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Transforming Weakness into Strength

by John A. O'Brien


In this inspiring article, written by John A. O'Brien in 1942, we are reminded of the power to be found in handicaps, infirmity, and adversity. By following the examples of Jesus, St. Paul, Job, and others, we can learn how to best deal with our weaknesses, accept them, and use them as a ladder to holiness.

Larger Work

Homiletic & Pastoral Review


119 – 128

Publisher & Date

Joseph F. Wagner, Inc., New York, NY, November 1942

When St. Paul wrote in his letter to the Corinthians, "there was given me a sting of the flesh, an angel of Satan to buffet me," he acknowledged the existence of a perplexing handicap from which he prayed to be delivered. While the Apostle does not specify the exact nature of his affliction, commentators are generally agreed in construing it to be some chronic physical malady, such as epilepsy, which occasioned him suffering of an unusual and trying character. In the acknowledgment of such a handicap he reflects the universal experience of the race.

For is there any one of us who does not find himself contending with some handicap, some obstacle which blocks the path to the achievement of a cherished goal? With some it is a physical defect or a recurring malady. With others, it is a mental quirk, or nerves that get out of hand. Who is not conscious of some social limitation which mars his attractiveness — he is timid, or self-conscious, of unimpressive stature, or homely even after cosmetics have done their best — or worst. Is there any one of us in whom the psychiatrist could not find a complex, if not of the inferiority character, at least of some other kind?

Then there are persons whose affliction lies in the field of personal relationships, a heart knocking at the door of other hearts for sympathy and love, and destined never to find them, a marriage tie that has begun to chafe, a family in which a child, welcomed as a blessing, has become a source of inward agony or outward shame. Then add crippling want, persistent unemployment and doors closed to one's cherished career by a world out of joint, and see if there is a single shining Apollo who is left unscathed. If there is, the oncoming years with their inescapable responsibilities, with their inevitable buffetings, with their relentless toll in health and strength, will set their inexorable stamp upon him.

A few weeks ago a young student was upon the campus making arrangements to enter the University. He was all eagerness to join the football squad, where his splendid physique and athletic prowess would have ensured him a hearty welcome. A few days later, with his trunk packed, his room reserved, and about to set out for the University upon whose gridiron he was determined to carve his name, he was suddenly struck by a train. His right limb was severed at the knee, and only a stump at the heel protruded where his left foot had been. Here indeed was a handicap — to go through life on a wheelchair as a helpless cripple, to be forever unable to take a single step again. More patent and extreme perhaps than others, but only a symbol of the handicaps which block the pathway of every life and close the door to the ready achievement of our cherished hopes.

How Deal with Handicaps?

If a person is to prevent the handicaps which beset him from thwarting and frustrating him in the attainment of his high purposes, it is supremely important for him to work out a method of dealing with these handicaps, that he may conquer them and use them for his ends instead of allowing them to conquer aim. They are points of strategic importance, and in the success or failure of one's dealing with them are often to be found the turning points of one's career. They constitute not infrequently the crux of our spiritual problem, "the watershed from which the streams of life may flow to far-dissevered destinies."

How then are we to deal with our handicaps? How are we to treat this "sting in the flesh" to keep it from penetrating deeper and deeper and spreading its infection throughout our whole spiritual life? How grapple effectively with "this angel of Satan that buffets us"?

A common, almost instinctive, reaction to a handicap is to rebel against it. Why should we have this affliction which impedes the facile attainment of our goal, which mocks our eager efforts with a brooding sense of impotence? Why, O why? Where is the justice, to say nothing of the Providence, of God? The action of Job's wife in advising her husband, when afflictions streamed upon him like raindrops from on high, to curse God and die, typifies a widespread human tendency. One of the most common curse words in our language reflects that attitude of mind when things go wrong, when our handicaps are getting the upper hand.

Futility of Rebellion

James Thompson has erected this mood of rebellion into a philosophy of defiance. When ill health and shattered nerves came as the culmination of a great bereavement, he shook his clenched fist at the heavens and shouted his words of defiance:

Who is most wretched in this dolorous place?
I think myself; yet I would rather be
My miserable self than He, than He
Who formed such creatures to His own disgrace.

