Browse the self-help section of any bookstore and you will discover that being “strong” and “assertive” is all the rage. I can’t recall ever seeing a best-seller promoting weakness as the way to succeed. The idea of admitting one’s incompetence is not really something that motivational books or speakers applaud. I don’t know of any prosperity ministry that thrives of telling its audience that they are helpless or lack ability. On the contrary, they ply their trade by telling their adherents of their inherent potential.
In the secular world, motivational speakers are constantly affirming that “you can do anything you set your mind to.” They tell stories that thrill us and that encourage us to strive to improve. After all, as children are often exhorted, “You too can become president,” or, “If you discipline yourself you too can play in a World Cup one day,” or, “Anyone can achieve eight distinctions if they will simply work hard.” Of course, this is nonsense. As hard as I might have tried, I had no hope of making an Olympic team as a marathoner.
More importantly, regardless of how much I long and learn and live for it, I will never achieve sinless perfection until Jesus raises me from the dead. I am too weak for that. But in that confessed weakness, I also experience immense power to persevere towards perfection. For, as Paul learned, and as he shared with the Corinthians and with us, when he was weak, then he was strong (2 Corinthians 12:10).
The text before us is rich with truth and invites many applications, such as the virtues of humility, perseverance, transparency, spiritual warfare, etc. And related to all of these is the principle and practice of prayer.
Whatever affliction Paul was suffering, God used it (as Paul tells us) to remind him of his weakness. This weakness was expressed in prayer.
Among other truths, Paul wanted us to know that it is only when we are honest about our weakness that we can know the enormity of God’s power. And underlying this principle, and more than hinted at in this passage, is the accompanying truth that admitted weakness produces ardent prayer.
The reality is that we are weak. The remedy God has provided, and prescribed, is prayer. Once we admit our reality, we will appropriate the remedy. The more frequently we do this, ironically, the stronger we will be.
My thesis in this study is that weak weeks make for a strong year. O that God would help us to know our weakness every week and to therefore seek his face consistently, confidently, and corporately. If, as local congregations, we do so, we will experience divine strength. May God grant us 52 weak weeks culminating one very strong year.
Our reality is the same as Paul’s reality: We are “weak.” The word translated “weak” (v. 10) speaks of a malady or frailty. It can refer to disease, infirmity, sickness, or general weakness. We share Paul’s weakness. The only difference is that Paul realised it more than we often do. Therefore, he prayed more.
Paul was under no illusion about the difficulties of the Christian life. Neither was he under any delusion that he was strong enough on his own to obediently persevere. We see this many times in his writings, and the text before us is a clear example.
Paul was writing to defend himself in order to defend his ministry, which is one of the few times one might be wise to defend oneself. Super-apostles had slandered him. He was concerned about the welfare of the church at Corinth. So he penned this letter to affirm his love and concern for them.
Paul was aware that he might be seen as behaving foolishly (11:1; 12:11). Paul writes of an unusual spiritual experience in which the Lord gave him a glorious vision. “Caught up into the third heaven” (v. 2) Paul saw things that he could even utter, possibly because they were too amazing to be believed, or more likely because of a personal sense of unworthiness.
This could have become a temptation to pride. We can be tempted to pride even when our privilege is a gracious one in the spiritual realm. Paul was a great Christian, worthy of emulation (1 Corinthians 4:16; 11:1), yet he was a human being like you and me and so he faced the same temptations. Therefore, the Lord, motivated by his own glory and Paul’s spiritual good, afflicted the apostle in some way. Paul refers to the affliction as “a thorn” in his flesh and specifically calls this thorn “a messenger of Satan.”
A great deal of ink has been spilled trying to identify Paul’s thorn. Some have suggested a bodily affliction, and he certainly suffered much in his body. Others have proposed an eye problem, based on such evidence as Galatians 4:15; 6:11–12. Given the content of the letter itself, others think the thorn was likely the super-apostles or those sinisterly affected by them—cynical and cruel-hearted messengers of Satan.
We are not given enough information to make a definitive conclusion, and that is okay. It is unnecessary for us to identify the particular thorn to understand Paul’s point! Rather he wants us to know that, while he could have relied on his flesh and gained an advantage by one-upmanship, God would not allow him. God reminded him of his weakness.
Brothers and sisters, we need to embrace this reality. We are weak and God’s trials are a means to drive this weakness home.
Do you find that you avoid this reality? We spend so much energy convincing ourselves of our sufficiency and invulnerability. But we can only do this for so long. Eventually we are confronted with the reality that, in spite of our exercise, diet, and regular medical check-ups, we get sick. At the least, we grow old.
We save, budget, and invest, and yet money runs short.
We read our Bibles, gather with believers, reach out to people, and serve the body and yet we are sinned against and even experience betrayal.
We read God’s word to our children, sing Christian songs with them, prioritise church as a family, and yet our children don’t seem to be moved by the gospel.
Many a minister of the gospel has prepared for vocational ministry by zealous studies in seminary. They have learned a great deal and earned degrees. Yet they find themselves overwhelmed in the ministry.
