The Weakness of God is Stronger than Men
Paul’s Defense of Himself and the Correction to the Corinthian Problem
The year is approximately 57 A.D. Paul the Apostle has just written, a few months apart, from Ephesus, two very passionate and personal letters to a church that he founded in the city of Corinth. That church, just over six years old, has, it seems, gone through a series of crises that has rocked many of its foundations in the faith. A man is having sexual relations with his step mother; schisms have broken out where believers are choosing—competitively—one teacher over another; some are getting drunk at the Lord’s supper; Christians are taking one another to court. Paradoxically, it is also a time when many divine acts of power—miracles, healings, revelatory words of knowledge, speaking in tongues—are taking place. It is this church, clothed with God’s power, but with little of his peace, Paul addresses as “infants in Christ” (1 Corinthians 3:1).
Why after six years are they still considered infants by the Apostle? Beyond the obvious problems, is there something further that Paul sees in connection with this church that causes him to question the Corinthians’ deeper understanding of God (and hence their maturity)—an understanding and way of life that Paul himself possesses, and of which he exhorts the Corinthians to “imitate” (1 Corinthians 4:16)? Put more simply, is there a root to their problems? If so, will this deeper understanding of Paul’s be able to ‘get at’ the root and solve not only the immediate problems, but also their underlying cause?
But, first, what is this ‘deeper’ understanding and ‘way of life’ of Paul’s, if it exists, and why should the Corinthians (and we, for that matter) be impressed with it? “There has been an influx of some very impressive teachers that have come through lately, Paul, so why should we merely listen to you?” the Corinthians might ask. “Peter—one of the original twelve—what stories he can tell, Paul; and Apollo—so well versed in the Scriptures—can that man preach!” Is Paul not thankful for these teachers and their effect upon the Corinthians? Does he consider that he has something additional and unique to say to the Corinthians beyond what these rather famous teachers have said?
Perhaps he does. He is, after all, the Corinthians’ ‘father’ in the gospel (the means by which they came to Christ for salvation), and his ‘way of life’ is one that he has lived as a father—the life of an apostle. We have from the Corinthian letters alone multiple descriptions of what Paul walked through as an expression of that apostleship—imprisonments, beatings, stonings, shipwrecks, sleeplessness, weariness and toil, hunger and nakedness, to name a few (2 Corinthians 11:25-7). Is this ‘way of life’ the one Paul wishes the Corinthians to “imitate”—that of austerity and the dangers of sharing the gospel from city to city? Surely, not everyone can be an apostle?
Probably not—but does a father who is a fireman care most of all that his children become firemen, or would he not rather hope that his children reflect the spirit of the fireman—the lessons he himself has learned in being one—no matter what occupation they choose? Perhaps this understanding is more in line with how Paul wishes the Corinthians to “imitate” him. Nevertheless, if Paul is not asking the Corinthians to live outwardly and literally the life of an apostle, then what exactly is he asking them to do? What “lessons” does he wish to pass on to them, and will those lessons actually solve the Corinthian problem?
One immediate form those lessons take, of course, is that of rules or commands. In order to appreciate why, let us set the scene a bit. Paul writes to the Corinthians as a teacher, and as more than a teacher—as their spiritual father. And feeling the unique burden that a father feels—that his children grow up correctly—as we read these letters we, ourselves, can almost feel his conflict in what he wishes to get across to them. “They are as yet so immature,” he thinks to himself. And like a father who must remind his children to brush their teeth before bedtime, but who yearns for the day when they do it naturally, Paul too, gives the explicit commands (milk) suitable to their young state: “Dare any of you, having a matter against another, go to law before the unrighteous, and not before the saints” he asks (1 Corinthians 6:1)? Or even, “Therefore, my brethren, when you come together to eat, wait for one another” (1 Corinthians 11:33). Nevertheless, will bare commands (for instance, if Paul is not there to enforce them) really solve the Corinthian problem? And surely, there would not be enough parchment available to cover every conceivable circumstance. This is Paul’s dilemma: how to grow up his children and enable them to live as he does. Of course, we have yet to say what his ‘way of life’ basically is (only that it has to do with something more substantial than the ‘milk’ of rules and commands—1 Corinthians 3: 1-3). There is, however, one other important question that needs addressing first: do the Corinthians view themselves as needing help? What, in fact, is their own assessment of their spiritual state?
