Weakness. It is something each of us has an abundance of and yet none of us want to admit it. Even the word weakness conjures up a negative mental image of someone we never want to become: I think of that Norman Rockwell painting of the scrawny teenage boy with glasses looking at a picture of a bodybuilder while curling some light dumbbells. Why is weakness such a terrible concept in our minds? Why do we try to avoid it at all costs or choose the route of masquerading as though we’re strong? I think it is because at the root, we are all far too man-centered. Our sin nature and the confused culture around us deceive us into thinking that true strength resides somewhere deep within. Because we assume strength is found somewhere in us, the only solution for tapping into that strength is self-esteem or self-discovery or self-expression. This is the lie we are spoon-fed to believe in 21st Century Western civilization. Isn’t it odd how we’ve even projected that facade of self strength into the way we respond to terminal illness? When diagnosed with cancer, people say, “I’m going to beat this.” Now don’t get me wrong: it is good to have a positive outlook on life, but that should stem from a source more trustworthy than us. Even in our strongest moments, a microscopic virus or bacteria can wipe us out. At the end of the day, we just don’t want to be weak because weakness is seen as the enemy of all true progress; but that is just dead wrong.
What if God hard-wired weakness into us for some grander purpose? What if our weakness and frailty and vulnerability in life were all sovereignly intended to point us to the source of true strength, outside of ourselves? This is what Paul discovered. In 2 Corinthians, the Apostle Paul is writing to defend his ministry against those denying his credibility as an apostle. They said, “his bodily appearance is weak” along with his speaking skills (2 Cor. 10:10). Although Paul goes on to defend his ministry and authority as an apostle, he never denies their claims concerning his weakness. As a matter of fact, he seems to wear this weakness as a badge of honor. Paul writes tongue in cheek about all the things he could boast in such as his beatings and shipwrecks and hunger and poverty. He then goes on to say, “If I must boast, I will boast of all the things that show my weakness…I will not boast, except of my weaknesses…I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses…I am content with weaknesses…I am nothing” (11:30; 12:5; 12:9; 12:10; 12:11). Wow. It’s almost like Paul is saying, “Hey everybody, I’m really good and not being good enough! Watch me as I dominate not dominating anything.” Why would Paul be so backwards from the culture and boast in his weakness? It wasn’t just because he was jaded and fed up with the church. It was another reason altogether. It was because God taught Paul that the very weakness that made life miserable for him at times was part of God’s plan to point him to true strength.
We see this in 2 Corinthians 12:8-10. Paul was given a “messenger of Satan” to torment him, which he also calls a “thorn” in his flesh. Theologians have debated for two millenia about what exactly this is (many say an eye disease perhaps received after being blinded by the vision of Christ; others some opponent to his ministry), but the point is the same nonetheless. He writes, “Three times I pleaded with 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.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses so 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.”
When we don’t see our prayers answered the way we want, we can be encouraged to know God didn’t answer Paul’s prayer the way he wanted here (and Jesus’ prayer in the garden either for that matter). God was teaching Paul and us something marvelous about His purposes: weakness reveals to us our insufficiency, but it can also remind us of the sufficiency of God’s grace for every trial. Paul’s ailment lead to his repeated pleading, which led to the promise of God’s all-sufficient grace. There are moments in each person’s life where God gives us a nice reminder of our own weakness. Sometimes it is in the form of an illness; sometimes in the form of a sudden brush with death; sometimes in the form of the loss of a loved one. Yet there is that moment when our frailty is exposed and we can sing with the band Kansas, “All we are is dust in the wind.” If we could just learn to keep that mentality we would be less quick to pretend we’re strong and more prone to abide in Christ, our refuge and strength.
In the first chapter of 2 Corinthians Paul expresses this: “For we do not want you to be unaware, brothers, of the affliction we experienced in Asia. For we were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death. But that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead. He delivered us from such a deadly peril, and he will deliver us. On him we have set our hope that he will deliver us again.” The statement, “God will never put on you more than you can handle” is false. He will and often does. But He has a purpose in doing so: to drive you to rely on His strength. Pastor Matt Chandler has pointed out that when skeptics call Christianity a crutch they are correct, for we are all crippled and it is far better to acknowledge that than to hobble around on our broken femurs declaring we’re fine.
Years ago, my wife and I gathered the family for pictures outside our home. It was a beautiful Easter day and we were all in our “church clothes” looking good. There was a stunning array of azalea bushes we used as a backdrop. However, as many parents can testify, toddlers and babies don’t always do great at picture time. The picture we finally ended up with was priceless: both kids were screaming as my wife and I were holding them in a death grip with exhausted smiles on our faces. When we posted it on social media, it was interesting the response. People loved it because for once they felt they could identify and weren’t seeing just another picture of someone who appears to have it all together. It sure is easy to present a nicer image of ourselves than is reality…not only in social media, but in real life too. In our churches we can shy away from real community when we don’t open up about struggles in our sanctification. If we don’t embrace our weaknesses, then this Gospel we preach and believe can easily appear unnecessary for us who clearly aren’t that bad off. There is a reason why James 5:16a calls us to, “Confess your sins to one another and pray for one another.”
So instead of hiding behind the mask of our sufficiency, may we all learn to embrace our weaknesses and run to the strength God provides in Christ. The next time you’re out of energy and feeling the only way out is sin, remember His grace is sufficient in that moment. When you just want to give up hope because things just seem too hard, remember: “His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness through the knowledge of Him who called us to His own glory and excellence” (2 Pet. 1:3). May we say with Paul, “I am content with weaknesses”, knowing His power is perfected in weakness. After all, how else is the world going to see the power of the Gospel if not in the midst of our own weakness and clinging to His strength?