When Weakness is a Strength
Famously, Paul tells us: “For when I am weak, then I am strong.” (2 Cor. 12:10b) However, usually when I am weak, I easily fall into a cycle of poor decision making, guilt, and self-pity. I would feel more comfortable if Paul had said: “For when I am weak, then I am not strong.” I want to be strong, like Paul, when I’m weak. . . but how?
To understand what he meant, let’s look at Paul’s own struggle with weakness. In his second letter to the Corinthians, we get to see the big picture of Paul’s trial, prayers for relief, the Lord’s reply, and how he receives the Lord’s answer. This exchange reveals a challenging, mysterious, and powerful paradigm for why we experience weaknesses, and how to respond to them in a Christ-centered (rather than self-centered) way.
We don’t know what Paul’s particular weakness was, but what we do know is that he prayed three times to the Lord, asking Him to remove his “thorn in his flesh” (2 Cor. 12:7-8). The Lord, however, didn’t remove the thorn. Rather, He responded: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in your weakness,” (2 Cor. 12:9). Beautifully, Paul, in his happy maturity, embraces this promise and rejoices! He then takes what the Lord said and applies it not only to his current circumstance – the thorn in his flesh – but in verse 10 he extends this promise to all sorts of issues: “weaknesses [strengthlessness, literally], insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities.” In doing so, Paul shows us this promise isn’t only for certain situations, but is in fact extended to all hardships, including yours and mine.
So what does this exchange between Paul and the Lord reveal about our own weaknesses and how they can make us strong?
Weaknesses ought to sanctify.
Unfortunately, it’s easy to lean into our weaknesses and use them as excuses to take the path of least resistance rather than the path of sanctification. This is what happens when I fall into poor decision making, guilt or self-pity. But Paul views it differently. Instead of seeing his thorn merely as an affliction, he recognized that it actually helped him continue to minister effectively. It was there to keep him on the path of sanctification. God is faithful, and “He who began a good work in you will continue to perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus.” (Phil.1:6) “For this is the will of God, your sanctification.” (1 Thess. 4:3a) Our weaknesses may be a hindrance in worldly terms, but in the scheme of the Christian life, they are opportunities for growth and change.
Weaknesses reveal God’s mercy.
Like Paul, maybe our personal weaknesses exist as a way ofkeeping us from sinfulness that could disqualify our ministry. The irony of Paul’s situation is that though a messenger from Satan was sent to harass Paul, it’s very likely Satan himself would have much preferred Paul to become conceited. Conceit or any form of self-righteousness, always hurts gospel ministry. Rather than become bitter that his life was now even more difficult, Paul realized he ought to rejoice that his thorn served a righteous purpose. Sometimes our limitations are God-given safety rails; when we fail to recognize this, we run the risk of undermining His grace and love for us.
Weaknesses are not sins (though we often sin out of weakness).
Being human is our condition. We are weak by nature. Let’s not confuse human weakness with human sinfulness. Weaknesses are internal and external situations and limitations that make life hard. Paul does not include any sins in his verse 10 list. Weaknesses may make it more difficult to not sin, but they do not excuse sin. Even in our weaknesses, we are always able not to sin: “No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.” (2 Cor. 10:13)
The Lord’s grace is sufficient.
In our weaknesses – whatever they are – we know Christ is with us and has intimate knowledge of our pain and trials. He has walked down the path of weakness already as the suffering servant who was obedient to death, even death on a cross. We suffer because he suffered. We have power because He has power; strength because he is our strength. We have life, even when we feel like we're dying, because through his sacrifice life conquered death. He is with you as you struggle with weaknesses in this life, and he is willing to give you all the grace you need to handle them.
And take heart! These weaknesses will not last forever. Whatever weaknesses you have, be encouraged that they are there for a reason, and that one day they will be healed. There will no longer be any insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. There will be peace and righteousness. “He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” (Rev. 21:4)
Our weaknesses today sanctify and prepare us for that day when we will rise and take our first steps on the New Earth. Therefore, regardless of our trials, let us rejoice and say AMEN to the Lord’s promise: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”
Julia grew up in the Portland area and currently attends Christ Church Sellwood with her husband, Ryan. She holds a Master’s degree in Bible and Theology from Western Seminary, and is currently enrolled in their Th.M. program. She has a passion for studying the Bible and applying it’s teachings daily and in a Christ-centered way. She worked at Eternal Perspective Ministries, with Christian author Randy Alcorn, for three years before moving to an administrative position in the Academics department of Western Seminary. You can read more blogs Julia has written or contributed to at EPM’s website.