Weakness, strength and the “end of self”

December 14, 2010 | 30 comments

Have you read the comments to my post about finding strength in weakness? If not, you must. They’re so good.

How good? Thanks to reading all the responses to that post, I think I might actually be groping my way towards understanding how you can be strong in Christ, even when you’re physically weak.

One of the things that came into sharp relief for me last week was just how much I associate strength with action. Even when it comes to letting God work through us, I assumed that that pretty much always meant doing something: speaking just the right words, physically assisting someone in need, etc. So when I tried to imagine God working through me in my weakness, I assumed that it would involve supernatural strength to do stuff: through God’s power, I’d suddenly jump off the couch and go help my neighbor move a refrigerator; or my nausea and fatigue would miraculously disappear and I’d be filled with the energy to make an impassioned and eloquent Youtube video that would convert 10 atheists to Christ. Or something like that.

And so when nothing like that was happening, I was left frustrated and confused. I felt like I just wasn’t able to tap into God’s strength, whatever that meant.

One of the many comments that made a lightbulb go off for me was from Melanie Bettinelli. In her response, she offered a quote from this must-read post at Evlogia:

It seems to me that being a mother is like any form of asceticism in the Church. The struggle isn’t aimed at causing us pain for the sake of punishment, but for the purpose of bringing us to the end of ourselves.

Bringing us to the end of ourselves. When I read those words, something clicked. To build on the example I used in my post last week, let’s imagine that I’m at the grocery store and the cashier starts chatting with me about Christmas. Let’s say, hypothetically, that she is a nonbeliever who’s been longing for something more in her life, and that this is the moment that God has chosen to open her eyes to his existence. Let’s look at two possible ways it could play out:

I feel great and energetic. In my enthusiastic state, I feel moved to mention how special Christmas is to me since I converted to Christianity as an adult. She asks me what I converted from, I say I was an atheist. She asks how I made that leap, and God inspires me to give an eloquent two-minute testimony in which I elucidate the reasonable basis for belief in God and the compelling case for Christianity, topped off with a brief but moving story of some amazing thing God has done in my life.

Two months later I see this same checker again, and she tells me that she is in RCIA at her local parish and will receive her first Communion in the spring — and adds that our little chat was part of what inspired her to make that decision. I smile inwardly and give all the credit to God. Although. You know. It was a good testimony. And I did use my free will there to choose just the right words.

On some level I would understand that my conversion, indeed my whole life, are gifts from God, and in that sense of course every single good thing comes from him. But I am dense and prideful, so while I gave lip service to simply being an instrument of the Lord, in the back of my mind my fallen nature would be smirking and noting that, hey, I was a pretty dang good instrument, if I do say so myself.

Now let’s look at another way it could play out:

I’m about to throw up. I’m so exhausted that it feels like hard work to lift the green beans onto the conveyor belt. In response to the cashier’s talk about Christmas, I say, “Unnnngh.” However, that morning I’d randomly felt inspired to slip on a watch that I hardly ever wear. The cashier sees this watch, and it is the exact one owned by her aunt, whom she’d just spoken to that morning. Her aunt had recently become a devout Christian, and Miss Cashier had been noticing how much more joyful and peaceful she’d been ever since her conversion. She keeps pondering this for the rest of the day.

Two months later I see this same checker again, and she tells me that she is in RCIA at her local parish and will receive her first Communion in the spring — and adds that seeing me at the grocery store that day was the spark that ignited her newfound faith.

Simply, fundamentally, at the very core of my being, I would know: THAT’S GOD. I was just going through a routine task of my vocation — going to the grocery store — and was used as an instrument in my utter weakness. I did nothing but put on a watch and say, “Unnnngh.” Once again I would smile inwardly and give all the credit to God — only this time it would be with trembling, staggering sincerity.

The end of self. In both situations, God got the job done. But only in Situation 2 did I really understand my role in it all. Only Situation 2, in my weakness, were the cashier and I both brought closer to God.

I’ve been taking halting steps toward just doing the simple things I can do it my weakened state, and keeping my eyes out for God’s movement all around me. And I’ve started to see it. Though nothing quite as obvious as the hypothetical situation above, I’ve witnessed all sorts of small examples of God working things out and making pieces come together, in my life and the lives of those around me, with little to no action on my part.

