For When I am Weak, Then I am Strong. 2 Corinthians 12:10.
Weakness. It’s terrifying. Or at least, I find it to be so. I hate being unprepared, insufficient, not up to the job. I fight it and grapple with it each day of my life. Control. I want things to be under control, to be calculated, understood, manageable.
But it’s an illusion. It can’t be so and when, exhausted, I finally get up – covered in the dust, the scratches, the bruises of the fight – I look into the face of my opponent and, like Jacob, see that I’ve been wrestling with God.
I love God. But I also fear Him. I know He cannot be controlled, that He’s bigger than me. But internally I fight. More evidently so since I came to Colombia.
The vulnerability of walking home at night knowing I could be robbed. Knowing also that He’s with me, but that He might allow it all the same.
The sense of helplessness when I can’t get work done because the power’s out in my neighbourhood, the lights gone dark and all there is to do is lie in bed in a humph and wait the storm out.
For much of my time here I felt like a baby. I couldn’t speak. Then gradually my clumsy mouth began to form mangled, childish Spanish phrases which were a humbling replacement to the smoother English I had learned studying English Literature at university.
I know it was always there, but I’d never sensed so intensely the pang, the sting, the stench of my own weakness as I have done here. Now I see, each day is laced with it, tinged with it, mixed with it. And slowly, reluctantly I’m coming to terms with it.
Each day has failure. Each day is imperfect. Yet, by the grace of God, each day is good.
Like me, have you had moments where you’ve felt almost overwhelmed by your smallness, your powerlessness, your brokenness?
As a Christian, the consciousness of all this is only heightened by the fact that we try to model ourselves on perfection – we try to model ourselves on Jesus. What a humbling thing to do!
Humbling, yes, and sometimes devastating.
No matter how much we try we never live up.
It can be hard to reconcile. If Christians have access to the truth: why do we get things wrong? Why do we mess up? Why do Christian individuals and institutions sometimes set bad examples instead of good ones? And why is Christian history so full of mess and hurt and plain evil at times?
These are questions, surely, to rage at in confusion and despair. These are questions that should make us either flex our muscles in a desperate but doomed attempt to prove the unprovable – that we really are good – or lie in the dust, defeated.
Yet Paul didn’t seem to think so.
For when I am weak, then I am strong.
We know that Paul had a ‘thorn in his flesh’, some unspecified sin, that he grappled with and struggled with but was never given the strength by God to overcome. Yet he doesn’t speak as someone who, throwing up his hands in defeat, is surrendering. Instead, he knows that the strange paradox contained in his words is a weapon – not a white flag.
For when I am weak, then I am strong.
Who knew that accepting weakness could be a battle cry?
Who knew that acknowledging your own powerlessness, could wield the power to send evil scurrying?
Why Christians were Never Meant to Think We were Strong
As Christians we aren’t supposed to rely on our own strength, our own goodness, or our own perfection.
Jesus demonstrated this in the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector in Luke 18.
Here, two men went to the temple to pray to God. The first was a Pharisee and the prayer he offered God was a prayer of thankfulness – or was it? While it did contain the word ‘thank you’ in it, it was a prayer dripping in self-righteousness spoken in a tone of self-congratulation rather than thankfulness:
God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.
By contrast the next person to approach God in prayer was a tax collector – regarded as the epitome of immorality at this time. Yet the tone of this man’s prayer was one of humility and genuine repentance for where he knew he had failed God.
But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’
The moral of Jesus’ story? We’re all sinners but the ones of us who accept our weakness and lean on God for our strength in the face of our flaws and failings, will be justified. Anything else is self-delusion. Anything else is aspiring to be something that we’re not.
Paul and Self-Justification
Paul was especially sensitive to this need to lean on God for justification. Aside from the ‘thorn in his flesh’ already mentioned, Paul’s life story was far from a moral exemplar.
He’d hunted down Christians for execution. He’d been present at the stoning of St Stephen.
There was blood on Paul’s hands that he could never wipe clean.
But Jesus could. Jesus did.
And because Paul was so obviously a flawed and broken human being – in no way perfect like Jesus – generations of Christians have been left without any doubt about the source of the good that Paul did do. The goodness came from the way God worked in Paul’s life. From the transformation caused by that dazzlingly bright moment when Jesus appeared to Paul in a vision so strongly, so unmistakably that it rocked Paul’s world and set him on a totally new path for the rest of his life.
As Christians we have to be satisfied with that humbler role.
We will never be the light that Jesus was.
There will always be some murkiness, some muddiness contaminating the purity of God’s beams through us. There will always be a contrast between ourselves and the name we bear as Christians.
But would we want it any other way?
Why We Wouldn’t Want to Be Like God
Paul knew the dangers of wishing to resemble God too strongly. Paul knew that when God performed His power through you in miraculous ways people could easily mistake you for the source, not the instrument of that power.
In Acts 14 we read how after Paul and Barnabas performed a miracle at Lystra, the people who observed it raised their voices and cried:
The gods have come down to us in the likeness of men!
Of course, as soon as Paul heard about this he quickly corrected them and tried to turn them towards God – whose message, he explained, they were tasked with demonstrating to them through these miracles. Yet the crowds, approaching to offer sacrifices to them, proved difficult to dissuade.
Later the crowds would turn on them and stoning Paul, leave him for dead – though, thankfully, he was still in fact alive.
Adam and Eve and their Failure to Accept Weakness
Yet aside from the confusion it could cause in others and the danger of prompting idolatry, there’s another, profounder reason as to why we must accept our weaknesses.
That reason can be traced to the story of the Garden of Eden where the weaknesses of the human heart are laid bare.
What was it that Satan tempted Adam and Eve with when he got them to eat the forbidden fruit?
The power to be like God:
For God knows that in the day you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.Genesis 3:5
The desire to be like God – that’s what’s got the human heart and the world around us in such a mess.
For When I am Weak, Then I am Strong: A Battle Cry
Which is why Paul’s acceptance of weakness when he states ‘For when I am weak, then I am strong’ is such a powerful battle cry. If you really believe this verse and let it work on you – deeply, profoundly, in your inner-most parts – then this verse has the power to cut open, with surgical precision, and pull out the very tumour plaguing the human heart which is the cause of evil.
Unlike Adam and Eve, who wanted to be like God, Paul’s words are a complete reversal. He will ‘boast’ of his weaknesses because in doing so he acknowledges that as humans we are lesser and God is greater. He accepts the position God assigned for him in creation and in doing so charges headlong onto the territory the Devil had won when he tempted Adam and Eve to try to become more powerful than God made them.
And so we too, as Christians, must make this verse our battle cry as we go out into our daily spiritual battles:
For When I am Weak, then I am Strong
Crying out these words at the top of our lungs, we must stop the pretending, the whitewashing of our sinfulness, the attempts to ‘save face’ by concealing what we really are. Instead, as painful and devastating to our egos as it might be, we must acknowledge our weaknesses and bear them before others.
And when we do, be prepared to hear the screams of darkness retreating.
Prompts for Thought
Do you feel a pressure to appear like you have it all together? Do you find it difficult to accept your weaknesses?
How do you think adopting ‘For when I am weak, then I am strong’ as your battle cry might change your perspective on the situations around you?