Who does God say you are? 6: 2 Corinthians 12:1–10
Weakness is the key to God’s strength
This talk was given by Paul Wintle on . It is preceded by a reading of 2 Corinthians 12:1–10 from The Message.
The total length of the recording is .
Play in browser
MP3 (21.7 MB) (96kb/s constant rate)
Strength from weakness
You’ve forced me to talk this way, and I do it against my better judgment. But now that we’re at it, I may as well bring up the matter of visions and revelations that God gave me. For instance, I know a man, who fourteen years ago, was seized by Christ and swept in ecstasy to the heights of heaven. I really don’t know if this took place in the body or out of it, only God knows. I also know that this man was hijacked into paradise—again, whether in or out of the body, I don’t know; God knows. There he heard the unspeakable spoken, but was forbidden to tell what he had heard. This is the man I want to talk about. But about myself, I’m not saying another word apart from the humiliations.
If I had a mind to brag a little, I could probably do it without looking ridiculous, and I’d still be speaking plain truth all the way. But I’ll spare you. I don’t want anyone imagining me as anything other than the fool you’d encounter if you saw me on the street or heard me talk.
Because of the extravagance of those revelations, and so I wouldn’t get a big head, I was given the gift of a handicap to keep me in constant touch with my limitations. Satan’s angel did the best to get me down; what he in fact did was push me to my knees. No danger then of walking around high and mighty! At first, I didn’t think of it as a gift, and begged God to remove it. Three times I did that and then he told me,
My grace is enough; it’s all you need.
My strength comes into its own in your weakness.”
Once I heard that, I was glad to let it happen. I quit focusing on the handicap and began appreciating the gift. It was a case of Christ’s strength moving in on my weakness. Now I take limitations in stride, and with good cheer, these limitations that cut me down to size—abuse, accidents, opposition, bad breaks. I just let Christ take over! And so the weaker I get, the stronger I become.
(2 Corinthians 12:1–10, MSG)
[Paul Wintle:] Thank you, Sue. For those who know their scripture that was The Message version of 2 Corinthians 12, when Paul is talking about the thorn in his flesh. Weak but strong. You know when you get to the end of your tether or maybe you don’t. That moment when the things become too much. Just when you think that you might have it all and then things start to crumble, even just a bit. When the weight of the world has become too much, too hard to handle, and you just want to be left alone and cry and curl up, that moment, that moment when everything changes forever and it’s not always for the best.
The time when things just become too much, and you become painfully aware that the normal has just fallen apart. That’s the kind of weak I think that we’re talking about today. Not just the little niggles in life but, let’s be honest, those times when it seems that even God has turned his back and we feel totally bereft and alone with nowhere to turn. At times in our lives, it’s not easy to see the wood for the trees, to find out why on earth something is happening and to discover a reason for the cause.
For centuries, humans have philosophized why it is that bad things can happen to good people, or why it is that God seems distant and, in spite of prayer, nothing seems to change. Perhaps, we conclude that God’s plans are higher than our plans, his thoughts higher than [our] thoughts as Isaiah said. Maybe you’ve heard people talking and using the Bible to bless us and, in doing so, actually ending up hurting our feelings. Maybe, we learn to think that one day this, whatever this is will all be over. Are we able to look back and see the bigger picture? One day, I’ll understand. One day, God will reveal it all and I’ll get it. One day, but it seems that today isn’t going to be that day.
Former Blue Peter and Sky TV presenter Simon Thomas has challenged the church to do more to support those going through difficult times. He’s been speaking to Christianity magazine as he launches his book “Love, Interrupted”, which tells the story of his own grief and the sadness after his wife Gemma died in 2017, just at the age of 40. Speaking to Premier magazine, he said, too often “Christians shy away from talking about [difficulties] because it's challenging their faith” and interrupts what he calls cosy church. He says, “I think what Christians struggle with a little bit when it comes to [bereavement] is when it comes to death at the wrong time in life. … It’s a stark reminder that we are not protected from any of this stuff. … I think sometimes Christians shy away from talking about it because it’s challenging their faith, but it’s also holding a mirror up to them that says this could have been you.”
He continues, “I think we’ve got to get better at being able to talk to each other, particularly guys in the church – talking about our fears; talking about the things we struggle with. … When life is tough, church should be the place where they can say, ‘I’m finding life tough right now.’ But too often, it is the place where they feel that they can’t say that, because they’re breaking through and interrupting cosy church.” Cosy church, I’m glad and I’m sorry if this church is cosy. It’s a people and a place that in so many ways is welcoming and loving.
Though it is a place where people can feel that they can be real and ask hard questions and, perhaps, receive helpful responses and support without them being mere platitudes. And I’m sorry if this is a place where we have not acknowledged the hardships that you, or I, or we, are going through.
