Home » Sermons » New Testament » 2 Corinthians » Of Strength, Weakness and The Power Of God


Of Strength, Weakness and The Power Of God


2 Corinthians 12:1-10


Contradictions riddle life everywhere.  At home you are soaked in so much love it’s like being immersed in a warm bath. In the workplace, however, the bathtub becomes a shark tank, and only your wits keep you from being eaten alive, even as you know your wits might not save you from the workplace sharks forever.Again, you are amazed at the affection so many people lavish upon you, and amazed once more that the people who cherish you are often the ones you wouldn’t expect to. You are just as amazed at the hostility of people who don’t like you, and don’t like you for reasons you’ve never been able to figure out.

Life is like this; life abounds in contradictions.

The contradictions of life are all the more startling when we move from the horizontal plane to the vertical, when we move from the contradictions found in our life with our fellows to the contradictions confronting us as the truth and reality of God seizes us. One such contradiction stood out in the life of the apostle Paul.  On the one hand he was exhilarated at being “caught up to the third heaven”, as he put it, “the third heaven” being a Hebrew expression for utmost intimacy with God; unmistakable, unsurpassable, unforgettable. On the other hand he was tormented by his “thorn in the flesh”, an occasion of chronic pain that tortured him relentlessly.         On the one hand, an exposure to God so very vivid and ecstatic as to leave him speechless; on the other hand, an infirmity that continued to bring him anguish comparable to being speared.         What did it all add up to?


I: — Let’s begin by looking at his ecstatic experience.  It wasn’t the only instance of spiritual vividness in his life.  Paul appears to have had uncommonly rich visions, revelations and ecstasies. His encounter with the risen Christ on the road to Damascus had certainly been one of them, foundational, in fact.  Later he had been praying in Jerusalem when he had fallen into a trance and was mystically told to leave the city before he was beaten to death.  Another day he had had a vision of a man from Macedonia crying out, “Come over here and help us.”  Yet again he had had a “visitation” in which he had been told to speak boldly in a particular city in that God was going to bring many people to faith there through his proclamation.

If the Damascus road experience was foundational in the life of the apostle, his experience fourteen years before his first visit to the congregation in Corinth was the climax of all such experiences: “Caught up to the third heaven.” He means “Admitted to intimacy with God, an intimacy whose intensity defies description.” “Caught up to paradise”: he means “Given, amidst the savagery and sorrow and frustration of this earth, a vision of God’s final restoration of the creation, all of it enveloped in an ecstasy no language can capture.”

Unlike religious exhibitionists today who are only too eager to chatter and prattle on TV talk shows, Paul didn’t yammer on and on about this. What, after all, is to be said if an experience is beyond words?  Then why did he speak of it at all?  He attempted to speak the unspeakable in that his detractors goaded him into speaking. His detractors in Corinth snickered that he was a kindergarten Christian, a spiritual midget, someone the shallow Christians there could laugh at one minute and dismiss the next. It grieved the apostle to hear this. When they kept it up, however, and used it as the pretext for dismissing what he had to say to them, he felt he couldn’t turn a deaf ear to it any longer: he would have to refute them if he was going to minister to them. “Listen to this”, he told them; “fourteen years ago I heard what cannot be uttered; I saw what cannot be described.”

We mustn’t trivialise Paul’s experience and pretend that it was merely short-lived psychological fireworks, a Queen Victoria’s Day sparkler that coruscated in his head for a few seconds and then fizzled out cold. I’m convinced, rather, that his experience fired his apostolic work for the rest of his life. Whenever he was ridiculed, slandered, beaten up; when he was afflicted with the worst affliction of all, simply being ignored because not taken seriously; in any and all of this all he had to do was recall the event of his immersion in the innermost depths of God and his zeal for the gospel was renewed again. It wasn’t a thirty-second “rush” as if he had inhaled a lungful of “wacky-baccy”; it was a disclosure of God so intense and so vivid that he never lacked its light and heat for the rest of his life.

If his detractors in the Corinthian congregation had been half as smart as they thought they were they would have known they had a spiritual giant in their midst, someone as huge as Elijah with his experience of earthquake, wind, fire and still, small voice; someone as huge as Elisha with his “double portion” of Elijah’s spirit; someone as huge as Daniel with his prostrating vision of the awesome Son of Man; someone as huge as Ezekiel when, in Ezekiel’s own words, “the heavens were opened and I saw visions of God”.  The Christians in Corinth , however, weren’t even half as smart as they thought they were.  They were the spiritual midgets.

