There are some things we wish would just go away: things which hold us back, things which cause us frustration, things which drain our energy. We can all think of an example: that infuriating, difficult person, or that stubborn, debilitating health problem, or that persistent predisposition to a particular besetting sin. How we could flourish if rid this troublesome imposition, this burdensome encumbrance.
Yet Paul, on reflection, boasts of his “thorn in the flesh,” 2 Corinthians 12:9. Three times he begged God to remove it, and three times God refused. Few matters in the New Testament have attracted so much speculation as the nature of Paul’s complaint; whether physical, psychological or spiritual. But in the end, it is irrelevant. The point is that he rejoices in the thing that made him feel weakest.
He had rivals in Corinth, self-proclaimed super-apostles, master orators with magnetic personalities. He feared they would take the hearts of the people away from the truth of the gospel. So, to bring the church family to their senses, he mimicked the foolish boasting of his self-appointed successors. He spoke of his heritage, his adventures, and his vision. But he then gives it up and will only boast about his weakness.
His thorn was first a protection, to keep him from being conceited, verse 7. But then, in response to Paul’s pleading to remove it, the Lord reveals further spiritual benefit in verse 9, “my grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” In his weakness, Paul learns to depend on God’s strength. In his weakness, Paul discovers the awesomeness of God’s power. His frailty awakens him to his mere agency of God’s grace, and he finds he needs no strength of his own. In fact, he sees with unimpeded clarity that any confidence in his own strength is a hindrance. When stripped of all illusions of his own fortitude, Paul taps into vast, ready reserves of divine competence. Thus, he boasts in his weakness, so that Christ’s power may rest upon him.
Paul’s epiphany challenges our perceived or inherited success models for Christian life and ministry. If we reflect carefully on what we aspire to, we find it is all too human-centred and self-congratulatory. God is gracious to give the material blessings of large, diverse, multi-generational congregations and comfortable, attractive buildings to some churches. But Paul would point our eyes elsewhere to see his grace more sufficiently. He would point us to Christians displaced by genocide, to pastors imprisoned by anti-Christian governments, to churches which don’t even have a building to meet in. These are truer servants of Christ than any, by Paul’s reckoning, for God’s grace is resplendent in their fragility.
Our brothers and sisters in the persecuted church have a prophetic voice. These faithful disciples live each day in the power of God’s grace, so often with cheerful courage. Let us listen to them, hear their testimony, pray for them, send them aid and stand with them.
We can look back too on our own Christian lives and think of the most difficult times, when we have suffered with illness, pain or exhaustion, or when we have been emotionally drained or terribly hurt. We can even think about when we have turned away from God and sinned against him, landing ourselves in a painful mess. Often these things are mixed up together, and yet we can recall how God got us through. Before we begin to think we are anything special, we must remember God’s grace in our own lives.
Above all, we remember how the Son of God became weak and allowed himself to be subjected to gross injustice, dehumanising abuse and painful death. We remember how in that moment of ultimate weakness, the greatest power of God’s saving grace was unleashed.
In response, we must aim to be selfless, and not to live for ourselves, push ourselves forward or depend on ourselves. Yet we can be confident, not in ourselves, or in who we are, or in our achievements, but in God’s grace and strength. We seek to be selflessly confident in God’s sufficient grace. When we are weak, then we are strong.
This article first appeared in the Church of England Newspaper.