Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Strength in Weakness


Strength in Weakness
2 Cor. 12:2-10; Mk. 6:1-13[1]
For most of us, the idea of strength in weakness makes no sense.  After all, strength and weakness are opposites.  Logically, they don’t go together at all.  Weakness is bad, and to be avoided at all costs.  Strength is good, and something we all want.  Which explains why most of us do everything we can to avoid or overcome or conceal our weaknesses.  They make us feel vulnerable.  Perhaps more importantly, they frighten us.  After all, if we’re weak and vulnerable, someone can take advantage of us.  If we’re weak and vulnerable, we can be hurt.  As a result, we adopt all kinds of strategies to try to protect ourselves from our weaknesses and the vulnerability we feel.  We try to control our lives.  We hide our true thoughts and feelings for fear of betrayal.  We do anything we possibly can to avoid or overcome being weak or vulnerable in any way, shape, or form.  From our perspective, “When I am weak, then I am strong,” makes no sense.[2]
But with all that protecting, and controlling, and hiding going on, in the process, we close ourselves off from life! [3]  In fact, most of the spiritual leaders through the ages recommend the opposite approach.  Some of the greatest sages have made it clear that their deepest spiritual insights came precisely through their vulnerability, through their suffering, through their pain.  They virtually unanimously attest that they found peace, happiness, and strength through the full experience of their weakness. 
I think the Apostle Paul adds his personal testimony to this ironic truth in our lesson for today.  We have to remember that St. Paul was under attack at Corinth by so-called “super-apostles.”  They claimed they were better speakers, they claimed to have supernatural visions and powers, in short, they were better apostles than St. Paul.  Rather than engage in one-upmanship with them, Paul takes the opposite approach.  He claimed that his ministry followed the model of the Suffering Savior, and backed it up by listing all the hardships he had endured in the service of Christ (2 Cor. 11:23-30).[4] 
At the same time, he also tells the story of an unusual spiritual experience he had years earlier.  For some reason, something about this particular spiritual vision was so extraordinary that St. Paul says he was afflicted by a “thorn in the flesh” to keep him from boasting about it.  Nobody really knows what this “thorn” was, but it’s clear that from Paul’s perspective it weakened him.  In a sense, it put him in a state of perpetual weakness.  No wonder he says he asked to be relieved of this burden.  Not once but three times.  Most of us would do the same thing—except I wouldn’t stop at three! 
In reply to his fervent prayer, the answer he received was “my grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”  This is a theme that runs throughout the New Testament, beginning with Jesus himself.  In the apparent “weakness” of his humiliating death on the cross, Jesus demonstrated the true power of God’s love to change everything and everyone.[5]  In that same vein, St. Paul consistently “boasts” in his weaknesses.  In fact, he insists that his weaknesses are the very means by which the transforming power of faith in Jesus Christ shines most dramatically.[6]
When you look closely at life, there really seems to be a correlation between weakness and spirituality.  It seems the more vulnerable we realize that we really are, the more open we make ourselves to the presence of God, and the deeper our faith and our spirituality. On the contrary, the more we try to protect ourselves, to control our lives, and to avoid pain and weakness, the more we cut ourselves off from the presence of God, and the weaker our faith and spirituality.  That means the very path to discovering new strength is through embracing and facing our weaknesses.[7]  But in order to do that, we have to take the step of faith that God’s grace truly is sufficient for us in any and every crisis we find ourselves.  We can only discover that strength if we entrust ourselves into God’s hands.[8]
Taking the step of faith is a risk that opens us up, that can make us feel vulnerable to all our personal weaknesses.[9]  That can be a scary thing for most of us. Like the people at Nazareth, we feel safer with our doubts than taking the risk of faith (Mk. 6:2-6).  But the only way we can truly experience the sustaining grace of God is to take that risk.  It is the only way we can experience new levels of personal strength that we may never have suspected we have.  It is the only way we can find the courage to face the sometimes frightening and always challenging ebb and flow of life.  When we take that step of faith, we discover the truth in Paul’s affirmation that “when I am weak, then am I strong.”


[1] © 2012 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 7/8/12 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.
[2] Cf. Rebecca Konyndyk DeYoung, “Power Made Perfect in Weakness,” in  “Suffering,” Christian Reflection, 2005, 12, where she says, “In America we value independence, being able to take care of ourselves. As a result, we treat weakness, vulnerability, and suffering as evils to be avoided, prevented, and overcome.”  Cf. also Jon M. Walton, “2 Corinthians 12:1-10,” Interpretation 52 (July, 1998): 295, where he admits that “On the face of it, it is patently absurd.”
[3] Cf. C. S. Lewis, The Four Loves, 121, “to love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly be broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one …. Wrap it carefully around with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; …. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable.”
[4] Cf. Walton, “2 Corinthians 12:1-10,” 293-94.
[5] Cf. DeYoung, “Power Made Perfect in Weakness,” 15.
[6] Cf. David E. Garland, “Paul’s Apostolic Authority: The Power of Christ Sustaining Weakness (2 Cor 10-13),” Review & Expositor 86 (Summer 1989):381, where he says that “Paul embodies the folly of the cross of Christ which reveals the power of God (1 Cor. 1:18-31; 2 Cor. 4:7-12).”  Cf. also Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics 4.1:189.
[7] Cf. Pema Chödrön, When Things Fall Apart, 12.  She says,“The most precious opportunity presents itself when we come to the place where we think we can’t handle whatever is happening.”
[8] Cf. Barth, Church Dogmatics IV.3:750: “in all its weakness [the church] is sustained by a strength compared with which all other strength is really weakness.”
[9] Cf. Walton, “2 Corinthians 12:1-10,” 296, where he cites the contemporary example of twelve-step programs with their “rituals of vulnerability and weakness they have established in making confession to one another” that “give them the strength they need.”

4 comments:

Pastor kabu said...

I have loved reading your sermons. I thought it was about time I told you. Thanks for sharing.... Kris

Alan Brehm said...

Thank You!

Alan Brehm said...

Thank You!

Alan Brehm said...

Thank You!