“I am content with weaknesses… for whenever I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Cor 12:10).
I have a lot of weaknesses. Spiritual, emotional, physical, relational. A very long list. And I’m sure I’ve got more of them than I know of, others that I haven’t noticed.
The weakness on my mind this week are my knees. They’ve never been able to keep up with what I’ve wanted to do with my life. My knee troubles began in High School, the last semester of my senior year. After our soccer team won the state championship—a month later, we had an all-star game, a friendly match with a bunch of us from the whole state of Arizona. At some point during the game, in the midst of all the fun, I tore the ACL in my knee—one of the ligaments that holds the knee together as a joint.
After surgery and rehab for the next year, I was cleared to play for my sophomore year in college—and, in the practice before our game against UCLA, I tore my ACL again, in the same knee. So I quit the sport, but that doesn’t mean my knees have been fine.
I tore the ACL in my other knee five years ago, when I was kicking around the ball with some kids in a Palestinian refugee camp in Bethlehem.
And now, here I am, this week, icing my knee after weeding our front yard yesterday. I should also confess that I’ve been coaching a high school soccer team this summer, and I may have joined them in a scrimmage one morning because we needed another player to make the teams even.
My knees are a weakness, a constant frustration, because they don’t let me do what I want to do. A thorn in my flesh, in my knee-flesh, to borrow Paul’s phrase in our passage from 2 Corinthians. We don’t really know what Paul was talking about—or, I should say that lots of biblical scholars have ideas, but there’s not really any agreement. All we know is that Paul has weaknesses—maybe physical, maybe spiritual, we don’t know exactly.
But the point is that Paul’s own life, his own body, something about himself, gets in the way of what he wants to do—not just something that he wants to do, like a hobby, like playing soccer, but something more like an existential commitment, something that matters, his purpose for life, which is the gospel, to share the message about Jesus, to organize communities around the message of Jesus. That’s all that matters for him, that’s the first thing he thinks about when he wakes up and the last thing on his mind when he falls asleep.
But his weaknesses keep on getting in the way. Part of him prevents another part of him from getting what he wants. He can’t heal himself. He can’t set himself free. He can’t overpower his weakness.
This isn’t a matter of self-improvement or behavior modification. Paul recognizes that what he wants is beyond his grasp, and there’s nothing he can do about that—he can’t just change his mind about what he wants, and he can’t get rid of what’s blocking him from what he wants.
That doesn’t mean he’s going to give up, as if that’s possible, because, as I said, this is existential for him, this is not a matter of just modifying what he wants, as if our psychologies were that simple, that straightforward.
Instead, he’s going to keep on living his life according to the purposes God has given him, he won’t abandon his longing for God’s promises, for God’s promises of goodness for himself and the world. That’s who he is, and so he knows that he’ll face hardships and calamities, persecutions and insults. He knows that he will always be confronted with his weaknesses, his powerlessness, a gap between what he can do and what he wants to make happen in this world—for himself, for his friends, for people everywhere.
I can’t say that I think about Jesus’ call on my life as soon as I wake up in the morning. I can’t say that I share Paul’s unwavering desire to spread the gospel throughout the world. But my faith is existential for me in the sense that I can’t think of myself without it. I can’t help but want a better world—better for me and for you and for all of us on this planet, a world full of God’s justice and peace, communities alive with God’s love and care.
I can’t give up wanting all of that. And that means that I’m always being confronted with my weakness, with my inability to get what I want, to make life different from what we have.
The Christian life, as Paul describes it, is a confrontation with our weaknesses, our struggle with ourselves and our world, for the sake of another world, for the sake of the gospel, for the sake of God’s love and care and healing.
This is not to say that we should be more realistic, that we should get over our disappointments. This is not to say that we should shrug at ourselves and at our society, to resign ourselves to making a difference, even small ones. This is not to say that we should lower our expectations of what God can do.
Instead, Paul doesn’t let us sidestep the fact that, at some point, we’re going to have to deal with ourselves, that every problem we discover out there in the world will also confront us with ourselves: with our frustration, with our weakness, because we want good things and we’re always being let down, we’re always letting ourselves down, we’re always trying to figure out what to do with our disappointments, how to go on in the face of our weaknesses—to be content in our weaknesses, Paul says, to acknowledge them, to refuse to look away from them,
to refuse to blame others in order to distract from the fact that we also get in our own way, that we stumble over ourselves, that we’ve all got thorns in our flesh.
“I am content with weaknesses,” Paul says, “for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.”
This strength comes from Christ, from the Christ who knows weakness—the strength of his solidarity with us, his life with us, the power of his spirit in our spirits.
That’s the point in this passage. For us to recognize our weaknesses and confess our need for others to offer us the grace of God, for us to pass along God’s grace, to depend on each other for the strength of Christ’s spirit.
All of us our wounded, in some way or another. All of us have weaknesses, which we try to hide, to protect ourselves, perhaps, or to guard the last remnants of power we have in our community or in a relationship.
The Christian life is a confrontation with our weaknesses as we depend on the grace each of us holds for the other, the grace we give and receive.
The Psalmist puts all of this in a prayer—a prayer that begins in us the work of recognizing our need, our dependencies: “Have mercy upon us, O LORD,” the Psalmist prays, “have mercy upon us” (Psalm 123:3).
Church life is a commitment to learn how to pray those words together, to confess our need for mercy in front of one another, to present our weaknesses as we depend on each other for God’s strength.