Weakness is the Way
When I was in seventh grade athletics the coaches had us all do a bench pressing competition. This was partially just for fun and to pass the time during off season, but it was also to celebrate strength. As guys were able to put up progressively heavier weights, shouts of praise and encouragement filled the warm, musty middle school gym. I was one of a few guys who were noticeably shorter and smaller than the other middle school boys. So, we were not able to bench press as much weight as our bigger, stronger counter parts. Nonetheless, to the delight of the other "smaller" guys, I was able to bench 100 pounds. While the strongest guy easily put up over double what I could do, my strength as one of the "little guys" was celebrated among our small cohort. We were all grateful to be doing this as opposed to running sprints, but undoubtedly I was not the only one who felt embarrassed by my lack of physical prowess. While implicit, the message of the day was unmistakably clear—those who possess and display strength are to be celebrated, while those who are deemed weak are to feel shame.
And this is thoroughly consistent with the beliefs and values of our culture. We like to highlight and honor, power and strength, while supposed inferiorities or deficiencies are to be hidden so we will not experience embarrassment for our weaknesses. We see this everywhere. We project a picturesque image of ourselves on social media lest people find out that we are actually flawed. We hide or downplay our emotions because over-control of emotion is seen as strong, while displaying emotion is viewed as weak. We only talk about struggles that we have overcome, not ones we are currently facing, to highlight our strength for success. We don't ask others for help because that reveals need, and being needy is being weak. As J.I. Packer says in his book Weakness is the Way (from which I got the title for this blog), "The idea [of weakness] from first to last is of inadequacy"(13). This could be physical, intellectual, personal, positional, or relational weakness. But regardless of the area of weakness, no one likes to feel inadequate. Like they don't measure up, can't accomplish something on their own, or lack something others possess. Our pride wants to highlight our self-sufficiency. We want to feel superior to others, even if it is silently in our own hearts. So, weakness is something to be hidden in shame until we triumphantly overcome it.
But we also dislike weakness because it is difficult. It is no one's ideal to suffer from some physical challenge or debilitating disease. Feeling like one's mental capacities fall short of being able to sufficiently tackle daily tasks or responsibilities can grieve us. We survey our shortcomings and feel like they only hold us back from what we want to do in life, or even attaining a good life. There is physical, mental, and emotional pain and distress in weakness, which we would rather avoid. It can make us falter throughout the day, or even make it hard to get out of bed in the morning to start the day.
And yet the Apostle Paul tells us to not only be content with our weaknesses, but to boast in them. 2 Corinthians 12:9-10, "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." He encourages us not to glorify Christ by overcoming weakness, but to do so in and through weakness. What Paul is saying is that weakness is the way of life for followers of Christ. And while our culture and our very hearts may cringe at the thought of this, there is freedom and glory in it.
So, why is weakness the way?
To Magnify Christ
At the beginning of 1 Corinthians Paul addresses how the Corinthian believers' boasting (that is, highlighting as of significant importance) in the wisdom, power, and strength of men was causing divisions in the church as they were pledging allegiance to Paul, Apollos, or Peter, as opposed to Christ alone. They were more concerned with being united to someone they deemed to be a strong man of God, rather than to God Himself. And while they boasted in the wisdom and strength of their chosen leader—and themselves for choosing that leader—Paul shows them that this was actually a display of their immaturity. The wisdom of the world boasts in the strength of men, yet God has made the world's wisdom foolish (1 Corinthians 1:20).
Unfortunately, it appears that this same attitude continues in the Corinthian church as we see in 2 Corinthians that they allow "super apostles" to come in, convincing them of all of the things wrong with Paul and his ministry as they assert themselves as better apostles than he. They even say, "His letters are weighty and powerful, but his physical presence is weak and his public speaking amounts to nothing" (2 Corinthians 10:10). Rather than disagree with them and highlight all his strengths, Paul goes on to boast in his sufferings and weaknesses (2 Corinthians 11:30). And this is consistent with what he said to the church in his first letter. "For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption, so that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord" (1 Corinthians 1:26-31).
