by Matthew W. Bassford
This article originally appeared in Pressing On.
In Judges 8:12, during the aftermath of his crushing victory over the Midianites, the Israelite leader Gideon captures two Midianite kings, Zebah and Zalmunna. Because they played hardball in those days, in Judges 8:20, Gideon commands his son, Jether, to execute the captives. Jether, who is still young, shrinks back from the unpleasant task.
In response, the kings taunt Gideon. According to Judges 8:21, they tell him, “Strike us down yourself, for a man is judged by his strength.” Gideon promptly complies, which seems like a counterproductive outcome for Zebah and Zalmunna.
Nonetheless, strength has been an essential attribute of masculinity ever since God created them male and female. Though there are exceptions, men generally are the ones with the big muscles. It changes the way we think and the way we think of ourselves.
Though nobody ever would have confused me with Charles Atlas, I’ve spent most of my adult life trying to keep in shape. I’ve worked out regularly for years, even taking my exercise regimen on the road when I travel. It allowed me to do things that I valued: lifting heavy things for my wife, helping brethren move, and being able to throw my body into any task without fear of failing or getting hurt. Being strong and capable made me feel good.
Those days end for every man. For me, they ended early. I found myself unable to gain strength and muscle without halfway killing myself to get there. On the other hand, losing strength became very easy. Spend a week sitting on the couch, and boom! 98-pound weakling.
I figured it was middle age. It wasn’t. It was ALS.
Since my diagnosis, my decline has continued. I can stroll, but I can no longer walk briskly, much less jog or run. I’ve lost most of my pinch strength in both hands. I used to open stuck jars for Lauren; now she must open food wrappers for me. All the body-weight exercises I used to perform regularly are out of reach. Barring a miracle, whether medical or otherwise, my condition will worsen until I become a quadriplegic and eventually die.
There have been many lessons in this. First, it showed me how strength has shaped my worldview, even in matters not involving physical strength. If you are strong enough to rely on direct action and bulling your way through, that will affect the way you solve every problem. I spent 40 years of my life doing that without realizing why.
Conversely, my recent experiences have taught me greater sympathy for women. I simply didn’t understand what it was like to belong to “the weaker sex”. If you can’t rely on your own strength, if you are surrounded by people who are stronger than you are, and if you often have to ask for help, all that will shape the way you behave too. It will make you less direct, more cautious, and more concerned with maintaining relationships.
Being forced into a position of weakness is hard, especially if you are used to a position of strength. I hate, hate, hate having to ask Lauren for help when I’m getting dressed Sunday mornings. Buttoning a shirt used to be a trivial matter; now it is an exercise in hand-cramping agony. Any rational person would get somebody whose fingers still work right to do it, but if I have time, I will fight with those buttons for 20 minutes or more. My pinch strength has left me, but I apparently am determined to cling to my self-reliance.
Finally, of course, this experience has transformed the way I see my relationship with God. It is evident to me now that I’ve spent my preaching career not understanding II Corinthians 12:1-10. I knew what all the words meant and thought I understood it, but I didn’t get it. Yeah, yeah, a thorn in the flesh. That’s like when your knee hurts, right?
Not exactly. It was a messenger of Satan. It tormented Paul. I believe that when Paul says he pleaded with the Lord three times to remove it, that doesn’t mean one-two-three prayers. It means praying about a subject so comprehensively that your prayer is complete in the same way that the triune God is complete. Paul prayed thus; Jesus said no.
Therefore, when Paul says in II Corinthians 12:9 that he intends to boast in his weaknesses, that’s not a well-OK-then-moving-on. It represents the wrenching acknowledgment that strength that mattered desperately to him is never going to be restored to him, and he is going to have to spend the rest of his life without it. Indeed, more subtly, the weakness that is the subject of Paul’s boasting is not only the thorn in the flesh. It is the pride that only could be defeated by the application of the thorn.
I’ve spent a lot of time wondering why God allowed me to have ALS. I know there’s a reason. Christ doesn’t keep us from suffering, but He does make our suffering meaningful if we seek Him through it. Is it because my ALS is supposed to teach me to be kinder and more compassionate to others? Is it because I’m supposed to use my writing about it to enlighten and inspire?
Those things may be true, but I must at least entertain the possibility that I needed to develop ALS for my own sake. When I was strong, it was awfully easy to trust in my own strength, not merely for the lifting of heavy objects but for making my way through life. ALS has rubbed my nose in the foolishness of such a delusion. It’s hard to be self-reliant when you can’t button your own shirt.
I must learn to boast in my own weaknesses too. I must learn to embrace them and the emptiness they leave in my life. As with Paul, only then can my weakness be filled with the strength of God.