Should we celebrate in our weaknesses? It seems so counter-intuitive, when strength, power, success, beauty, talent, and winning can only be lauded when set in contrast to everything else that doesn’t stand on the top of the pile. But that isn’t what Paul thought about himself before God.
God said to Paul: “’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”. (2 Cor 12:9)
It is only natural to ask, What in the world does he mean? If on one hand, he teaches that believers ought to run the race of life “so as to win”, then how in God’s name can that be attained, if a person is celebrating disability when running? That doesn’t seem to make much sense.
A number of years ago, during a church celebration of youth who were graduating from school, one young man gave his testimony about how he struggled with sin, but was grateful that God’s power is made perfect in him because of his moral weaknesses. To this, the congregation erupted into applause, and again repeated it when they heard that he had signed up to go and learn how to be a professional killer for his godless country. None of the other 20 or so kids received such an honor that day. It made me sick to witness the widespread distorted beliefs.
It has been observed that the Bible has often been used to justify just about any ideas that a person desires, but that doesn’t mean that such claims actually submit to the truth of Scripture as restrained within the biblical context of such quotes. To rightly understand what is meant by celebrating weakness, one needs to more carefully listen to what is actually being said by the Spirit of God.
In larger context of chapter 12 of the second letter to Christians in Corinth, Paul is confronting their challenge to his authority when compared to other leaders who were also doing amazing things and teaching ideas that differed from his. Paul is making a case for why he ought to be trusted, and his teachings followed. Toward this objective, he shares many things about his personal life in Christ, from the shocking amount of suffering while serving in ministry, to his powerful displays of miraculous activity.
At this juncture, he tells them that he had seen a heavenly vision of unparalleled greatness—something that no other leader there had experienced. To counter the human tendency to elevate himself as a result of this glorious blessing, he was given “a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me.” The text tells us that Paul pleaded to be healed of this, but God refused; instead, telling him that God’s power is perfected through human weakness.
The specific weakness here is the suffering in him brought on by this thorn. It was a gift to prevent the sin of conceit which could develop, but was not a sin that he had committed. Some might think that it could also be said that the weakness could be the natural human condition of susceptibility to sin, but that wouldn’t make much sense. Paul is not delighted that he could sin, if left to his own ways. He is delighted that he can more clearly recognize how much he needs God to live honorably in Christ.
The text actually tells us what he means by delighting-in-weakness:
“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 Cor 12:10)
When doing ministry, Paul had to push through insults—criticisms that likely recognized some things that Paul was not so good at—that naturally made him feel low, but would allow God to be more clearly honored within him. Words do hurt, even if they are not entirely correct. The constant pounding of hardships, that so easily drains a person of energy and motivation, could easily derail him, if he relied on his own strength, but when infused by the power of God, it actually would serve to increase God’s power within him. Persecutions and pain normally make us shy away and seek more comfortable circumstances, but in a faithful believer, they turn us more regularly toward God, for relief and protection and endurance, for Christ’s sake. Persecutions don’t scare Christians away; rather, they serve to embolden them to stand their ground, because the power of God is made perfect in such weakness. This is the shift that begins to develop in a Christian who faces such difficulties.
This weakness has nothing to do with sin! It has to do with our tendency to naturally seek relief and comfort, which can turn us away from continuing to do the work of Christ. When we are weak, it allows God’s power to do what we can’t. It brings honor to his name, rather than occurring because of our talent, abilities, or strength.
With regard to sin, in context Paul confronts those in that church who “sinned earlier and have not repented of the impurity, sexual sin and debauchery in which they have indulged.” He is clearly not delighting in their weakness to sin, nor is he suggesting that God gives power to those who admit that they sin but continue in their abusive behavior.
Those who believe and teach others that God’s power is made perfect in them because of their weakness in sin, their failures, their rebellion, their dysfunctional behaviors, their desires that violate the word of God, speak from their father the Devil. God’s power is not made perfect in sin.
So the question should be raised, what then should be our view of weakness toward sin in this context? Christians rightly believe that it takes God’s power to overcome sin, so isn’t that the same thing? It is not the same thing as what Paul was referring to when he said that he “delighted in weaknesses”. In context, he is not speaking about his tendency toward sin; rather, he is speaking about his acknowledgment that God is glorified when we cry out for help in order to be able to continue doing the work he has called us to do. It is in that specific context that we ought to celebrate our disability to do everything ourselves.
As far as weakness toward sin, Paul admits that he is just as susceptible as everyone else toward struggling with temptation toward sin, but sinning is not the type of weakness that he delights in. It could be said, however, that the weakness-to-be-tempted might well fit. Such weakness is not of itself sin, for even Jesus was tempted like we are, yet was without sin; rather it is the humble acknowledgement that we desperately need help in order to not sin.
“Who is weak, and I do not feel weak? Who is led into sin, and I do not inwardly burn?” (2 Cor 11:29)
Like the rest of us, we all experience that burning feeling to satisfy our natural desires, but such inclination is not sin, unless we indulge it. To recognize that we have certain temptations that have a stronger appeal for us than for others is natural and not wrong to admit. For some, the effects of drugs and alcohol have overwhelming appeal; to others it comes out of the closet in certain types of sexual interests; for others it is anything that makes them feel good or distances their suffering; and for many it is whatever route of life that seems easiest in getting what we want. The recognition of these interests are not sin, so long as we deny them. It becomes wrong when we entertain it and allow it to seduce us.
“but each one is tempted when, by his own evil desire, he is dragged away and enticed. Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin”. (Jms 1:14-15)
The weakness to be tempted, when surrendered to God and overcome by allowing his power to operate in us, is worthy to be exposed without shame. However, when that weakness succumbs to the temptation, it dishonors God and has nothing in which to delight. In the Lord’s amazing grace, however, the weakness of having sinned, can be thereafter still turned into strength. This never can occur because of sin, but rather because of repentance and acceptance of God’s grace. Don’t confuse the two.
God is rightly praised when his grace overcomes our sin, forgives it in Jesus’ name, and establishes us morally as white as snow in his sight. But this is not because of our sin, nor as a result of having sinned, but because of his mercy that enables us to admit and repent of such selfish rebellion. In this way, we never delight in our sinfulness, nor in our natural tendency to fall into sin, but rather in our universal need to be healed, forgiven, and made righteous in Christ.
In this detail about how we ought to view our struggle with sin, Paul himself confronts the distorted teachings that had infected the Roman church (and remains common in many churches today):
“’If my falsehood enhances God’s truthfulness and so increases his glory, why am I still condemned as a sinner?’ Why not say—as we are slanderously reported as saying and as some claim that we say—‘Let us do evil that good may result”?
Some Christians were teaching and believing that God’s glory and power were increased because of sin, to which Paul concludes: “Their condemnation is deserved.” The weakness of sin, is not something we delight in. We ought to be disgusted and ashamed of such sick theology. Rather, when we repent and call out for help, God is glorified in our admission of weakness and our recognition of how much we need him and want to honor him instead of continuing in our sin. In this way, it could be said that we are delighting in our admission of weakness to overcome and resolve sin on our own, not in our commission of weakness in sin.
In this way, those who are humble enough to admit that they are disabled—whether in body, or in mind, or in ability, or in the power to save ourselves—through faith in Christ, are in a perfect position to experience the divine power that raises the dead. Nothing can stop us: no hardship, no uncertainty, and no persecution, for we may be struck down, but not destroyed, if we seek and celebrate his strength rather than our own.
“But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us.” (2 Cor 4:7)