The paradox of flourishing

Mark PetersenBook Reviews

In the weeks since Easter, I’ve been reflecting on the incredible vulnerability that Jesus Christ embraced, particularly during that horrible, final week where He was mute before His accusers, and was led “like a lamb to the slaughter”.  It isn’t the typical profile we have of leadership or of some highly driven Type A personality who “got it done”.  In that tragic final week, Jesus burst the stereotypical image we have of God; He meekly surrenders to evil rather than standing up for justice and truth.  And yet, in that quiet submission, Christ vanquished the power of sin and evil.  This doesn’t make sense.  How can we possibly fathom that in weakness there is strength?

Andy Crouch takes on this paradox in his latest book, Strong and Weak: Embracing a Life of Love, Risk and True Flourishing.  As people created in the image of God, we were formed to flourish.  It is the quintessential human longing, and we invest our lives into attempting to fulfill this quest.  And yet, questions Crouch, why do we so frequently subvert this simple goal by making poor choices, by settling into the mediocre, by not fulfilling our vows, and by damaging our relationships?

He reduces his answer into a simple 2×2 diagram which forms the basis of his thesis, upon which the remainder of the book is built.  Flourishing, Crouch claims, comes from being both strong and weak.  The two axes of the chart replicate Christ’s apparently contradictory qualities of vulnerability and authority; Crouch demonstrates that when a person embraces both qualities to their maximum, they will flourish.

Excessive authority without vulnerability brings exploitation; a surplus of vulnerability without authority produces suffering.  A lack of both qualities means withdrawal.  Embracing both will lead to flourishing.  (See diagram from book.)

2x2 diagram

The implications of the author’s simple chart is important for members of The Roundtable.  While we have a benign reputation, our natural tendency as philanthropists is to find ourselves dwelling in the fourth quadrant of exploiting, where we have earned, inherited, or inhabit authority, while at the same time neglecting the poignant power of vulnerability.  Crouch states,

The only thing that money can buy is bubble wrap.  Affluence cannot ultimately remove the vulnerability that is our human condition and our true human calling, but it can swaddle you in so many layers of insulation that you will never be able to fully feel it – or freely move.  It can keep you swaddled far beyond your tender years, well into an adulthood of risk-averse entitlement. (p.76)

It is deceptively easy to stay in this quadrant as it is expected of us by others, and it is a secure and firm place of residence.  Yet this type of strength without the grace of weakness leads us to always think we are right, to assume we are the solution for the world’s ills, and to manufacture an impenetrable façade of perfection.  Drill deeper within each of us, and there is great dissatisfaction with authority without vulnerability.

Crouch cites many examples, both biblical and situational, which redirect our attention to a transformation of how we see authority.  His biblical reflection acknowledges the Apostle Paul’s thorn in his flesh is a grace given from God to keep him humble.  His own circumstances point to his family’s acceptance of the truth that his severely developmentally impaired niece, Angela, lived a life of flourishing, and that their family circle would be impoverished without her in their midst.  He gracefully leads us to a conclusion: only as we embrace suffering from a position of authority can we find true flourishing.

Once again, like with his influential book Culture Making, Andy Crouch has gifted us with a new way of seeing reality.  Learning to see with these eyes is a lifelong practice, but training our minds in this new way is much needed in our society where power without fragility is lauded.