I know that we’re a bit British sometimes and say that everything is fine when it’s not and that it is for all of us to work out who we trust with our deepest pains, as well as our norms, as well as our joys because sometimes it’s easiest to be cosy church, isn’t it? To be bright and cheery when it really, really isn’t.
We don’t always feel strong. That’s okay because as we learn today, there is something amazing about grace and something amazing about God’s sufficiency, even when we feel fragile and weak. It seems to be a bit of an odd thing for Paul to begin 2 Corinthians 12 with the theme of boasting or as The Message version said ‘big headedness’ whilst ending up with God’s sufficiency, with some very odd sentences in between. The background to this is 2 Corinthians 10 and 11, you’d be unsurprised to hear, where there seems to be a bit of an issue with the people in Corinth and Paul ’s status as an apostle. The Corinthians are asking why on earth Paul doesn’t show them his credentials as an apostle. What made him who he is? Someone who has seen Jesus face-to-face so that they can really, really believe what Paul is saying to them.
The way that Roman people would often prove themselves would be by stating their credentials. In many ways, it’s no different to today where we want to know where people’s views and ideas come from. Tom Wright, in his book, “Paul: A Biography”, helps us to discover how Roman citizens loved to brag, particularly the officials who were expected to celebrate their achievements. So it was important for Roman soldiers, for example, to claim the crown for being the first over the top in a battle situation. Whether or not they survived was secondary, for they could claim an honour, whether or not it was posthumous.
The main prize, the main thing, was the Corona Muralis, the “wall-crown”. Once the Roman soldier had sworn an oath that he had definitely been the first to go over the ladder into a besieged city, the honour of the Corona Muralis was his, together with all the celebrity culture and status that would come with it. The Corinthian church was rather hoping that Paul would show off his credentials in a similar way, showing off his certificates in theology and degrees but instead he uses some very odd humour and warns his readers at the start of 2 Corinthians 11 that he’s going to start talking like a raving lunatic for a moment, so please humour him. Instead of saying, “Well, I’ve got this master’s degree, I have this theological qualification.” This is what he says. (Silly me for closing the Bible.) 2 Corinthians 11, (in a bit).
I’ve worked much harder, been jailed more often, beaten up more times than I can count, and at death’s door time after time. I’ve been flogged five times with the Jews’ thirty-nine lashes, beaten by Roman rods three times, pummeled with rocks once. I’ve been shipwrecked three times, and immersed in the open sea for a night and a day. In hard traveling year in and year out, I’ve had to ford rivers, fend off robbers, struggle with friends, struggle with foes. I’ve been at risk in the city, at risk in the country, endangered by desert sun and sea storm, and betrayed by those I thought were my brothers. I’ve known drudgery and hard labor. Many a long night and lonely night without sleep, many a missed meal, blasted by the cold, naked to the weather.
(2 Corinthians 11:23–27, MSG)
He goes on and on. He finally says, “If I have to “brag” about myself,” bearing in mind that they were expecting really nice things, …
If I have to “brag” about myself, I’ll brag about the humiliations that made me like Jesus. The eternal and blessed God and Father of our Master Jesus knows I’m not lying. Remember the time I was in Damascus and the Governor of King Aretas posted guards at the city gates to arrest me? I crawled through a window in the wall, was let down in a basket, and had to run for my life.
(2 Corinthians 11:30–33, MSG)
Interesting credentials for a man who was asked to show his good stuff, Paul’s credentials, his CV, his job application as an apostle, is that he had been stoned, whipped, shipwrecked and in danger. He’d been cold, hungry and thirsty. He boasts, in a kind of way, that he had escaped out of a window through a basket. That is not strength, that’s weakness. Paul’s oath is different to the oaths that the Roman soldiers had made but, at the same time, he was trying to make the Corinthian church see that his credentials were different and somehow better.
Backwards to what they were hoping for, just as impressive, if not presented in a humorous way. As we look at 2 Corinthians 12, this is the background. When Paul talks about the revelation, the man who received the revelations of God in the third heavens 14 years ago, he’s still making the same sort of point, using the same sort of humour, that that kind of stuff really doesn’t matter.
Fourteen years ago? That’s not a new experience of God. In not really explaining this rambling experience, he continues this odd humour as a fool to make the point to the Corinthians that he really has no need to go through his record as an apostle. In fact, as he begins to compose himself for the remainder of his letter, he states that the thorn in the flesh seems to be all he had as a qualification for his work as a follower of Jesus, and that this thorn in the flesh, not his experiences he mentioned in his foolish mood, but as a calmer, slower -breathing man, perhaps now in a better frame of mind, this thorn in the flesh was his reward.
