I was on an airplane drawing a two by two grid on a napkin. Next to me sat a longtime friend who was the president of a small business. My napkin chart was an attempt to summarize a lecture by Andy Crouch that I heard two years before, on the subject of biblical power. My friend could immediately see the relevance these ideas had for his business and his personal life.
In a culture that vacillates between both the fear and worship of power, Crouch’s reflections on biblical power were fresh and transformative. Since hearing them, I had preached two series on the topic for the church I pastor: first for the young adult community, then for the men’s ministry. Strong and Weak: Embracing a Life of Love, Risk and True Flourishing is the written version of that lecture.
The heartbeat of this book is the method by which humans can flourish: to be fully alive as God intended. Crouch suggests this is only possible by embracing a paradox of being strong and weak at the same time. A two by two matrix explains that concept. The vertical axis represents authority or “the capacity for meaningful action” (p. 35). What most people normally think of when they refer to power is the ability to influence events and control circumstances or possess the knowledge or position to do so. However, flourishing only happens when authority is combined with what is sometimes thought to be weakness—vulnerability, defined as “exposure to meaningful risk” (p. 40). This kind of vulnerability is not simply emotional transparency. Crouch summarizes: “True vulnerability involves risking something of real and even irreplaceable value” (p. 42).
The matrix created by the axes of authority and vulnerability results in four separate quadrants, each of which receives a chapter length explanation. The bottom right represents low authority with high vulnerability. This is suffering—experiencing pain without the capacity to change the circumstances. The bottom left is low authority with low vulnerability. This is withdrawing—escaping choices in fear of their consequences. The top left, summarized as exploiting, is the realm of dictators and tyrants—high authority with low vulnerability. Most people are tempted toward this corner when they use authority to reduce vulnerability.
However, flourishing occupies the top right—high authority combined with high vulnerability. When people live in this quadrant they and their communities benefit. Risks are embraced. Leaders develop humility. Control is released. Confrontation results in transformation. Flourishing in a relational sense is the condition that is sometimes referred to as love. “This is what love longs to be: capable of meaningful action in the life of the beloved, so committed to the beloved that everything meaningful is at risk. If we want flourishing, this is what we will have to learn” (p. 48).
The rest of the book aims to do just that: help the reader learn how to flourish. Two journeys must be taken to arrive at flourishing. The first is the task of a leader—living with vulnerability of which no one else is aware. Vulnerability is hidden not to protect the leader but the community that he or she serves. The second journey is that of voluntary exposure to pain and loss or what Crouch calls “descending to the dead.” Only by embracing loss can humans ultimately be set from their idolatry of authority without vulnerability and arrive at true flourishing.
If there’s a weakness in this book, it’s that some of the ideas can be technical and abstract. Keeping track of the matrix scheme, understanding the diagonal of the false choice, grasping the paths of hidden vulnerability and descending to the dead, and applying each of these to real life situations can be challenging. However, Crouch writes with a touch of humor and mixes numerous personal stories with references to cultural issues such as racism and poverty. His style helps make this a practical book with relevant application. But it is also a deeply theological book. Combining vulnerability with authority is not only the path for humans to flourish, but the path that God himself took to create and redeem the world.
There are very few books that speak candidly and biblically about the nature of power. Christians tend to err in one of three directions with regards to power. Either they worship power as the ultimate goal; they naively deny the power they are capable of and responsible for; or they avoid leadership for fear that power might corrupt them. Strong and Weak gives a theologically grounded approach for a biblical alternative. By embracing vulnerability while exercising authority, power can be used to serve the kingdom of God. This is a worthwhile and needed encouragement for the church and its people.