This period of weakness is shattering my usual way of looking at things. I’m coming to see that doing God’s work can sometimes mean not doing much at all. As ridiculous as it sounds, I think that I’m only now beginning to understand on a visceral level that, though God may sometimes use my big efforts and actions and ideas, he does not need them to enact his will. It is, as Katherine said so well in her post, bringing me to the end of my own self-importance. And in those moments, when I see God’s hand orchestrating the world around me while I sit still in silence, I begin to understand the true power of being weak.


  1. Linda Wightman

    This reminds me of one of my favorite George MacDonald quotes

    He that believeth shall not make haste. There is plenty of time. You must not imagine that the result depends on you, or that a single human soul can be lost because you may fail. The question, as far as you are concerned, is whether you are to be honored in having a hand in the work that God is doing, and will do, whether you help him or not. Some will be honored: shall it be me? And this honor gained excludes no one: there is work, as there is bread in his house, enough and to spare. It shows no faith in God to make frantic efforts or frantic lamentations.

  2. Julia at LotsaLaundry

    The one thing I’d add is that when you keep your eyes out for God’s movement all around, it’s okay to assume that He’s doing stuff that you won’t ever know about or see this side of heaven.

    If you think back on those ‘notice the watch that my aunt wore’ moments in your own life, chances are that out of every hundred of those you might have ONE which you ever mentioned to the watch-wearer (if you even knew the watch-wearer).

    The points of light that make up our individual constellations of grace bestowed are often invisible to others. It’s something for which I’m thankful, since if I knew about how my words or actions turned someone toward God I’m sure I’d attribute it to me, not Him.

  3. Lara Olsson

    Beautiful post! I enjoy your blog immensely. I truly feel blessed when God allows us to see the whole picture. Pure grace pours out on us and ties our little sufferings to His. I draw strength from those moments when new difficult times arise. God is so good!

  4. Judy @ Learning To Let Go

    My mistake again. All this comment angst is causing me to lose my mind–and my control. The fault’s all mine. I hope you can laugh at me and my silliness. The Bad–I have embarrassed myself in front of all who follow your blog. The Good–at least I kept at it and learned to comment correctly. Sorry again!

  5. Ashley

    Jen, this is such a great post! I didn’t have time to read the responses to your call for help, so I was glad to read your thoughts here. When I finished reading it I thought… humility! That’s humility! “…though God may sometimes use my big efforts and actions and ideas, he does not need them to enact his will”–had me saying yes, yes!

  6. Dana

    Thank you so much for writing this entry. It speaks volumes to me. I’m sitting here with tears in my eyes as I contemplate the TRUTH in what you wrote. Two years ago, I went through breast cancer treatment and soon after, began to pursue a new career at age 51. Never in a million years did I imagine that I would be teaching in a high school classroom, but here I am! And all along the way, I’ve scratched my head and wondered how I got here and why. It was as if an unseen force pushed me here (hmmm . . . who could that be?). I feel as if I’m groping in the dark, stumbling along the path that God has laid out for me. I have no idea why and how. Many times as I get ready to enter the classroom, I am filled with self-doubt and dread. Yet, each time, I pray and God equips me. No encounter is too small or insignificant to be used by God. Thank you for that reminder.

  7. Gina

    I love that!

  8. Sarah

    What an incredible post! Your thoughts resonate with a lot of what God’s been teaching me lately.

    Jen, I would like to add that in part due to this blog and to the simple, devoted beauty I see in your life, I am now in RCIA at my local parish and will receive my first Communion in the spring. Thanks be to God!

    (And gig ’em, Aggies! c/o 2011)

    • Jennifer Fulwiler

      Wow, Sarah, that is so cool! I’m so honored. Thank you for sharing!

  9. Becca

    I really, really needed to hear this today. I’ve spent the past few months in futile struggle with my frustration at a situation in our parish. Just had a talk on Sunday with a priest friend who just moved away from this parish, about some of my concerns, and was reminded that it’s not my job to try to fix things in the parish. But that old pride had a hard time letting go – “If I don’t do it, nobody will!” – and I’ve been worrying and praying and trying to figure out if I can cheerfully and obediently participate while I disagree with the decisions being made.