Such is the attitude of rebellion to which insomniacs and those whose nerves are awry are especially prone.

Similar in character though less vehement in manner than that of those who view the universe as governed by a Spirit of implacable malevolence is the reaction of those who regard the universe as purposeless, and life as a mere futility. It is the reaction characteristic of the materialist to afflictions in a world void of purpose or spiritual meaning. This mood of ultimate futility finds expression in the exalted diction of Sara Teasdale:

A little while when I am gone
My life will live in music after me,
As spun foam lifted and borne on
After the wave is lost in the full sea.
Awhile these nights and days will burn
In song, with the brief frailty of foam,
Living in the light before they turn
Back to the nothingness that is their home.

Not unnaturally is this the attitude of one who views the universe as a welter of blind mechanical forces sweeping the winds of fate over the illimitable expanse of the mighty deep, whipping here and there the crest of a wave into the phosphorescence of life, glistening for a moment with the ephemeral glory of the rainbow, only to fall back again into the formless waters of the unfathomable sea. "Brief and powerless is man's life," says Bertrand Russell, "on him and all his race the slow, sure doom falls pitiless and dark."1 It is difficult and indeed impossible, if his psychology be consistent with the logical implications of his philosophy, for the thorough-going materialist to spiritualize his afflictions. For to him the realm of spiritual values is but the illusory mirage which the weary traveller over the desert's sands builds out of his own feverish longings and unfounded hopes. Hot-house flowers of one's subjective fancy which wilt before the chilling winds of objective reality.

The angry cry of rebellion and the plaintive sigh of futility, while affording emotional outlets, do not constitute effective techniques for dealing with one's handicaps. They offer no real help. For instead of transforming them into stepping stones to higher ends, they allow them to remain — handicaps. Humanity, afflicted, struggling, striving, reaches out its hands for bread, and the cynic and the scoffer hand them stones.

A third method of reacting to afflictions is by engaging in self-pity. Such persons are eternally exhibiting their wounds to others, stroking their injured feelings and seeking others to stroke them. "Why, O why," they tearfully ask, "do I have such an affliction, which keeps me from attaining the popularity, the salary, the happiness which I should rightfully have?" So frequent is the iteration of their lament that the auditor can scarcely suppress the suspicion that they derive a secret joy from the exhibition of their wounds and the self-pity they thus engender. Continued stroking of their afflicted spirits seems to beget such a purr of inner contentment that one is forced to wonder if they would not esteem themselves cruelly treated if they were suddenly robbed of their much-pampered afflictions.

Needless to say, this constitutes no effective technique for the treatment of handicaps. While less tumultuous in expression and less malign in character than the preceding two types of reaction, it is equally futile. It puts no dynamic into the soul to rise above its handicaps, and convert them into the rungs of a ladder for the attainment of higher goals. It develops no stoutheartedness to stand up under the slings of untoward circumstance.

Power in Infirmity

What then is the method of dealing with one's handicaps? The key to the solution of this problem, central in the spiritual life of so many of us, is to be found, I believe, in the experience of St. Paul, illuminated by an inner light. After acknowledging his affliction, the Apostle declares: "For which thing thrice I besought the Lord, that it might depart from me. And He said to me: 'My grace is sufficient for thee: for power is made perfect in infirmity.' Gladly therefore will I glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may dwell in me. For which cause I am pleased in my infirmities, in reproaches, in necessities, in persecutions, in distresses, for Christ. For when I am weak, then I am powerful" (II Cor, xii. 8-10). Thus did the Apostle come to the realization of the twofold truth: first, that strength is always given in sufficient measure to sustain every affliction if one but turns to Christ for aid; secondly, that power is generated, augmented and perfected in the brave endurance of infirmity. The infirmity, strangely enough, thus becomes a source not of weakness but of strength and power. In other words, handicaps may be transmuted into the rungs of a ladder which enables us to climb to heights which would otherwise have been unattainable. They are the crosses without the carrying of which the crown would not be worn.

