Second Corinthians 12:1-10
Taking Pride In Your Weaknesses
1. Everybody wishes that "I am strong." "We figure it's better to be strong than weak." Everybody thinks that. Of course, when we speak of "strength," it isn't necessarily only of the strength regarding the physical powers of our bodies. It might be will power, or it might be some special skill. It might even be power and authority in society. Or it might even be that we have experienced something that others haven't or we know something that others don't know. Among the numerous motivations for seekers of the faith, we want strength to overcome an affliction and we want steel nerves with great presence of mind during different situations. Don't we? Or it might involve our wanting to obtain experience and knowledge that we haven't had up to now.
That We Not Get Swelled Heads
2. Many of the people of the Corinthian church to whom this epistle had been addressed seemed to be seekers of "strength" when all is said and done. In their case, we are told this from the contents of Paul's letter addressed to Corinth, that they had extremely strong interests both in spiritual skills and mystical experiences, in particular.
3. There had been teachers there who had a very strong influence among them. Paul calls those persons, "false apostles" in chapter eleven and verse thirteen. They were the teachers who had entered into the church at Corinth after Paul had departed it. The confusion that they had caused in the church is the backdrop for the Pauline Corinthian correspondence. How much of a powerful influence they wielded is revealed in the words from 11:20, "As a matter of fact, you are even patient even though you are enslaved by someone, preyed upon, taken, exposed to pushy attitudes, or are socked in the face." The first one to tell the Corinthians the gospel was Paul. But despite that even, why in the world would the Corinthians even end up following those false apostles? How did the false apostles ever even end up exercising so much of an oppressive power of control over them?
4. We could take a look at some of the reaons for this, but I'd say that the biggest reason was in that the [false teachers] were embodying "the strengths" that the Corinthians were looking for. In other words, [their] mystical experiences were rich, they were ready with their spiritual skills, they were eloquent, and they had persuasive speaking skills. When we compare Paul who had written this epistle to these [skillful] "false apostles" he looks quite on the bleak side. Doesn't he? In chapter ten and verse ten it says in the Bible that "For, there are some saying, 'His epistles are dignified and powerful, but when you actually meet him he is weak, and his speech is hard to put up with.'" This is probably the general effect Paul had on people. And the false apostles must have been so much more attractive with "the powers and the strengths" they had over against Paul's speaking of "the crucified Christ" message.
5. The words I have read to you today were spoken under these such circumstances. "I must brag about myself. But, though I brag it is to no advantage. Let's talk about what the Lord has shown to me and what he has revealed to me," (12:1). In short, since the false apostles are bragging about their mystical experiences, he says, those experiences are pale next to his. Was that foolish [to say]? Paul agrees dead on it that it was disadvantageous to take pride in experiences like that. He didn't really want to do that. But, in realizing it was disadvantageous, he still went out and spoke it because he had something that he must say after that no matter what.
6. The situation in which Paul felt some hesitancy to speak on his own experiences is revealed even in the words Paul enunciates. He says, "I know a man who has been joined to Christ, fourteen years ago, he was taken up to the third heaven," (verse two). If we go by the context, it is clear that he is speaking of himself. But, by intentionally using the third person, he is speaking as if he were talking about someone else. According to his words, we are to understand that right about fourteen years before when he was evangelizing in Antioch, he had a mystical experience of being taken up to heaven. Up there he heard some awesome words of which he remarks upon.
7. Even if we delved deep into what is written in the scriptures here and what this experience was really like, it might not make sense. As a matter of fact, Paul himself doesn't even get too deeply involved in speaking about this experience of his. He goes from speaking about his mystical experience to his true-to-life experience of affliction. He begins to speak on "a thorn" that was given to him physically. This is what he was wanting to talk about in the first place. "Because what was revealed to me was too wonderful. So, in order that I not get a swelled up head about it, a thorn was given to me personally, which was that a messenger was sent from Satan to inflict suffering upon me that I might not be high minded," (verse seven).
