In 2 Corinthians 11-12, Paul describes one of the most difficult things for us to grasp and believe about the life of faith: God purposefully blesses us with weaknesses for the sake of our joy.
So-called “super-apostles” had found their way to Corinth. These parasitic charlatans had followed in the wake of the Lord’s servant and were siphoning off glory from God and discrediting Paul in order to inflate the appearance of their self-importance.
If it had only been about his reputation, Paul wouldn’t have wasted his ink. But these men were not only maligning Paul, they were distorting the gospel. They were maligning Paul in order to distort the gospel. The situation demanded that Paul call these imposters out and contrast their doctrine, character and labors with his own. But it was tortuous for him: “I am talking like a madman” (2 Corinthians 11:23).
Reluctantly Paul cataloged revelations he had received, suffering he had endured for the gospel and the church, and how he had never financially benefitted from the Corinthians.
But it’s important to see that there was far more behind Paul’s reluctance than self-conscious awkwardness. He was conscious of the danger that in drawing attention to himself he might obscure the grace of God.
Test yourself. When you read of Paul’s lashings, beatings, imprisonments, shipwrecks, danger, hunger, exposure, and mind-blowing revelations, what are you tempted to think? If you’re like me, you might think, “This man had faith, brains, guts, endurance, and a work ethic second-to-none. I’m a sorry excuse for a Christian compared to him.”
And that is the danger Paul feared. Because in that moment we are tempted to look away from the cross of Christ and the sufficiency of his grace to our achievements for our justification.
Here’s what I mean. Our fallen nature craves self-glory. We seek the admiration of others. We love the myth of the superhero because we want to be one. So we want our successes to be known and our failures hidden. And since people who achieve remarkable things earn the favor of others, we are tempted to believe that they earn the favor of God as well.
That’s the last thing Paul wants us to believe.
Paul knew better than most that it is not human achievements that showcase the grace of God. It is human helplessness.
Paul viewed himself as the foremost of sinners (1 Timothy 1:15). Apart from God’s grace in giving him the free gift of Christ’s righteousness, all of Paul’s achievements were “rubbish” (Philippians 3:8-9). Paul knew the impotence of self-righteousness (Philippians 3:6-9). He knew who had brought him to faith (Acts 9:5), called him to be an apostle (Romans 1:1), sent him to make Gentile disciples (Romans 1:5), and called him to suffer for his sake (Acts 9:16). Yes, Paul knew that he worked harder than just about everybody. But he knew that it was not him, but the grace of God that was with him (1 Corinthians 15:10).
And one reason he knew this so profoundly was that Jesus had disciplined him. Knowing how Paul’s indwelling sin might respond to the power and fruitfulness he would experience, Jesus gifted him with a “thorn in the flesh,” a “messenger of Satan” to harass him (2 Corinthians 12:7). It would be a continual reminder to Paul that he depended on Jesus for everything.
Don’t you love the power and wisdom of God—enlisting a messenger of Satan to serve Paul? It must have been maddening to the demons—another way Jesus put them to open shame (Colossians 2:15).
Like us, Paul didn’t immediately recognize the thorn as a gift. He pleaded for deliverance. But Jesus replied, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9).
This opened up a world of insight to Paul. God showing his strength through weak things was laced all through redemptive history, culminating in the cross.
That’s why Paul said, “If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness” (2 Corinthians 11:30). He even went beyond that: “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” (2 Corinthians 12:10).
Are you content with the weaknesses you live with? I don’t mean sin—Paul is clear that we are to put sin to death (Romans 6:12). Neither do I mean foolishness (Proverbs 26:11). But we all live with different kinds of constitutional limitations or illnesses or disabilities or circumstantial adversity. And what God wants you to know through this text is that he has given them to you for your joy, even if it’s Satan harassing you.
Here’s the secret: the more aware you are of God’s grace, the more humble, prayerful, thankful, patient, gracious, content and joyful you will be. And you are more aware of God’s grace when you are weak.
God will use the strengths he has given you—he certainly used Paul’s strengths. But thank God for your weaknesses, because it is there that God’s strength is often most clearly displayed.
Trusting the One who loves to put his treasure in jars of clay (2 Corinthians 4:7),
P.S. Our August featured resource is a sermon John Piper preached on 2 Corinthians 12:1-10 titled, “Christ’s Power is Made Perfect in Weakness.” All of our online Piper sermons and conference messages are available free of charge to anyone because of the free-will contributions of friends. If our online resources have been a help to you, would you consider supporting us with a gift so that many others will also be blessed with them?
1 This meditation is taken from Matthew 14:13-33 and John 6:1-21.