Since Paul’s innermost ecstasy was private and ultimately inexpressible, he referred to it at all and stammered out the most inadequate expression only because his detractors forced him to.         Having mentioned it once to make his point and establish his credibility, however, he wanted to get off the topic lest anyone think him to be posturing himself as other than, greater than, the fragile, frail creature that all of us are. Just in case he was ever tempted to imagine himself lifted above the mundane existence that no one is ever lifted above, “third heaven” experience or not, he told the Corinthians of his thorn in the flesh.  His “thorn” wasn’t a sliver; in classical Greek skolops meant a sharpened stake. The sharpened stake could be anything from a sharpened tent peg to a sharpened fence post to a sharpened instrument of torture and execution on which someone was impaled. It wasn’t a sliver. In other words, there remained in the apostle the twin vividness of his “third heaven” ecstasy and his ceaseless torment.  Regardless of his immersion in the heart of God, he suffered the pain of any human being; and suffered it not once, not even occasionally, but relentlessly.


II: — His inescapable torment: what was it? We don’t know. Some people have guessed epilepsy; some have guessed recurring bouts of malarial fever accompanied by fierce headaches.  In any case we don’t know.  Neither is it important to know.

But it is important to know what his pain-riddled weakness meant to Paul. It meant that regardless of how strong he might appear to some people all the time, or how strong he might appear to all people some of the time, in fact he was weak and would always be weak. Unlike so many others, however, he owned his weakness.  Unashamed of his weakness, he didn’t attempt to deny it or disguise it. Own it?  He did more than own it; he even gloried in it.

It’s important that you and I own our weakness.  Before we even think of glorying in it, we are going to have to own it. Regardless of whether the pain attending it is slight or severe; regardless of whether the impediment surrounding it is little more than a nuisance or nothing less than disabling; regardless of whether it occasions minor embarrassment or major humiliation; in any case it’s important that we own it. For if we don’t own our weakness, then we are denying something that everyone else can see in any case, and we are living in a world of make-believe.         If we don’t own it then we are consciously suppressing or unconsciously repressing something that will fester until the ensuing “infection” distresses us.

But in the church we shouldn’t pretend that psychological categories are the last word; in the church we must admit that theology is the last word, the truth of God.  Then we must say that if don’t own our weakness we are plainly more concerned with looking good than with doing good; more concerned with how we appear than with who we are and how fruitful we can be in the service of God.

What’s more, if we don’t own our weakness we shall always be thrusting people away from us; not deliberately, I admit, yet holding them off none the less. You see, in a world where everyone is weak somewhere, it’s our weakness – owned, joked about even – that endears us to people.         Where we are weak we endear them; where we are strong we intimidate them. To pretend that we are always strong, everywhere strong, nothing but strong is to barricade others from us. Not to own our weakness is forever to be deceiving ourselves and forever to be repelling others.

The saddest thing about not owning our weakness, however, isn’t that we isolate others and falsify ourselves, sad as these are; the saddest thing, rather, is that we prevent the power of Christ from resting upon us. Paul insists that it’s precisely at the point of our weakness that the power of Christ rests upon us. So certain is he of this truth, so consistent is the evidence supporting this truth, that he finds himself going one step farther: he glories in his weakness. He wears his weakness like a badge of honour.


I am moved every time I ponder today’s text.  I am moved whenever I think of the woman I sat with on the Board of Directors of the Peel Mental Health Housing Coalition. The coalition endeavours to procure living accommodation for those who are chronically wounded psychiatrically.  The woman I have in mind has, in the course of a year, several good months, several bad months, and several months whose horror is indescribable. She is schizophrenic herself and moves in and out of the episodes that most schizophrenics know. She suffers terribly. But she isn’t ashamed of her illness. She doesn’t try to hide it. (She’s not so foolish as to think she can.)  She doesn’t pretend she’s non-schizophrenic, doesn’t pretend anything at any time. She does, however, have a credible word to speak to people who suffer as she does; she has a believable word of encouragement, a weighty word of the gospel – a word that you and I can’t speak in the same way to such sufferers in that their weakness isn’t ours and ours isn’t theirs.

We all want to think we’re of greatest use to God at the point of our greatest strength. Just imagine how super-effective God could render my strongpoint, already effective in itself (I like to think.)         Just imagine how fortunate God is that my talent is available for his kingdom. This is what we all want to say, even though our postured modesty prevents us from saying it loudly. The truth is God is nervous about so much as acknowledging my strength.  He knows I’m always one step away from being a show-off; he knows my lurking pride would inflate insufferably if my strength were given the recognition I think it deserves.  For this reason the apostle’s declaration is as sensible as it is startling: our strength is of some use to God, to be sure, but only of moderate use to God; our weakness, on the other hand, is simply indispensable to God – for it’s our weakness which God suffuses with that power which raised his Son when his Son was so weak he couldn’t have been weaker.

