To keep me from becoming conceited because of these surpassingly great revelations, there was given me 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 12:7-10 (NIV)
As with a number of spiritual truths, there’s a paradox in the above text. The path to power isn’t through growing stronger, it’s through growing weaker.
That’s hard to swallow, isn’t it? Living in a self-centred and self-indulgent culture folk struggle with the idea that the power of God is shown most fully in human weakness. For the world teaches us to never give up and never give in. We’re told to dig deep, to look for the resources within ourselves. Self-help books talk about realising your potential, self-actualisation, finding synergy, and discovering your inner strengths. It’s all about success, never about surrender – all about overcoming, never about yielding. So when folk have been taught that power comes from grasping every opportunity that comes their way, they find it most disturbing to hear that the way up is actually down, that we win by being defeated, and that we conquer only when we submit.
It’s not just the world that has the wrong understanding of power. Christians seem to have some strange ideas as well. There’s the perception that all you have to do is pray and then God will act on your behalf and heal you from any sickness, trial, or struggle in your life. “Just name it and claim it,” some will say. But most of the time, God doesn’t work that way. God usually makes His children into walking wonders of patience, wisdom, love and helpfulness despite the sickness, trial, or struggle in their life.
Paul’s “thorn in the flesh” is an excellent example. He had some kind of painful personal disability that tormented him. Maybe it was a problem with his eyes (cf. Galatians 4:14-15). Whatever it was, it caused him considerable anxiety. So much so, he pleaded three times with the Lord to take it away. But God didn’t heal Paul. Not because of a lack of prayer on Paul’s behalf. The text indicates that Paul prayed three times for God to remove the thorn in his flesh. Nor was it because of a lack of sovereign power on the Lord’s behalf. We know that God isn’t limited in any way (cf. Job 11:7). He heals every disease and sickness he chooses to heal. No, the reason God didn’t heal Paul’s thorn in the flesh is because He had something better for Paul.
Now that may be hard to understand. You may be saying to yourself, “What could be better than having a painful disability healed?” Paul may well have asked himself the same question because God provides the answer. In 2 Corinthians 12:8 He says, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”
Stop and think about what you’ve just read. Isn’t this God’s way of saying, “Paul, I know you want me to heal the thorn in your flesh but I’m not going to do that. I’m going to go one better. I’m going to display my power in your continuing weakness in such a way that the things you fear like the loss of your ministry, credibility, or usefulness, will not occur. The thorn in your flesh will make it more obvious than ever before that I am the One who gives you strength. Through your weakness I will be exalted, all honour and glory will be mine.”
You may be struggling with some thorn in the flesh right now. Maybe there’s a financial struggle, maybe you have an ongoing problem with your health, maybe you’re going through a painful time in a relationship, maybe you’re battling with some form of mental illness, or maybe you’re mourning the loss of a loved one. Whatever it is, here’s the reality: God’s “power is made perfect in weakness.” The Lord has allowed the thorn in your flesh for your personal blessing and the enriching of your ministry because He knows you’re better off with it than without it.
The film, A Beautiful Mind, is based on the true story of John Forbes Nash. In 1958 Nash was described as “the most promising young mathematician in the world.” But, being a brilliant mathematician isn’t a guarantee against mental illness. Nash contracted paranoid schizophrenia. Even after receiving shock treatment he spent three decades struggling with delusional states of mind. Day in and day out he had to live with the imaginary invading his reality. However, with the help of his dedicated wife Alicia, Nash embraced his weakness and managed to hold down a job at Princeton and go on to win the 1994 Nobel Peace Prize in Economic Science for his work on Game Theory.
Now I don’t know whether Nash is a Christian, yet his story does illustrate how success doesn’t necessarily come through growing stronger, but through growing weaker.
To pursue the path to power you must begin with a recognition of your weaknesses. Paul identified the thorn in his flesh. You need to say to yourself, “What’s the thorn in my flesh? What’s my weakness?” Then, having identified the “thorn” you need to cry out as Paul cried out. You need to say, “Lord, I can’t handle this. Lord, please take this away from me.” At this point one of two things will happen: The Lord will either remove your burden and use some other weakness through which to make His power perfect, or He’ll say something like, “I’m not going to take it away. I’m going to use your weakness to display my power. I will strengthen you to handle it. Your ‘thorn’ is going to point other people to me.” This is when the power of God is unleashed. If you accept your weakness, if for Christ’s sake you “delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties” (2 Corinthians 12:10), then Christ’s power will rest on you (cf. 2 Corinthians 12:9).
Don’t be cavalier about this. The path to power is a narrow one. Pride gets in the way. Few experience the power of God because few are prepared to admit their weaknesses and submit to Christ’s enabling, through the Holy Spirit, to keep on keeping on.
This may be a staggering revelation for some Christians. Some believers have come to believe that God’s power is easy to possess. They never equate it with weakness. They’ll tell you that it comes along when you get saved. Others think that all you have to do is ask for the baptism in the Holy Spirit and then you’ll be able to draw on God’s power whenever you want it. But that’s not entirely true. J. I. Packer says in his book, Rediscovering Holiness, “God does not give us His power as a possession of our own, a resource to use at our discretion. It should not be necessary to say that, but the amount of talk today about using the power of God shows that this misconception is common. God uses us, calling into play the powers He has given us, as channels through which His own power flows. We are not storage units like batteries, or receptacles like buckets, in which the potential for power in action can be kept until needed. And we do not use God’s power, as we use electricity, switching it on or off as we like.”
Yes, it’s only when we are weak that we are strong (cf. 2 Corinthians 12:10). It’s only when we admit that our natural strength and fortitude are insufficient that God pours out the sufficiency of His grace. It’s only when we keep on in situations where what is being asked for seems beyond our ability or endurance, that we are strong. And it’s in the day to day struggle to overcome pride, to be patient, to go the extra mile, to hold steadfast under pressure, to love our enemies, to be positive when we’d rather be negative, or to get up after a failure, that God’s power is manifested in our lives.
There you have it. The way to become stronger is to grow weaker. The path to power is to refuse to rely on your position, your education, your abilities, your connections, your personality, your good health, your bank balance, etc. The path to power begins when you accept the obstacles, accidents, oversights, obtrusions, afflictions, and obstructions of the day as God’s way of making you acknowledge your weaknesses and dependency on Him. So do that today. Choose to live in humble dependence on God and His Word. Accept the thorn in your flesh. And recognise that it’s only when you’re weak that you’ll be strong, and it’s only when you yield that God gives you the power to overcome.