On Sunday, I heard a sermon on weakness. This seemed entirely appropriate, especially in Lent, but as a Christian who happens to be in social work, it got me thinking about the strengths perspective. Lent, as a season of repentance, is often a time to reflect on the limitations of our strengths. We read passages like 1 Corinthians 1:27, where we are told that “God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong” and passages like 2 Corinthians 12, where Paul reflects on the thorn in his flesh. We remember that we are imperfect, jars of fragile clay. We remember that Lent is not a self-help program but a reminder that we are wholly dependent on God. We remember, with all those who reflect on Psalm 103, that we are dust, and that in time the wind will blow over us and we will be gone, and this place will remember us no more. This doesn’t seem particularly strengths focused.
I should be clear that I am a huge fan of the strengths perspective. I teach in the social work program at Calvin College, where we have officially adopted the strengths perspective as part of our approach to the integration of faith and social work. An emphasis on strengths fits perfectly with the good we see God affirm in our understanding of creation, and with the redemption of all things.
I should also be clear that the strengths perspective has never ignored weakness. Dennis Saleebey (1996), one of the central figures in the development of the strengths perspective, repeatedly emphasizes that, “Practicing from a strengths perspective does not require social workers to ignore the real troubles that dog individuals and groups. Schizophrenia is real. Child sexual abuse is real. Pancreatic cancer is real. Violence is real” (p. 297).
The strengths perspective, Saleebey goes on to say, is not simply positive thinking in disguise, or ignoring reality. It is also not a simple change from viewing the glass as half empty to seeing it as half full. Unfortunately, as an educator I know that this is sometimes the way that students perceive the strengths perspective.
Sitting in the pew on Sunday, I was initially struck by the disparity between my lecture the previous week on asset based community development and the language of weakness so pervasive in the scriptures we reflect on this season. On further reflection, that initial reaction was overly simplistic. So what to make of my discomfort?
I think what Lent reminds us of is not that we are worthless, or that we are without strengths, but that the strength we have comes to us through Christ, in whom all things hold together. Each Lent, we remember once more that, in the words of the Heidelberg Catechism, we are not our own. We follow a Savior whose ultimate display of strength was to empty himself. With Paul in II Corinthians 12: 9-10), we declare that, “Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong” (NIV).
Joseph Kuilema teaches in the social work program at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, MI. He has been a member of NACSW since 2009, and currently serves on the Board of Directors of NACSW.
Saleebey, D. (1996). The strengths perspective in social work practice: Extensions and cautions. Social work, 41(3), 296-305.