3 Sigoolam Avenue, Palmyra, San Fernando Trinidad, WI
As nearly twenty college-age students began making themselves comfortable in our home, I was feeling pretty put together. The house was clean, the slow cooker was full of tender barbecue chicken, and the coffee was ready to brew. We had recently moved to the area after my husband accepted a pastoral call, and we wanted to start getting to know the students from the nearby college who faithfully attended our new church.
But as I made my way through the bustling kitchen that Sunday afternoon, my poise was suddenly met with a painful reminder of my weakness. Apparently, not everyone was aware that I’m deaf, and when a polite young man asked the simple question of where he should put his dirty plate, it became an awkward interaction in which I had to ask the girl who was getting her coffee (whose lips I could read better) to help me understand what he was saying.
Sigh. You don’t let me forget for very long, Lord. A few minutes later, we all gathered into the living room. While the students took turns sharing a little about themselves, I read their words being transcribed onto my smartphone screen, thankful for the gift of technology, but perhaps not so thankful for the custom thorn God had chosen for me.
This neurological thorn in the flesh has been present for nearly two decades now. I did not plead with God three times to remove it—more like three hundred times. He did not. And though it took time, I have come to terms with the fact that this physical weakness is likely not going anywhere this side of heaven. Awkward conversations, limited ministry ability, and silent church services are the lot my Father has chosen for me. I still have much to learn about being weak for His glory, but through all the highs and lows, I have come to learn at least one thing: the Christian’s weakness will either make him miserable or it will make him mature. To say it another way, weakness will bear frustration or it will bear fruit.
I think the Apostle Paul would agree. He writes to the Corinthians: “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. 12:10). What were those hardships? Imprisonments, beatings, shipwrecks, sleepless nights, hunger, constant danger, and unceasing concern for the health of the churches, just to name a few. There’s more. To top it all off, God gives him a thorn in the flesh, which makes him even weaker. Paul pleads with God to remove it, but the thorn is there to stay.
Weakness will bear frustration or it will bear fruit.
On the surface, it sounds like a pretty miserable life. Why is Paul boasting? Why is he content? Why is always rejoicing? Because Paul is experiencing the power of Christ in his life in a way he would not if those weaknesses and hardships were not there. Paul has realized that his weaknesses and hardships force him daily to look to Christ for his sufficiency. They put Paul in the background and Christ on center stage. They bring him daily to the feet of Jesus, desperate for wisdom, strength, and grace to live a fruitful life for the kingdom of God.
Thus, Paul’s weakness is unto maturity—not misery. Paul is sanctified, and God is glorified.
It’s important to remember that when Paul speaks of his “weaknesses” here, he is not talking about sin. Because of the reality of remaining indwelling sin in every Christian, there is a sense in which sin is indeed our ultimate weakness—a weakness we will not be without this side of heaven. But the weakness of sin is only unto maturity when we mortify it. There are many weaknesses we experience, however, simply because we live in a fallen world with unglorified bodies. John Piper says of this passage, “They are circumstances and situations and experiences and wounds that make us look weak; things we would probably get rid of if we had the human strength.”1 We witness a vast variety of these weaknesses within the body of Christ, or more specifically, the local church we gather with on Sunday.
The tired mother of young children feels limited by her inability to give more time to ministry outside the home. The elderly saint begins to feel useless as his body and mind increasingly fail him. The college student is painfully reminded of his poor social skills. The single twenty-something longs to be married, feeling hindered by her lack of a husband to labor alongside. The list could go on: people are living with chronic pain, a lack of education, financial strain, weariness from endless trials, tiredness from caring for loved ones, a want of leadership skills, unemployment, blindness, deafness, or the need to use a wheelchair.
It’s easy to become frustrated with these weaknesses and to think of them as obstacles that get in the way of our usefulness in the body of Christ. If only I had more money to give. If only I had a different personality. If only I had better health. If only I had more time. If only I was more well read. If only I didn’t have this weakness, I could be more fruitful.
Paul has realized that his weaknesses and hardships force him daily to look to Christ for his sufficiency.
Paul’s life shows us a drastically different mindset. Rather than trying to escape his weaknesses, he embraces them. Rather than hindrances that keep him from doing what he wants to do, they are daily helps toward his holiness. They remind him of how badly he needs the Spirit of Christ to be working through him, making his finite labors fruitful and keeping him from the sins that all too often surface alongside weakness, such as pride, bitterness, covetousness, laziness, and irritability.
Paul’s weaknesses did not hold him back from doing great things for God. They did not make him passive or idle; indeed, he “worked harder than any” (1 Cor. 15:10). Paul was fruitful. But when we look at his life, we see that his fruitfulness was not so much about his doing great things but rather about demonstrating a great God.
What made God appear great? It was not the weakness itself. Weakness in and of itself is not holy and fruitful. Paul’s life was incredibly fruitful because of how he responded to his weaknesses. Rather than turning inward and focusing on how frustrating they were, how silly they made him appear, or how they foiled his ministry plans, they caused Paul to turn his eyes upward to a Savior who was nailed to the cross in His flesh but was raised in power and sat down at right hand of His Father in glory. When Paul beholds this Savior, he realizes he is simply a jar of clay through which that glory is to be seen and praised. The more Paul beholds Jesus, the more he becomes like Jesus, “transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another” (2 Cor. 3:18). And the more he becomes like Jesus, the more fruitful his weaknesses are, because in his increasing maturity, the aim of his life becomes, “Not Paul, but Christ in and through Paul; not for the glory of Paul, but for the glory of Christ.”
Weakness is hard. As we feel the weight of it, we groan, “longing to put on our heavenly dwelling” (2 Cor. 5:2) and to be freed from a fallen body and world. As long as this groaning causes us to turn inward and bemoan our own limitations and how uncomfortable they make us, then yes, our weaknesses will be hindrances to mature fruitfulness—and more so, provocations to sin and misery. But there is another way to groan, and it is a groaning that results in growing.
My groaning in weakness can make me covet what others are able to do, or it can drive me to prayerfully ask God to show me the work He has prepared for me and how I might do it in a way that makes Jesus look great.
My groaning in weakness can make me pridefully insecure, or it can compel me to learn how to love people well, as my heart rests secure in the smile of Christ rather than the praise of man.
My groaning in weakness can make me bitter about my own lack, or it can drive me to discover new depths of joy in what Christ lavishly provides through my union with Him.
Are you weak? Ask God to make it a weakness unto maturity, in which the glory of Christ is beheld and the power of Christ is praised.