04/16/2018 in: Food for Thoughton
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. (NIV) — 2 Corinthians 12:6-10
Extraordinary religious experiences often come at personal cost.
When Jacob wrestled with God, he hobbled away lame. When Paul entered paradise, he came away with a thorn in his flesh. Few remarks in Scripture have generated as much scholarly discussion as this one. Whatever the thorn was, the net effect for Paul was torment (v. 7). The present tense suggests frequent bouts. Paul’s stake was not an isolated episode. It repeatedly came back to plague him—like the school bully who waits each day for his victim to round the corner.
THERE IS SUFFICIENT GRACE FOR OUR THORNS
The request Paul makes is for the thorn to be taken away (v. 8). Paul wanted nothing more to do with it. He does not make his request for selfish reasons. Verses 9-10 make it clear that whatever this painful disability was, it hampered Paul’s ministry and, to his way of thinking, the spread of the gospel. The reply Paul received was undoubtedly not the one he was hoping for: He said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you” (v. 9).
The tense is perfect, denoting finality (eirēken). What God said to Paul was not subject to change or revision. The first thing to observe is that Paul’s request was not granted. The stake was not taken away. Instead he was provided the grace to bear it. This grace, Paul is told, is sufficient for him. The promise is that whenever the messenger of Satan afflicts him, he will be given sufficient strength to bear up.
In certain circles within evangelicalism today, there is a belief that it is God’s will that everyone should be healthy and happy and that if healing does not occur in answer to prayer it is because a person lacks faith. This thinking clearly runs contrary to Paul’s experience. Without a doubt Paul had great faith, but his request for the removal of the stake was not answered. This is not to say that he didn’t receive an answer. He most assuredly did—My grace is sufficient for you. But it is not the answer the mindset focused on self and what God can do for me wants to hear. Yet hear we must, lest our witness to the world lack credibility and theological soundness.
God’s grace is sufficient because his power is made perfect in weakness (v. 9).
This aphoristic phrase is commonly taken as the theme of this letter—and not without cause. The fact that suffering is the typical lot of the gospel minister is a point that Paul tries repeatedly to drive home to the Corinthians (see the introduction). Those who preach the gospel “carry around . . . the [dying] of Jesus” and are “always being given over to death” (2 Corinthians 4:10-11).
PERFECTING POWER IN WEAKNESS
Paul’s statement is a rather startling one: God’s power neither displaces weakness nor overcomes it. On the contrary, it comes to its full strength in it (en + astheneia). At issue is how God manifests his power. Paul’s opponents claimed that it is best seen in visions, ecstasies and the working of signs and wonders (2 Corinthians 12:1, 2 Corinthians 12:12). Paul, on the other hand, maintained that God’s power is most effectively made known in and through weakness. Indeed, God’s power is made perfect in weakness (teleitai = “to find consummation” or “be accomplished”; v. 9). As one commentator notes,
“There is a certain finishing and perfecting power in weakness” (Carpus 1876:178).
Not that we are to cherish our infirmities. Weakness of itself will perfect nothing. But when the human vessel is weak, the divine power is especially evident, and the weakness proves to be a fine discipline (B. Hanson 1981:44).
So far from hindering the gospel, Paul’s stake actually served to advance it. This is why he aims to boast only in his weaknesses (2 Corinthians 11:30; 2 Corinthians 12:5)—and he does it all the more gladly (v. 9). Paul not only has accepted his weaknesses and learned to live with them, but he also takes pleasure in them. Why? Because these very weaknesses afford the opportunity for the power of Christ to rest on him (v. 9). This is why Paul can go on to say, “I am content with my weaknesses”.
WHEN WE ARE WEAK, WE ARE STRONG
Paul concludes with for when I am weak, then I am strong (v. 10). His statement has the character of a settled conviction rather than a rote repetition of God’s answer. But what does it mean? How can one be weak and strong at the same time? The paradox is noted by all. But the point throughout has been that Christ’s power is perfected in, not in spite of, weakness.
We often think that without human strength we are destined to fail and without personal courage we are bound to falter. Yet good as these are, such qualities tend to push us to self-sufficiency and away from God-dependency. Samson was superlatively endowed with strength, but in the end this very strength brought about his destruction. Human strength is like the flower of the field that has its day in the sun but then shrivels up and dies. Enduring strength lies in God alone.
This blog was adapted from the 2 Corinthians volume of the IVP New Testament Commentary, written by Linda L. Belleville. Want to learn more about the IVP New Testament Commentary? You can read about it and purchase it on our website.