Every day, as we seek to follow Jesus, we deal with incessant weaknesses in our bodies, emotions, relationships, families, vocations, and churches. We are “beset with weakness” (Hebrews 5:2). And they tempt us to discouragement, sometimes exasperation.
But one of the precious gifts of Second Corinthians, especially chapters 11–12 is that, through Paul, God teaches us a great gospel paradox of the life of faith: God’s grace is more clearly seen and more deeply savored in our weaknesses than our strengths.
Paul was deeply concerned for the Corinthian church. “Super-apostles” had found their way to Corinth. They were parasitic charlatans who had followed in Paul’s wake and were now maligning him.
So Paul wrote this letter. But his primary concern was not his reputation. He wrote because these men were siphoning glory from God and imperiling the Corinthians by distorting the gospel. And they were discrediting Paul in order to inflate their self-importance. This forced Paul to call out these imposters and contrast their doctrine, character, and labors with his own.
But it was tortuous for him. In defending himself it felt like he was “talking like a madman” (2 Corinthians 11:23). Reluctantly, Paul listed revelations he had received, ways he had suffered for the sake of the gospel and the churches, and how he had never personally benefitted financially from the Corinthians.
Why was Paul so reluctant to talk about these things? It was far more than self-conscious awkwardness. Paul was very concerned that in drawing attention to his giftings, experiences, and endurance he might obscure the grace of God—he might do just what the “super-apostles” were doing. “Boasting” about himself was dangerous.
How dangerous? Test yourself. When you read in Second Corinthians of Paul’s lashings, beatings, imprisonments, shipwrecks, danger, hunger, exposure, and mind-blowing revelations, what are you tempted to think? Do you compare yourself to him? Do you look at his faith, brains, courage, tenacity, work ethic and think, “Next to Paul I’m one sorry Christian”?
That is a danger Paul feared. Because when that happens we usually look away from Christ, stop trusting in the sufficiency of his grace, and look to our own experiences and achievements compared with others as the basis for our acceptance with God.
Our fallen natures crave 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 and strengths to be known and our failures and weaknesses hidden. And since strong, competent high achievers earn human admiration, we are tempted to believe that they impress God in a similar way.
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.
For all his attainments, 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? He enlisted a messenger of Satan to serve Paul! It must have been maddening to the demons. Jesus knows how to put them to open shame (Colossians 2:15).
But 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).
Like he did for Paul, the Lord has assigned certain weaknesses to you. Are you content with them?
By weaknesses I don’t mean sin: “Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body, to make you obey its passions” (Romans 6:12). Neither do I mean foolishness: “Like a dog that returns to his vomit is a fool who repeats his folly” (Proverbs 26:11).
But we all have different kinds of constitutional limitations, illnesses, and disabilities (“weaknesses”), and circumstantial adversity (“insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities”). All of them make us groan. They seem at first like joy-stealers. Yet what God wants us to know through this text is that he has given them to us for our joy — yes, our joy — even if it’s Satan harassing us.
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 than when you are strong.
God will use the strengths he has given you. He certainly used Paul’s strengths. But if it’s contentment in God that you long for, then thank God for your weaknesses. Because it is through them that you and others will really know that God’s grace is sufficient for you.
This meditation is included in the book Not by Sight: A Fresh Look at Old Stories of Walking by Faith.
Trusting Jesus is hard. It requires following the unseen into an unknown, and believing Jesus’s words over and against the threats we see or the fears we feel. Through the imaginative retelling of 35 Bible stories, Not by Sight gives us glimpses of what it means to walk by faith, counsel for how to trust God’s promises more than our perceptions, and the way to find rest in the faithfulness of God.