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The Truth About Weakness & The Sufficiency of Grace
“Three times I appealed to the Lord about this [thorn in the flesh of Satan], that it would leave me, but he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for [my] power is made perfect in weakness.’ So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.”
2 Corinthians 12:8-10 (NRSV) [added information]
Paul’s theology of weakness is propounded throughout the letter of 2 Corinthians. He corrects the false Corinthian perception and understanding of what the ‘true’ gospel Christian life consists of. Christianity is not triumphalism for its sake alone. It’s a quieter, assured resilience in the power of God. It’s both bolder and relevant to the ‘eternal’ world. It gives us power to do good, and strength to be noble. It is paradoxical. When we are weak, we are ironically at our strongest. Most people do not understand this power that comes from God.
There are many hooks with which this message of Paul’s seeks to anchor onto. Paul’s message of grace-strength in weakness is consistent with the theology in his other letters, for instance Philippians, with regard to working in the strength of Christ. Further, in Romans 7 and 8, Paul speaks of his frustrations with sin and also of the power of God to help take us anywhere we need to be, and certainly deliver our final hope. Indeed, in every one of his letters he speaks of this power of God requisite in the spirit of each faithful believer; the power of grace (viz, divine provision and power). It’s clear that this form of grace is not about ‘forgiveness,’ but about ‘life eternal’; i.e. the spiritual life. In this way Paul shows the consistency of his thought and a common thread through his epistles.
Paul effectively links this part of his conclusion to the Corinthians to the very start of his first canonical letter contrasting human wisdom with God’s. The key schema is God’s “power [and wisdom and possibly even favour] is manifested in the weak.” (Italics added for emphasis.) This was directly at odds with his opponents who thought God naturally favoured the strong. This was the root cause of the Corinthian dilemma it seemed. The Corinthians typically treated Christ as lord of blessing, and sought to understand the gospel message in ways of true Greek philosophical understanding; that is, in triumph, with complete autonomy and freedom, and without accountability, and certainly no criticism. It is clear that they had missed the point of Christ’s suffering and death for their lives. That God might have had a purpose in suffering, and that weakness might also be a way toward knowing and experiencing greater wisdom, power, and favour was lost on these early, budding believers. This particular passage in question (12:8-10) emphasises this linkage of irony and truth with 1 Corinthians 1:26-31, in my view, book-ending the Corinthian corpus.
A THORN IN THE FLESH
We all have ‘thorns in the flesh.’ These are manifested in many ways, from limitations in abilities (which everyone has) to physical or mental disabilities, which are permanent or semi-permanent impairments (which comparatively few have). Paul names his problem or torment as a ‘messenger of Satan’ because it presumably hinders his work for the gospel. For Paul, it might have been that his thorn (Greek word skolops, i.e. a “serious annoyance” like a continual splinter or bee sting) was a form of “divine protection” against pride. He was gifted spiritually with the ability to receive visions and revelations and this could have been adulterated through his own selfish boasting. And this is Paul’s argument. He thanks God for it — the thorn, for he recognises its role. Likewise, if God gave us natural abilities and they weren’t harnessed, we’d most certainly abuse them — and we often do anyway. It’s why natural talent alone is never enough to succeed in any grand field of endeavour. It must be accompanied with the right attitude and temperament, character no less. If we boast, we boast then in things worthy of boasting about.
The section, “My grace is sufficient for you,” is put in a very definite sense. What Jesus is actually saying is “not subject to change or revision.” It is final. Paul had to get used to the idea of his ‘thorn in the flesh’ but had the provision of grace (divine power) to overcome whatever Satan (or his own desires) threw at him. The level of grace was sufficient to get him through, in all cases. This grace required weakness on Paul’s part to work. This divine power couldn’t be perfected or brought to completion without weakness and suffering. It is perfect irony. If Paul decided to be ‘strong’ (by having stood in his own resources) the grace provided would have been ineffective as he simply wouldn’t have drawn from it. He’d choose to be self-sufficient. We all might recognise this ‘self-strong’ situation personally when leaving the ‘straight path’ God gives us. God’s provision of grace (divine power) only works when we maintain a ‘straight path’ as mentioned in Proverbs 2-4, which is dependence on God and not on our own understanding. The thought of straying from the roadway at 100 kilometres per hour should provide a salient and troublesome image of the destruction that awaits us in leaving the ‘straight path.’ Leaving the spiritual path is no less costly; it mightn’t be physical death but it is spiritual death for the time. But further to our leaning on God’s understanding is the promise that Christ takes up residence in us when we’re oppressed. “Only to the extent that [Paul] embraces his human weakness does he 1) fully depend on and 2) qualify for God’s power.”
VICTORY OF FAITH — SUFFICIENCY OF SPIRIT
At times our faith fails us. And because we ‘go it alone’ we cannot seem to affect the change in our lives that we wish to see. Is it God’s grace not being quite as ‘sufficient’ as we’d like it to be? Are we even drawing on the resources of his Spirit? God never promises to fix everything for us. He is not there to serve us and our wants. The refreshing thing is we instinctively know this is the truth. Paul attests to the truth we already know. God does not deliver us, or deliver for us, in the way we’d expect. The great thing in this is no matter what we suffer, grace (to handle what is before us) comes to our rescue. No wonder we’re ‘more than conquerors.' Jesus said to his followers, “In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” What an incredible concept it is, if we face things — anything — with courage, we have the resources of God’s Spirit at our side. Why is there any need to undergo depressions and other spiritual ills? One reason: no matter how mature we get, we’re never beyond Christ, who is moulding our characters each moment in history. Our role is to always strive to become overcomers, knowing his divine power is both promised and available. He will never ever leave us and never ever totally forsake us.
