Weakness is exceedingly difficult to admit. American Christians in particular like to be thought of as competent, strong, and independent. But the reality, of course, is that we are weak. We are extremely weak. While our culture has an aversion to weakness and views it as a threat, the Bible has a different perspective on this characteristic. The Bible teaches us that weakness is an opportunity for God’s glory to work through us.
Scripture uses the word “weakness” — sometimes translated as “incapacity” or “infirmity” — to refer to several different types of limitations. The word may describe physical illness, psychological impairment, moral inability, or spiritual powerlessness. So we are told that our “flesh is weak” (Matt. 26:41), that our bodies are weak (1 Cor. 15:43), and that we are too weak to save ourselves (Rom. 5:6). We may display weakness in prayers (Rom. 8:26), or weakness in discernment (Rom. 14:1-15:1). This is just a sampling of verses that reveal the diversity of the word. Eric Johnson helpfully defines the term, saying:
Weakness in the Bible refers to the state of being “less than” in some respect, either less than some ideal – less than complete and whole – or less than what is typical for human beings, and so deficient in some respect to most other people, or both. (God and Soul Care, 279)
This descriptions helps to highlight just why it is so difficult for us to confess our limitations. We are a prideful people. Admitting these details reveals to others, and to ourselves, that we are not all we claim to be. The scriptures acknowledge, however, that weakness is simply a reality of both our humanity and our sinful nature. We may struggle to accept this reality, and struggle to confess it, but it exists nonetheless.
Beyond indicating these realities, however, the Bible goes further. It doesn’t simply tell us that we are weak, it encourages us to “boast” in our weakness. Paul most evidently communicates this theme. In writing to the Corinthians, Paul writes about something which he calls his “thorn in the flesh.” There is much mystery and debate around this “thorn,” but our interest today focuses on Paul’s response. Regarding this “weakness,” then, Paul says:
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. 8 Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. 9 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. 10 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 Cor. 12:7-10)
Paul has some painful dynamic at play in his life. He calls it a “messenger of Satan” sent to harass him. Yet, the resultant weakness causes him to rejoice, even to be “content”. A comprehensive theology of “weakness,” however must also acknowledge the proper place of grieving our weaknesses before we can move towards boasting in them.
The Old Testament certainly endorses this idea of grief. There is an entire book of the Bible called Lamentations. The Psalms too teach us of the proper order of these things: Night comes before the dawn, weeping before rejoicing (Ps. 30:5), sickness before healing, and death before resurrection (Johnson, 291). It is appropriate to grieve the realities of weakness, the brokenness of our world, the fragility of life after the Fall, and the incompleteness of God’s image in us. We ought to be willing and able to mourn the state we are in and Paul models this too. He notes that “three times” he “pleaded with the Lord.” The language of “pleading” is more than just a request. It is an earnest begging of God for relief. The “three times” does not necessitate a literal three prayers, as if Paul prayed three times and then quit. It may indicate a common Jewish pattern of prayer – morning, afternoon, and evening (see Ps. 55:16-17). Or it may reflect a Hellenistic three-fold petition for healing. Further, it may simply be an expression indicating urgency through a repeated prayer. The point being, Paul is grieved by this “thorn.” He desperately wants it to dissipate or simply be gone, and he begs the Lord to remove it. In other words, it is not wrong for us to be bothered by our weakness, or to acknowledge it simply as weakness. Grieving before you boast is a proper theological perspective.
Nonetheless, Paul does shift his response from grief to rejoicing. It is right and good for us to explore how our weaknesses help us to glorify God. God has made believers to be “jars of clay” and all of that “in order to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us” (2 Cor. 4:7). Our weaknesses show-off God’s power, glory, and goodness in unique ways, ways that health and wholeness do not. So, Paul “boasts” in his weakness. He sees this “thorn” as an occasion to praise God, to point others to the power of God, to highlight that God is at work!
Consider, for example, how the stories of our suffering can help others see God’s goodness more clearly. To praise God when all is right in your world doesn’t really make much of God. That is exactly the point Satan makes, albeit manipulatively, to God himself:
Does Job fear God for no reason? Have you not put a hedge around him and his house and all that he has, on every side? You have blessed the work of his hands, and his possessions have increased in the land. But stretch out your hand and touch all that he has, and he will curse you to your face.” (Job. 1:9-10)
A smooth life does not help people love God, it just highlights how easy things are for you personally. If, however, your faith persists in the face of loss, sorrow, pain, and ache, it magnifies the worth of God over and against all earthly comforts. Paul explained more of this idea in his previous letter to the Corinthians. In 1 Corinthians 1 Paul writes:
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; 28 God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, 29 so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. (v. 27-29)
God loves to use weakness to draw people to Himself. He draws others who witness faith and grace in the lives of suffering individuals, but He also draws us afresh as we remember just how much we need Him. When health leads to independence and autonomy from God is deadly to us! When weakness leads us to cling to our God then it is strength and power for us.
It is appropriate to recognize that we are weak. It is appropriate to grieve our weakness, for it is not the way God intended the world to originally be. Yet, it is also appropriate for us to embrace and even rejoice in our weakness. For when we are weak, then we are strong!