I must boast; there is nothing to be gained by it, but I will go on to visions and revelations of the Lord. I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows. And I know that this man was caught up into Paradise—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows—and he heard things that cannot be told, which man may not utter. On behalf of this man I will boast, but on my own behalf I will not boast, except of my weaknesses. Though if I wish to boast, I shall not be a fool, for I shall be speaking the truth. But I refrain from it, so that no one may think more of me than he sees in me or hears from me. And to keep me from being too elated by the abundance of revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan, to harass me, to keep me from being too elated. Three times I besought 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." I will all the more gladly boast of my weaknesses, 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.
Distorting the Message to Make It Marketable
One of the reasons biblical Christianity has to be so drastically distorted in order to sell it to mass markets is that the market wants power to escape weakness in leisure, but Christianity offers power to endure weakness in love.
Verse 9 just doesn't sell: "Jesus said [in response to Paul's prayer], 'My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness." IN weakness? What the market wants is escape from weakness, not power in weakness. But to meet that felt need in the market the message must be distorted—and often is.
But by distorting the message to make it more immediately appealing, two things are lost:
- the truth of the message is lost, and
- the chance to meet the really deep need that we all have in the midst of adversity is lost.
So what I want to do—for the sake of God's truth and for the sake of meeting your deepest need—is lay open this text with as little distortion as possible. You have it in front of you. You be the judge.
Three Questions About Christian Weakness
We are going to talk about the Christian experience of weakness. There are three questions to answer in the time we have:
- What are the weaknesses that Paul has in mind here when he says, "The power of Christ is made perfect in weakness"?
- What is the source of such weaknesses? Do they come from Satan or from God? Or both?
- What is the purpose of such weaknesses? Is there a goal or an aim for why the weaknesses come?
I ask these three questions not only because they are the ones answered in the text, but because knowing these things and being reminded of them in our hearts as God's truth will give us the strength to live and endure and often even to thrive in the midst many weaknesses.
Bringing the Questions Closer to Home
Just to bring it closer to home, on Wednesday we had a really good all church strategy meeting. One of the songs we sang has a chorus that goes like this:
Since Jesus came into my heart,
Floods of joy o'er my soul
Like the sea billows roll
Since Jesus came into my heart.
As we sang it, I wondered how everyone in the chapel was processing that statement in the light of real life experience when sea billows of joy do not roll over the soul. Here's how I fit it in my own experience: Yes, since knowing Jesus, joy has rolled over me like the waves of the sea, but not always. There are times when the tide goes out. God is still God; joy is still joy; but I am baking in the seaweed on the beach waiting for the tide to come in.
What makes days and months and years like that livable is the grace and power of Jesus described in our text.
1. What Weaknesses?
What are the weaknesses Paul has in mind here when he quotes Jesus as saying in verse 9, "My power is made perfect in weakness"? And then says, "I will all the more gladly boast in my weaknesses"? And then again in verse 10 says, "For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses"?
Four Other Words to Fill Out the Meaning
I think the safest way to answer is to let the four other words in verse 10 fill out what he has in mind. What he summarizes as weaknesses in verse 9 he spells out in four other words in verse 10: insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities.
- Insults—when people think of clever ways of making your faith or your lifestyle or your words look stupid or weird or inconsistent. When we were giving out "Finding Your Field of Dreams" at the dome, I heard one man say mockingly, "And the Lord said, Play ball." And all his friends laughed.
- Hardships—circumstances forced upon you, reversals of fortune against your will. This could refer to any situation where you feel trapped. You didn't plan it or think it would be this way. But there you are, and it's hard.
- Persecutions—wounds or abuses or painful circumstances or acts of prejudice or exploitation from people because of your Christian faith or your Christian moral commitments. It's when you are not treated fairly. You get a raw deal.
- Calamities (or distresses or difficulties or troubles)—the idea is one of pressure or crushing or being weighed down; circumstances that tend to overcome you with stress and tension.
Not Sin or Imperfect Behaviors
So you can see that what Paul has in mind here is not sin. He is not talking about a kind of behavior—like we might say he has a weakness for lust; or she has a weakness for overeating. Paul is not talking about bad choices that we make. He is not saying, The power of Christ is perfected in my bad choices. Or: I will all the more gladly boast of my bad choices. Weaknesses here are not imperfect behaviors.
What These Weaknesses Are
They are circumstances and situations and experiences and wounds that make us look weak; things we would probably get rid of if we had the human strength.
- If we were "strong," we might return the insult with such an effective put down that the opponent would wither and everyone would admire our wit and cleverness.
- If we were "strong," we might take charge of our own fortune and turn back the emerging hardship and change circumstances so that they go the way we want them to and not force us into discomfort.
- If we were "strong," we might turn back the persecution so quickly and so decisively that no one would mess with us again.
- If we were "strong," we might use our resources to get out of the calamity or distress as fast as possible, or take charge of the situation and marshal our own resources so masterfully as to minimize its pressure.
But in reality we don't usually have that kind of human strength, and even when we may have it, Christians don't use it the way the world does. Jesus tells us not to return evil for evil (Matthew 5:38–42). Paul said in 1 Corinthians 4:12–13, "When reviled, we bless; when persecuted, we endure; when slandered, we try to conciliate." And then he added, "We have become like the refuse of the world, the off-scouring of all things." In other words, this kind of lifestyle, this kind of response to abuse, looks weak and beggarly and feeble and anemic and inept—at least it looks that way to those who thrive on pride and equate power with the best come back.
