A theology of weakness
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 about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.
2 Corinthians 12:9-10 NIVUK
“Weakness” isn’t something that gets its own “how to” book in the Christian self-help section. We’re far more likely to see books on leadership, ministry, marriage, theology or prayer, or any combination of the above. I was in a bookstore yesterday. There were lots of titles about spiritual warfare and the end of the world, but very few about the end of us: when we’ve reached the end of our spiritual rope and there isn’t an inspirational thing in the world to convince us that the situation will change, that we will change.
I think Paul felt like that when he wrote this section in what we know as Second Corinthians. In the Scripture above, Paul has just spent two chapters defending himself to the Corinthian church about his legitimacy as an apostle over and against so-called “super apostles” who sowed discord in the congregation. In the end he lists some of the things he’s done for the Lord (2 Corinthians 11:16-2:6). He feels extremely foolish doing it, but I think he sort of wanted to – to show the Corinthians up a little. The man who would later tell the church in Rome that our righteousness has its source in God alone (Romans 3:21-26) here spends more than a few words on his works.
It’s a pretty impressive list. Paul has the right pedigree. He’s a Hebrew and a Pharisee, trained under a famous rabbi (Gamaliel). He’s been flogged, whipped, stoned and imprisoned for his cause. He’s been shipwrecked more than once. And all of this to spread the Gospel. I don’t read his history and think of Paul as a weak man. Other, less flattering adjectives certainly, but never weak. But near the end of this letter to the Corinthians, Paul mentions a “thorn in the flesh” (2 Corinthians 12:7-8) that lays open Paul’s own apocalypse (or revelation): in this world where status mattered even more than it does now, and to these people who doubted his very worth as a servant of Christ – all his accomplishments, all these things he could (and badly wanted to) wear as badges of honour meant nothing. In 2 Corinthians 12:9-10 we see the beginning of a theology of weakness that finds it fulfilment later in Romans 3:27-28:
Then what becomes of boasting? It is excluded. By what law? By that of works? No, but by the law of faith. For we hold that a person is justified by faith apart from works prescribed by the law.
Whereas the Corinthian church was predominantly Gentile, the church in Rome had a mixed number of Jewish and Gentile Christians. If Paul had boasted to the Romans as he did to the Corinthians, I think he would have found more sympathy and understanding. But by then his theology was reaching maturity: it didn’t matter who they were, it mattered whose they were. Jews were no better off than Gentiles; all were under the power of sin, and all made free from it by the power of grace. Faith, not works. Grace, not law. Jesus Christ, not Paul.
I’m pretty sure somewhere out there is a Christian leadership book or blog that would have given Paul a ten-point plan for dealing diplomatically with the divisions within the Corinthian church. Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing wrong with ten-point plans, I’m not hating on bullet points! But instead of having a plan, what Paul had was a weakness, and it was this weakness that the Lord used to build a theology of strength – strength in Him. That sounds much better than a ten-point plan to me!
Our weaknesses are merely strengths waiting to happen in Christ. Did you ever think about it that way? Weaknesses are an advantage because they leave us wide open for Christ’s strength. They strip away the legalism, the illusion of justification by works, the pride, the foolishness. It’s at the end of our rope that we find that God has been waiting for us to let go of it all this time.
God, listen! Listen to my prayer,
listen to the pain in my cries.
Don’t turn your back on me
just when I need you so desperately.
Pay attention! This is a cry for help!
And hurry—this can’t wait!
Psalm 102:1-2 MSG
 There’s a gap of a year or two between the composition of Second Corinthians and Romans; both were written in the mid 50s CE.