2010 Joint Service Open House and Airshow at the Joint Base Andrews Naval Air Facility near Washington, D.C.

Flying Upside Down – Strength and Weakness

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Dallas Willard opened his book, The Divine Conspiracy, with a story of a test pilot. Attempting a steep incline, he pulled up…directly into the ground. The pilot had somehow flipped upside down. While you and I might scratch our heads wondering how someone could not know they were upside down, this is not as rare as you might think. It’s called spatial disorientation and is a deadly threat for both pilots and underwater divers. Marines to Coast Guards, life guards to oil platform workers, and pilots to divers will usually receive some training for it. Wikipedia defines spatial disorientation as “the inability of a person to correctly determine his/her body position in space.” A search of “HUET” (Helicopter Underwater Escape Training) on Youtube will show multiple training videos…as well as some hockey videos of some guy called Huet. We assume we always know which way is up but when our existence is life-threatening our basest of assumptions often get flipped. Imagine being in an actual helicopter crash, at night, in a sea with no bottom, and no trainers supervising! When we confuse up with down, the consequences are devastating.

Our world has experienced such a disorientation. Through mass hysteria and self-preservation, we have confused true north with south. Perhaps this is why the words of Jesus seem so backwards:

“The last will be first, and the first last.”
“The greatest among you shall be your servant. Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.”
“Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.”
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
“Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.”
“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” 

Jesus came flying right side up into a world flying upside down. The created order of the Genesis had been flipped. Over millennia, the topsy-turvy world had settled into its fuselage. We all have walked on the ceiling of this plane. Those before us have unbolted the seats on the floor and fastened them to the ceiling. What was down is now up and what was right is now left. Humanity has been brain washed into this way of living. So when God arrives on the scene trying turn the ship right side up, chaos ensues. The seats we have unbolted from the ceiling have little purpose anymore as the floor returns to its proper place. The garbage underneath our seats is now falling on our heads. It is disturbingly inconvenient. But if we glance out the windows we notice for the first time that the world for once makes sense1.

Getting It Right

Recently, I’ve been wrestling with one such inverted reality. The Apostle Paul wrote at least three letters to church of Corinth and not because they were his best pen pals. They had “issues” and frequently messed up the whole Jesus-thing. In the introduction of 1 Corinthians, Paul states, “Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men” (1 Corinthians 1:20-25).

The Alexamenos graffito: "Alexamenos worships his God." Jesus on the cross with the head of a donkey.

“Alexamenos worships his God”

Can you see the right-side-up of what Paul is saying? What we consider wise is often foolish according to the Creator. In the middle of this chunk of text, Paul declares the central message of the Church is “Christ crucified.” In their culture, this was absolutely ridiculous – and I would suggest it still is. For the Messiah, God’s Anointed, to have been crucified at the hands of Rome would been the ultimate exemplification of defeat and shame. The cross was the ultimate domestic terror tool. Anyone on a cross was the epitome of complete depravation and utter failure. For the central piece of the Church’s message to be their Savior on a cross was absurd. In fact, we have Roman graffiti from that time that ridicules Christians for worshiping an ass on a cross (see picture).

There is something seemingly inherently “weak” about the message of the Cross – it belies the power and prestige of the world. But if we can for a moment allow Jesus to correct course, we can start seeing that we have always known this be true. Consider this situation. You are in your vehicle and approaching a yellow light. You slow to a halt. From your left side, a jacked-up diesel truck blows through yellow light leaving behind a thick black cloud of soot. Is your first thought that the driver is “strong”? Of course not! In fact, our society typically jokes that drives of such massive vehicles are “compensating.”

We frequently see through the facade of other people’s’ “strength.” It could what they drive, their holier-than-thou attitude, their vain selfies, their all encompassing intellect, their rejection of social norms, their job title, their desperate need to not need any help, and so on. The problem is that to maintain such a life where we can feel “strong” we have to have allies that support such a system and validate our fallacious strength. So we rally those around us that will support such a myth and, as a result, we rally against those that oppose our particular brand of strength. We often diversify our strength portfolio: some health and fitness, career success, religious fervor, and clothing snazziness. The world marketing machine feeds off of this mentality: “If you don’t have our product, you won’t be as ______ ” (fill in the blank). I’ve touched on this previously but I believe this lies at the heart of the political divide.

The Christian Call


So here is where this is all is leading: you are weak. There is always some way someone can be stronger. Even in your perceived areas of strength, they won’t last. You mind and your body will decay. What you build will fall. Your vain attempts of proving yourself will not work. The myth of strength is just that, a myth. It is up against the myth that Jesus reinforces His own option: weakness. It is in weakness that we discover freedom. When we are weak we find life. It is when the assumed strength of our lives fails that we catch a glimpse of the horizon. In weakness we discover strength. Later, Paul wrote another letter to church of Corinth:

“So to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited. Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.”
2 Corinthians 12:7-10

Jesus was challenging Paul’s value system: boast in your weakness and not your “surpassing greatness.” This, in many ways, is the lesson I’ve been grappling with. I have spent much of my life striving, manipulating, protecting, and hiding all in the pursuit of “strength.” To let down my defenses, to boast my weaknesses, to expose myself to the world is terrifying. I had bought into this myth of strength and have allowed my horizon to be flipped. I’ve played every possible trick to convince myself that up was down. As I have been un-learning this myth, my world and my relationships become shaken and flipped. The way I have engaged the world has to shift. It can no longer be through “strength.”

Right after the first passage from Paul’s epistle to Corinth we referenced, he says, “For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God.” (1 Corinthians 1:26-29). I cannot use the methods that God shames. It doesn’t work. It is the “wisdom” and the “strength” of the world that God is rebelling against and if I align myself with them God will also rebel against me.

So, this is our call: lay your perceived strength down and embrace weakness. Love those against you. Serve those above you. Consider others. Be last. Forgive.


1I wonder if this is partially if not wholly the reason for the modern social justice movement. Such a large ship flying for such a long time upside down may take over 2000 years to correct. But as it does, there are somethings that start to align up yet again even if we’re not quite there.