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The question raised in an employment application was this: “Should you be offered a position in our company, what is the greatest asset you would bring with you to promote the success of the company?” Imagine the mental shock experienced by the personnel manager when he reads the applicant’s two-word answer to that question. The answer given? “My weakness.”
If we were to ask the Apostle Paul for the secret to his usefulness in his Apostolic office, he too would give us a two-word answer: “My weakness.”
We know this would be his answer because of the assertion of 2 Corinthians 12:10: “For when I am weak, then I am strong.” The Apostle did not write these seemingly paradoxical words out of a desire to say something that would capture our attention. Rather, these words were spoken in the context of Paul’s dealings with believers who were being spiritually seduced by the “super apostles” who had infiltrated the Corinthian church and were promoting themselves, propagating heretical views (11:12–15) while denigrating the Apostle Paul. These false apostles were determined to wean the Corinthian church away from Paul’s ongoing pastoral guidance and were using character assassination as their major weapon.
To discredit Paul, they highlighted the fact that he did not speak with spine-tingling oratorical powers (v. 6); he did not turn heads when he walked into a room because he possessed an unusually handsome face or an imposing physical constitution (10:10); he did not even charge the going rate for giving a prepared speech delivered by a trained rhetorician (vv. 7–8).
In seeking to win back the confidence and affection of the Corinthian congregation, the Apostle indulges in what he describes as “speaking as a fool” (11:16, 21). That is, by boasting about himself and his experiences, he purposely but reluctantly assumes the role of a self-flattering fool. This boasting reaches its pinnacle in 2 Corinthians 12:1–10, where he speaks of his unique experience of being caught up into paradise, where he “heard things that cannot be told, which man may not utter” (v. 4).
It is in the setting of Paul’s sharing this unique revelatory privilege that we are introduced to Paul’s famous “thorn in the flesh.” We must note first that we cannot conclusively identify the nature of Paul’s thorn. We do well to listen to the wise observations of Philip Hughes:
The problem of Paul’s thorn in the flesh is another one of those questions which, on the evidence available, must remain unanswered. Over the centuries many solutions have been proposed, frequently with excessive confidence, but the plain fact is that it is impossible to escape from the realm of conjecture, which is by its nature the realm of inconclusiveness.
While we cannot identify with dogmatism what the thorn in the flesh actually was, we do not need to guess concerning its effect upon the Apostle and the purpose for which God allowed this “messenger of Satan” to afflict him. As to its effect on Paul, it is clear that the Apostle had become convinced that he could not fulfill his Apostolic mission while being hampered by this thorn. Therefore, he gave himself to three seasons of intensive supplication, pleading with the Lord Jesus that the thorn might be removed in order that he might fulfill his mission without this crippling affliction. So much regarding the effect of the thorn.
Second Corinthians 12:7–10 is the record of what God made plain to Paul concerning the purpose of this thorn. Part of the explanation of that purpose is captured in the Lord’s words to Paul: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (v. 9). The Lord further revealed to Paul that the purpose of the thorn was to keep him from “becoming conceited” by the surpassing greatness of the revelations given to him (v. 7). The Lord went on to reveal to Paul the profound truth that by His grace, a man reduced to conscious weakness but walking in humility and in dependence on God will be empowered to complete his God-given tasks in spite of a deeply disturbing context of weakness. In fact, this new insight given to Paul by the Lord Jesus caused him to give up praying for the removal of the thorn and to say:
Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. 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. (vv. 9–10)
From these verses, we see that the Apostle viewed everything that we label as “negative providences” as God-ordained means to keep us consciously weak, that we may indeed be blessedly strong in Christ. Only when we are kept in the conscious state of felt weakness will we be able to say with the Apostle, “Then I am strong.”
Regardless of our calling in life, if God asks us what we have to offer in the pursuit of that calling, can we honestly respond by giving that two-word answer, “My weakness”? If so, then perhaps we are learning what it means to live as a child of God who believes with every fiber of his being the words spoken by our Lord Jesus to His disciples: “Apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5). Let us continually offer Him our weakness while pleading with Him to fulfill His promise that His strength would be made perfect in that weakness.