Christ's Power Made Perfect in Weakness
“If we are willing to live by Scripture, we must be willing to live by paradox and contradiction and surprise.” -Madeleine L’Engle
In 2 Corinthians, the apostle Paul writes about the paradox of our weaknesses as followers of Christ. “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 12:9-10)
If we were sitting across from each other at a coffee shop, hands curled around warm drinks in the type of atmosphere that fosters vulnerability, I would tell you that most of the time, these paradoxes in our faith unsettle me. The difficulty with feeling unsettled about this passage is that I am often tempted to believe lies about what it actually says. The words get twisted in my mind, bent out of their original shape and meaning.
A few months ago, I took a cue from an artist I enjoy and started writing down lies that were bumping around in my head. He assigns the words to cartoon drawings of monsters, something I think is both funny and helpful. When I was thinking through this passage, I started writing down the lies I have believed about what it says, and they fall into three main categories. Maybe these words have been in the mouths of some of your own cartoon monsters.
Lie of Definitions
This lie is a simple one, so simple I am almost embarrassed to admit I ever believed it. There have been times I have read the word “weakness” and thought it was equal to “sin.”
Weakness here is not sin. Weakness here is anything we would change if we had the strength to do so, but we cannot. The apostle even allows us a little extra clarity in the passage by including a list: insults, hardships, persecutions, difficulties. We also have other Scripture we can use to interpret this, such as Romans 6:1 which says, “What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means! We are those who have died to sin; how can we live in it any longer?”
If I believe the lie that the definition of “weakness” in this passage is sin, I will twist God’s Word into saying something it is not at all saying. Sin is not to be delighted in, but put to death.
Lie of No
When I read this passage, I am sometimes tempted to believe that because my weaknesses can be used by God, he will never take them away. Paul writes that he pleaded with the Lord to remove this thorn in his flesh, this weakness, and God answered with a no.
This passage is an example of a “no,” and there are other examples throughout Scripture of God responding to a prayer to remove a weakness with “yes.” Sickness is a weakness and Jesus responded “yes” many times when people came to him asking for healing.
How I respond to God when he says “no” to one of my requests is an indicator of what I believe about him and his character. Paul trusted the Lord’s character to ask for the thorn in his flesh to be removed, and he trusted the Lord’s character when he received an answer of “no.” He even rejoiced because he knew and trusted that God only does what is best.
Lie of Causation
Paul defined his weakness as a “thorn in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass [him].” When I say that God wants to use our weaknesses, that does not necessarily mean that our weaknesses are caused by God. Paul clearly says here that this thorn in the flesh was a messenger of Satan, but God clearly says that he wants to redeem that weakness and use it for his own glory and for Paul’s good.
For many years of my walk with Christ I battled with this idea that God can redeem weaknesses and suffering. It seemed to me a type of ends-justify-the-means argument that didn’t sit right with my belief that God is compassionate and loving towards his children.
God does not cause but enslaves and uses all suffering for his glory and our good. He does not cause the death of loved ones, the cancer that invades a body, the brokenness of families that scars a child, the unkind words that mar the hearts of image-bearers. He weeps with us, finds us in our brokenness and mourning, and offers his compassionate comfort. His offer of redemption in difficult and often painful situations is for his glory and our good. He is not callous or dismissive of our weakness, but offers us his own power lovingly and compassionately.
What Is Best for Us
I don’t know all the mechanics of how God’s power is made perfect in our weakness, but it is a paradox I find myself getting comfortable with these days. Since we’re still sipping coffees in our imaginary coffeeshop, I have one last confession to make: I am jealous that Paul received an answer so clearly from the Lord, an answer that explained how God was using his weakness. The way God uses my weaknesses is rarely so clearly spelled out, but I do know that in the past my weaknesses have shown me my own inadequacy and pushed me toward Christ.
Paul’s model is one I can follow in my weaknesses, and one that actively fights the lies I am tempted to believe with the truth of God’s Word. First, I define my weakness. I do not twist the Word of God to make me feel more comfortable with my sin. I understand that there is something difficult or painful in my life which I do not have the power to change. Second, I ask the Lord to take away my weakness. I am persistent in asking him because I trust that he is good and loving, but I also trust his responses of “no” and “not yet” because he is good and loving. Third, I ask God to use my weakness for his glory and my good. I believe that the very best outcome is to be reconciled to God through Christ and abide in his presence more and more, whether that comes about through the taking away or using of my weakness. In every outcome, the truth behind the paradox remains the same: God is what is best for us.