Instead of empty gestures of defiance or whining for pity, the great Apostle of the Gentiles bravely faced his handicap, accepted it, used it, transformed it into a source of power. Few, if any, words in all his Epistles are more illuminating or helpful than the whispering of that inner voice which said: "For power is made perfect in infirmity."

See how Paul translated this inner revelation into outward practice. In spite of his handicap, whether it was epilepsy, poor vision, or malarial fever, he hurled himself into the gigantic task of winning the world for Christ, with an abandon and a tireless zeal that have never been surpassed by the strongest of men. Thessalonica, Colossoe, Ephesus, Rome and Corinth were a few of the centers which bore witness to his daring courage and his quenchless thirst for souls. His record in the spreading of the faith of Christ remains after the lapse of nineteen centuries unique and unparalleled. Here is the technique of dealing with handicaps — facing them bravely, adjusting oneself to them, using them, converting them into generators of power, rising on them to greater heights.

The Stairs of Adversity

Not only in the New Testament, but in the Old as well, do we witness manifestation of the spiritual insight that discerned the communication of strength from on high to hands lifted up in quest for power to endure, to carry on, to conquer, to scale the heights of moral eminence. Centuries before Christ the writer of Deuteronomy (xxxiii. 37) exclaimed: "His dwelling is above and underneath are the everlasting arms" — arms that reach everlastingly from the sky to clasp the outstretched hand of the suppliant below seeking help. "He will overshadow thee with His shoulders," declared the Psalmist (xc. 4), "and under His wings thou shalt trust." Eternally true are the words of the writer of Ecclesiasticus (ii. 5): "For gold and silver are tried in the fire, but acceptable men in the furnace of humiliation."

One of the most powerful lines in all the Old Testament is the mighty utterance of Job in the face of all the scourges that fell upon him. Nothing, he tells us, will shake his faith in God. With serene eyes he watches adversities fall upon him like raindrops from on high. In the midst of them all, he remains undisturbed, his faith in God unshaken. He reaches his mighty climax when he asserts "though He slay me, yet will I trust in Him." Greater faith than this no man can have. It sounds the highest note in the gamut of human loyalty, the expression of a trust that bids defiance even at death. Out of that unfaltering trust in God was born a spirit that stood calm and serene while the world was falling upon him — a spirit that transformed adversity into merit, suffering into joy, and weakness into strength.

Is there any figure that needs to be held more frequently before the eyes of the restless, feverish, whining and querulous world of today than that of Job, the symbol of fidelity in the midst of adversity? How few of us are able to retain our serenity when things go wrong! We become irritable and cantankerous at the least provocation. A mood of restlessness, a susceptibility to inward turmoil because of any untoward external happening, a lack of spiritual resilience in taking the bumps of adversity, have become the marked characteristics of our day.

How many people do we meet each day in whose faces we detect the mirroring of internal restlessness, in whose conversation we catch the note of inner discord! A prominent psychiatrist has declared that the outstanding characteristic of the American people today is their restlessness, their lack of spiritual poise. We are suffering from a bad case of nerves, physically, mentally, and spiritually. And without serenity and peace of mind happiness cannot long abide.

Upon analysis it will be found that much of this spiritual malaise is traceable to an underlying philosophy vitiated by a lack of faith in Divine Providence and by a tendency to fly into a rage when things which we can't control do not suit us.

From the behavior of one of the lowliest of God's creatures, a common oyster, mankind can derive a lesson of profound value. When an irritation, such as a grain of sand, gets into its shell, it tries its best to remove it. But if it finds that in spite of all its struggles it cannot get rid of it, then it settles down to a calm and courageous recognition of that thorny reality, adjusts itself to it, uses it, and makes out of that irritation the loveliest thing that an oyster can ever make — a beautiful pearl. Here indeed is as eloquent an illustration of the transmutation of the handicap of affliction into the pearl of achievement as can be found in all nature. What a moving plea to man to convert his inescapable handicaps into shining pearls of achievement otherwise impossible! Faith and hope and love possess from the soul's depths the hidden power of alchemy.

