When I was a teenager I frequently reminded my infuriated parents that ‘tidiness’ was not a fruit of the Spirit. (Yes, I did indeed grow up in the kind of household where Biblical references could be used as ammunition in any argument).
Today I re-read Galatians 5 and was struck by another character quality that is glaringly absent from said list: ‘strength’.
If you need a reminder the verse in question says: ‘The fruit of Spirit (ie the work of God within us) is: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.
We admire strength in sports people, we love to read stories about strong people who over-come tragedy or hardship, we admire strong leaders, even in our churches.
If you don’t believe me then just measure your gut reaction to words that express the opposite of ‘strength’. Here they are: ‘weak’, ‘flaky’, ‘feeble’. Feel drawn to these qualities? No, I thought as much.
Well, ‘weak, feeble and flaky’ pretty much sums up how I’ve felt for the last six weeks. In fact, you could add ‘fearful’ and ‘failing’ for good measure. I’ve been ill with some ghastly virus that struck once and took my voice for 7 days, twice and drained every ounce of energy from my limbs and then a third time flaring up my whole face and ears with sinus inflammation (and draining every ounce of energy from my limbs again for good measure).
I’ve been physically ill but no illness is without its emotional and spiritual dimension so I’ve fought and fumed over my body’s limitations and cried plenty for good measure – none of which has helped but all of which is probably inevitable.
So that’s why it struck me this morning that ‘strength’ is not a fruit of the Spirit because I have been crucially aware of its absence in my life. But clearly it is NOT a character quality that God is concerned we should have. Listen to the people Jesus wants to bless in Matthew 5: the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the humble, the hungry, the merciful….
God is not impressed by strength. In fact quite the opposite, he doesn’t look for strong people when he calls them and if they are too ‘strong’ he gives them something to remind them where the true source of strength lies (‘my power is make perfect in weakness’ was God’s answer to Paul’s plea that God remove some debilitating condition).
Why doesn’t God want us to be strong? Well, I’m guessing the reason is that it’s a quality that goes to our heads, we think we are invincible, all too quickly we believe that we are the answer to everything and that God couldn’t possibly build the Kingdom of God without us. Being laid out flat is strong antidote to this kind of thinking! Take it from me, you are not indispensable. God graciously allows you to work alongside him but he doesn’t need you.
Think about the times you come across the word strength in the Bible. They almost all point to God as being the source,
‘the joy of the Lord is your strength’ (Nehemiah 8:10)
‘The Lord is my strength and shield’ (Psalm 28:7)
‘The Lord gives strength to his people (Psalm 29:11)
God is our refuge and strength (Psalm 46:1)
‘In your hands are strength and power’ (1 Chronicles 29:12) – The New Living Translation of this is even more explicit: ‘at your discretion people are made great and given strength’.
‘what joy for those whose strength comes from the Lord’ (Psalm 85:4)
‘In quietness and trust is your strength’ (Isaiah 30:15)
‘Not my might, nor by power (strength) but by my Spirit says the Lord’ (Zechariah 4:6)
‘I can do all things through him who gives me strength’ (Philippians 4:6)
‘I thank Christ Jesus our Lord, who has given me strength to do his work’ (1 Tim 1:12)
Oops – got a bit carried away with my concordance there for a moment. But there you have it, from the obscure references to the well known texts, the consistent message of the Bible is that strength is a ‘God quality’, a potentially dangerous human quality if we forget its source and consequently only loaned to us sparingly.
I hope that helps the next time you are you feel flaky (you’re welcome to join me, I’m the one flat out on the sofa).