To arrive at a complete consensus about this question may be difficult. For on the one hand, there are those who think enough of Paul’s input (and their own need for it) to have written a list of questions to him to be addressed (part of 1st Corinthians is taken up in answering these very questions). On the other hand, there appear to be, within the Corinthian ranks, those who question Paul’s ‘credentials’ for being an apostle in the first place and therefore carrying apostolic authority (they are perhaps the same ones enthralled with the various traveling teachers—2 Corinthians 10:2, 8-11). Paul is obviously hurt by this latter group. He defends himself vigorously with the list of hardships mentioned before (2 Corinthians 11:22-30). This list and the exceptional way he has treated the Corinthians in general is to him the only ‘appropriate’ proof of his credentials.
But something curious happens to Paul in the very giving of his defense. He is torn. Somehow he is not quite comfortable with it, and he vacillates back and forth (2 Corinthians 11:17). He seems to realize, though he feels otherwise compelled by the Corinthians’ view towards him, that the focus of his boasting is not touching the heart of the matter. To boast in the ‘strength’ of his accomplishments seems—in that moment—somehow hollow and unwise to him (2 Corinthians 10:12).
At this point, Paul takes a radical turn in his plan of defense. He decides, apparently, the only viable defense, the only proper “boasting,” should now be, not in his strengths, but in his weaknesses! He calls as his ‘first witness’ the former governor of Damascus under King Arêtes: “Yes, Paul was here, quite early in his career, I believe, and was disrupting the local Jews in the synagogues by refuting them boldly over this fellow, Jesus. It was quite disruptive and we decided to arrest him, and—quite frankly I was surprised by this—for he was such a bold fellow with the Hebrew debaters, and so I expected some type of confrontation with him when we went to fetch him. But, as it turns out, he was let down the city wall in a basket in the middle of the night! A basket, of all things—quite the cowards way out I would say” (based on 2 Corinthians 11: 30-3). What kind of defense is this? More a witness for the prosecution than for the defense it seems. More importantly, why would Paul wish to boast of it? If the weakness (cowardliness) that he experienced in that circumstance is as we have allowed, is that not something better forgotten (though perhaps learned from) than actually boasted of? In addition, what does such boasting of weakness say to the Corinthians, who already have their fair share?
Perhaps, initially, it says very little, for the Corinthians do not seem to share Paul’s penchant for glorying in weakness. At least some of their complaint of Paul (of the ones who complain), in fact, stems from the chance detail that he does not look the part of an apostle. He looks quite “weak,” they say, in appearance, though the Corinthians are willing to ascribe power and weight to what he writes (2 Corinthians 10:10). Paul, on the other hand, mentions this proclivity for looking “at things according to the outward appearance” as unreliable in judging spiritual matters (2 Corinthians 10:2, 3, 7, 11), and, in fact, chides the Corinthians’ pride for aligning themselves only with what appears positive:
For who makes you differ from another? And what do you have that you did not receive? Now if you did indeed receive it, why do you boast as if you had not received it? You are already full! You are already rich! You have reigned as kings without us—and indeed I wish you did reign, that we also might reign with you! For I think that God has displayed us, the apostles, last, as men condemned to death; for we have been made a spectacle to the world, both to angels and to men. For we are fools for Christ’s sake, but you are wise in Christ! We are weak, but you are strong! You are distinguished but we are dishonored! To the present hour we both hunger and thirst, and we are poorly clothed, and beaten, and homeless. And we labor, working with our own hands. Being reviled, we bless; being persecuted, we endure; being defamed, we entreat. We have been made as the filth of the world, the offscouring of all things until now. I do not write these things to shame you, but as my beloved children I warn you. For though you may have ten thousand instructors in Christ, yet you do not have many fathers; for in Christ Jesus I have begotten you through the gospel. Therefore, I urge you, imitate me. (1 Corinthians 4:7-16)
Here, then, is the fuller context for Paul’s challenge to the Corinthians. If, as we have mentioned before, this challenge is not aimed, necessarily, at building an army of apostles, then it would seem that it is aimed at pointing to what the Corinthians are in truth lacking—namely, knowing the real value of what by appearance looks only weak or ‘negative.’
Without this view, the Corinthians appear doomed to a hankering after the positive and to a shallow Christianity that must be constantly rescued from its excesses (by rules and commands)—hence, the church’s preoccupation with signs, miracles, dramatic gifts (such as speaking in tongues), and impressive teachers. Of course, none of these things are in and of themselves wrong—Paul would, in fact, call them all ‘works of God.’ It is perhaps more the undue emphasis placed upon such things by the Corinthians, based upon a misunderstanding and un-appreciation of the value of what may be termed the ‘negative’ or weakness in the Christian’s life, that is the real issue. How will Paul correct this misunderstanding of the Corinthians? And is this change in understanding the same as that which Paul advocates in his strange defense of himself, “boasting in [his] weaknesses?”