Preachers often try to make sense of what on earth Paul’s vision was, but that’s not really important right now. Paul’s message to the Corinthians is that he’s not boasting about his apostolic position or theological qualifications. The important bit of this whole foolish rant comes from these last couple of chapters, is summarized with this. “My grace is sufficient for you. My power is made perfect in weakness. “ Grace is enough. God works best through grace when our personal strengths aren’t in the way.
For the Corinthians, this is not exactly what they want to hear. They want to hear stories of strong battles where the Romans have overcome. They want the heroes of faith to be spoken over them, reminding them that God is with them. They are hankering after those stories, perhaps of the Old Testament where God’s armies smite the enemies and shows his strength. Yet they have Paul the fool. Having such extraordinary experiences within the same breath ending up, telling them that weakness is the key to God’s strength. It’s not the message that the Corinthian church had hoped for.
Grace is sufficient. Grace is enough. God’s grace. It maybe wasn’t the message that Paul had hoped for either. We read that Paul pleaded with God three times, for whatever this thorn was to be removed but it wasn’t. Paul doesn’t talk about this being the will of God, or any other platitude, which we often hear, perhaps when things don’t go our way. This wasn’t a discussion about the will of God being independent of Paul’s will.
This, Paul surmises, is actually about God, and God’s way. His grace and his grace being enough. This is Paul’s way of saying what Simon Thomas was saying in his interview with Christianity magazine. It’s a stark reminder that we are not protected from any of this stuff. How we respond to those times when God doesn’t seem to reply is really quite important. Paul got a reply after a time, but it wasn’t really the answer he wanted. Although it probably was what Paul needed to hear. I would have thought that it may have taken him some time to reflect upon this answer and for him to finally say, “Okay, I’ll delight in those thorns of weakness, in those insults, in those hardships, in those persecutions, in those difficulties. For when I’m weak, then I’m strong.”
There is something in here about reliance on God’s grace. We looked at grace a few weeks ago discovering that grace itself is all about God’s favour towards his people. When we answer the call of Jesus, it’s true that we don’t know how far the calling goes. What struggles perhaps we go through, or perhaps things we have to suffer. When we marry or have children or start a new job or try a new washing powder or try another route in the car, or any other important or mundane thing, we don’t really know how it’s going to work out.
We tend to just trust to fate, to God, that things will work out as they should. When the going gets really, really hard, and I mean impossibly hard, how do we respond? How can we really find strength in weakness? Strength in weakness does really sound like an oxymoron, a contradiction in terms. Either I’m weak, or I’m strong. Surely I can’t become one through the other. Yet Paul says that he can and it’s because of grace.
I want to let you into a secret. During the week, I found it so hard to sit and write this message. I thought about all the computations of how it might go. I even confess to having done other jobs so that I didn’t have to face it and sit down and do it. I felt weak and really overwhelmed in visiting this issue because I hate the platitudes of and coming out with the same stuff. “Oh, God knows best. “ It’s not claptrap because I know that God knows best, but it’s not sometimes the words that we want to hear when we’re going through hard times, about how God might be testing us. It’s not helpful. Anyway, I’m starting to babble. I’ve found it hard to write an intelligent, helpful, challenging, encouraging, blessing message today and I’m finding it hard to end as well. As a good careers advisor, I was told “If you get stuck, summarise.” Paul’s foolishness, the Corinthians ’ desire to have his credentials on show.
Paul’s thorn – what does that have to say to us? How will I wrap it up in a positive fashion? Especially if I’m not feeling that it’s a good enough response just to say, “My grace,” says God, “ is sufficient for you. My power is made perfect in weakness.” There’s a different kind of strength, the kind that’s really worth having and to possess it, we need to be weak. So what? I think the key is in our response, so I’d like to share how Saint Teresa, Mother Teresa of Calcutta, responded. She knew what it was like to live a life giving up everything for others. We see her life as something to be lived up to.
The tiny nun who lived amongst the poorest of the poor, she would seek out the worst shoes to wear from the ones thrown out onto the rubbish heap. Did she feel strong? Did she gain strength from being weak? I’ve been reading a book by my friend Steve Chalke called the “Last Message of Paul “ and he mentions Mother Teresa and her faithfulness.
During her lifelong service to the poorest of the poor …; her extraordinary compassion for the sick, the dying and thousands of others whom nobody else was prepared to care for has been recognized and is acclaimed across the globe.
But, after her death in 1997, a collection of Teresa’s private letters were put together which revealed another, until then, secret dimension to her story. She had spent almost 50 years of her life feeling completely disconnected from God and often doubting [his] existence.
