God Uses Suffering to Perfect His Power
“for power is perfected in weakness.” Most gladly, therefore, I will rather boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Therefore I am well content with weaknesses, with insults, with distresses, with persecutions, with difficulties, for Christ’s sake; for when I am weak, then I am strong. (12:9b–10)
God not only wanted to display His grace in Paul’s life, but also His power; He not only wanted the apostle to be humble, but also strong. Because “power is perfected in weakness,” it was necessary for the fires of affliction to burn away the dross of pride and self-confidence. Paul had lost all ability, humanly speaking, to deal with the situation at Corinth. He had visited there, sent others there, and written the Corinthians letters. But he could not completely fix the situation. He was at the point when he had to trust totally in God’s will and power.
It is when believers are out of answers, confidence, and strength, with nowhere else to turn but to God that they are in a position to be most effective. No one in the kingdom of God is too weak to experience God’s power, but many are too confident in their own strength. Physical suffering, mental anguish, disappointment, unfulfillment, and failure squeeze the impurities out of believers’ lives, making them pure channels through which God’s power can flow.
Though his circumstances had not changed, Paul could still exclaim, Most gladly, therefore, I will rather boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. In 1 Corinthians 1:27 he reminded the Corinthians that “God has chosen the foolish things of the world to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to shame the things which are strong.” The apostle himself had ministered among the Corinthians “in weakness and in fear and in much trembling” (1 Cor. 2:3). Paul’s weakness was not self-induced or artificial; it was not a superficial psychological self-esteem game he played with himself. It was real and God-given. He did not love the pain caused by the false apostles, knowing it was satanic in origin. Yet he embraced it as the means by which God released His power through him.
Verse 10 summarizes the truth of this passage. Eudokeō (well content) could be translated, “pleased,” or “delighted.” He was thrilled with the weaknesses, insults, distresses, persecutions, and difficulties he endured for Christ’s sake, not because he was a masochist, but because when he was weak, then he was strong.
Having a proper perspective on trouble, trials, and suffering is the cornerstone of Christian living. Focusing all one’s efforts on removing difficulties is not the answer. Believers need to embrace the trials God allows them to undergo, knowing that those trials reveal their character, humble them, draw them closer to God, and allow Him to display His grace and power in their lives. They should heed the counsel of apostle James to “Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance. And let endurance have its perfect result, so that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing” (James 1:2–4).
9b-10 The conjunctions “Therefore … wherefore” at the beginning of v. 9b and v. 10 respectively signal Paul’s own responses to the Lord’s reply to him (v. 9a). Because Christ’s power is made perfect in weakness, (1) therefore he will all the more gladly boast in weaknesses. (2) Wherefore he takes pleasure in weaknesses.
It should be noted that Paul does not boast in “weakness,” that is, in feebleness. The plural “in my weaknesses” (v. 9b) points to the sufferings “for Christ” listed in 11:23–33, whereas the “weakness,” singular, of v. 9a, the stake/thorn “given” to him by God (v. 7), was the climactic example.
The words “I will boast rather” of weaknesses sound a comparative note. To what is he preferring this “boasting”? In all probability he is recalling once more his flight to Paradise (vv. 4–5). This experience truly occurred; Paul would be a “fool” to deny it. But that experience did not make Paul “more” (hyper) than he is in reality, either as to the “weaknesses” people “see” in him or the word of God they “hear” from him (v. 6). Such an experience, astonishing though it doubtless was, does not accredit his apostleship. He will make nothing of it, that is, “boast of it.” “Rather” than boast of his ecstatic, (non)-revelatory experience, he “will most gladly boast” of his “weaknesses.”
He then gives the purpose for his preferred boast, namely, that Christ’s power “may rest on”39 him. Remarkably, this is the vocabulary of the tabernacle of the old covenant as applied to God “pitching his tent” with his people (Exod 40:34). In turn, this imagery is employed within the NT to describe (1) the incarnate life of the Word of God (“The Word became flesh and dwelt [i.e., ‘pitched his tent’] among us”—John 1:14), and (2) God’s future dwelling with his people (Rev 7:14; 12:12; 13:6; 21:3). In what has been described as a “bold metaphor,” Paul teaches that Christ in his power “pitches his tent” with his saints in their weaknesses.41 Ecstasy has all the appearances of divine power; but the reality is otherwise. Christ draws near to us, and gives his grace and power to us, in weakness.
In v. 10 Paul expresses his “acceptance of” various difficulties, beginning with “in weaknesses,” which is repeated from v. 9b and refers specifically to the stake/thorn. Following “weaknesses” are: (1) “in insults”—found only here in Paul’s writings (possibly they refer to the scandalous treatment of him as a Roman citizen by Romans and as an Israelite by Jews—see 11:24–25), (2) “in hardships” (lit. “necessities”—see on 6:4), (3) “in persecutions” (as described in 11:24–25; cf. Rom 8:35), and (4) “[in] difficulties” (lit. “tight corners”; cf. 6:4; the verb occurs in 4:8; 6:12).
