‘He said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my strength is perfected in weakness’ (2 Cor. 12:9)
Not like the Stoics
We don’t gain strength like the stoics. They aren’t looking for anything outside themselves. Their focus is to keep going and not to show any weakness. If there’s a problem, they grin and bear it – indeed, if they acknowledge that it exists at all. Paul was no stoic. He had a weakness, a thorn in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to buffet him. Paul did not put on a brave face. Three times he asked the Lord to take it away. I think that this refers to his engaging in fervent prayer, maybe with fasting. Clearly he wanted it off his back, but the Lord said to him, ‘My grace is sufficient for you for my strength is perfected in your weakness.’
Strength is perfected in weakness. What does that mean? ‘Hey, soldiers be strong in the Lord and in the power of his might. Come on pull yourself up.’ No. Paul is the one writing, the chief soldier. And what a soldier! He was crying out to God, asking him to get the thorn out of his life. Have you noticed – he doesn’t just state what God said about grace, strength and weakness, but begins with the words, ‘But he said to me…’? I’ve underlined that phrase in my Bible. Paul is strengthened because he knew what God had said to him. That’s why he could declare, ‘I’ll glory in my weakness! I’ll boast in it, so that the glory of God can rest upon me.’
So when you wonder if you can keep up with others and you feel that everyone else is more capable than you are, call on God and hear him say, ‘My strength is perfected in weakness. I love you. I called you. I chose you. I’ll strengthen you.’ Paul celebrated his weakness. This is the wonder of Christian strength. It’s not about pulling ourselves together but about hearing from God.
Hear the words
When Daniel was seeking God and fasting, one came to him and said, ‘O man of high esteem, don’t be afraid. Peace be with you. Take courage, be courageous’ (Dan. 10:19). As soon as he spoke, Daniel received strength and said, ‘You have strengthened me.’ If we keep saying to ourselves, ‘I must pull myself together’ we’ll have a nervous breakdown. But if we hear the words, My grace is sufficient’, we’ll go on for ever and ever.
The secret of being content
Paul says, ‘I’ve learned the secret. I’m familiar with weakness. I’ve learned to be content’ (Phil. 4:12). This is interesting because here Paul uses a fairly well known technical phrase associated with initiation into one of the mystery religions. That phrase is: ‘I have learned the technique’. Paul borrows it and applies it to the secret of being content. Then he goes on to say, ‘I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.’
We can be tempted to think that this verse about being able to do all things through Christ actually refers to amazing ministries, power and signs. We desperately need these things in the church, but Paul isn’t talking about them here. Rather, he’s focusing on coping with pressure. He’s learned to do all things through Christ. He’s gained strength by the Spirit within him.
This post was adapted from the 1st of three sermons on the Armour of God preached at Together on a Mission 2010