Why does power in preaching matter at all? A. W. Tozer gives us one reason:
Since power is a word of many uses and misuses, let me explain what I mean by it. First, I mean spiritual energy of sufficient voltage to produce great saints again. The breed of mild, harmless Christians grown in our generation is but a poor sample of what the grace of God can do when it operates in power in the human heart. The emotionless act of “accepting the Lord” practiced among us bears little resemblance to the whirlwind conversions of the past. We need the power that transforms, that fills the soul with a sweet intoxication, that will make a former persecutor to be “beside himself” with the love of Christ. We have today theological saints who can (and must) be proved to be saints by an appeal to the Greek original. We need saints whose lives proclaim their sainthood, and who need not run to the concordance for authentification.3
“I am content” or “I delight in”?
Our study begins with a question of translation. The esv of 2 Cor 12:10 reads, “For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses . . . .” But the niv reads, “That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses . . . .” Is Paul claiming contentment or enjoyment? Εὐδοκέω can mean “delight in.” It is the word used in Matthew 17:5 when the Father says at the Transfiguration, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” The Father was not merely contented; he was delighted. And I am persuaded that this stronger translation of εὐδοκέω is required in our passage for two reasons. First, 2 Cor 12:10 is restating the strong point of 12:9: “Therefore, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses.” Paul’s enthusiasm goes beyond contentment. Second, the phrase “For the sake of Christ” at the beginning of 12:10 requires “I delight” rather than “I am content.” Why? Because of who Christ is. J. I. Packer begins his book Knowing God in this way:
I walked in the sunshine with a scholar who had effectively forfeited his prospects of academic advancement by clashing with church dignitaries over the gospel of grace. “But it doesn’t matter,” he said at length, “for I’ve known God and they haven’t.” . . . [Not] many of us ever naturally say that in the light of the knowledge of God which we have come to enjoy past disappointments and present heartbreaks, as the world counts heartbreaks, don’t matter. For the plain fact is that to most of us they do matter. We live with them as our “crosses” (so we call them). Constantly we find ourselves slipping into bitterness and apathy and gloom as we reflect on them, which we frequently do. The attitude we show to the world is a sort of dried-up stoicism, miles removed from the “joy unspeakable and full of glory” which Peter took for granted that his readers were displaying (1 Peter 1:8). “Poor souls,” our friends say of us, “how they’ve suffered”—and that is just what we feel about ourselves! But these private mock heroics have no place at all in the minds of those who really know God. They never brood on might-have-beens; they never think of the things they have missed, only of what they have gained. . . . When Paul says [in Philippians 3] he counts the things he lost “dung,” he means not merely that he does not think of them as having any value but also that he does not live with them constantly in his mind; what normal person spends his time nostalgically dreaming of manure?4
Therefore, for a contextual reason in 12:9 and for a spiritual reason in the words “For the sake of Christ,” I emend the wording of the esv from “I am content” to “I delight” in 12:10. It is the key word in the passage.
Paul is opening up to us his personal life, even his private thoughts and feelings behind his preaching and out of which his preaching flowed. And here is my thesis from this passage: Our greatest breakthrough to spiritual power will come through the worst experience of our lives.