Biography and the Value of Adversity

A study of the biography of great men and women discloses that they have climbed to heights over thorny paths strewn with difficulties and blocked by handicaps. Take Helen Keller, for example. Born deaf, dumb, and blind, she yet managed to climb over these three mountainous handicaps to a degree of culture and enlightenment that may well be the envy of her more fortunate sisters.

Francis Parkman suffered from nervous exhaustion and eye trouble which permitted him to write with difficulty but six lines a day for months at a time. Did Parkman abandon his ambition to become a historian, as many a one would have done under the circumstances? On the contrary, he dug himself in more resolutely, struggled for long hours over original manuscripts scarcely legible, through innumerable documents and volumes, and wrote his superb histories on paper with a wire screen to guide his hand.

In spite of ill-health which baffled him every day for forty years, Charles Darwin worked continuously over his data, until, as he said, his mind seemed to have become a sieve for the sifting of facts, until from the travail there emerged his epoch-making book, "The Origin of Species," which furnished at least a generalization that has enriched all branches of biological science.

William Wilberforce was a small frail man in the constant throes of ill-health. Boswell went once to hear him speak in the House of Commons and said afterward: "I saw what seemed a mere shrimp mount upon the table; but as I listened, he grew, and grew, until the shrimp became a whale." For twenty years he was obliged by his physician to resort to opium to alleviate the pain that racked his body, but he had the courage never to increase the dose. His own sufferings enabled him to appreciate more keenly the lot of the afflicted and the downtrodden, and to the mitigation of their misery he devoted the energies of a lifetime, fighting with a stout courage that would have done credit to the strongest of men. His labors won for him the title of "The Attorney-General of the Unprotected and the Friendless."

Over his tomb in Westminster Abbey is carved one of the noblest inscriptions to be found in the entire Valhalla of England's honored dead. "He removed from England the guilt of the African slave trade," it reads, "and prepared the way for the abolition of slavery in every colony in the Empire." Here, indeed, was the conversion of the liability of continuous ill-health into the asset of a glorious achievement. For if Wilberforce had enjoyed robust health, he would probably never have acquired, one suspects, that profound sympathy for the afflicted that constituted the compelling motivation of his life.

I stood before the red granite sarcophagus of Napoleon Bonaparte in the Hotel des Invalides in Paris, and before the great monument to Nelson that rises in Trafalgar Square high into the skies of England. But my mind went back to the unpretentious tomb of Wilberforce in Westminster Abbey, with its noble inscription. That is an epitaph I would prefer to any found upon the tombs of generals. For unlike military leaders who march to fame over the bleeding bodies of men, Wilberforce won his niche in the hearts of the people of England by lifting up from their condition of suffering and degradation the most unfortunate of God's children.

In the conversion of the liabilities of handicaps into the assets of potential achievement, it is necessary that we first face them not in a rebellious or self-pitying manner, but calmly, realistically, and courageously.

Something of this eager positive utilization of a handicap, transforming it into a well-spring of power and a fly-wheel of activity, is illustrated in the life of St. Francis of Assisi. As a youth Francis was so squeamishly sensitive to the sight of suffering that he could scarcely repress an instinctive feeling of revulsion in the presence of the afflicted, especially of lepers. A fastidious dresser and a lover of fine clothes, he found himself turning away in disgust from the sight of the ragged poor. He was riding on horseback one day through the streets of Assisi when he was accosted by a ragged leper begging alms. Turning away his face in disgust he spurred his horse onward.

Then suddenly there dawned upon him the thought: "How unlike the action of Christ who permitted ten lepers to approach Him, who spoke so tenderly to them and ministered unto them!" Francis said: "I shall do likewise. I shall overcome my instinctive revulsion. I shall make of my weakness a source of spiritual power." Turning back, he dismounted, went over to where the ragged leper was standing, took him in his arms and kissed him. All the money that he had he gave to him. It marked the turning point in Francis' life.

