St. Paul boasts to the Corinthians about all of his qualifications of pedigree, education, suffering and revelation so that they would know that he is as qualified as the “super apostles” who had been leading them astray. However, about all of his qualifications he says that they count as nothing. He doesn’t want people to relate to him based on his qualifications. He wants people to relate to him based on what they see him do and hear him say (2 Cor. 12:6). In fact, the thorn in his flesh–a messenger sent from Satan to beat him up (“buffet him”), to weaken him, to cause infirmities, reproaches, needs, persecutions and distresses (v.10)–is something he “takes pleasure in.” St. Paul is glad about his limitations.
How different is the Saint’s attitude from ours. When the plans we have in our hearts to do good are thwarted, we rail at God. We get angry when we fail, when it is too hard for us to do the good we want to do. We fight against our limitations. We somehow imagine that if God really wanted a certain good–the specific good that we imagine is the most important good right now–then God would enable us and empower us to accomplish or bring about that good. We do not glory in our weaknesses. We glory in our power, our will, our ability (“by God’s Grace” we add).
Perhaps part of the reason why we have trouble glorying in our weakness is that most of us devote so little of our actual life to doing good, doing God’s will, serving Him with our whole hearts. Yes, on Sunday we say that we are committing “our whole life unto Christ our God”; but during the week, it is pretty much business as usual. Occasionally, a particular incident or opportunity will arise that will challenge us, that will bring to our attention that we are God’s (or at least that we have committed ourselves to God) and this particular incident or opportunity requires that we act specifically based on that commitment. And so we gather our courage, say a little prayer, and act according to our conscience. Then to our great disappointment, the outcome is not as glorious as we had expected. Perhaps the situation is worse (or seems worse). Where is God?
Failure brings an even greater crisis of faith to those who have tried very hard actually to commit their whole lives to God. Perhaps they have spent years in schooling or serving as a missionary or priest or other minister with very little pay and very much misunderstanding. Perhaps they have suffered at work for their unwillingness to cheat or steal, for refusing to cook the books or overcharge the customers. When someone has consistently tried to give their whole life to God and encountered failure–or failure after failure–then from the true depths of their soul they cry: Where is God?
Perhaps we can all learn something from St. Paul. He wasn’t an “on again, off again” Christian, every moment of his life was caught up in following Christ; but he experienced tremendous failures–most of his letters are written to try to correct errors that had crept into Churches that he had established. Several letters were written from prison. Success was always limited: sickness, shipwrecks, arrests, not to mention misguided and jealous brethren, kept always getting in the way. He had learned through long practice that while God allows us (and asks us) to participate in shining the Light in this world, it is a Light that must shine in people’s hearts; and only God can open the eyes of someone’s heart. We carry this Light. But pride and self confidence put a cover on the Light (or worse, pervert the Light). It is only in humility that the Light shines brightly and clearly. This is the lesson St. Paul had learned. When I am weak, then I am strong.
Dear Fr. Michael,
Thank you for this word…I've been thinking a lot about this passage this week. In my life it is so hard to boast of or glory in your weakness – especially when you are in a situation where others expect you to be the strong one, the one that can get things done, the one that has the answers… Is being strong ever a sacrifice that you make for others? It's not that you aren't aware of your weaknesses, but you work hard to overcome them and pray hard to overcome them so that others can be helped, encouraged..so that communities can move forward. Can "being strong" ever be an asceticism? When things are hard, shouldn't you try harder because you are not necessarily doing it for yourself, you're doing it for God and others? Couldn't you also glory too much in your weakness? I don't know if this makes sense…I'm feeling very tired and weak, but don't think I can give up the fight or stop fulfilling the responsibilities that have been given me with as much strength as I can find or am given, or use my weaknesses as an excuse (boast in them), and I don't think I'm blaming God or angry at Him for my weakness.
The way you are using "being strong" is somewhat different from how St. Paul is using the concept. I think what you mean is "not give up" and "helping others not to give up." However, the way St. Paul is using it (at least the way I am reading it) is as a reference to the failure after one has been strong. He is referring to the weaknesses over which we have no control (circumstances, sickness, disabilities, actions of others). I would assume we should all do our best, but even that is often not enough (at least in our own eyes and according to our own agenda). Glorying in weakness does not mean that we look for ways to be weak (I don't think you thought this, but I want to explain it more clearly). Glorying in weakness is believing this: after we have done all we can (or should) and it is still apparently not enough, God is still in control. God will complete the work he has begun. I do not set the agenda, God does. And He already knows what I can and can't do. Therefore when my full effort is thwarted, I can rejoice in my weakness.