As a beginning to his correction, Paul takes the Corinthians back to their roots. He reminds them of their humble origins—that the Corinthian church emerged almost exclusively from the ‘wrong side of the tracks.’ Neither had they been known for their wisdom, particularly, or strength. These are very humbling remarks from Paul. Perhaps the Corinthians had been thinking that being the church in Corinth was an escape from their past and ignoble roots. But just as Paul’s words, sliding down like hot coals, burned at the Corinthians’ old wounds, he startlingly counters, “But God has chosen the foolish things of the world . . .” Why, we may ask? He continues: “ . . . to put to shame the wise . . . and God has chosen the weak things of the world . . .” Paul continues again: “. . . to put to shame the things that are strong; and the insignificant things of the world and the things which are despised God has chosen, and the things which are not, to bring to nothing the things that are . . .” Again, we ask why? “. . . that no flesh should glory in His presence” (1 Corinthians 1: 26-9, emphasis mine). These amazing verses by Paul are a lesson in humility, indeed—but more than that, they are for the Corinthians a lesson of God’s apparently positive purpose in what they had previously believed to only be without purpose . . . their weakness. If this assessment is true, then how might Paul communicate to the Corinthians this ‘power’ of weakness?
There is something especially instructive about stories—especially when it comes to weakness. Just what is it in a story well told that makes us want to see the main character pushed to extremes? That quality seems to be at the heart of good story telling—a person who has been pushed beyond the limits of strength concerning what he or she has previously known and who is forced to find new resources to overcome the difficulty. A character who is not challenged, who is not made to feel acutely some weakness, we consider one dimensional and boring. As far as the interest of the reader or hearer of the story goes, weakness is more essential than strength. However, when difficulty becomes personal, when weakness is no longer something we merely read about, we seem less able to appreciate the recipe found in good story telling to see our own ‘story’ rich and interesting and one worth telling. Paul, perhaps realizing that the Corinthians need this kind of tangibility from him, decides, at this point, to offer some of his own stories of weakness.
Of course, we have already heard one—Paul the ‘basket’ case. The next story the Corinthians know too, for it is the story of when they first met Paul. However, it is not as well known to them as they perhaps think, for in it now Paul reveals to them what he was experiencing on the inside when first he traveled their corridors. He begins, “And I, brethren, when I came to you, did not come with excellence of speech or of wisdom declaring to you the mystery of God. For I determined not to know anything among you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified” (1 Corinthians 2:1-2). Paul seems to be confessing, “Maybe you Corinthians think that when I came here it was with training in both what I had to say and how I said it—I’m here to tell you, I had neither.”
Paul next admits “I was with you in weakness, in fear, and in much trembling. And my speech and my preaching were not with persuasive words of wisdom . . .” This is a startling confession and the Corinthians are probably having one of two reactions: Either they are thinking that they knew none of this, and had seen no weakness or fear in Paul when he spoke to them (therefore, they are amazed at this confession); or, that some or all of the weakness, fear, lack of polished rhetoric or impressive grasp of wisdom was very evident to them (and again, for a different reason, they are amazed at this confession). But in either case, Paul continues with what they all remembered, “And my speech and my preaching were not with persuasive words of wisdom but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, that your faith should not be in the wisdom of men but in the power of God” (1 Corinthians 2:2-4, emphasis mine).
Paul is saying two things. He is saying “Yes—whether you could see it or not, Corinthians, I, too, felt poignantly my own weakness and general lack of ability when I came to you. And for a moment (if we may be allowed to extrapolate from typical human experience in such cases) I wondered what I was doing here. But then I remembered: this is just the way it works; this is the way God ‘chooses’ to show Himself—through weakness (1 Corinthians 1:27-9). I then gave up attempting to be something and 'determined,' in fact, that I would not try to 'know anything among you' at all—except Jesus and his cross" (1 Corinthians 2:2). Therefore, on the one hand, Paul is very much identifying with the Corinthians in their own experience of weakness. That admission in itself probably makes ripples among them. To the one group—those questioning his credentials—it may even further fuel their argument against the validity of his apostleship. To the other group, the ripples they feel are of a different sort. The admiration they have for Paul now only increases, as they realize, with great encouragement, that he is just like them. And if God can ‘choose’ Paul’s weakness, then perhaps he can also choose theirs.
On the other hand, Paul is doing something more than identifying with the Corinthians’ weakness, encouraging as that might be to them. He is attempting to show them something, in fact, far more pervasive—that weakness is the one essential reigning principle of power in the kingdom of God, because it is the very one necessitating God’s sufficiency . . . in them (2 Corinthians 4:7). Nothing so draws God, Paul seems to be saying, as our weakness—our need of Him—and such a one will always be “blessed” (if we may recall Jesus’ words of Matthew 5:1—“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of Heaven”). There is one other story that Paul decides to tell the Corinthians—perhaps his greatest story of all—in order to give them that ‘deeper understanding’ and ‘way of life.’ We may call it ‘the Story of the Thorn.’