8. We're not sure what this "thorn" just might be. Plenty of different guesses have been made since ancient times. Paul might have been epileptic. Paul might have been [afflicted] with an eye sickness. Whatever it was, we do know for sure that it was a trying long term affliction. Paul calls this affliction "a messenger sent from Satan." Paul did not sugar coat his suffering. It was from Satan and not directly from God. But, in the expression "messenger sent from Satan" the nuance of this "thorn" with the meaning of no small hindrance to [his] "proclamation work" was to be included with it.
9. However, God can use even a messenger from Satan for his own purposes. Paul came to see that God was using this "thorn" for a certain purpose. It was God's care and concern that lied behind it, "so that Paul would not get a swelled head over it."
10. "Swelled head," "haughtiness," arrogance" -- human "strengths" usually go hand in hand with these. It is not unusual that anyone who pursues after "strengths" will also get along with "the strength" an attitude of "an inflated ego, or an increase in one's pride levels." This holds true in the faith world, too. It says here "so that Paul wouldn't get a swelled head," we might keep in mind that it is not a typical situation, it was about the revelation that Paul had obtained in a special manner. Even in faith based situations or in spiritual situations, the problem of "high mindedness" and "too much pride" will certainly creep its way in. Wait, worse than that, I'd say in the religious world especially so, this problem is quite serious. This very problem was one that the church of Corinth was dealing with.
Taking Pride In One's Weaknesses
11. Naturally then, Paul did not wake up knowing right from the start about "the thorn" given to him personally, that it was given to him "so that he would not get a swelled up head." Therefore, he writes that he thrice prayed to the Lord for him to remove the messenger of Satan from him for good. "Thrice" does not just literally mean three times, it means "he prayed on numerous occasions."
12. Paul wanted his affliction taken away. He wanted his weakness removed. He wanted to be strong. But, his "thorn" was not taken away. [Was it that] Paul's prayer was not answered? No, his prayer certainly was answered, but not in the way Paul was hoping for. Paul received the following words as an answer to his prayer: "My grace is sufficient for you. [My] strength is exhibited sufficiently by [your] being in weakness," (verse nine).
13. The Lord did not take away Paul's "thorn." The Lord left a weakness on him. [He] didn't make him strong. Why? The reason was to make Paul take a look at "the sufficient grace of the Lord." The reason was to make him see into the strength of the Lord which would be completely transparent within the weakness of his humanity. As a result of that, Paul did see into the Lord's grace and power and so he said, "Therefore, I'd rather take great joy and pride in my weakness, so that the power of Christ will dwell within me. Therefore, I will be satisfied because of Christ no matter what weakness, insults, poverty, persecution, or condition of dead ends there be; for, when I am weak I am really strong," (verse nine and ten).
14. In this manner then, what we ought to be pursuing is not that we ourselves be stronger. What we ought to really take pride in is not in the strengths of our own selves. Paul says about himself that he "takes pride in his weakness" instead. Our problem most often is not that we are too weak, but that we are too strong. When people who refuse to admit their weaknesses in any real sense are just looking for strengths, then just up after that is only "a swelled up head."
15. The focus of our attention in our faith life is not to build up the self. It is not self improvement or to make ourselves stronger. Nor is it to take some special powers under our [wing]. What we need is to fully realize our weaknesses. We need to recognize that we cannot live unless we have the grace and the power of Christ. After that, we live by seeking Christ. We live by being connected to Christ. We want the word of the Lord. We want the bread of the Lord's Supper so much that we can taste it. We mustn't live without praying to the Lord. That's how we are to be when we are seeking for the power of Christ to be revealed in our weaknesses and we take pride in a real sense in our weaknesses.
16. Therefore, opportunities for us in which we can sense our weaknesses are certainly important in our lives. Those [opportunities] may be [seen as] "thorns" given to us in our flesh just like Paul [was given]. Or it might [come as] "insults, poverty, persecution, or conditions of some dead end," (verse ten). In the negative sense [we might] need it "so that we do not swell in our heads." But, what we also really need is to hear the word of the Lord when we are in places like that. "My grace is sufficient for you. [My] strength is exhibited sufficiently by [your] being in weakness." When we hear his voice and accept it, we too can most definitely respond like Paul did and with Paul: "Therefore, I'd rather take great joy and pride in my weakness, so that the power of Christ will dwell within me."