James Innell Packer was born in Gloucester, England on July 22, 1926. Oxford, teaching, authorship, and a long life of Christian service would follow. Now at the back end of an influential life, J. I. Packer lives in Vancouver and serves as the Board of Governors’ Professor of Theology at Regent College. He is 86 years old.
Based on 2 Corinthians, Weakness Is the Way (Crossway, 2013) is a set of seasoned reflections about weakness and the Christian life.
Packer begins with a straightforward meditation entitled “About Weakness” (12-21), summing up weakness as “inadequacy” (13). All types of inadequacies confront humanity: physical weakness, intellectual weakness, personal weakness, positional weakness (status), relational weakness. Further, weakness has many psychological effects, one main effect being the feeling of failure. But the supernatural power of Christ imbues those who embrace their finiteness and find strength in him.
In three other chapters, Packer contemplates the Christian’s calling (ch. 2), the Christian’s giving (ch. 3), and the Christian’s hope (ch. 4), all in the context of weakness. Like Paul, the Christian must look to Christ in the gospel, love Christ as the sole motivation for gospel service, and lean on Christ when buffeted by the challenges inherent in that service (50-52).
Such simple advice makes me ponder the wisdom of mereness in the midst of weakness. Weakness has a way of grounding our dreams and narrowing our priorities, and perhaps simplifying our spiritual lives if we will allow God to work out the strength of his salvation in us.
The first obvious strength is the topic itself: weakness. Like sickness, we don’t choose to ponder weakness or talk about weakness until its yoke is upon us. Then, in some ways, it’s too late. Therefore, sharing biblical reflections on weakness is a gracious ministry from a seasoned saint.
A second strength is the author’s condition. How would you receive a book on weakness written by a young, sturdy, unscarred Christian? This book is best written from a place of weakness, and Packer, by no choice of his own, has achieved that unenvied status. Yet he seems to have grown old graciously, a tribute to the transforming strength of Christ who renews the inner man even as the outer man declines.
How do you speak unironically about the weaknesses of a book on weakness? The exercise itself requires reflection: If it’s true that God works through weakness, then even the limitations and drawbacks of a book on weakness may be used in unforeseen ways to bless its readers.
That being said, the book often settles on unexpected topics for extended periods of time before drawing them back into the theme of weakness. I didn’t expect one out of the four chapters to focus on finances and generosity (ch. 3), but 2 Corinthians 8-9 gives rise to just such a reflection. Finances are certainly a primary area of perceived strength or weakness in most people’s lives, but more nuanced insights regarding physical weakness or spiritual weakness would have filled out the book. Many aspects of weakness went unexplored, so that my high expectations for the book were mostly unmet. The inviting title Weakness Is the Way seemed to write a check it couldn’t cash.
Finally, Packer often writes with an unrhythmic staccato, with sentences broken up, somewhat like this, into snippets of thoughts that can function as unintended speedbumps on the way to a point. There’s a genteel cleverness to it all, but sometimes at the cost of readability. Thankfully, Packer’s legendary clarity still echoes throughout the book.
“Upbeat in Weakness”
I close with a section from Packer’s final chapter on the Christian’s hope:
We have seen already that 2 Corinthians exhibits Paul to us at his weakest situationally—consumed with a pastor’s anxiety, put under pressure, remorselessly censured, opposed outright and by some given the brush-off, and living in distress because of what he knew, feared, and imagined was being said about him by this rambunctious church at Corinth. We might have expected his sense of weakness in his relationship with the Corinthians to sour him and make him distant and defensive in addressing them. But no, there is no crumpling under criticism, no cooling of pastoral affection; and hope for the future, both here and hereafter, pours out of everything he says at every level. The whole letter is an awesome display of unquenchable love and unconquerable hope.
May we all find this rich gospel hope coursing through our veins so that Christ’s power will be perfected in our weakness. Then when we are weak, we will have found our best strength.
* Thanks to Crossway for providing a free copy for an unbiased review.