God does not want any human boasting in someone or something other than Him because there is nothing that one should boast in but Him. He is the almighty God who has created all things and blessed His children with all things in Christ. The greatest human strength is utter weakness to God. And God's "weakness" is infinitely superior to any human strength. Why would we rob Him of glory and deceive ourselves by boasting in other things? Rather, Paul is quick to highlight his weaknesses and inadequacies so that he might magnify Christ. He came to the Corinthians in "weakness, in fear, and in much trembling," (1 Corinthians 2:3). He was looked down upon for being "untrained in pubic speaking "(2 Corinthians 11:6). He was seen as a fool for preaching Christ crucified (1 Corinthians 1:23). He emphasized his sufferings for Christ (2 Corinthians 11:24-29). He gloried in his "thorn in the flesh" (2 Corinthians 12:7), which was probably something "physical and painful" (Packer, 21). These examples span from emotional distress, to circumstantial suffering, to physical pain. And yet He highlights them all to magnify Christ for His wisdom. His power. His strength. His salvation. Weakness forces our proud hearts to be humble before God as we trust and rely on Him alone for everything we need. And this brings Him glory as He increases in our lives and we decrease (John 3:30).
God Is More Concerned With Our Sanctification
But rather than believe that weakness is the way, we often believe that it only gets in the way. Of our hopes. Our dreams. Our plans. Our passions. Our gifts. Our future. If God would just remove the weakness, or turn it in to strength, then our lives would move toward this idealistic vision we have for ourselves. We want to chart our own path in life and ask God to use His strength to cut the vegetation and clear the stones so our chosen path will be an easy and care free journey to our desired destination. Rather than set out on God's narrow path to life in Him and ask for strength to honor Him in whatever conditions the path is in, and the circumstances that come our way as we walk toward our heavenly home. But weakness is the way of life for the believer because God is less concerned with giving us the perfect life we think we want (indeed, Scripture is clear that following Christ will be accompanied by trial, suffering, and persecution), but in us more fully knowing and worshipping Him as He makes us more like Christ and prepares us for eternity with Him.
Paul discussing his thorn in the flesh in 1 Corinthians 12 was the crescendo of his response to the charges of weakness by the Corinthians and "super-apostles." And it appears that Paul believed that this was a thorn God had determined he would live with the rest of his life—accompanied by all the physical, mental, and emotional pain and suffering that it would bring. Undoubtedly, this made both life and ministry more of a challenge, otherwise Paul would not have pled so earnestly with the Lord to take it away. We also learn in Galatians 4:13-14 that Paul preached the gospel in Galatia because of "a weakness of the flesh" and that it was "a trial" for the church there. It is possible that this weakness is the same as the thorn Paul is talking about in 2 Corinthians 12. So, not only was the thorn a trial for him, but for others too.
But we can gather from Scripture that the main reason for Paul's thorn was not greater productivity in life or ministry, but his growth in Christlikeness. That is, his sanctification. We see from 2 Corinthians 12:7-10 that his weakness from the thorn produced greater humility (12:7), dependence on Christ (12:7-9), willingness to accept other trials (12:10), and taking pleasure in weakness because it ultimately better enabled him to boast in Christ and the strength that He provides (12:9-10). Whereas we often think weakness gets in the way of producing the life we want for ourselves, it is always producing exactly what God wants: holiness (Hebrews 12:10). God sanctifies us through weakness, which produces endurance, character, and hope (Romans 5:3-4). It produces greater maturity, which makes us whole and complete in Christ (James 1:4). And it is also "producing for us an absolutely incomparable eternal weight of glory" (2 Corinthians 4:17). When approached well, weakness helps to cultivate greater contentment in Christ as we lean more heavily on the astounding truth that He is all we need. As we are on the path God chooses for us, weakness helps us to fix our eyes on both Christ and our true home with Him. It gives us a glorious eternal perspective and infuses every day with hope. Even if the day is also filled with trials and suffering.
This frees us from buying in to the lie that this world is all there is and that we can have "heaven on earth." If we know the hope of the Kingdom of God, the New Heavens and New Earth, and our glorified bodies, we don't want earth to be our heaven. We want heaven to be our heaven. Indeed, we know this earth is not our home. As Hebrews 13:14 says, “For here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come.” So, we look forward to our heavenly home where we will enjoy the immediate presence of Christ and reigning with Him for all eternity. And we believe that this is infinitely better than even the best of earthly lives. We still pray for God's Kingdom to come on earth and praise God as His Kingdom pushes back darkness and brings restoration. But we recognize that these manifestations of the Kingdom are merely foretastes of what we will enjoy forever. So, these Kingdom realities free us to live as citizens of heaven now, even though we are on earth. For, living the good life of the Kingdom was the way of Christ, who brought the Kingdom.