The Context of 2 Corinthians 12
In 2 Cor 10–13 Paul is defending his ministry. He feels embarrassed to do so, but he also feels trapped. Here is what’s happening. Paul’s ministry is under attack in Corinth by men he spoofs as “super-apostles” in 11:5. These false teachers are moving through the Corinthian church, boasting of their spectacular spiritual experiences and putting Paul down as inferior. The immature Corinthians are dazzled. Their growing attachment to the super-apostles puts them in danger of falling away from Jesus himself (2 Cor 11:3–4). Paul must rescue them, but he has been made the flashpoint of controversy in a personal way. So he cannot help the Corinthians refocus on Christ without also becoming self-referential in his appeals. He is in an awkward position. On the one hand, if he asserts his spiritual qualifications, his critics will point at him and say, “See? What did we tell you? He’s the arrogant one!” On the other hand, if he downplays his credentials, then they’ll point at him and say, “See? What did we tell you? He’s a second-stringer.” Either way, the Corinthians’ spiritual integrity before Christ hangs at this moment on their relational stability with Paul. He has no choice but to defend himself for their sake. But the way he boasts is surprising. He boasts, all right, but about unboastable things. He does step onto the turf of the super-apostles, but he plays the game by different rules.5
We come then to chapter 12, where we find Paul boasting. He reclaims bragging rights in the hearts of the Corinthians by revealing the kind of mind-boggling spiritual experience his opponents were trotting out, but he turns the tables on them. God gave him a guided tour of heaven, but then for fourteen years Paul said nothing about it. He never wanted to seem above others. Now when he is forced into divulging his sacred privilege, he feels so awkward that he backs into it in a third-person way: “I know a man in Christ who . . .” (12:2). According to 12:6, Paul prefers to be known only for what people can see in him and hear from him for themselves. He prefers to be seen as just another Christian guy. Why? Because he knows how divine power comes down—not through privileged experiences but through common ordinariness and even suffering. Extravagant experiences are not Paul’s platform for spirituality; everyday life is, even a hard life. Paul isn’t demeaning his experience in the third heaven. God gave it. But that high and holy moment was not where Paul broke through to new power in his ministry. That happened in the worst experience of his life—getting his thorn in the flesh and then learning to live with it.
Whatever the thorn was, it was horrible. Let Paul’s metaphor draw you in. You’re coming down from a mountaintop experience, walking a trail back down to “the real world.” Your heart is flooded with heavenly joys beyond all your powers of description when suddenly you stumble and fall and instinctively put your hand out to catch yourself, and you ram a thorn right up into your hand. In one instant your joy is driven away by piercing pain. You stop, examine your hand to see how to pull the thorn back out. But it has penetrated too deeply. In fact, that thorn never comes out of your hand, it never stops throbbing, and it never will stop for the rest of your life. Every day, whatever else you’re doing or trying to do 24/7, whatever else you’re thinking about or trying to think about moment by moment, the thorn is always and cruelly there. That horrible reality was Paul’s “new normal.”
A Messenger from Satan and a Mercy from God
Why did that happen? Paul explains it at two levels simultaneously. At one level, it came out of hell’s Dirty Tricks Department—“a messenger of Satan.” The fact that Paul experienced it as a messenger from Satan might imply that his physical anguish was accompanied by fiery dart-thoughts like, “You had this coming to you, Paul. God is finally catching up with you. Your life is over, you worthless piece of trash.” Satan meant it to harass Paul. That verb in 12:7 (“a messenger of Satan to harass me”) is in the present tense, implying a steady pounding. But this attack from Satan was, at the same time, at a deeper level, also a mercy from God. The Lord meant it to keep Paul’s feet on the ground after his vision of heaven. In fact, the gracious purpose of God wraps around the fiendish purpose of Satan as the phrase “to keep me from becoming conceited” appears both at the beginning and at the end of 12:7. The divine origin of his thorn, along with its hidden privilege, is also implied in the passive verb “was given.” God is the hidden agent there. It’s why Paul goes to the Lord for relief in 12:8: “Lord, I could do so much more for you without this.”
The Power of Weakness
Understandably, Paul sees two options as he looks into his future: (1) go on living with his thorn and be less useful to Christ or (2) get rid of the thorn and be more useful to Christ. He does not yet see a third option: keep the thorn, add in God’s all-sufficient grace, and become more empowered than ever before. On his way there, Paul goes to the Lord three times to make his case, because his thorn is not just inconvenient; it is unendurable. Frequently in the gospels people come to Jesus for healing, and he gives it. Paul asks the same Lord for healing not once, not twice, but on three occasions of pleading prayer. What happens? Each time the risen Lord gives the same answer: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (12:9). That is not the answer Paul wants to hear, but it cracks his heart open to more power from beyond himself.
