The French Old Testament scholar Edmond Jacob contends that the basic biblical affirmation about man concerns his inherent feebleness as a creature. James Edmeston the hymnwriter makes the same admission, "All our weakness thou dost know". The Scriptures lament that we are but mere "flesh" in contrast to the powerful and enduring "spirit" nature of the Lord. Frailty is written into our constitution. We are notoriously vulnerable in so many ways. Our limitations are soon discovered. Our capacities, mental and physical, are quickly exhausted, and our energies rapidly depleted.
The Book of Job arrives at this verdict, "Man who is born of woman is of few days and full of trouble. He comes forth like a flower and fades away; he flees like a shadow and does not continue" (14:1-2). It is no wonder that the contemporary version of the collect pleads with the God upon whom we rely, "Mercifully look upon our weaknesses". Elsewhere the Prayer Book supplements this request with similar recognition of our dependence, "Lord God, the strength of all who put their trust in you, mercifully accept our prayers; and, because through the weakness of our human nature we cannot do anything good without you, grant us the help of your grace . . ." (Trinity 1). "Keep us, we pray, under the protection of your good providence . . ." (Trinity 2). "Lord God, the protector of all who trust in you, and without whom nothing is strong or holy . . . "(Trinity 4), and so on. Throughout the classic Cranmerian manual of Augustinian doctrine and devotion (BCP 1662) the helplessness of man without divine aid, physically, mentally, and spiritually, is stated repeatedly. Our very evident puniness is the obvious incentive for calling upon the divine power continually. We were made to be upheld and sustained by God in everything. "Listen to me . . . you whom I have upheld since you were conceived, and have carried since your birth. Even to your old age and grey hairs I am he, I am he who will sustain you. I have made you and will carry you: I will sustain you and I will rescue you" (Isaiah 46:3-4).
Often our innate weakness is denied or hidden. We endeavour to counter it with feats of strength or accomplishment to repudiate the fact. We blush at our inabilities and conceal our inadequacies. Nothing is more frustrating or humiliating than to find that we are hindered or rendered impotent by so many restrictions of mind and body – the problem that confounds, and the performance that proves impossible. Many skills and superior strength are not at our command. Our faculties weary under intense exertion or stress, and our physical frame collapses under the strain of extreme exercise. However we may compare ourselves with others of our kind our feebleness as a species is apparent. No doubt the largest lies that we succumb to are the myths of our self-sufficiency and feeling of indestructibility. We are shocked when our heroes fail or suddenly fade away. But life is transient and even those with the strongest constitution tend to wilt under trial. "Even youths grow tired and weary, and young men stumble and fall" (Isaiah 39:30). The honesty of the Bible is amazing and appealing. Its candour and impartiality is a mark of its divinity. The Lord's servants are never idealized. God’s mightiest men and most noble representatives had their glaring weaknesses and proved to be of mere flesh and blood like ourselves. Their strength lay in the call of God, total reliance, and close obedience.
Samson's physical power and prowess were only equivalent to those of ordinary men when he foolishly permitted his hair to be clipped in contravention of the condition governing his exceptional strength (Judges 16:17). Moses wavered in firmness when supporting Israel in battle with the staff of victory (Exodus 17:8-16) and sinned under provocation when the people murmured (Numbers 20). David sinned grievously when lured by temptation and committed murder and adultery (2 Samuel 11 &12). Noah lapsed into drunkenness (Genesis 9: 20-21). Hezekiah fell prey to pride (2 Chronicles 32:24-26). The same king needed a sign to support waning faith (2 Kings 20: 8-11), as did Gideon (Judges 6: 36-40. Elijah caved into despair and resentment (1 Kings 19: 3-50). Abraham's distinctive exercise of faith was seriously interrupted in the face of certain crises that threatened his safety (Genesis 12: 10-13& ch 20). Great biblical figures evidenced great fallibility at crucial points in their lives when virtue or constancy were necessary but their deviance was designed to disclose the foibles and fickleness of human nature and the need for divine intervention to put and keep things right.
The lesson of the Bible, summed up in the attitude of Jesus, is that man is not to be trusted and will only disappoint, and that only God is absolutely reliable. "But Jesus would not entrust himself to them, for he knew all men. He did not need man's testimony about man, for he knew what was in man." The fact and felt presence of our weakness ought to have several effects within us and in the way we deport ourselves in daily life. It ought to establish a humble demeanour before God and man. God knows our feebleness exhaustively, and it doesn't take long for folk to discover our feet of clay, feet that soon protrude from beneath any cloak of pretence or protectiveness. We all display a different persona in our unguarded private life. Our weakness ought to keep us constantly reliant upon God. Confidence and competence fluctuate and may completely dissolve under certain conditions. The mind is extremely delicate and passes through its various seasons. It can be easily troubled or tilted off balance. Exceptionally gifted persons have been rendered ineffective and unproductive by negative suggestions or incidents. We function, even at the most basic levels, only through the favour of God upon us and his breath and energy within us. Our weakness ought to keep us sensitive and compassionate toward others.
Sin is never to be condoned, and we are never exempted from the condemnation we ourselves level against it – a tendency we have when we observe it in others. But human infirmities ought to attract our sympathy and supportive endeavour. Our afflictions and addictions, our confusion and delusions, our fears and anxieties, our quirks and constrictions, our awkwardnesses, handicaps, and annoying traits are symptomatic of a fundamental disease that infects every human heart and haunts every mind. We lost our soul-health when we abandoned God and all of us have our ills as a consequence. We are culpable as rebels, and invalids as a result of self-imposed injury. Pity ought to be mutual and generous among us. The grace of God is utterly sovereign, undeserved, and uncaused outside of the divine determinations, and yet we see a bias in the Lord towards the helpless and the afflicted because of the leaning of his nature towards kindness. It is the way he chooses to be. We see how he kindles this kindness in human hearts even when judgment is deserved and suffering ensues. Our weakness, Edmond Jacob opines, is surely what moves God to pity, and surely Jacob's sentiment is sound.
We are errant but his care is not erased in spite of our disobedience and recalcitrance. Our badness does not, and cannot, defeat his goodness. God is compassionate; "He forgave their iniquities and did not destroy them. Time after time he restrained his anger and did not stir up his full wrath. He remembered that they were but flesh, a passing breeze that does not return" (Psalm 78:38-39). Even when we are aroused by righteous anger (do we check that it is?) we must remember that, " 'It is mine to avenge; I will repay', says the Lord" (Romans 12:19). Only his vengeance is fair and proportionate. When we are oppressed with the strongest sense of our weakness we may take courage in the truth that the Lord's compassion is abundant. "Mercy triumphs over judgment!"