimacy out of strength. If you have no needs, intimacy will always escape you. Weakness has its terrors, of course. It will take enormous courage to sustain weakness. But, it is weakness which God insists is the occasion for his strength (2 Cor. 12:9).

May God grant you the courage today to face your weakness. May God use your weakness as an occasion for his strength. And may your roots sink deeply in the soil of God’s love.

STEPS Volume 3, Issue 1, Spring 1992.