Most people don’t want to hear this gospel truth — the need to overcome difficulties — though. Why believe in God when he won’t answer the way I want him to? What sort of world would we have if everyone had their own way? The real point of the gospel way is ‘death to self means life for others.' We can’t have it both ways. If we die to self for others, others will die to their selves in order to give us life, surely. What we lose on the swings we pick up on the round-a-bouts; and we don’t receive these ‘pick-ups’ from ourselves but from others.
The point of verse 10 really is when and how the source of power is manifested. It’s actually in weakness that Christ’s strength and power is most noticeable. Weakness is not to be rejected or avoided; it’s to be embraced without fear in the perfect faith that in it God’s presence, power, and glory can be most demonstrated and seen. When we think about it, we have weakness, or better put, we are subject to weakness, endlessly. As “good as [courage and human strength] are, such qualities tend to push us to self-sufficiency and away from God-dependency.” When we accept and work with our present weakness (insults, persecutions, difficulties, and hardships) it shows we’re patient beyond any worldly standard. This is exactly the show of Christ’s power that honours the king of salvation.
Perhaps the typical worldview of ‘Christian’ existence is what Mahatma Gandhi called “a negation of Christ’s Christianity.” This devout Hindu could see that Christian believers not living in weakness were ineffectual for the gospel because they simply didn’t resemble Jesus! Gandhi was quoted as criticising Westernised approaches to Christian organisation, worship, and modern ministry, imploring Christians to “simply cling to the Sermon on the Mount.” It’s a mystifying incongruity that Jesus’ key teaching is so often ignored by practicing Christians. We look at it and shake our heads. How do we truly live this Christian life? Surely it doesn’t need to be this way, or this hard, does it? Yet, it’s in living Matthew 5-7 that we gain the real meaning to gospel living. It was Jesus who said we must lose our life to save it, after all.
In the final analysis, Paul faced mounting pressure from people who considered themselves ‘better’ apostles of Christ’s word. Having not been commissioned by human authorities, Paul was tasked to minister to the Corinthians by Christ. He needn’t have defended himself. But “by setting out the divine principle of power manifested in weakness, Paul has at once defended his own claim to apostleship and cut the ground from under the claims of his opponents.” In relating his trials with the Corinthians, not only does Paul present the truth, and teach it no less, what he says vindicates his very person. He is both model example and self-illustrator.
We read this ‘tearful letter,’ both emotionally and inspirationally. 2 Corinthians is brutally honest and forthright. It’s Paul’s response as he climbs back up from the canvas having been dealt a flurry of sharp blows! But, it is Paul who delivers the knock-out punch and it is truth that wins the day; a truth that was fundamental to the gospel.
This message of Paul’s to the Corinthians is consistent and powerful. He recognises their poor understanding which is patently revealed in inconsistency and application of gospel living. The key to this misunderstanding seems to be addressed at least partially in what he communicates in 12:8-10. Paul learned by hard experience that Christian living is anything but easy and though Christians have access to the power of God, it is not for self-glory, but for God’s. We draw strength for living despite what we’re afflicted with.
For every false prophet and evangelist preaching the ‘prosperity doctrine’ of health, wealth, and happiness for every Christian, Paul springs back with the insult of the cross of Christ. We have God’s grace and that’s enough for us to deal with anything life can throw at us; it is that and so much more.
Copyright © 2008, Steven John Wickham. All Rights Reserved Worldwide.
 See particularly Philippians 4:12-13, “I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and of being need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” (NRSV)
 C.L. Kruse, 2 Corinthians – The Second Epistle of Paul to the Corinthians, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries, (Leicester, England & Grand Rapids, Michigan: InterVarsity Press & Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.), p. 207.
 See Multiple Intelligences theory. Howard Gardner posited this theory in the 1983 publication, Frames of Minds, and designated intelligence into eight broad areas: body smart, group (interpersonal) smart, math/logic smart, music smart, nature smart, picture smart, self (intrapersonal) smart, and word smart. It is usually expected that everyone is ‘smart’ in three areas, and ‘not so smart’ in another three.
 L.L. Belleville, 2 Corinthians – The IVP New Testament Commentary Series, (Leicester, England: InterVarsity Press, 1996), p. 308.
 F.J. Matera, II Corinthians – A Commentary, The New Testament Library, (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press), p. 282.
 L.L. Belleville, Ibid, p. 308.
 F.J. Matera, Ibid, p. 284.
 See Proverbs 2:13; 3:6; and, 4:11.
 F.J. Matera, Ibid, p. 285.
 C.S. Keener, 1-2 Corinthians – The New Cambridge Bible Commentary, (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005), p. 239.
 See Romans 8:37.
 John 16:33b (NIV)
 See also 2 Corinthians 4:10-12 as Paul talks about the treasure within our jars of clay.
 L.L. Belleville, Ibid, p. 311.
 R.L. Deats, Mahatma Gandhi: Non-violent Liberator; A Biography, (Hyde Park, New York: New City Press, 2005), p. 39. In this work the author also refers to Methodist missionary, E. Stanley Jones’ enquiries of Gandhi and Gandhi’s famous four statements that would augment Christianity’s level of acceptance in India. Refer to my article “Message for Christians from an Indian Hindu”.
 R.L. Deats, Ibid, p. 39-40.
 C.L. Kruse, Ibid, p. 208-9.
 H.S. Shoemaker, Strength in Weakness – A Lyrical Re-presentation of 2 Corinthians, (Nashville, Tennessee: Broadman Press), 164-5. The conclusion to this chapter is blunt.
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