I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven. Whether it was in the body or out of the body I do not know—God knows. And I know that this man—whether in the body or apart from the body I do not know, but God knows— was caught up to paradise and heard inexpressible things, things that no one is permitted to tell. I will boast about a man like that, but I will not boast about myself, except about my weaknesses. 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 12:2-10 NIV
As Christians, we all want to demonstrate the power of Christ. We want that power in our lives, and we want to share that power with the world. We think of that power as the power to heal, to raise the dead, to feed thousands. It is a power that blesses people and a power that demonstrates strength. That’s the kind of power I want in my life. I want a faith so strong that it can move mountains.
If we focus on the power of Christ, then we practice one form of Christianity, and we show ourselves to be one kind of person. But the story of Jesus is more about weakness than strength. Consider that story: Jesus starts life with people questioning his legitimacy. He is born in the lowly manger and to an oppressed people. The angels did not appear over the manger, but in the field, inviting the lowest of the low – the shepherds – to visit the newborn king.
That’s a powerful symbol for us, but it is the picture of glory disguised as something mundane or common. We celebrate the picture of a king heralded by angels, but the actual picture is the child of commoners born among animals and visited by shepherds. It is a blessing disguised as a curse.
And the story continues along that path. Jesus and the family runs to Egypt, then returns to settle in Nazareth because their hometown is still too dangerous. He’s raised a handiman and draws his disciples from fishermen, tax collectors and zealots. He preaches by the lake, outside of town, appearing in synagogues and the Temple just long enough to stir up trouble. He dies in a shameful execution and is buried in a borrowed tomb. His last possessions are gambled away at the cross. Even after he has risen from the dead and is being taken to heaven, he’s down to just a handful of disciples.
The story is nothing like the stories of Abraham, Moses, Joshua or David. Heroes of the Bible are almost all wealthy, well-borne, inordinately blessed and extremely powerful. Without Jesus, we might be so impressed by the riches and power of the patriarchs that we forget their huge mistakes and sad endings. Abraham died without a country; Moses died looking at the prize without getting a share; Joshua faded to obscurity and David was punished for his abuses of power.
For most of the Bible, the power of weakness is hidden in the glitz of wealth and strength. It would be easy to miss the blind faith of Abram, the stuttering shyness of Moses, or the innocence of a shepherd boy musician. We might think that the power is the important part.
In Jesus, God went straight to the point: It is not about us! It is about God, and the power of God is so great that it shines through even in ordinary lives and common clay pots. The entire Bible says that humans are weak and life is short, but God is great. In the New Testament, God hammers the message with a story of unrelenting misfortune, opposition and failure. If we aren’t impressed by the short, impoverished, ordinary lives of the early church leaders, then we might miss the point of our faith.
In 2 Corinthians, Paul also makes the point directly. He has been taken into heaven and shown inexpressible things about the glory of God. Paul has seen heaven, a vision so great he can’t put it into words. And that was not at the end, as when Moses saw the Promised Land just before death, or when Stephen saw the heavens open up just before he was stoned. Paul writes this letter some 14 years after the vision.
It’s bad enough to carry something like that, a truth so great that no one will believe you. But God tops it off by letting Satan torment Paul with a thorn in the side. We don’t know what the thorn is. We know that Paul pleaded three times for Jesus to take it away. Jesus does not just say you can live with it, or I can overcome it, but that it is part of the message. He could have just said, “My grace is sufficient for you,” and we would have to accept it. But he goes a step further: “for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore, for that reason, Paul is not just able to endure suffering, but he says he boasts gladly about weakness. “That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties.”
We should consider this list for a minute. First, there’s the thorn in Paul’s side, a physical ailment. We may have a few of those in here. Paul says he prayed three times for Jesus to remove it, so there is no harm done in praying for a miracle. But if we don’t receive the miracle of healing, we need the faith to rejoice in our hardships, to accept our physical ailments – and if we don’t let our physical ailments diminish our faith, that in itself is a miracle.
The rest of the list is not about who we are or what we do, but about those things that happen to us. We don’t ordinarily consider insults and persecutions to be that thorn in the side, but Paul includes them here on the list of weaknesses in which the power of Christ is made perfect. Likewise hardships – those unexpected circumstances that come our way — and difficulties – those tasks that just seem to be more difficult than they should be.
So the power if Christ is made perfect in physical suffering. It is also made perfect when we aren’t accepted, when we face insults and persecutions. It is made perfect when life is difficult, when we face hardships.
In his first letter to the Corinthians (1 Cor 1:22-25), Paul said this is all foolishness to the Gentiles and a stumbling block to the Jews. “Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, buy we preach Christ crucified.” It doesn’t sound like the best selling point, does it? God loved his son, yet the son was crucified. God is powerful, yet our lives might not display miraculous signs. God is wise, but our best explanations will fall short of impressing or convincing anyone. It just doesn’t sound like a very appealing religion.
But Paul also wrote that “the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.” Christ, Paul says, is in and of himself “the power of God and the wisdom of God.”
For those of us who believe in Jesus, there really is no power that can shake that faith and no human wisdom that will convince us to turn away. If we succeed, we thank God for the blessing. If we fail, we thank God for seeing us through it. With Job we say “Thought he slay me, yet will I trust him.”
As a practical matter, this Christian faith, this power perfected in weakness, means that we don’t give up when things look down, because we know that God can do anything. We don’t lose heart when we’re sick, or injured, or opposed, because we know that God uses these things to display God’s strength. We don’t even lose heart when the task at hand takes more strength and more resources than we can muster, because we know that the power of God is actually made stronger in our weakness.
I have reached points in my life where things were out of control and try though I might, I just could not find a way out. I couldn’t think my way out of the problem, and I didn’t get any magic signs or miracles to pull me through. All I had to rest on was the knowledge that God works things for good in the lives of those who love him, who are called according to his purpose. I knew that I didn’t know, that God would work it out and probably in some way I never imagined. There’s power in strength, in wealth, in knowledge, but then there’s that other power, a power that doesn’t depend on me. That is the power of God. Paul says that Jesus IS the power of God, and that the power of Christ is made perfect in our weakness.
If we can believe this – if we can remember all the times that God pulled us through despite our weaknesses and against all odds that the world threw against us – then that power really will be perfected! We have the power of God, because Christ IS that power, and we have given our lives to him. If we remember all the times in the past that God has come through for us, and if we trust that God is still faithful, then we really can delight in our weakness and rejoice in our hardships. We fight against those thorns in our sides and we pray that God will take them away, but if we can’t fight it and God doesn’t relieve it, then you can bet that God is doing something big and exciting in our lives. We can say with Paul, “For when I am weak, then I am strong.”
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.