What the Lord teaches us all is that in this life weakness is the (definite article) fundamental human experience. Weakness is the platform on which we have all our other experiences. We never grow beyond weakness in this life. Indeed, weakness is where we receive power. Karl Plank writes,
The study of virtually any aspect of Paul’s theology must eventually consider this language [of affliction], not because of its abundance as much as its fundamental character. Deeply enmeshed in the fabric of his gospel and his way of seeing the world, the language of affliction does not provide simply another theological topic in the Pauline compendium. Rather, it exposes the ground on which the apostle does theology.6
It also exposes the ground on which he does life and ministry and preaching—with power enough for any weakness.
The lexicons inform us that the word translated “is sufficient” means, not surprisingly, “to be enough, to satisfy, to be a match for.” The Lord is saying to Paul,
I’m never going to pull that thorn out of your hand, as long as you live. But my grace—my friendship, my nearness, my promises, my presence, my truth, my smile—all that I am will match all you are suffering. Your pain, and the weakness it reduces you to, will be the very avenue through which I bestow my power. If your experience of life were undisturbed, if you were always at ease, if you felt no temptation to despair of yourself, you would trust yourself and you would exalt yourself and thereby disempower yourself, and your wonderful experience of heaven would become your ruin. Paul, my power will become yours most perfectly in the humbling experience of weakness.
So Paul saw weakness not as evidence against himself but as the way of power and the wonderful surprises that only God can orchestrate. It is his way for us all. The super-apostles knew nothing of it. All they understood was trying to be impressive, which they were, but that kind of fraudulent power threatened the integrity and the very future of the Corinthian church. Authentic Christianity does not produce a race of supermen who rise above need; the most perfect expression of authentic Christianity in this age is divine power received with the empty hands of human weakness and poverty and pain. Without a thorn, would we even open our hand? But with our thorn and his grace, maybe we should feel a little guilty for having such an advantage in ministry!
After his third try with the Lord, Paul finally accepts it. In fact, he more than accepts it. He likes it. He is happy with the new arrangements: “Therefore, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me” (12:9). He doesn’t conceal his weaknesses, because he is not threatened by them. Paul understands that his life is telling a story different from the one he had thought. The real story of his life is an old one and a glorious one.
The verb translated “rest upon” appears nowhere else in biblical Greek. But Paul seems to be alluding to the Shekinah glory hovering over God’s people in their wilderness wanderings. The Bible says that Moses could not enter the tent of meeting because the cloud of God’s glory had settled on it (Exod 40:35), but in the New Covenant the afflicted Christian believer becomes the place where the glory dwells. Obviously, Paul is no masochist. He does not like the pain. But the power and presence and glory of Christ are more than worth it. So Paul is not feeling sorry for himself. He feels privileged. How can the world defeat a man who finds power in weakness, progress in setbacks, and opportunity in confinement?
If God has a purpose of grace for you and your ministry—and he does, beyond all you can ask or think—you do not need to go looking for your thorn; it will come find you. Something will enter your life, something unforeseeable, even unthinkable, something about which right now you would say, “No, that could never happen, not in my worst nightmare”—and then it will happen. This is inevitable. It’s when God will prove to you how wonderfully, even surprisingly, his power can rest upon you. It’s what the world needs to see in us. It’s what the church needs to see in us—not the weakness of power but the power of weakness. When people are looking for spirituality today, do they know where God has actually located it? How many people do you know who are thriving in the all-sufficiency of Christ from deeply personal familiarity? That’s where we come in. We are not just preachers of gospel truth; we are living proof of gospel power when life is impossible. God will prove it through you. He will show many people through you that his power is enough for anyone facing anything—and not with bitter resignation, not with self-pity, but with reverent delight. People will see it in you, and they will put their hope in God.
