The apostle Paul wrote to the Corinthians describing himself in the third person as a man who was caught up to heaven and saw inexpressible visions and revelations from the Lord. Paul’s ministry was marked by great signs, wonders, miracles, incredible revelations, and encounters with the Lord. Then Paul follows this up with a really important lesson about weakness. He writes:
Even if I should choose to boast, I would not be a fool, because I would be speaking the truth. But I refrain, so no one will think more of me than is warranted by what I do or say, or because of these surpassingly great revelations. Therefore, in order to keep me from becoming conceited, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from 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 about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.2 Corinthians 12:6-10
Paul received and experienced “surpassingly great revelations” from the Lord. Yet, as a way of keeping Paul from getting conceited and puffed up, the Lord allowed “a messenger of Satan” to come against him. I’ve explained before in a previous post that this “thorn” in Paul’s flesh was not a physical illness or a sin issue. It was the so-called “super-apostles”(2 Cor 11:5 & 12:11) who had been opposing Paul’s ministry and sending his churches into confusion about the nature of the gospel.
What we learn from this is that God chose to perfect (bring to fullness) the incredible power that Paul was operating in (signs, wonders, miracles, and surpassingly great revelations – 2 Cor 12:7 & 12) by allowing men to oppose his ministry. And when Paul asked that God deal with these men and get rid of them, God didn’t. Instead He said to Paul, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”
I used to apply this verse to sin in my life. I used to think this passage was God saying that He could use me even in the midst of my sin, my weakness. And while there is some truth in that statement, that is not what God was saying to Paul here. What God was telling Paul was that, in order to bring the operational power of God in Paul into its fullness, Paul needed to be perfected/refined by humility.
While Paul could boast in all the amazing things God was doing through him, God didn’t want Paul to give his spiritual resume as a way to prove the credibility of his apostleship. Instead, God wanted Paul to take a posture of humility, talking about the hardships he faced.
So when Pauls says, “when I am weak, then I am strong” he’s not saying, “even when I sin, God can use me.” What he’s saying is essentially, “The operational power of God that flows through me is brought to its fullness when I resist the urge to defend myself with my resume, and instead I lean into humility and take the low place.” This is exactly what we see in the life of Jesus. The humility of Jesus is what perfected the power of the Spirit that flowed through Him. And Jesus’s most powerful act was also His most humble act–His death on the cross.
This discussion Paul is having about strength in weakness carries the same themes as the teaching of Jesus when Jesus told His disciples:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles.Matthew 5:38-41
Strength in weakness–power perfected in humility–is a completely counterintuitive message. When people come against our work, our ministry, or us personally, we want to defend ourselves. We want to stand against the injustice of it all and give our resume of all that God is doing in and through us. We want people to know the truth about us and not believe the lies that are coming against us.
But Jesus says to turn the other cheek. Paul says to boast in weakness. I believe when we do this we will see a side of God we’ve never seen before. When we stop trying to defend ourselves and allow Him to defend us, we will discover God as our Defender. But if we are always coming to our own defense, we’ll never get to see that side of our Heavenly Father.
If we want the power in us to be perfected, we must make room for humility. We must take a position of weakness as we learn, in Christ, to delight in hardships, insults, and resistance.