God knows our weaknesses.
More than that, he knows which ones are unique to each of us. For example, I have chosen to fast from alcohol for Lent this year. I miss it, but it's not nearly as hard for me to abstain from wine and cocktails as it would be to give up coffee, which I have done in years past. Caffeine is the thing I find difficult not to abuse.
For one person, a weakness might be the urge to cut someone else down to size. It might be the easy path of cheating--on your work, your art, your taxes, or your spouse. It might be caving to pressure from friends to skip prayer to go party... or, for that matter, to skip a communal celebration and isolate yourself in the name of spirituality. It might be proud unwillingness to listen to others, or cowed fear of speaking up when you need to.
God knows your weaknesses. Most of the time, so do you.
You know the things you want in ways that make you vulnerable to doing anything, right or wrong, to get them. God can give you grace in those weaknesses. He can save you, defend you, heal you and others if you allow him to.
The logical extension of this is that because we each have our own weaknesses, we don't need to let the weaknesses of others lead us into fear.
It's easy, as a new believer or as someone raised in the church, to give a lot of weight to the teachings of those who have been in the faith longer. Like a child learning from its parents, we listen, and skip having to learn some lessons the hard way.
New believers are often taught a sort of list of things they're supposed to stay away from so they won't sin. They're taught to “flee temptation,” to exercise discretion rather than thoughtless valor. That's wise. A maturing person needs guidance to start discerning God's voice for themselves.
Older believers can tell you their stories, and what tempted them. If they know you well, their advice may be exactly what you need to hear. But just because something tapped their personal weakness doesn't mean you are vulnerable there. Your weaknesses are uniquely yours.
I grew up in a household without alcohol. My parents were not aggressively teetotal, but they had both been raised in Baptist homes, so drinking simply wasn't part of our lives. I didn't start drinking socially until I moved to Los Angeles.
Even though my parents had not told me it was wrong, and I quite liked the taste, I was afraid to have more than one drink. In vino veritas, said the Romans: “in wine is truth,” and I feared that alcohol might loosen my carefully learned self-control, or uncover horrible, unknown desires in myself.
I distinctly remember the first time I got tipsy, because the effect surprised me. I found myself laughing more than I ever did, talking without second-guessing every word, and enormously pleased to be in this room with my friends, playing games and talking. It didn't reveal anything I didn't already know, except that I didn't often allow myself to really be myself.
Some people should never drink alcohol. It would undo the hard work they've done to learn good new behaviors, or would itself be their worst temptation. But I found that this isn't true for me.
Some people shouldn't be alone with a person to whom they are sexually attracted. I once had a crush on a married man. But even when that was a temptation, it wasn't a strong one. God showed himself mighty to save, if you will.
Some people should not work in Hollywood; the lure of celebrity and the drive to succeed at all costs can overwhelm the best intentions. But that isn't mine, either. If anything, mine is the opposite: I too often don't put myself where I need to be, because I lack enough of that drive.
This truth casts an entirely new light on two concepts that I picked up fairly young: first, that we must be very cautious around sin, and second, that we ought to avoid even the appearance of evil.
The first comes from Paul's letter to the Galatians, which he wrote to demolish the teaching that salvation could come through observing the Jewish law, and to explain instead the Christian freedom to love. After finishing his argument, he cautions his audience not to use their freedom selfishly, which leads into this passage: “Brethren, even if anyone is caught in any trespass, you who are spiritual, restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness; each one looking to yourself, so that you too will not be tempted.”
But Paul isn't saying that we should regard ourselves as terminally weak, or that sin is a taint that spreads from person to person like plague. He's just spent an entire letter telling us that in Christ it no longer works like that. It's simply a reminder that we all have our weaknesses, and that pride is the quickest way to give them power over us.
He is saying, “Stand firm in your freedom, and don't condemn others when they are weak—instead, restore them gently, knowing that you can also be weak.”
The second stems in part from our desire to be holy, and in part from a mistranslation in the King James version of the Bible. 1 Thessalonians 5:22--“Abstain from all appearance of evil”--is part of a series of instructions and encouragements. The Greek word translated “appearance” (as in, what something looks like to the eye), is better translated “form” or “type,” and other English translations have “avoid every form of evil.”
It's very easy to make this mistake. Anyone who wants to be good has the option of at least trying to look good--to avoid appearing to sin. It's also not hard to go from “don't do evil” to “make sure you don't do anything that might be construed by someone else as evil,” particularly in our society, which is so sensitive to offense.
We can even start to think that by avoiding this supposed appearance of evil, we'll become better at avoiding real evil. As if making our boundaries wider can keep us “safer” from sin.
But think about this: Jesus went to parties, enjoyed eating and drinking, and hung out with people who did legitimately wrong things (including collaborate with Rome, steal, and commit adultery). The religious people of his day called him “a drunkard, glutton, and demon-possessed.” They assumed he was guilty by association. But Jesus didn't care what his actions looked like to them. He didn't stop loving people where they were, not where others wanted them to be.
My point is that our weaknesses are ours. Knowing them should allow us to venture into places where others might not be able to go. We should not be afraid of our strengths, or at least where we know ourselves not to be weak.
Be boldly yourself, even if others think you unwise or too reckless. God made you for a purpose, and nothing puts a halt to that more quickly than letting the expectations of others terrify you where you don't need to be afraid.
Where you are weak, act with the wisdom you have. And trust God to be mighty to save.