Finally, in 12:10, Paul broadens the relevance of the grace of Christ beyond his own experience of the thorn to everything we will face: “For the sake of Christ, then, I delight in weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” You can see how Paul is making an inventory of problems we all experience with a fill-in-the-blank open-endedness. The list could go on and on, but we get the point. What does Paul refer to? “Weaknesses” include, of course, his thorn in the flesh, but the paradox of power-in-weakness also applies to “insults”—arrogant mistreatment from others, slights, and slanders. The paradox applies to “hardships,” needs going unmet and burdens going unlifted. The paradox applies to “persecutions,” intense pressures to knuckle under and compromise. The paradox applies to “calamities,” limitations and confinements. Let the list grow longer and longer, add to it everything we ourselves will ever face, and the risen Lord says to us as well,
My grace is sufficient for you. You feel inadequate, even overwhelmed, but don’t worry about it. When you are defeated, I am victorious for you. When you are confused, I am clear-headed for you. When you are fearful, I am unstoppable for you. My glory will hover over you, and my power will flow through you. All I ask is that you give your weakness to me, and I promise to give you my power.
All over the country today are preachers—faithful, intelligent, sincere, learned, fun, godly, conscientious men—some you know personally, others you know by name, and sometimes these apparently successful men are in fact thinking, “How can I go on? I have nothing more to say, nothing more to give. All I have right now to offer the Lord is my exhaustion and defeat and discouragement and sadness and humiliation and [whatever].” The Lord says to these men, “I can work with that. When you are weak, whenever you are weak, then and only then you are strong.” Charles Hodge comments, “When really weak in ourselves, and conscious of that weakness, we are in the state suited to the manifestation of the power of God. When emptied of ourselves, we are filled with God.”7 That is when we learn emotional alignment with Paul, who says, “I delight in what Christ is doing for me.”
How do we get there? How do we live there? The key is the opening phrase of 12:10: “For the sake of Christ.” Let those words be the death of our self-focus and the birth of something new and deep and happy and resilient. It’s when what happens to me is no longer my primary concern in life, however intuitive that is to the flesh. It’s when my motives for ministry change from “For my own sake” to “For the sake of Christ.” Face-saving is secondary; Christ-displaying is primary. Saving my precious hide is secondary; living dangerously for Christ is primary. “It is these who follow the Lamb wherever he goes” (Rev 14:4). No preconditions. No holding back. All-out for Christ! This is humility, and it sets our hearts free. I have a video of the Blue Angels Navy pilots. They’re all top guns, but when they review a film of a performance and their team leader guides them through improvements, their standard reply is, “Just glad to be here, sir.”8 It’s a privilege just to be on that team. So it is with us as servants of the Lord Jesus Christ: “Just glad to be here, Sir.” There comes a time when we stop asking the Lord to take the problem away, and we settle into a deeper delight in his overruling power. There comes a time when we look at the death of our dreams and think, “Now I have the privilege of seeing what only Christ can do.” It’s when God gives us the gift of weakness and we are glad just to be involved with him in any way at all. Your real life is your own God-given opportunity to see the miracles he can accomplish through a weak preacher.
In his book Humility, Andrew Murray applies this passage to our lives with reverent wisdom:
Let us look at our lives in the light of [Paul’s] experience and see whether we gladly glory in weakness, whether we take pleasure, as Paul did, in injuries, in necessities, in distresses. Yes, let us ask whether we have learned to regard a reproof, just or unjust, a reproach from friend or enemy, an injury or trouble or difficulty into which others bring us, as above all an opportunity of proving how Jesus is all to us, how our own pleasure or honor are nothing, and how humiliation is in very truth what we take pleasure in. It is indeed blessed, the deep happiness of heaven, to be so free from self that whatever is said of us or done to us is lost and swallowed up in the thought that Jesus is all.9