Therefore, so that I would not exalt myself, a thorn in the flesh was given to me, a messenger of Satan to torment me so I would not exalt myself. Concerning this, I pleaded with the Lord three times to take it away from me. But He said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness.” (2 Cor. 12:7b-9a)
We are so conditioned by the logic of our earthly world to see power as brute force. The sports team with the bigger, stronger players is powerful. The army with larger numbers and better weapons is powerful. We are drawn to power in every arena of life. We like powerful cars. We want to play for the winning team. We want to work for the winning company. We want to get a good deal when we buy things, which is really a desire to exert our power. We maneuver or even fight for power within our relationships. We have bought into the idea that power, control and autonomy are the pinnacle of existence. We seek to avoid situations where we are not in control. If we have to be on a team we want to be on the winning team. We want to follow a leader who is powerful and in control. My observation is that there is little difference in this regard between Christians and non-Christians.
But what if Jesus taught and revealed that the Kingdom of God doesn’t run on this underlying principle of power and control? What if power is perfected in weakness? What if weakness is the goal? That almost sounds absurd. We are okay with thinking that we need to experience weakness to learn a lesson or two, but in the end, surely we will be exalted. Weakness is only a temporary condition, right? We are so conditioned to see weakness as bad. You don’t get things done through weakness. However, more and more as I read the gospels I see Jesus revealing that the Kingdom of God does not work like the kingdoms of the world. This is why we need to be born again – born of the spirit. The Kingdom of God is radical – it is not just a cleaned up kingdom of the world. Matthew shares a perfect example of this in chapter 16 of his gospel.
21 From then on Jesus began to point out to His disciples that He must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders, chief priests, and scribes, be killed, and be raised the third day. 22 Then Peter took Him aside and began to rebuke Him, “Oh no, Lord! This will never happen to You!” 23 But He turned and told Peter, “Get behind Me, Satan! You are an offense to Me because you’re not thinking about God’s concerns, but man’s.”
We are often quick to think that Jesus was a special, one-time case. After all, Jesus’ mission was to come to die – or was it? When we skip past Jesus’ life to his crucifixion we are prone to overlook the fact that his whole life and teaching was characterized by self-sacrificing love, service, and obedience. The pinnacle of Jesus ministry, from his arrest all the way through his resurrection, is a display of power through weakness. In the garden he did not resist arrest and when Peter tried to show strength Jesus told him to put his sword away. When Jesus was being questioned by Pilate he said: “My kingdom is not of this world. If My kingdom were of this world, My servants would fight, so that I wouldn’t be handed over to the Jews. As it is, My kingdom does not have its origin here.” (John 18:36) I like the way that N. T. Wright translates the beginning of that verse: “My kingdom isn’t the sort that grows in this world.” It isn’t so much that God’s kingdom is physically in heaven as it is the basis for his kingdom is totally different.
When the Roman soldiers dressed Jesus and mocked him, Jesus did not fight back. The soldiers were mocking him but it was really his coronation. Fellow Christians, this is our king! This is the way of Jesus and this is what God is like because Jesus is the exact representation of God. So, I propose that both Paul and Jesus see weakness not as a temporary training ground until we learn how to handle power, but rather that it is only in weakness that we can know and share in God’s power. This is the heart of the mystery of the gospel. This is what Paul is talking about in 1 Corinthians 1:18 when he says “For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but it is God’s power to us who are being saved.” We need to learn that the ways of God’s Kingdom are upside down to the logic of the world. Everything around us runs counter to the way of Jesus. This is why we need the spirit of God to renew our minds. Paul’s explanation of this reality in 1 Corinthians 1 reaches a climax in verse 25 when he says, “God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.” The idea is not that even the smallest amount of God’s power is stronger than the greatest amount of human power. It is that God’s power is exerted through weakness.
When we can start to see things from this perspective, much of Paul’s teaching comes to life in a new way. When he says to the Philippian church, “For me, living is Christ and dying is gain,” he is taking on the life of Christ – he is imitating Jesus. Several verses later when he tells them to “live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ,” he is calling them to the same thing. Shortly after this, in chapter 2 of his letter, he lays out exactly what this looks like in the famous passage (Philippians 2:5-11).
Continuing on in Paul’s letter we come to a verse that for most of my life I struggled to make sense of.
“My goal is to know Him and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death,” (Philippians 3:10)
Paul says that he desires suffering and he desires to be be conformed to Jesus’ death. It is one thing to think that we will occasionally experience suffering, but it is a totally different thing to desire it. Was Paul just a glutton for punishment? Did he think that he deserved punishment because, as he said, he was the chief of sinners? I don’t think so. I believe that he fully understood that suffering is the way of Jesus. If we want to be like Jesus we need to learn to see and live by God’s wisdom, which is foolishness by the standards of human wisdom.
This is incredibly difficult, but what is impossible for men is possible for God. Like Paul, “I do not consider myself to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and reaching forward to what is ahead, I pursue as my goal the prize promised by God’s heavenly call in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 3:13-14)
Who is ready to join me on the quest for weakness?