This morning’s Hopelessly comes from our friend Joseph McDaniels.
“Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that [this thorn in my flesh] would leave me. But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ 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 Corinthians 12:8-10, ESV).
Coming away from these verses with a sense of despair might not be that unusual. Who among us wants to plead with the Lord day and night to take away our suffering, only for Him to answer gently, but firmly, “No”? And more than that, for Him to say, “In fact, I will uphold your weakness so that my power can be displayed.” Couldn’t the Lord take away our suffering and still be glorified? Isn’t it possible that he could somehow display his power in my talents and strengths, rather than in my suffering? Why does it have to be this way?
None of us likes to suffer, although there is a kind of suffering that we’re proud of. It’s that suffering that gets you back on your bike after a crash; the suffering of sleepless nights spent preparing tomorrow’s reports and lectures and speeches; it’s the suffering that comes with one more rep, one more mile, one more lap, one more shot. These are the sufferings of determination and grit—sufferings we choose. These are the sufferings which validate our will and our integrity and our character. We endure this kind of suffering proudly because we know it makes us strong.
But this isn’t the kind of suffering that Paul is talking about. Jesus says, “My power is made perfect in weakness.” No one is proud of being weak. No one brags about being cut from the varsity team, or about being passed over for a promotion. No one boasts of needing pills to keep themselves even, or of the late night binges of a pornography addiction. No one is proud of not knowing how to handle conflict between their parents, or what to do when their kids just won’t listen. Paul is talking about the embarrassing kind of suffering, the suffering of being helpless and feeling weak. This is just where Christ left Paul, just where Christ called him to remain.
That’s because it is only in our weakness that the gospel has real power. In Romans 1, Paul says that the gospel is the power of God for salvation. Jesus said that he did not come to tend to the healthy but to the sick and to the lost. Salvation necessarily means admitting you’re weak, admitting that you can’t find your way, that you can’t fix the problem. It means admitting that you just can’t stop, and that the situation is out of control. Salvation is for those who need saving.
This salvation, too, is not a one-time event. Yes, we are united to Christ once for all time—our final acquittal cannot be revoked. But salvation is also a moment-by-moment, existential dependence upon the grace of God in Christ. We are never free of our need of him. This is why all are equal in Christ, and why there is no room for boasting.
The irony of Paul’s boasting in weakness leads us to see that he is really not boasting in himself at all. Rather, he is boasting in the magnitude of God’s salvation in him. Paul is living out of a place of helplessness because there his weakness becomes the occasion for God’s grace and power to work in and through him. If Paul’s weakness is great, greater still is God’s salvation. The Christian life, then, is one of waiting in existential weakness, a place from which we constantly admit our helplessness and look for the power of God.
“My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”