2I know a person in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know; God knows. 3And I know that such a person—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know; God knows— 4was caught up into Paradise and heard things that are not to be told, that no mortal is permitted to repeat.5On behalf of such a one I will boast, but on my own behalf I will not boast, except of my weaknesses. 6But if I wish to boast, I will not be a fool, for I will be speaking the truth. But I refrain from it, so that no one may think better of me than what is seen in me or heard from me, 7even considering the exceptional character of the revelations. Therefore, to keep me from being too elated, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me, to keep me from being too elated.8Three times I appealed to the Lord about this, that it would leave me,9but he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. 10Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.
In advance of signing an executive order, aimed as a temporary “fix” of the traumatic separation of immigrant families at the US border late last month, US President Donald Trump remarked,
The dilemma is that if you’re weak, if you’re weak, which some people would like you to be, if you’re really, really pathetically weak, the country is going to be overrun with millions of people. And if you’re strong, then you don’t have any heart. That’s a tough dilemma…Perhaps I would rather be strong, but that’s a tough dilemma.
Public figures wrestling with how they are perceived publicly is nothing new. As history writer Mark Cartwright explains in his definitional page on the Roman Triumph, ancient Roman emperors and their commanders would hold massive military parades, riding through the capitol after a great victory with their captives and spoils of war in procession. In these parades, the public accolade was so great that it was the job of a slave to ride alongside the commander, whispering into his ear to remind him that “amongst all this adoration, he should remember that he was only a mortal and not actually a god.”
Paul himself faced a similar dilemma with regard to his relationship with the Corinthians. Although he was respected as the founder of their church, Paul’s relationship between the believers in Corinth grew strained after he moved on from Corinth to preach the Gospel in other places. The content of each of the surviving letters that Paul wrote to the Corinthians thus places a strong emphasis on the topic of Paul’s authority.
In 2 Corinthians, Paul responds to the accusation that while he is “strong” in what he writes to them, he is “weak” in his physical presence (2 Corinthians 10:10).
Paul, in this sense a good politician, assures the church that his “strong” words will be backed up by equally strong action (2 Corinthians 10:11). Indeed, he admits that he would prefer to be physically strong in this conventional sense of the term (2 Corinthians 12:87-8).
However, through his prayers to the contrary, Paul eventually discerns that God desires to use him in his weakness. And so, in what follows, Paul goes to lengths to redefine strength in light of the crucified Christ.
Paul recounts the message that he has received from Christ: “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9).
Paradoxically, if one wants to be strong—really, really powerfully strong—then one must allow oneself to be weak. Perhaps even really, really, pathetically weak. Such a powerful weakness can be seen in a healthy and voluntary vulnerability, a willingness to admit one’s own limits, to open oneself up to potential ridicule or loss for the sake of a greater good.
Paul continues, “So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weakness, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me” (2 Corinthians 12:9).
And the power of Christ, of course, is the power of Christ crucified. The power of one who gave up all power and control—even control over life itself—in the most powerful act of love and compassion ever known to humanity. In John’s gospel account, Jesus reflects, “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:13).
Since Paul had left Corinth new evangelists had come in his place. Some of them preached a message that felt stronger, more powerful, and likely promised more worldly success. In his response to the Corinthians, then, Paul has a choice: he can reassert his own strength and their confidence in him as a strong leader, or he can continue to preach the Gospel of Christ crucified—“a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles” (1 Corinthians 1:23).
He chooses the latter course: “Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:10).