    Now, however, I see! God’s not calling me to “fix” anything, he’s calling me to chip in with humility where I can and let Him do the rest. It’s not cowardice or laziness to back away and let God have the room to convert hearts – He alone knows how much my own has needed converting! – it’s just plain human weakness.

    The awesome part about this new understanding is that it opens the door to seeing others as fallible, lovable, convertible human beings and not Forces To Be Fought Against.

  10. ~Ana Paula~A Católica

    Hi Jennifer!!
    A Big HELLO from BRASIL!!

    Like I said in my Comment to your Post “about finding strength in weakness”, with Saint Paul we all can learn to let God lead us through our weakness towards His strength.

    We are all so in the willing of act (and receive rewards for that, I must say that) that we forget to use these moments of weakness to do something so simple and so strong at the same time, like PRAY. JUST PRAY.

    Stay in the Peace of God!!
    You, Your Family and All Your Readers!!


  11. Eden Casteel

    This topic reminds me of when I attended the funeral of a well-liked local dentist, who had suffered a severe stroke 17 years before his death. For those last 17 years, his life was very different and he had to be wheeled to church, etc. But his friends still visited him regularly and he led a happy life with his family and they cared for him.
    My parish priest said, this man’s life must have looked awful or meaningless to outside observers, because of what he could no longer do, because of physical weakness. Father reminded us, “We are born human BEINGS, not human DOINGS.” This man was loved by his family, just for being there. That phrase can apply to so much of what we DO in life . . . so many times God is calling us simply to BE, and He will take care of the do-ing. ;D

    • Eve Mes

      @ Eden Casteel:

      What the Father said during the funeral was absolutely beautiful. It reminded me of the meaning and purpose of our lives that I sometimes forget we have. God Bless.

  12. Susan

    Hi Jen,
    Here’s another scenario:

    Jen is at the store feeling ill, unable to engage in any conversation with the cashier, but she offers up her sufferings to God on behalf of the cashier, thereby turning her suffering into a powerful prayer and uniting herself to Christ. Such a powerful prayer is sure to bring some grace of some sort into the cashier’s life, although it is possible that neither Jen nor the cashier understand what it is until they reach Heaven.

  13. Erica

    Thank you

  14. jp

    Wow. Brilliant. Thank you.

  15. Kimberly

    I guess that’s one of those time and seasons things as well. At this time in your life it’s the season of pregnancies and small children. You are doing God’s work each time you bring a child into the world, and He is fully aware of the sacrifice that requires and will bless and honor you for it. Later when your kids are grown will be the time for more concerted efforts in service.

  16. John Dey

    It reminds me of a time I walked with my 3-year old boy to a store, purchased a dollar-rubber ball he was ecstatic about, then we noticed halfway back that he had lost it. We retraced our steps, and I taught him to pray for it, which he did, closing his eyes. We went back to the store, and I told him I would buy him another one, but that even though we didn’t get the ball back, we should still thank God for hearing our prayers. In the checkout line in front of us were two women, who had passed us before, and whom we had waved at. They heard us discussing the ball, and one of them turned around and said “Is this it?” My son got his ball back, and these women did not have any idea they were used in underlining the power and necessity of prayer to a 3-year old. I have no idea if they even believe.

  17. Amanda

    As always, love it.

    Also, I wanted to tell you CONGRATS on your most recent pregnancy. Perhaps you are 100% pumped for your next bundle of joy, or maybe there’s a little fear & doubt mixed in…but…God will reward you GREATLY for putting your faith and trust in Him.

    This is an area I struggle with…maybe more so than my husband who talks about children like he wants a whole soccer team and then some. But trusting that God will provide as we begin our NFP journey (I just ordered The Art of NFP) is a little scary. Seeing you do it (even just reading about it) gives me encouragement and strength.

  18. Holly

    So, so, so true. I have also found that in my weakest states, I have more time for spiritual “action.” I have more time to pray, reflect and even write. I also have time to ponder the weakness and suffering of Christ and of all those I don’t see who are also suffering and weak. So, in my weakness I am strong, spiritually. It’s my time to renew and refresh my inner life. These times are really gifts to me from God.

    Thank you, Jennifer, for sharing your insights. Good luck with that first trimester…ugh. Remember, Mary was helping her cousin Elizabeth at this time in her pregnancy. Now that’s strength! I bet she allowed herself to rest and she wasn’t chasing four other children around!