So the answer to our first question is that weaknesses are not sins but experiences and situations and circumstances and wounds that are hard to bear and that we can't remove either because they are beyond our control or because love dictates that we not return evil for evil.
2. Where Do They Come From?
What is the source of such weaknesses? Do they come from Satan or from God? Or both?
Paul's "Thorn in the Flesh"
Let's take Paul's thorn in the flesh as an example and see what his answer is. In verses 1–4 Paul describes what amazing revelations of God's glory he had been given—he was caught up into Paradise and heard things that cannot be told on earth (vv. 3–4).
How easy it would have been for Paul to think that he was already rising above the ordinary hardships and troubles of earthly life because he was given such a privilege. But verse 7 shows what actually happened: "To keep me from being too elated [RSV; a better translation would be: "to keep me from exalting myself," NASB, or: "to keep me from becoming conceited," NIV] by the abundance of revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan, to harass me, to keep me from exalting myself."
Now this thorn in the flesh (whether it was some physical problem or some relentless enemies) is one of the weaknesses he is talking about. We know this because when he prays that God would take it away in verse 8 ("three times I besought the Lord"), the Lord answers in verse 9, "My power is made perfect in weakness." So the thorn in the flesh is one of the weaknesses we are talking about.
A "Messenger of Satan"
And where did it come from? Paul calls it a "messenger of Satan" (v. 7) given to harass him. So one clear answer is that some weaknesses come from Satan. Satan afflicts the children of God through his angels or messengers. His aim is destruction and death and misery.
But it is not that simple is it? Satan is not the only one at work here. God is at work. This thorn is not just the work of Satan to destroy. It is the work of God to save.
The Work of God to Save
We know this for two reasons. First, because Paul describes the purpose for the thorn in terms of preventing pride. But Satan's whole design is to produce pride not prevent it. That's how he kills: either with pride in what we have done, or despair over what we haven't done. Paul's revelations in Paradise made him vulnerable to pride and self-exaltation. So God uses the hostile intentions of Satan for Paul's holiness. Satan wanted to make Paul miserable and turn him away from the faith and the ministry and the value of the visions he had seen. But God wanted to make Paul humble and turn him away from self-exaltation. So God appointed the thorn of Satan for the work of salvation.
The other reason we know the thorn is God's work and not just Satan's is that when Paul prays in verse 8 that God would take the thorn away, the Lord says, No, because my power is made perfect in this weakness. In other words, I have a purpose in what is happening to you. This is not ultimately Satan's destroying work. It is ultimately my saving, sanctifying work.
Just like it was with Job—God permits Satan to afflict his righteous servant, and turns the affliction for his good purposes. (See also Luke 22:31–32.)
The Truth of God's Sovereign Grace
So the answer to our second question is that the source of our weaknesses may sometimes be Satan and his destructive designs for us; but always our weaknesses are designed by God for our good. This is why the truth of God's sovereign grace is so precious in the midst of hardship and calamity. God is in control of Satan. Satan does nothing to God's children that God does not design with infinite skill and love for our good.
Which brings us to the final question, which we have already answered.
3. For What Purpose?
What is the purpose of such weaknesses? Is there a goal or an aim for why the weaknesses come? Why insults, hardships, persecutions, calamities, troubles? Why can't I find a job? Why am I trapped in this awful marriage? Why does my dad have cancer? Why can't I have children? Why do I have no friends? Why is nothing working in my life?
Paul gives three brief answers about his own experience and I think they are tremendously important for us to live by.
Satan's Purpose to Buffet You
First, he says that Satan has the purpose to buffet you or harass you (v. 7). And so it is OK to pray for relief. That's what Paul did until he got word from the Lord. Pain is not a good thing in itself. God does not delight in your suffering. Satan does and he must be resisted.
God's Purpose to Humble You
Second, God's purpose over and through Satan's harassment is our humility. Paul was in danger of pride and self-exaltation and God took steps to keep him humble. This is an utterly strange thing in our self-saturated age. God thinks humility is more important than comfort. Humility is more important than freedom from pain. He will give us a mountain top experience in Paradise, and then bring us through anguish of soul lest we think that we have risen above the need for total reliance on his grace. So his purpose is our humility and lowliness and reliance on him (cf. 1:9; 4:7).
God's Purpose to Glorify Jesus
Finally, God's purpose in our weaknesses is to glorify the grace and power of his Son. This is the main point of verses 9–10. Jesus says, "My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness." God's design is to make you a showcase for Jesus' power. But not necessarily the way the market demands: not by getting rid of all our weaknesses; but by giving strength to endure and even rejoice in tribulation.
Let God be God here. If he wills to show the perfection of his Son's power in our weakness instead of by our escape from weakness, then he knows best; trust him. Hebrews 11 is a good guide here. It says that by faith some escaped the edge of the sword (v. 34) and by faith some were killed by the sword (v. 37). By faith some stopped the mouths of lions, and by faith others were sawn asunder. By faith some were mighty in war, and by faith others suffered chains and imprisonment (see also Philippians 4:11–13).
The ultimate purpose of God in our weakness is to glorify the kind of power that moved Christ to the cross and kept him there until the work of love was done. Paul said that Christ crucified was foolishness to the Greeks, a stumbling block to the Jews, but to those who are called it is the power of God and the wisdom of God (1 Corinthians 1:23f.).
The deepest need that you and I have in weakness and adversity is not quick relief, but the well-grounded confidence that what is happening to us is part of the greatest purpose of God in the universe—the glorification of the grace and power of his Son—the grace and power that bore him to the cross and kept him there until the work of love was done. That's what God is building into our lives. That is the meaning of weakness, insults, hardships, persecution, calamity.