Critical to v. 10 is the inferential “wherefore,” which picks up from the immediately preceding48 “I will boast … of my weaknesses,” which, “on behalf of Christ,” he accepts. The expression “on behalf of Christ I accept weaknesses, etc.” must be read alongside “we beseech you on behalf of Christ, ‘be reconciled to God’ ” (5:20). Because Christ is not physically present, in his place God “has given” the ministry and “entrusted” the word of reconciliation to the apostles (5:18–19). As Christ’s ambassador and apostle, Paul “beseeches” in Christ’s place and suffers in Christ’s place, as this list of sufferings shows (cf. 4:8–9; 6:4–5; cf. 2:16). Christ’s sufferings are replicated and historically extended in the sufferings or weaknesses of his apostle as he bids humankind “Be reconciled to God,” and it is of these—as opposed to triumphalist “visions and revelations”—that Paul “boasts” (v. 9b) and these that he “accepts.”
A connection should also be made between “weaknesses … on behalf of Christ” and his words “be spent on behalf of your souls,” a few verses later (see on v. 15). In both cases the preposition hyper is used. As apostle of divine reconciliation Paul suffers on behalf of the One he represents—though in a qualitatively different way (see on 5:21)—and he does so for the sake of those to whom he ministers. The keyword of the triumphalist “superlative” apostles (11:5; 12:11) is hyper (“more than,” “above”) Paul. It is Paul’s keyword, too. Madman that he is, his “weaknesses” are “more than” theirs (11:23), and those “weaknesses” replicate Christ’s sufferings, and do so on behalf of the churches. His nontriumphalist, servant ministry is again undergirded. He is their “slave” on account of (dia) Jesus (4:5).
Paul concludes the two parts of vv. 9b-10 with an aphorism: “When I am weak, then I am strong.” Such strength is not automatic to weakness. Rather, weakness (as of the unremoved stake/thorn—v. 7) creates the human context of helplessness and utter vulnerability in which Paul the minister of Christ pleaded with the risen, powerful Lord—who himself was once utterly “weak,” “sin-laden,” and “poor” (13:4; 5:21; 8:9) in achieving our reconciliation with God—who is now strong in resurrected power to give his grace and power to the one who calls out to him.
12:9b–10 / If Christ’s power is made perfect in Paul’s weakness (and thus indirectly attests to Paul’s revelatory experience and his apostolic authority), then the apostle’s positive response to the revelation of the Lord seems quite logical: he will boast in his weaknesses. This idea of strength in weakness must seem counterintuitive, especially to the opponents, who “take pride in what is seen” (2 Cor. 5:12). However, Paul now realizes that everything that he once regarded as a cause for boasting is nothing in comparison with knowing Christ and sharing in his sufferings, so that he may participate in Christ’s resurrection (cf. Phil. 3:5–11).
Paul boasts in his weakness so that (hina) Christ’s power might rest on him. The verb actually denotes “take up one’s abode, dwell” and may well recall that the presence of God dwelled in the tabernacle and the temple (cf. Exod. 25:8; Ezek. 37:27; 2 Cor. 6:16). If so, the verb ties our passage back to 2 Corinthians 5:1, where Paul refers to his mortal body as “our earthly house of the tent,” alluding to the tabernacle in 1 Chronicles 9:23 lxx. Even during his earthly pilgrimage in the body, the apostle is conscious of the presence of God in his life through the Spirit. He was also conscious that the same power of the resurrected Christ would one day transform his mortal body.
Because Paul is the dwelling-place of the power of Christ, he takes delight in his weaknesses (v. 10a). Rather than continue his prayer for relief from the thorn in the flesh (cf. v. 8), Paul has now come to accept his infirmity and even to delight in it for Christ’s sake. This sounds almost masochistic, as if Paul likes to be abused. Certainly it opens the door to later Christian ideas of asceticism and martyrdom. Yet the apostle has come to his understanding of suffering after realizing that the power of Christ manifests itself most fully and obviously when he is at his weakest. Paradoxically, when I am weak, then am I strong. His light and momentary troubles are achieving for him an eternal glory that far outweighs them all (4:17).
Paul’s weaknesses are explicated in verse 10b by a short tribulation catalogue that resembles similar catalogues in 4:8–12; 6:4–10; and especially 11:23–29. This shows that, in discussing his revelatory experience in 12:1–10, Paul has not really left his theme in 11:23, namely, that he is more a servant of Christ than his opponents because of his greater sufferings. Yet it has become apparent that boasting in weakness and suffering is not so foolish as it might seem at first, for the extremity of his weaknesses only reflects the magnitude of his extraordinary revelatory experience, which is the very foundation of his apostolic authority. Furthermore, his boasting in his weakness is ultimately consonant with his principle of boasting only in the Lord, who gave him both his apostolic prerogative and his weakness (cf. 10:17).