Churches labour to make disciples, to lay the foundation for a healthy local church, only to experience huge setbacks as sin enters the camp.
I could go on but I think you probably get the point. Unless the Lord does the work, we labour in vain (see Psalm 127).
This brings us to the divine remedy for this reality: prayer.
We see in Paul’s initial response that already the heaven-sent, providential pain was having its desired effect. That is, Paul prayed. He tells us in v. 8, “Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me.”
Paul’s letters are replete with references to prayer—either his own or exhortations to his readers to pray. The latter usually were asking for prayers for him. A prayerful response to the reality of our weakness is God’s means to us experiencing his strength. It is a means of spiritual growth. It is a huge means of glorifying God.
Prayer, as we at BBC are often reminded, is a confession of dependence. Biblical prayer is an admission of our need for help outside of ourselves. Sadly, it is this confession and admission of our helplessness that is often a stumblingblock to our praying. We simply do not realise just how dependent upon God we are!
Like the church in Laodicea, we tend to rest in our self-deception that we are rich, have prospered and therefore we need nothing. We don’t realise the reality that we are wretched pitiable, poor, blind, and naked (Revelation 3:17).
The good news is, we don’t need to remain like this. Jesus stands at the door of our congregation each week, each day, ready to enter when we come to our senses (Revelation 3:20). Interestingly, once we humble ourselves, confessing our need for him—that is, confessing our weakness—we experience his strength to conquer. We need to hear the voice of the Holy Spirit reminding us of the reality of our need (Revelation 3:21).
But back to Corinth.
Paul reports that the Lord did not respond to his prayers for deliverance. Rather, the Lord gave him something better than deliverance: a dynamic.
The word translated “power” or “strength” is the Greek term dunamis. It is used 120 times in the New Testament and speaks of ability or power. It often refers to miraculous works. It is frequently used this way in the Gospel accounts with reference to miracles accomplished by Jesus.
Paul tells us that, out of the experience of his prayerful response to his trial, God showed his power and strength. God accomplished his purpose, which is his glory, through Paul’s practical, prayerful demonstration of his weakness. God still does.
The words “my power is made perfect in weakness” do not mean that, in some way, God’s power is deficient unless we pray in our weakness. What it does mean is that, in our confessed weakness, the measure of God’s power is made full. We might paraphrase: “When we confess our utter dependence upon God, especially through prayer, God’s all sufficiency is displayed.” This alone is enough reason to motivate us to pray.
Doubtless, after this experience, Paul continued to pray because we can be sure that Paul continued to appreciate his weakness. He continued to accept and embrace the reality that, apart from Christ, he could do nothing. I believe we can make these conclusions because of what follows: “Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weakness, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me.” Like the shekinah glory, Paul wanted the glorious presence of Christ to rest upon him.
Paul not only wanted to know Christ; he wanted to show Christ to others. This is why he gladly embraced of the reality of his weakness displayed practically through prayer. He continues: “For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then am I strong.” What an amazing response! It is the expected response of every Christian.
Paul says that he was pleased to embrace the reality of his inability and insufficiency, for then he experienced the Lord’s ability.
It is my prayer that, in the year ahead, we will learn to know our weakness so that we can grow strong. This will require us to prioritise prayer. A fixed time and place for prayer will help immensely in this endeavour. It will help to gather with the congregation as we pray Sundays and perhaps at other times as well. We will do well to ask others to pray for us. Like Paul, let us learn to go public with our weakness.
Martyn Lloyd-Jones often lamented that the church of his day was “much too healthy.” He was concerned about the lack of divine dependence. The same is true in our day. Let’s admit our weakness.
The centre of this passage is not Paul’s problem. The thorn—the messenger of Satan—is peripheral to this text. Neither is the centre of the passage Paul. The focus of the passage is “the Lord.” The definite article suggests that Paul specifically has Jesus Christ in mind. He is concerned “for the sake of Christ” (vv. 9b–10a).
Paul was focused on his Redeemer. Like Job, he knew that his Redeemer was alive on planet earth (Job 19:25). He wanted to glorify him. You can’t read this account without seeing the presence of Christ in Paul’s life. The Lord, in fact, spoke to Paul (v. 9).
The Lord who spoke to Paul when he converted him (Acts 9) still spoke to him in his later hour(s) of trial. Paul prayed and the Lord communicated with him. So it will be with us—if he is our Redeemer.
I was grieved recently to read, during the Iran crisis, of several prominent politicians saying that they were “praying.” What disturbed me in most cases was that these same people are pro-abortion, pro-gay marriage, and pro-about everything that God is opposed to. Their comments about praying were at best hypocritical. Not everyone has the ability to pray. Prayer is a family matter. It is a privilege given to God’s children.
Those who respond to the death, burial, and resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ by repentance and faith are granted an eternal relationship with the God who redeems.
Brothers and sisters, we are called to pray out of our relationship with our Redeemer. He wants us to pray. He wants us to admit our weakness against the world, the flesh, and the devil, just as we did when we were converted. As then, he wants us to look to him to experience his saving power. He will get the glory as we experience his goodness. So let us be weak. Let us weekly be weak that our year will be strong.