Paradox has a prominent place in Christian theology. Jesus said, “For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and the gospel will save it” (Mark 8:35). Similarly, “Anyone who wants to be first, must be the very last, and the servant of all,” (Mark 9:35; 10:31) and “whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all.” (Mark 10:43-44)  While these paradoxical statements are challenging and even confusing at times, they can also become a source of great comfort and encouragement when life does not turn out the way we expect.

Paul, in a similar paradoxical style, learned to value times of weakness and defeat. In 2 Corinthians12:10 he proposes this twist in his perspective of life, “ . . . for when I am weak, then I am strong.”  Paul’s words contain encouragement to any of us who have been beaten up by life’s experiences. But, how can this be so? To understand Paul, we must first understand his circumstances. He defines what he means by “weak,” in the very same verse: “ . . . I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties.”  His array of words describes many kinds of trials in life.

In Paul’s immediate situation, we know of at least two factors that were heaping stress upon him. First, he was the target of severe criticism from false teachers who had infiltrated the Corinthian church and led many people astray in their faith. One of the reasons Paul wrote 2 Corinthians (probably his 4th letter to this church) was to defend his apostleship against the extreme attacks of these rival teachers (2 Cor. 10:9-11; 11:12-15). How discouraging it must have been to hear of the false accusations that were leveled against him . . . the one who had planted and nurtured this church from its earliest days. The heretical teachers had deceived the Corinthians by boasting about their superior credentials; with satirical humor, Paul counters their claims with these surprising words: “If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness” (2 Cor 11:30).

We must not forget another nagging trial that was also bearing down on Paul and would not go away. Not only was his leadership attacked by criticism and vicious attacks, but simultaneously he experienced a nagging physical problem identified only as his “thorn in the flesh” (2 Cor 12:1-10). We do not know exactly what this infirmity was, though many possibilities have been proposed.[1] Paul speaks of it as originating with Satan (12:7), but allowed by God to humble him (12:7). The apostle had prayed fervently for healing, but to no avail (12:8).

Most often the darkest hours of life shed light upon the deepest mysteries in our experience of God. Like Paul, hardships and persecution from life’s circumstances may leave us beaten down and discouraged. Health challenges or the consequences of our own poor choices may also lead us to despair with life itself.  Have you felt that kind of discouragement lately? It is in those very situations I like to remember Paul’s perspective, written in the midst of multiple trials when even God wouldn’t answer prayer:

But he (God) said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness. Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong. (2 Cor 12:9-10)

Embracing this paradox requires a decision on my part. In most cases I can do little to change my circumstances, but I can change my attitude toward them. When I feel very weak, God’s wisdom tells me that through faith  this can become a moment of strength. Through my trial, God may be accomplishing his greatest work.[2]  Please remember, you will not always feel this or see the results immediately, but God’s grace will always be sufficient to carry you through. (2 Cor 12:9)

This year is an election year in the United States, during which we will hear from candidates for president, congress and many other public offices. Various leadership styles will be paraded before us as voters, seeking to impress us with each candidate’s strengths and to hide weaknesses. How ironic that one of history’s greatest leaders, the Apostle Paul, learned to lead with a very different value system. One of my favorite books on leadership in recent years has been Leading with a Limp by Dan Allender. He encourages leaders to take full advantage of your flaws, your most powerful weakness. The most effective leaders don’t rise to power in spite of their weakness; they lead with power because of their weakness.[3]

Whether leading the church, or navigating through life, this is the mystery and the paradox of faith. What feels like defeat and failure may actually the conduit of God’s strength.

[1] Bible scholars have put forth many theories about the identity of this nagging problem—eyesight problems,  epilepsy, recurring malaria, extreme headaches.  The expression “in the flesh” seems to indicate a physical malady, but beyond that, we do not know enough to draw a dogmatic conclusion.

[2] Several blogs have appeared in recent months, identifying some of the biblical purposes for the trials of our lives. I hope these will be helpful to you in your Christian experience and ministry to others. If you desire to go into more depth in your study, perhaps even discussing this topic in a small group in your church,  check out Thinking Right When Things Go Wrong (Kregel Press, 2005). The book also includes discussion questions at the end of each chapter that can be easily used in a small group setting.  

[3] Dan Allender, Leading with a Limp: Take Full Advantage of Your Most Powerful Weakness (Waterbrook Press, 2008)