In some ways, I’m about as strong as I ever was. I can probably do as many push-ups now as I could in my twenties (of course, that might not be saying much). But in other ways, it seems that the older I get, the more my body fails me. Even as I write these words, my brain feels as if it’s in a haze, despite a decent night’s sleep.
I feel that way a lot these days.
Our bodies wear down. That’s to be expected, and I look forward with anticipation to the resurrection. But all of this reminds me of how easy it is to take our strength for granted. Sooner or later, whether from age, disease, or the malice of others, we find ourselves in a situation that we are powerless to conquer.
We can pray for God to take the situation away. But as we’ve seen, the answer may be no, as when Paul prayed about his thorn in the flesh and Jesus prayed in Gethsemane.
We can pray for strength. But what do we mean by that? That God would give us bigger spiritual muscles? That God would boost our power? Or that God’s power would be on prominent display in our situations of weakness?
When Paul pleaded with Jesus three times for his trouble to be taken away, the answer was, “My grace is enough for you, because power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor 12:9, CEB). Paul got the message:
So I’ll gladly spend my time bragging about my weaknesses so that Christ’s power can rest on me. Therefore, I’m all right with weaknesses, insults, disasters, harassments, and stressful situations for the sake of Christ, because when I’m weak, then I’m strong. (vss. 9-10)
That’s a strange kind of bragging. But it’s one we’ve seen before. The false apostles in Corinth questioned Paul’s legitimacy, pointing to all the things he suffered, suggesting that no one who was truly a messenger of God could have such a life. In contrast, they bragged about their own successes and spiritual qualifications.
In response, Paul was forced to do his own bragging, but in a wildly different and counterintuitive way. He boasted in detail about everything he suffered for the gospel, from sheer hard work to persecution to shipwreck to the anxiety of a loving shepherd over an errant flock (11:23-30). Why? Because it is in his weakness that Christ’s power rests on him. When he’s weak, ironically, he’s strong.
But I don’t think that Paul means that when he is weak, Jesus makes him stronger.
The word Paul uses for “rest” literally means “to spread a tent (or tabernacle) over.” He might have used another word. The background imagery recalls the tabernacle of Israel’s wilderness wanderings. The Israelites had to be guided by pillars of cloud and fire, and when they made camp, the glory of God would descend upon the tabernacle, a visible and reassuring reminder that the presence of God was still with them through the night.
When all is well, when things go according to plan, we feel strong and confident: No problem, I’ve got this. Sooner or later, however, our own power fails us. Sometimes, more knowledge or skill would help, perhaps some exercise or training. That’s all well and good. But our strength isn’t limitless — and God’s is.
We can resent the situations that show up our weakness.
Or we can rejoice in the power of God that assures us of his presence and helps us endure.