On several occasions I’ve been asked to speak at services for physically disabled adults. One evening I noticed a fellow with severe cerebral palsy, twitching in his wheel chair, who seemed inconsolable.  The music that night was brought by a husband and wife who could sing like larks. They could both sing, but only one could walk: the wife.  Her husband was in a wheelchair, paraplegic, the result of a hunting mishap. (His hunting companion had accidentally shot him in the spine.)  The paraplegic hunter sang with his wife, spoke briefly, noticed the distraught c.p. sufferer. A few minutes later he wheeled over to the distraught fellow to speak and embody and bestow a solace that no one else in the room could have.

Dr. James Wilkes, the psychiatrist under whom I studied and from whom I learned more than I can tell you; Jim’s wife worked as a nurse at Princess Margaret Hospital after she had been diagnosed with cancer herself, and continued nursing there until she was too ill to work.  Clearly she had something to share with the patients at Princess Margaret that I don’t have – yet.  I spoke with her at home when she had become too ill even to attend church. She told me that housebound as she was, and growing sicker every day, she spent much time praying for others. “Intercession is the one ministry left me”, she remarked, “but it’s ministry enough.”

Moses stuttered. Because he stuttered no one ever confused that Word of God which he uttered – most noticeably the Sinai pronouncement that has forged and formed the consciousness of the western world – with the words of Moses.

Hosea was heartbroken and humiliated when his wife became a “hooker” and flaunted it. Out of his heartbroken humiliation Hosea became the prophet who spoke unforgettably of God’s heartbreak at the waywardness and infidelity of Israel . “How can I give you up?  How can I give you up?”

All of us have weaknesses both great and little.  Our weakness can be something as obvious as physical disability.  Or our weakness can be something less evident (or something we think to be less evident, since there are never as many secrets about us as we pretend there are.) Our weakness can be something tinged with shame.  Like the aftermath of sexual abuse endured in childhood; like the psychological vulnerability acquired through who knows what assaults in life; like – like what? Our weaknesses are as varied as any other feature of humankind.         Ownership of our weakness would give us access to others who’ve been victimised in the same way; ownership would give us a ministry that others will never have.

Perhaps our weakness concerns a besetting temptation with which we’ve struggled for years. Beset with it, we have had to continue resisting it.  Most likely we’ve thought we were alone in our struggle with this particular matter. To own it and shed our shame concerning it would also end the isolation of another lonely, frightened struggler who has also thought she alone had to contend here and wondered why she had to and for how much longer she’d be able to. Let’s never forget that to find ourselves tempted relentlessly somewhere in life is to be saddled with additional temptation, the temptation to self-rejection. Think of how we could be used of God right here on behalf of someone else.  We have to get beyond thinking that our weakness is the like the sign on the empty, darkened bus, “Out Of Service”.  Remember, the apostle glories in his weakness.


III: — We shouldn’t be surprised that he does.  After all, he tells us elsewhere that he glories in the cross; the cross of Jesus, that is. He knows that the power of God is simply the efficacy of the cross.  Of course he knows this: his apostleship is the result of it.  Furthermore, it’s no accident the apostle tells us he pleaded with God three times for the removal of his affliction.  He has in mind his Lord’s torment in Gethsemane when Jesus pleaded three times to be spared having to drink the cup to the dregs. Yet so unforeseeable is God’s power, so insuperable, so startling is God’s power that not even the cross – and apparent victory of the evil one – not even the evil one’s gloating could frustrate the purposes of God. And just as grace was sufficient for our Lord in Gethsemane, just as God’s strength remains effective in the weakness of the crucified one, so you and I must trust God’s grace to be sufficient for us and trust his strength to be effective in our weaknesses, whether those weaknesses are great or little. Ever since the Damascus road event the apostle had known the resurrection to be the efficacy of the weakness of the cross; and ever since Damascus road event he had known he could glory and must glory in his own weakness, for to be ashamed of his weakness would mean he was ashamed of his Lord; and this he was never going to be.


Unlike Paul I’m not going to say that I’ve been caught up to the third heaven. But I want to say I’ve been caught up to the first.  My exposure to God, my experience of God, my vocation to the ministry; it’s all rich enough to find me resonating with the apostle’s experience and affirming the apostle’s declaration.


“About my thorn in the flesh”, the little man from Tarsus said, “It hurts; it hurts terribly.  But I’m stuck with it. Still, I know it to be the occasion of God’s grace and the venue of his strength. Therefore I regard my weakness as no impediment at all to my usefulness in that kingdom which is like no other kingdom.” So said the little man from Tarsus to the congregation in Corinth .

Did the congregation in Corinth ever hear him?


Victor Shepherd     July 2007