Back in 1946, after 17 years working as a teacher in Calcutta, Mother Teresa, then 36, went on retreat to the Himalayan foothills. On the journey there, she says that she felt Christ calling her to abandon the safety of her role at the school and, instead, go to work in the slums of the city, dealing directly with the poorest of the poor …. She said that she heard the voice of Jesus himself challenging her to ‘Come, be my light.’
Two years later …, Teresa was finally given permission by her seniors to embark on what would become her lifetime vocation – among the poor and dying. She wrote, ‘My soul at present is in perfect peace and joy.’ But within two months of beginning her new work, she wrote to a close friend to confess that she was struggling: ‘What tortures of loneliness … I wonder how long my heart will suffer this?’ A whole five years later, in 1953, she wrote to another friend: ‘Please pray especially for me … that our Lord may show Himself – for there is such terrible darkness within me, as if everything was dead. It has been like this more or less from the time I started the work.’ But, as her later letters reveal, and although she found a way to accept this absence, except for a break of a few weeks 1958, it never lifted again for her for the rest of her life.
(From Steve Chalke, “The Lost Message of Paul”, chapter 8)
She mentions words like dryness and darkness and loneliness, torture. The smile she explained was a mask, a cloak that covers everything. Steve Chalke goes on, as Steve Chalke does, but at the end of his chapter he says this,
And that, of course, is [exactly] the point of the story of [Mother Teresa’s] life. The woman who believed a story then chose to live faithfully within it. The members of Teresa’s order initially fought against the publication of her letters, arguing that they wanted them to be destroyed in order to protect her reputation. It was only as the Vatican stepped in that they were saved. This proved to be a wonderful decision – for, far from being an embarrassment, they have become a source of strength for others as they speak of genuine faithfulness.
Whatever Teresa’s feelings, fears, doubts, or state of unbelief, her commitment to the narrative she inhabited never wavered. For Teresa, ‘faithfulness’ to her story – even though, for her, ‘faith’ in terms of her feelings was always elusive – [her faithfulness] was enough.
(From Steve Chalke, “The Lost Message of Paul”, chapter 8)
I guess, in summarising and finally summarising, I guess what I’ve been trying to say all along today is this, we don’t have to have it all together to be part of God’s family. We don’t have to have the right answers to offer people in pain. We don’t have to feel strong and, in particular, when we are feeling vulnerable and fragile, it’s important to be ourselves.
It’s important to face up to whatever the reality of the situation is, to allow ourselves to wallow and to be comforted, and to let that moment be what it is and when that moment is right, to take that deep breath and to know that even if it’s not going to be all rights and maybe that it’s not going to be all right, that somehow it’s going to be all right. Let it be what it is. We may not be able to change the situation, the thorny situation, but we might come to understand that God’s grace is there to help us and that even if it’s not all right, then it’s all right.
Part of our response is that if we’re not all right, then we might want to share that with somebody and it may be that we need to be caring enough to be able to listen and to have time with one another to turn around, and to pray for one another in and after our church services. To be that community, to be the thorn softeners. Should we have a moment?
A poem by my friend Jill Rowe, maybe this is for you.
Maybe you need to hear this.
It’s okay not to know, not to understand, not to be sure of anything right now, even the things you once knew.
It’s okay if you’ve lost your way a little or a lot.
It’s okay if today feels tough.
It’s okay if you can’t hide your wounds and scars right now.
It’s okay if the way ahead looks more uncertain than ever it looked before.
It’s okay if your strength seems to have gone or you feel a bit stuck or on empty.
It’s okay if it’s finally dawned on you that this was always about surrender and not about victory.
It’s okay if you feel at the bottom rather than at the top.
It’s okay if all you can hear is a whisper rather than the voice of certainty and confidence.
It’s okay if you’re on your knees.
It’s okay if your breath feels short.
Hold on, hold on tight.
God has got you.
Just start where you are, right where you find yourself.
Look for the light, even if you have to pierce the darkness with your tired eyes and just start right where you are.
May God add his blessing to his word this morning.
Chalke, Steve, The Lost Message of Paul: Why has the Church misunderstood the Apostle Paul?, SPCK, 2019
Thomas, Simon, Love, Interrupted: Navigating Grief One Day at a Time, Trigger Publishing: The Inspirational Series, 2019.
Wright, N T (Tom), Paul: A Biography, SPCK, 2018
“Simon Thomas: Grief, unanswered prayer and life after death” in Premier
Christianity, September 2019 issue. [Link requires subscription].
Content from the article is also available in the podcast The Profile: Simon Thomas: Losing my wife, raising our son, and battling depression as a Christian.
This talk is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License
Bible quotations marked MSG on this page and in the talk are from THE MESSAGE, copyright © 1993, 2002, 2018 by Eugene H. Peterson. Used by permission of NavPress. All rights reserved. Represented by Tyndale House Publishers, Inc.