When we recognize that we are weak and that Christ alone is our strength, we will be able to endure all “insults, hardships, persecutions, and difficulties.” (verse 10)
In a culture that is consumed with the worship of celebrity, that makes a virtue of boasting, Paul’s message today is very challenging indeed. Before this verse, Paul has been speaking autobiographically about his experience fourteen years earlier of having been “caught up to the third heaven. Whether in the body or out of the body I do not know–God knows,” and how he had received great revelations. (verse 2) He is not telling this to boast though, for, as he says, “…I will not boast of myself except about my weakness.” (verses 5) Rather he chooses to refrain from boasting because he wants people to judge him and his message by how he lives his life, by how his actions agree with his preaching, not because of dramatic tales about his revelations.
It is hard for human beings not to boast. Our egos demand to be recognized, often with an unwarranted exuberance, or an overblown sense of self-importance. This is not new, of course. It was the very problem that caused the fall of Adam and Eve in the garden. They were convinced by the Evil One that if they ate of the fruit of the tree at the center of the garden, the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, that they would be able to boast that they now know what God knows, and that they would be God’s equals. That is the problem of boasting. It is all too often not a revelation of the truth. It is done for ulterior motives, for some kind of immediate, even transitory gain. Paul is not interested in this. He is no fool. He knows the truth about himself. He is, by the grace of God, sufficiently self-reflective to know that he is nothing without Christ Jesus. He knows that he is indeed weak.
We are at the heart of the message now. For Paul reveals that he was not free of the temptation of such boasting. He says, “Therefore, in order to keep me from becoming conceited, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me.” (verse 7) This “thorn” was, paradoxically, a true gift for Paul. And it is a true gift for us to be so pricked by the “thorn” of our consciences each time we are moved to boast of something that is beyond our worthiness. This thorn is a truly painful thing for Paul (and for us). He tells us that he had asked Christ to remove it from him on at least three occasions. But Christ said to him, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” (verse 9)
There is our challenge. Just as it was Paul’s challenge. We are to reflect on this truth deeply as often as possible. The only thing we can truly boast about is our weakness. And we can, like Paul, do this gladly. Because when we finally see and accept this fact, “Christ’s power may rest on [us].” (verse 9) When we recognize that we are weak and that Christ alone is our strength, we will be able to endure all “insults, hardships, persecutions, and difficulties.” (verse 10) For in our humble recognition of our weakness in relationship to the world’s temptations, Christ enters us and becomes our strength. It is in this recognition and humble submission to the will of God that Christ can then use our humble talents, our broken humanity, to bring about true healing, true forgiveness, true goodness, and true mercy to those we love in our homes, and to those we meet daily in the public square. Like Paul, it is Christ within us that turns our weakness into true strength.
Lord, we are weak and in our weakness we gladly call on you to be our strength. Teach our hearts and our minds to recognize this humble truth. Make us your instruments for peace and love in the world. We pray this earnestly in your name, Jesus. Amen!
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