  19. Nancy

    I think of my Grandma, who was ill and mostly incapacitated for the last 18 months of her 84 years. During that time, she told me that she didn’t know why God allowed her to go on living, but that she used the time to pray for every single one of her grandchildren, every day.

    And that’s saying something — she was a stay-at-home farmer’s wife, mother to 11, and had over 40 grandchildren, plus more than a dozen great-grands.

    I often wonder what her prayers did in all of our lives, and pray that I will get to find out someday . . . To an outsider, her life probably looked pretty useless for the last several years, but in God’s economy she was priceless.

  20. priest's wife

    How lovely- and this reminds me to try and be charitable…I never know where my actions lead

  21. Joe Wetterling

    “The struggle isn’t aimed at causing us pain for the sake of punishment, but for the purpose of bringing us to the end of ourselves.”

    That’s a wonderful sound-byte-sized piece to share, thank you. It occurs to me that you can read those last words in one of two ways, and I think its telling of your worldview. Is that the “end” as opposed to the beginning? Or the “end” as opposed to the means?

    A lot of my work is still the means to the end of myself, rather than the means to end my self. Thank God I have a child to save me from myself.

    Parenthood is a wound that bleeds out the self.

  22. Brenda

    This is fantastic. Your blog is a real encouragement and inspiration to me. Thank you!

  23. Kathryn Judson

    My late husband had severe hunchback. The last 15 years of his life, he also had unspeakable face pain. The last five years, he was on oxygen. Sometimes he could barely walk. Sometimes he could not talk. Often he couldn’t eat solid food. He was going deaf. He had limited use of his hands. But: he had a generous and calm spirit and a love of others, including strangers. That he could be peaceful and considerate in such a state made people sit up and take notice, and wonder what he had that they didn’t. Which was Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.

    It’s all too easy to write off happiness, joy, peace, to worldly things and good health. But when a person is poor and broken, but still experiences joy and peace (even just now and then), obviously something else is at work, something the world might be trying to ignore. I don’t think that’s the whole answer, but I think it’s often part of the picture.

    If you haven’t got a copy of Streams in the Desert, by Mrs. Chas. Cowman, it’s a devotional focused on God’s grace in tough times. Get the original version, if you can. (The ‘updated’ version is unleashing quotes on the world that don’t belong to the listed authors.)

  24. Katie

    I really admire how yo have demonstrated your point. I also believe that God has used you as an instrument in this post to show people, like you said, that they do not have to be physically strong to be a GREAT instrument of the almighty God.

    Thanks you for posting this! It is wonderful to read things as inspiring as this!

  25. Harmony

    Thank you so much for this post! I just ran across your blog and obviously there was a heavenly reason for it. I definitely have had an ongoing struggle with pride throughout my life and a lot of it has gone unnoticed (on my part) until this past year. It disgusts me now when I hear my inner voice commending myself on doing something good for someone. I’m still learning but I’m so glad to know that God loves me enough to use me despite my self. Thank you again for your transparency. 🙂

  26. Rebecca

    I’ve been following your blot for about a year and a half now, but I rarely comment. I’m in a situation now that made me think of your situation 1. I have a friend who is very different from me (and Catholicism) in terms of morality viewpoints. She is atheist/agnostic, very pro-gay marriage, very pro-choice etc. She initiated an email conversation with me that started with gay marriage and has gotten into abortion as well. After a few months of going back-and-forth (often with significant lapses in time between responses), I had a moment where I felt that she is so ingrained in her worldview that it’s almost like discussing with a brick wall. (This isn’t completely fair as she probably feels the same about me and the discussion has been overall good with some thought-provoking points–but we’re both very entrenched in our own worldviews.) And then it hit me: *I* can’t convert her. I know this and I knew it before…..but there’s this pride in me that wants to think that I can brink her to Christianity, or at least a step closer. But, maybe God is using this to illustrate to me that it’s not about me and that *I* can’t do anything. I’ve said these exact statements before, but it really hit home tonight. And so I’ll continue the conversation……and continue praying for humility to allow Him to work through me and in spite of me…and for me to keep it all in perspective.

    • Rebecca

      “I’ve been following your bloG…” is what I meant to say!

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