We live our lives attempting to show ourselves as strong before others. We do all in our power to appear before people as together, poised, and strong in mind and body. Weakness, in whatever form it takes, must be an indication that something is wrong. This is how we look at the plights of people. The more problems people have, the more we define them by those weaknesses.
We do the same thing with Christian ministry. People assume that a true ministry is determined by the number of people who attend their church, the size of their buildings, and the success of their programs. We may not say it, but that fifty-person church down the street with few resources and an old denominational name, is something to be disregarded. They simply aren’t strong enough to make a real difference in the world, are they?
How do we evaluate the church when it appears so weak in this world? Why would a small, weak church fraught with problems ever be expected to make a difference? The churches with the most resource and strength, we assume, must be where God is doing the greatest work.
The lack of the church’s success in the world was confusing for first century Christians. In 2 Cor. 12, Paul’s purpose is to help the Christians in Corinth rethink how they are evaluating the Christian ministry. To accomplish this, Paul describes his own disability in the Christian ministry to help them think differently in their evaluation of true strength. Human weakness needs to understood. It is precisely in our weakness and frailty that God choses to demonstrate his strength. If this is accepted, it will fundamentally change the way we look at, well, everything.
The Backwardness of It All
In 2 Cor. 11-12, Paul describes the heavy assault he was facing by those he designates as super-apostles. These super “pastors” were greatly deceiving the early Christians who had become attracted to all the wrong things. They were using all the gimmicks and rhetorical devices of the day to win people over to them.
These false pastors were highly critical of Paul. They called into question the legitimacy of his apostleship due to a lack of strength and success, especially in his “untrained speech.” This was causing confusion for the church of Corinth over Paul’s ministry since it was accompanied with nothing but hardship, affliction, weakness, and conflict. Surely, this was an indication that something is wrong with Paul’s ministry.
In response, Paul strikes hard against those things that that would seem to mark a ministry as legitimate. Signs, visions, strength, success is what people seek in Christian ministry. If anyone could boast in these things, Paul could more. Paul was taken up into heaven, and heard things that could not be uttered with words (see 2 Cor. 12:1-6). Yet Paul refused to speak of those things knowing that it would draw attention to him and away from Jesus. What super-pastor claiming a vision has ever been silent in describing his experience? Paul desired for the Corinthians to assess Christian ministry with a different evaluation.
With this background in mind, Paul now drives home this point by using his own life as an example. He writes, “So to keep me from becoming conceited because of 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 becoming conceited (2 Cor. 12:7).”
To keep him from becoming puffed up with pride because he had received a vision of heaven—a vision that he purposely chose not to talk about as the super-pastors would have—he was given from God some kind of affliction which he calls a thorn in his flesh. Whatever this “thorn” was, Paul recognizes that behind it, Satan was taking the opportunity to harass him.
Paul’s point is to say that he was given some kind of affliction that rendered him weak and helpless. This was crucial to answer the Corinthian’s confusion over the legitimacy of his ministry. Were they calling Paul’s whole ministry into question due a lack of power in the results, especially in his weak speech? Paul answered this by expressing to the Corinthians that it was God’s sovereign choice to give him an affliction that was intended to make him weak in the eyes of others.
The history of speculation as to precisely what this thorn was is unhelpful. This thorn is intended to represent every kind of backwards thing that happens that makes absolutely no sense. Those things in life that would seem to say that God has abandoned us are represented by this “thorn.” The thorn is anything that comes upon us that takes away our human strength: the cancer, conflict, the pain, the loss—all that.
From here we deal with the pain of perception, a pain that completely humbles us. Since we love to show ourselves as strong and together people, when such a life altering affliction comes upon us, we fall into a panic. This is exactly what Paul describes.
This thorn was confusing for Paul too. Paul pleaded with the Lord that he would take away the thorn. Have you ever cried out feeling that you cannot handle what has come upon you? So did Paul. It was a deep cry: “Please, Lord, take it away! Take it away!! Take it away!!!” Three times he cried out to the Lord begging for relief.
What Paul desired the church to understand is the purpose of this thorn. Jesus gave Paul a direct answer to his prayer: “My grace,” said the risen Christ, “is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” What a moment! What an answer!
The grace Jesus gave was not intended to remove the thorn in his life. The thorn Paul received was appointed by God to weaken him so that people would see the Lord’s strength rest upon him, especially as he maintained strong faith through the hardship. Through Paul’s thorn, people would see more of Jesus.
A Better Perspective For Paul
It is here that we see Paul’s answer to these Christians regarding how they are to evaluate Christian ministry. The church was looking at Paul’s the opposition, conflict, and weakness, as a sign of the absence of Jesus Christ. Paul says the opposite. What they considered weak was appointed so that true strength may put on display.
We think strength is seen in our ability to rise above the pain, not in tears and humility with a knee on the ground. We love the story of Rocky Balboa so long as we get hit and can still get up ourselves. But human strength and divine grace are incompatible. Human weakness, however, provides the soil for grace because it becomes an opportunity for Jesus’ power to shine.
Paul demonstrates exactly what this power looks like in weakness. We see it immediately in his response. Paul is not bitter or angry at God as so many become when their strength is taken. The remarkable thing to notice is how he showcases the Lord’s strength resting upon him in his very response. Paul writes, “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 (2 Cor. 12:9-10).”
Power came down from on high and rested on Paul’s body as he openly welcomes the opportunity, in his weakness, to boast in Christ. As with Paul, when the church makes its boast in the person and work of Jesus, even though it is regarded by the world as powerless, right there the true wisdom and power of God is found.
We really never learn to value anything properly in this life until we understand this paradox of Christ’s strength in our human weakness. When we are at our weakest, when the resources are little, when have stood our ground in not making the ministry about us, right there, in that place, in our smallness, in our weakness, the power of Christ will be found to save all who cry out to him for true strength.