And even though it might feel as if our weaknesses work against, they are actually working for us. As 2 Corinthians 4:17 tells us, our "light momentary afflictions" on this earth are preparing us for our heavenly home. And Paul says in Romans 8:18, "For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is going to be revealed to us." Weakness helps us to boast in Christ's glory, but also highlights the glory that will be ours when Jesus returns and welcomes us into the fullness of His glory. This puts our present weakness into perspective as we fix our eyes on our true hope in Christ, and responds to our weaknesses by pointing to our true source of strength. And because of God's unfathomable love and grace, He makes even our weaknesses serve us as they make us more like Christ (Romans 8:37) and bring glory to Christ. And in light of eternity this is far better than having all our weaknesses taken away, or being able to boast in our strengths rather than Christ's.
The Way of Christ
It was difficult for so many Jews of Jesus's day to accept Him as the promised Messiah because He did not come in power and authority like they thought He would. Rather, much of His life was characterized by weakness. He came into this world in weakness as a helpless newborn of a poor teenage girl. His physical form was unimpressive and did not garner the desires of men (Isaiah 53:2). He was from a small, insignificant town, which prompted some to say, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” (John 1:46). He was an outsider for the three years of public ministry where he was constantly traveling from place to place (Luke 9:58). He was deemed a threat to both the Jews and the Romans and was crucified in weakness and shame as He died naked on a cross (Packer, 31). Indeed, as Isaiah 53:3 says, He was "a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief." The way of weakness was well worn for Jesus. And God also uses the path of weakness in our own lives because it was the path that Christ Himself walked.
As President of Grimké Seminary, Doug Logan, said in a recent pastor's zoom call, "There is not a non-suffering Messiah in the Bible, so there is not a non-suffering Christian in the world." Suffering is the product of living in a fallen world, but also comes in unique ways to Christians as they live and labor for the sake of the gospel. But no one goes through life untouched by suffering and weakness. If Jesus didn't, you won't either. For, "a servant is not greater than his master" (John 13:16). The way of weakness led Jesus to a Roman cross, and His disciples are called to "deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow [him]" (Luke 9:23). Following Jesus every day is to accept and walk in weakness.
But we follow a sympathetic Savior who understands our weakness. "For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who has been tempted in every way as we are, yet without sin" (Hebrews 4:15). Jesus is with us in our suffering. As Dane Ortlund says in His recent book Gentle and Lowly, this sympathy is, "not cool and detached pity. It is a depth of felt solidarity such as is echoed in our own lives most closely only as parents to children. Indeed, it is deeper even than that. In our pain, Jesus is pained; in our suffering, he feels the suffering as his own even though it isn't...His is a love that cannot be held back when he sees his people in pain" (46). This means that Jesus will "never lob down a pep talk from heaven" (Ortlund, 50) about how we can get through this difficulty or that we will find the strength within ourselves to keep going. But that He is intimately acquainted with weakness because that was His own way of life on earth. So, He understands what it is like to endure when it is hard. But He also did it perfectly trusting in the Father and without sin. And now that He has "sat down at the right hand of the throne of God" (Hebrews 12:2) and "always lives to intercede for [us]" (Hebrews 7:25) He is bringing His power and glory near to us in our weakness to inject us with His strength. "It is not only that Jesus can relieve us from our troubles, like a doctor prescribing medicine; it is also that, before any relief comes, he is with us in our troubles, like a doctor who has endured the same disease" (Ortlund, 47).
The Freedom of Weakness
Accepting that weakness is the way of life for every believer is challenging. Our sinful nature still bucks up against weakness, wanting to revel in strength. Our frail human form is ever fatigued by weakness, and we want to be free from the suffering it brings. But there is such freedom in accepting that we don't have to be strong all the time, especially at times and in ways that are unrealistic (Like now, during the pandemic). The comfort and relief we feel at being able to talk openly and honestly about our struggles with a trusted friend is but a shadow of the freedom we can experience in boasting in our weakness like Paul did. That is because it frees us from trying to be everything and do everything so that Christ can take His proper place in our lives as our all in all. For "everything is yours, and you belong to Christ, and Christ belongs to God" (1 Corinthians 3:22-23).
There is still pain and difficulty with weakness and we don't have to deny that. Paul didn't. Jesus didn't. But we can admit our weaknesses and look to Christ who gives us daily grace and strength to follow Him. We can even boast in our weaknesses because of how they are redeemed by the strength that Jesus gives. So, rather than be discouraged by the message that weakness is the way, we can be invigorated by the truth that Jesus is with us in our weakness and that His power is made perfect in our weakness. Therefore, when we are weak, because of Jesus, we are actually strong. We can remain steadfast as we stumble through this life because we have a glorious hope awaiting us in our true home where we will receive glorified bodies that are no longer plagued by weakness. This is something that is sure to happen because God has promised it will. And in this hope we rejoice.
-By Kevin Tapscott