Paul begins, “I know a man in Christ . . .” (2 Corinthians 12:2). Paul is speaking of himself here, but does it in the third person, presumably to avoid the potential for adulation. But keeping in mind that this story is told, at least partly, as a defense of his apostleship, the method seems a bit conflicting. However, this story is the first part of a two part story, and Paul’s discomfort with adulation actually highlights and explains its turning point. He continues:
. . . who fourteen years ago—whether in the body I do not know, or whether out of the body I do not know, God knows—such a one was caught up to the third heaven. And I know such a man—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows—how he was caught up into Paradise and heard inexpressible words, which it is not lawful for a man to utter. Of such a one I will boast; yet of myself I will not boast, except in my weaknesses. For though I might desire to boast, I will not be a fool; for I will speak the truth. But I refrain, lest anyone should think of me above what he sees me to be or hears from me. (2 Corinthians 12:2-6, emphasis mine)
This is an amazing story. Even the naysayers of Paul’s apostleship have to be listening with anticipation. But in what sense does Paul mean that he “will speak the truth”—by not speaking it, not boasting of this vision (however, it is too late; he has already done it)? If nothing else, we feel the tension surrounding the validity of Paul’s apostleship increase as on the one hand, he offers this story as a part of his defense, and on the other, he seemingly retracts it. Why not stand up and say directly, “Yes, this was me. This happened to me. I am the fellow of fourteen years ago, and it is amazing what I saw.” Yet, Paul does not do this. What he does do, in fact, seems more a weak charade for humility, than its authentic experience.
But there is a second part of the story:
And lest I should be exalted above measure by the abundance of the revelations, a thorn in the flesh was given to me, a messenger of Satan to beat me, lest I be exalted above measure. Concerning this thing I pleaded with the Lord three times that it might depart from me. And He said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you. For My strength is made perfect in weakness.” (2 Corinthians 12:7-9a)
Here, then, is our turning point. And quite a turning point it is, for Paul is thrust from the ecstasies of the revelations of Paradise to the torture shop of hell! Well, almost—but a “messenger of Satan” whose job it is to “beat” one cannot be a pleasant thing. Paul would attest to this. But what did Paul do to deserve this “thorn”?
This part of the story is what makes the whole tale so curious, for, first of all, it could only have been God by whom Paul “was caught up to the third heaven.” Moreover, it does not appear that Satan was the originator of Paul’s “thorn” (“a thorn in the flesh was given me”—by whom?). Additionally, the phrase “And lest I should become exalted above measure,” sounds like a godly rather than satanic intention. That would mean that God was the author of both events, the one up, and the one down. We may be thinking what pride Paul must have been sporting to have warranted such a plunge, but the text suggests otherwise. The verse begins with, “And lest I should be exalted above measure . . .” In other words, Paul’s exaltation of himself, based on this rare experience, had not yet taken place. This fact may mean that it would shortly have taken place, if not for God’s intervention, or that it was merely a precautionary measure—God’s way of keeping his servant safe from the inroads of pride. Either way, however, Paul is left to deal with the “thorn.”
What is Paul’s first method of dealing with this significant ‘negative’ in his life? Apparently, the same as for most human beings—by attempting to make it go away. He pleads with God on three separate occasions for this weakness to be removed from him. That detail in itself is fascinating, for how many miracles had come through the hands of Paul? Yet, now that he needed his own ‘miracle,’ the “heavens were as brass,” until, that is, his third appeal. It was then that God said, “My grace is sufficient for you . . .” Do we think that this pronouncement might have seemed, in some sense, like a non-answer to Paul—not much better than if God had just said, “No” to Paul’s request? But if not a “No” answer, it does sound ominously like, “I will not grant your request, Paul, but I will instead give you patience” (to which Paul faints away like a dead man).
However, Paul hears something else, does he not, something more than ‘grin and bear it.’ In fact, so much does he seem to hear that his whole attitude changes mid-sentence. He speaks of joy and “pleasure,” and not because God has changed his mind about Paul’s request, but because Paul is hearing differently—hearing what God says—about this very tough thorn in his life. What does Paul hear? Let us listen with him: “My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness” (emphasis mine). Here is the fountainhead for Paul’s boasting, and the fulcrum which wielded his rescue from the ‘vices’ of strength, and became the basis of his teaching and fatherhood (apostleship) to the Corinthians. Imitate this man? It would be a safe and compassionate road, for this man is probably the second weakest man who ever lived. The weakest? You know.