The Power of Weakness

2 Corinthians 12:2-10
Ordinary Time
Elizabeth M. Deibert

What is it about our culture that we get so enthralled with celebrities’ fall from power? Unless we are personally connected to these folks, we relish the sordid details of a John Edwards’ or a Mark Sanford’s fall from power. We watch for countless hours the remembrances of Michael Jackson, analyzing the complexities of an insecure yet powerful personality. We wait with baited breath for more news about Sarah Palin, to figure out whether her resignation was motivated by weakness or the desire for more power. How can people possibly live a normal life when we are so determined to put them on a pedestal and examine every inch of their lives, until we find the chink in their armor, the weak spot, and then exploit it?

Power is a dangerous thing. Lord Acton was right, when in 1887 he said to the bishop: "Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men."

A Gallup poll of 1,015 adults nationwide — conducted in May just before we were treated to the saucier details of the lives of South Carolina’s Republican governor and Nevada’s Republican senator — found that 92 percent of Americans think it is morally wrong for a married man or woman to have a fling. We may think it is wrong, but we sure do enjoy learning all about it. We have this affinity for the weakness of others.

The Corinthians were enjoying a good bash of the celebrity preacher Paul. I am not insinuating that Paul’s weakness, his thorn in the flesh, was infidelity. He was not a married man, so he could not have been cheating on his wife. It is more likely that Paul had a physical weakness or infirmity. Richard, in his dissertation, on Paul’s understanding of mortality from 2 Corinthians, asserts that Paul had a sickness which had left him close to death, and that “this near-death experience precipitated a crisis of confidence regarding the apostle’s authority and reliability.” (Richard Deibert, 2 Corinthians and Paul’s Gospel of Human Mortality”)

Hear now Paul’s very careful way of speaking about his struggle. Hear how he sets up the great irony by speaking about all the things about which he might boast, but then addresses his weakness and claims he’d rather boast of that.

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Through the years, scholars have speculated about Paul’s thorn in the flesh with as much curiosity as we have about philandering politicians. Some have said he had a problem with his eyes. Others have claimed he had epilepsy. Some have said he is speaking about persecution. But most have concluded that it is some kind of physical ailment. Paul makes it nearly impossible to figure out, and perhaps that it good because we can all relate to some kind of weakness. “Whatever it was, this repeated or sustained experience of physical distress was so humbling and distressing to Paul that he prayed for its removal: “Concerning this thing I pleaded with the Lord three times that it might depart from me" (2 Corinthians 12:8). Just like our Lord in the Garden of Gethsemane (Matthew 26:36-46; Mark 14:32-42), Paul prayed three times for the difficulty to be taken away.

And the answer to his prayer is this message: “'My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength, my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9). Through his painful experience, and the prayer prompted by this experience, Paul discerned the working of divine grace in his life; he learned that his weakness was the way in which the power of the risen Christ was revealed in him. He learned through personal experience that divine power is made perfect in weakness.

This insight, the fruit of prayer, provided Paul with a permanent template, a common paradigm, for all his life in Christ. It became an interpretive key capable of opening in his life numerous doors otherwise closed. He found that this vision sustained him in every sort of suffering and misfortune: “So I will boast all the more gladly in my weaknesses that the power of Christ may dwell in me.. Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities, for Christ's sake. For when I am weak, then I am strong” (12:9-10).

This experienced pattern of strength rendered perfect in weakness is what enabled Paul to discern that “though our outer nature nature is perishing, yet the inner nature is being renewed day by day” (4:16). His prayer on the subject of his physical affliction enabled the Apostle to see that “we who live are always delivered to death for Jesus' sake, that the life of Jesus may be made known in our mortal flesh” (4:11). (Father Patrick Reardon)

Whatever weakness you have, physical or other, remember that through prayer and seeking God’s grace, your weakness can become the power of God at work in you. While we were in Montreat, my mother apologized to me every time we needed to leave the house, walk down the irregular stone staircase to go to worship or some other event. She would say “I’m sorry I slow you down. I’m sorry I’m so dependent on your help. I’m sorry. You don’t have to wait for me.” I kept telling her it was no problem, but she continued to apologize until I finally said, “You know, Mama, it is a gift to me to move slowly because in my day-to-day normal life, I have to move fast.” Her weakness empowered me to slow down.

What could be perceived as a weakness – unemployment for Richard – will by God’s providence, prove to be a strength. Our family life will enjoy a respite from the frenzied schedule of two ministries. We will have the opportunity to work harder to achieve greater simplicity in life, as the class studying Foster’s book on the measure of freedom is learning. But most importantly, our entire family will realize again in a deeper way just how dependent we are on the grace of God to get us through life. We will be on our knees in dependency.

“My grace is sufficient for you.” I was planning to say a few things about that before I was weakened by the uncertainty of Richard’s unemployment. But now those words take on real meaning. God’s power is being perfected in Richard, along with us, his family. Some folks don’t experience much weakness until the aging process begins to erode their confidence and render them powerless in many areas of life. I’m not sure any of us who have experienced weakness – physical, emotional, or psychological – are immediately glad for the experience. Most, like
Paul, pray for it to be removed. Lord, I am sick of taking medication for depression or anxiety. I’m tired of this hearing deficit or mobility trouble or cancer treatment. I wish I were not an alcoholic. I wish I did not have this chronic disease or this mental illness. Lord, deliver me from it. But most often we are not delivered from something, but delivered through it. Through grace of the Lord, we are empowered in our experience of weakness.

God turns everything upside down. In weakness is strength. In dependence is power. In dying to ourselves is eternal life. Earthly power, worldly strength, visual beauty have nothing to do with honor in the Kingdom of God. In fact, all those things can be an obstacle to true honor.

Our country is experiencing a season of relative weakness. You know, I think that this recession or depression could be the best thing that has happened to our country in a long while. I don’t mean to minimize the suffering. It is real and it hurts, but being weak, we have an opportunity to grow strong, to learn what real freedom is. Real freedom is not freedom from responsibility but freedom for others, sensitivity to others.

What Jesus Christ did in his life and death was live the very life we live – a life of joy and peace and love, but also of struggle, pain, and dejection. Jesus became what we are to raise us up to what he is. That’s why his grace is sufficient because Christ showed us the power of weakness, the power of freedom for others.

The East County Observer this week had a special insert for the 4th of July. In it was a picture of twin brothers, who were about 14. One of boys had lost a leg. He was trying to learn to run competitively with an artificial one. Having just read this scripture, I thought to myself that the irony is, the weaker twin, the one-legged one is probably the stronger one, especially if he has learned to turn to God for his strength.