THE PARADOX OF HUMAN WEAKNESS
We are more fruitful in life than we realise when we feel low and spent and, for all we know, less fruitful than we imagine when we are feeling great. How else can God’s strength be made perfect in our weakness?
Human weakness is an uncomfortable topic to dwell on. Some are dismissive of people who don’t ‘cut it’ in life. The debate over the benefits system has coincided with signs of a new spirit of contempt towards disabled people. A crude division between winners and losers in life is evidence of the unforgiving belief that only the fittest should survive. In fairness to Charles Darwin, he didn’t actually coin the phrase, ‘the survival of the fittest’ and the use of this idea to understand human community is a perverse application of his original concept, but it is widely used today.
Human beings can look down on weakness in others. We would never admit to it, of course, because it’s not a pretty way to describe ourselves and it isn’t especially true. There is a beautiful instinct for kindness and sacrifice in human nature which makes life worth living and speaks eloquently of the character God has given us.
Yet the dark tendency to look down on people who are less gifted, less attractive, less able or less fortunate is also an impulse that courses like poison through our veins.
The self-improvement industry tells us how to turn our weaknesses into strengths, without any sense that strength might actually lie in weakness. People are routinely asked in interviews how they see their weaknesses. ‘Oh, I’m a perfectionist, I can’t help myself’ it’s said, thus cleverly making a point about strength in the middle of a question about weakness. We fear being judged for what we’re not good at so much that we rarely admit to being poor at anything.
The cross of Jesus sharply questions this. The moment of God’s redemption is located in a person without any control or ability to move and slowly dying. This event alone should make us ashamed of our hatred of weakness. St. Paul taught perceptively about the cross in his letters, but in 2 Corinthians 12 he made it personal, telling us about a ‘thorn in the flesh’ he received to stop him being elated by the revelations of faith he was receiving.
People have speculated endlessly on the nature of this ‘thorn in the flesh’, but we should be glad it was never spelled out. For some misguided people, the affliction would have become compulsory, a form of self-flagellation; others would have distinguished Paul’s sufferings from their own in order to nullify the point he was making.
What we know is this. Paul had received revelations from God so profound that it would have been easy for him to slip into spiritual elitism where he was elevated far above ordinary mortals. The temptations of spiritual superiority remain with us today and God works to prevent us from slipping into this unappealing state. To inhibit Paul, he is given this ‘thorn in the flesh’. At first he is unsure why this has happened. He asks God several times to remove the thorn but does not get the answer he seeks; indeed, he does not seem to get an answer at all to begin with.
The healings and miracles of the first Christians should be tempered by this incident. Paul had every right to believe he would be healed, given the generous and prolific work of the Holy Spirit at the time. Surely the Apostle to the Gentiles would receive the same kind of intervention he had seen less influential people obtain? The silence of God is implied, but we should not miss it, as it offers comfort to all those who have pleaded with God for help, but not received it in the manner and time they were hoping for. Sometimes we just don’t know what God is doing and it’s a measure of our faith to admit this.
Eventually Paul gets his answer and it is no. We do not know how he responded initially to this, but I expect he was deeply disappointed because it condemned him to further suffering. Yet God speaks to him with intimacy and a lesson profoundly relevant to our culture and its lust for outright power. ‘My grace is sufficient for you’ God says ‘for my power is made perfect in human weakness’. Paul realised how this thorn in the side would prevent him from being puffed up with conceit and arrogance at how close he had come to God compared to others.
Spiritual one-upmanship is still a trend we are susceptible to, but today the distinctions we make between one another are more material. Wealth, possessions and personal image have become the mark of human worth and their conspicuous demonstration evidence of our superiority. In this climate, those who have less are looked down on and those who bodies let them down are quietly rejected as too fat, too old, too immobile or too plain. Into this unforgiving culture God speak words of judgment and peace and we do not find it easy to hear them.
Inevitably, our instinct for comfort and for survival teaches us to hate our pain and weakness and we struggle to perceive any redemptive power in them. I have a periodic struggle with insomnia, which means I sometimes feel low, spent in energy and cut off from others; this may be shared by some of you. For others it may be physical, like migraine, IBS or chronic joints pain; or it may be mental, like depression, OCD or anxiety. You can fill in the blanks and others don’t necessarily need to know this any more than we need to know what Paul’s thorn in the flesh was.
I am sure I am not alone in assuming that I am at my most effective when I am strongest. I feel more confident and assured after a good night’s sleep and can focus on and interpret my life and ministry more sharply as a result. What’s more, all the scientific evidence supports me in this belief, because rested people make better judgments in their work. Yet these words of God to Paul question this assumption. The human data may suggest I am more effective when I have slept, but the spiritual implication is that it is when I feel most vulnerable that God is able to show his power most fruitfully. It doesn’t add up, but then a lot of what we believe turns life as we know it on its head. I think I’m not doing well when I am tired because I don’t feel good and the insomnia is like a pair of sunglasses through which I see the world. Everything looks darker, but outside the world is actually brighter. My grasp of reality is skewed, but instead of holding to the faith which describes a different truth, I allow the thorn in the flesh to define me.
Yet into our bodily frailties, God breathes a spirit of power. We may pray that life was different but even as we do, we should hold these words to our heart and hope to understand them: ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness’. We are much more fruitful and effective in life than we realise when we are feeling low and spent and, for all we know, much less fruitful and effective than we think when we are feeling great.
Welcome to the paradox of faith.
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