Today I flunked an exam.
It does not feel good.
I am in Spanish language school, full-time. All “good” missionaries study language intensively in order to communicate with the people whom they seek to serve. And of course God gives all “good” missionaries a natural aptitude to master a second language.
What if he calls one to live in the epitome of their weakness (for me, Mexico)? And what if in their obvious lack of strength, they are perfectly fulfilling God’s every purpose for their life?
How can this be?
I have taken long walks these last months, asking God such questions in my struggle to learn Spanish, for it has always been a struggle and I am tired.
The apostle Paul has joined these walks it seems, and his words press in hard to my heart:
“On my own behalf I will not boast, except of my weaknesses—though if I should wish to boast, I would not be a fool, for I would be speaking the truth; but I refrain from it, so that no one may think more of me than he sees in me or hears from me. So to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited. Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should 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 12:5-10
This all seems nonsense.
Here, Paul was writing the fourth letter to the Corinthian church. It is his most autobiographical letter and primarily practical. In chapters 10-13, Paul is defending his authority as an apostle of Jesus, which had been questioned by opposing false teachers.
Out of all the ways Paul could have defended himself and his calling, his chooses to do so by all-out boasting in the awful suffering he has endured (and not in a poor-me, attention-getting, playing-the-victim, whining way) and his weakness!
As if these establish his credibility as one called and appointed by Jesus?
StrengthFinders obviously had not yet been invented…
Let’s look more closely at the Greek interpretation of the key words specifically in verses 9-10 and their particular usage in this passage:
Grace ~ God’s ability to influence the heart to be calmly happy, glad and filled with delight and joy
Power ~ Refers to the miraculous manifestation of God (in a person or thing)
Made Perfect ~ To bring to an intended goal
Weakness ~ Strengthless; crippled; sick; weak; feeble; faint-hearted; timid
Boast ~ Living with head held high; glory; proudly exult; declare with confidence
Content ~ To view with favor; to be pleased with
Strong ~ To enable, to empower, to establish, to make vigorous, to confirm
Therefore, we could paraphrase (something I find helpful to do after defining key words in a passage) Paul’s words to read something like this:
“My ability to influence your heart to be calm, glad and filled with joy — in the midst of your weakness, sickness, and timidity — is more than enough for you. For in your lack, I will miraculously manifest Myself in your life! I will bring you to the intended goal for which I created you! Therefore, you can hold your head up high and declare with confidence all your feebleness, because it is in contrite humility that I dwell most powerfully. That has always been My way. For the sake of Jesus, (did he, the Son of God, not humble himself to death?) be pleased with your lack and look with favor upon your troubles for they do not have the last word; I will enable you, I will empower you, I will establish you, I will confirm you, again and again.”
And so, I boast publicly, and with gladness!
I declare that my second-language ability is not one of my greatest strengths. Indeed at this present time, it is a glaring and frustrating weakness. This does not mean that you or I should give up and retreat, for we are not of those who shrink back (Hebrews 10:39).
I don’t know the secret will of God concerning this weakness and many others in my life and the life of my family.
Nor do you, concerning yours.
I do know that the Holy Spirit helps us and prays for us in our weaknesses (Romans 8:26).
I do know that Jesus understands our embarrassing sense of vulnerability, for he took on the dusty form of a man and became the essence of weakness to accomplish the most powerful act in all eternal history — while the world looked on and mocked.
I do know that God’s work for you and for me is not limited to what we can understand, express or excel at, and that none of my wrong thinking should limit his acting (Ephesians 3:20).
Personally, I know I am desperate for him to be my entire strength and courage, for he has asked of me over and over again to do what I cannot do in and of myself in order that he may be proved to be God of my life.
Let us pray together, for I know you share my desperation:
Take our sufferings, take our weaknesses O Christ, and prove through them the sufficiency of Your grace! We receive the gift of a happy and contented heart in the midst of failure, in the midst of feebleness! Manifest Your fullness in our lives in miraculous and undeniable ways that call attention to all Your excellencies. All our lack is all your opportunity. Simultaneously, we choose to bow before you and lift up our heads in confidence that we belong to You. Thank you for enabling us, for empowering us, for establishing us, and for confirming us as your called ones — no matter our present abilities, no matter the measure of our strength. All we have and all we are comes from you and belongs to you. Your will be done.