Thenceforth he devoted himself to the service of lepers, the sick, the poor and the lowly, with a steadfastness of purpose that remains unsurpassed. The monument to his Christ-like zeal stands not in Westminster, but is witnessed throughout the world in the Order which he founded, and for which he prayed: "Grant that the distinctive mark of our Order may be never to possess anything as its own under the sun for the glory of Thy name." Here was the conversion of a limitation into a stepping-stone for worldwide service, the transmutation of weakness into strength. "For power is made perfect in infirmity."

A Blood-Stained Road

The great masterpieces in literature, oratory, art and music have not come as a rule from some shining Apollo or robust Hercules free from the handicaps of ill-health, poverty and affliction. They have come from the handicapped and the shut-ins — from dyspeptics like Carlyle, from hunchbacks like Pope, from neurotics like Poe, from the blind like Homer and Milton, from initial stutterers like Demosthenes, from the deaf like Beethoven's greatest symphony. There are the type of men whom history discloses struggling over blood-stained roads and

Toiling up new Calvaries
Ever with the Cross that turns not back.

"I accept the universe," was the favorite utterance by which Margaret Fuller, a New England transcendentalist, was wont to express her melancholy toleration of a cosmos which was much to her disliking but which had stunned her into a grudging submission. When this phrase was repeated to Thomas Carlyle, he dourly remarked: "Gad! she'd better!" So with us and our handicaps. We had better accept them. Accept them, however, not grudgingly, but actively, wholeheartedly, courageously, planning immediately on how to convert them into sources of power, into opportunities of deepening and developing faculties which otherwise would have remained largely fallow.

Robert Louis Stevenson, dogged by tuberculosis that sunk its teeth so deeply into his lungs that no medicine or change of climate could loosen their hold, could have relapsed into a sour cynic questioning the justice of the universe and throwing his pen away in futile disgust. But no! He teased from his affliction its hidden elements of value. It brought his thoughts more frequently to God and His providential government of the universe and of human life as well. More revealing became certain verses of the Bible to which he had paid but scant attention before, such verses as: "Are not two sparrows sold for a farthing? And not one of them shall fall on the ground without your Father. But the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not therefore: better are you than many sparrows."

A new tenderness crept into his poetry, a mellow wisdom and beauty into his prose. Into poetry of what wistful tenderness did he transpose the sentiment of St. Peter, "Casting all your care upon Him, for He hath care of you," when with the shadows lengthening about him he wrote from his island home in the Pacific:

The embers of the day are red
Beyond the murky hill:
The kitchen smokes, the bed
In the darkling house is spread,
The great sky darkens overhead,
And the great woods are shrill . . .
So far have I been led,
Lord, by Thy will;
So far have I followed, Lord,
And wondered still.
The breeze from the embalmed land
Blows sudden toward the shore
And claps my cottage door . . .
I hear the signal, Lord, I understand.
The night at Thy command
I will eat and sleep, and will not question more.

Christ in His human nature shrank from the handicap and the ordeal of the Cross. See Him kneeling in the Garden of Gethsemane, with the vision of His crucifixion bringing a perspiration of blood upon his face, as He prays: "Father, if it be possible, let this chalice pass from Me, but not My will but Thine be done." Thrice did He pray. But when it was apparent that the Cross was the Father's will, with what calm and eager courage did He accept it! From an object of ignominy, He made it the shining symbol of our redemption, the ladder on which He ascended to the glorious title, "Saviour of the World." In the example of Christ we have the manner of dealing with our handicaps, accepting them, using them, changing them from obstacles into stepping stones, transforming them into sources of power, converting them into the rungs of a ladder by which we can scale the heights.

Here indeed is the Christian philosophy of life — a philosophy in which faith in the primacy of the spiritual values in the life of man shines forth luminously. Here is the losing of oneself and the forgetfulness of one's own sufferings in the lifelong struggle to aid others. Here is the alchemy of faith. Here is the power of love.


  1. "The Free Man's Worship, Philosophical Essays," p. 70.

© Joseph F. Wagner, Inc.

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