2 Corinthians 12:7-10 is a passage where Paul has some profound things to say about the theme of strength in weakness. And I want us to begin by reading this passage.
. . . to keep me from being too elated by the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from being too elated. Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave 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 of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.
Perhaps it’s my age, but I’m becoming more aware of my weaknesses. But also, I think, a part of this is just becoming more mature. (At least I hope I’m getting more mature.) When you’re young you think you can be anything and do anything. When you grow older and wiser, you can better evaluate yourself. You become more aware of your limitations.
There are many preachers today who present a gospel of strength. God doesn’t want you to be weak. In fact, God will take away all your weaknesses, that is, if you have enough of or the right kind of “faith.”
But this doesn’t match the Scriptures, which teach us that God does allow us to be weak and God wants us to have his strength in the midst of our weaknesses.
First, let’s look at how –
God does often allow us to be weak
Weakness is a part of this fallen, broken world that we live in. And God hasn’t rescued us from it yet. That won’t happen until the resurrection when all things are made new. We long for this, but until then, we will continue to struggle with our weaknesses.
Here are three examples:
God allowed Paul to be weak
- Paul suffered much lowliness, going without, physical suffering, but also being shamed and publicly humiliated. In 1 Corinthians 4:10-13 he says, “We are weak . . . we [are held in] disrepute. To the present hour we hunger and thirst, we are poorly dressed and buffeted and homeless, and we labor, working with our own hands. When reviled, we bless; when persecuted, we endure; when slandered, we entreat. We have become, and are still, like the scum of the earth, the refuse of all things.”
- Paul’s “thorn” was not taken away. This comes from our passage in 2 Corinthians 12:7-8 – “So to keep me from being too elated by the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from being too elated. Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me.” There’s lots of speculation about what this thorn is. It was probably a permanent physical disfigurement from persecution. Perhaps damage to his eyes (Galatians 4:15; 6:11)? But in any case, a physical disability. God’s answer to Paul’s request was “No.” In this instance God wanted Paul to be weak.
- His personal presence wasn’t impressive. We like to glorify Paul, but he didn’t make that big of an impression on many in his day. His opponents said in 2 Corinthians 10:10 – “his personal presence is unimpressive.” Paul agrees in 1 Corinthians 2:3 – “I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling.”
- His public speaking wasn’t very good. His opponents said in 2 Corinthians 10:10 – “his speech is contemptible.” He could write well, but apparently not speak well, at least not by Greek standards. Paul agrees in 1 Corinthians 2:4, when he says that when he visited them, “my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom . . ..”
A second example, God allowed Timothy to be weak
- He was apparently introverted. But God called him to a ministry that involved public speaking, and working with people. So Paul encourages him in 2 Timothy 1:6-7 not to give in to a spirit of fear, but to remember that God has given him a spirit of power, and love and self-control.
- He had bodily weaknesses in terms of his health. In 1 Timothy 5:23 Paul speaks of stomach problems and also “frequent illnesses.”
Finally, lest any should doubt God allowed Jesus to be weak
- Jesus became human and took on the weakness of the flesh; the weakness of human existence. And we see Jesus struggling with this weakness in Gethsemane facing his death in Mark 14:38. As he said, “the Spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.”
- Jesus became a servant to others. Philippians 2:7 says that he “made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant.” This is a position of lowliness and weakness.
- He was persecuted and shamefully killed. As 2 Corinthians 13:4 says, “Jesus was crucified in weakness.” Was there another way for Jesus? No. Weakness was God’s path for Jesus.
What we learn from these examples is that God allows us to be weak: to be persecuted, to have illnesses and bad health, to have physical disabilities, to have personality weaknesses, to be in lowly circumstances in life, to be poor, to be in difficult situations that we are not gifted to handle. God doesn’t rescue us from all weaknesses, but –
God wants us to rely on his strength in our weakness
Rather than always delivering us he calls us to depend on him. Let’s look at how this works:
1. Accept God’s grace to help you. “But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you . . ..” – 2 Corinthians 12:9.
It’s hard to rely on someone else when we’re weak, but this is what God calls us to do. We want to be independent; self-sufficient. Sometimes we have pride thinking that we can do all that we need, that we don’t need anyone else. But in times of weakness we have to accept help and especially from God.
Our text shows us that God promises help to those who are weak when it says, “my grace is . . . for you.” And so we need to accept this help that God gives.
2. Know that God’s grace is sufficient for your need. “My grace is sufficient for you” – 2 Corinthians 12:9.
Here we emphasize the word sufficient. This is the promise of God to us – God can take care of us no matter our weakness. Nothing is too difficult for God. If God’s grace was sufficient for Paul, God’s grace will be sufficient for you as well.
3. Know that when you are weak, you can be strong in the Lord. “My grace is sufficient for you for my power is made perfect in weakness” – 2 Corinthians 12:9.
Here we focus especially on the last phrase. When we’re weak and we’re relying on God’s strength, then we are truly strong, for it’s God’s strength working through us, not the strength of our own flesh.
As Paul says in v. 10, “For when I am weak, then I am strong.” When we accept our weakness, in that we know that God has chosen not to take it away, or at least not yet – then we can rely fully on the Lord; then we can be truly strong in the Lord.
4. Bring glory to God through your weakness. “My grace is sufficient for you” – 2 Corinthians 12:9.
If we ask, “sufficient for what?” The answer is, to bring glory to God. When we are weak and yet we remain faithful to him; when we are weak and yet God does great things through us – this brings much glory to his name, which is what we were created to do.
As Paul says in 2 Corinthians 4:7, “But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us.” We are indeed clay vessels, easily shattered and full of weaknesses. But within us is the Spirit, who works through us and does great things that are beyond our strength and so others know it’s not us – and give glory to God.
So this morning I am encouraging you to be strong in the Lord. In the words of Ephesians 6:10, “Be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might.” In your times of weakness, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might. Whatever your circumstances might be, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might.