10. I take pleasure in infirmities. There can be no doubt, that he employs the term weakness in different senses; for he formerly applied this name to the punctures that he experienced in the flesh. He now employs it to denote those external qualities, which occasion contempt in the view of the world. Having spoken, however, in a general way, of infirmities of every kind, he now returns to that particular description of them, that had given occasion for his turning aside into this general discourse. Let us take notice, then, that infirmity is a general term, and that under it is comprehended the weakness of our nature, as well as all tokens of abasement. Now the point in question was Paul’s outward abasement. He proceeded farther, for the purpose of showing, that the Lord humbled him in every way, that, in his defects, the glory of God might shine forth the more resplendently, which is, in a manner, concealed and buried, when a man is in an elevated position. He now again returns to speak of his excellences, which, at the same time, made him contemptible in public view, instead of procuring for him esteem and commendation.
For when I am weak, that is—“The more deficiency there is in me, so much the more liberally does the Lord, from his strength, supply me with whatever he sees to be needful for me.” For the fortitude of philosophers is nothing else than contumacy, or rather a mad enthusiasm, such as fanatics are accustomed to have. “If a man is desirous to be truly strong, let him not refuse to be at the same time weak. Let him,” I say, “be weak in himself, that he may be strong in the Lord.” (Eph. 6:10.) Should any one object, that Paul speaks here, not of a failure of strength, but of poverty, and other afflictions, I answer, that all these things are exercises for discovering to us our own weakness; for if God had not exercised Paul with such trials, he would never have perceived so clearly his weakness. Hence, he has in view not merely poverty, and hardships of every kind, but also those effects that arise from them, as, for example, a feeling of our own weakness, self-distrust, and humility.
10. 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. Paul applies the lesson he learnt from the Lord’s response to his prayers for the removal of the ‘thorn’ to all the difficulties he experienced in his apostolic ministry, whether personal weakness and hardships, or pain inflicted upon him by others. When he says, I delight in weakness …, the verb translated delight in (eudokeō) may also be translated ‘be content with’ (so nrsv), but in neither case should it be construed in such a way as to indicate that Paul was a masochist, enjoying the sufferings he experienced. The reason he delighted in his sufferings was because he knew that Christ’s power would rest upon him in the midst of them.
While Paul’s audience could have gained much by learning of the simultaneity of weakness and power of which Paul speaks in verses 7–10, his motive in setting it out was not limited to that. His opponents had criticized his apostleship on the grounds of his weakness (cf. 10:10), and very likely they regarded the many persecutions and insults that Paul experienced as inconsistent with his claim to be an apostle of the exalted Christ. By setting out the principle of divine power manifested through human weakness, Paul both defended his own claim to apostleship and cut the ground from under the claims of his opponents.
Ver. 10. Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities … for Christ’s sake.—
The use of infirmities:—“Some of the arable land along the shore on the south-east coast of Sutherland is almost covered with shore stones, from the size of a turkey’s egg to eight pounds weight. Several experiments have been made to collect these off the land, expecting a better crop; but in every case the land proved less productive by removing them; and on some small spots of land it was found so evident, that they were spread on the land again, to ensure their usual crop of oats or pease.” We would fain be rid of all our infirmities which, to our superficial conceptions, appear to be great hindrances to our usefulness, and yet it is most questionable if we should bring forth any fruit unto God without them. Much rather, therefore, will I glory in infirmities that the power of Christ may rest upon me. (C. H. Spurgeon.)
The sanctifying power of sorrow:—“For Christ’s sake,” that is the main point: the apostle took pleasure in pain, not as pain, but for Christ’s sake. In itself sorrow is not sanctifying. It is like fire, whose effect depends upon the substance with which it comes in contact. Fire melts wax, inflames straw, and hardens clay. So it is only in afflictions borne for Christ’s sake, that is, in Christ’s name, and with Christ’s spirit, that we can rejoice. Forasmuch as Christ hath suffered in the flesh, arm yourself likewise with the same mind. The Cross alone extracts life out of pain; without this it is death-giving. (F. W. Robertson, M.A.) For when I am weak, then am I strong.—
Weakness a source of strength:—
- Paul’s weakness. That is a quality which we are not accustomed to associate with the apostle, knowing what we do of his labours; but when we go deeper we discover that one of the most distinctive preparations for the work which he accomplished was his feebleness. Wherein, then, did it consist? 1. It was not intellectual. Even his vilest detractors could not deny his mental superiority. 2. It was not moral. There was no vacillation about him. 3. It was physical. Paul had to contend with some distressing bodily infirmity.
- The connection of Paul’s weakness with his strength. 1. There was a strength in his weakness. In the Divine administration there is a wonderful law of compensation. 2. There was strength as the result of his weakness. (1) The consciousness of his own weakness led him to cast himself unreservedly upon the Divine help. (2) But looking toward man, the result of this weakness was in Paul a great outflow of tenderness. One cannot read his letters without feeling the heart-beat of his sympathy. 3. But there was, also, strength surmounting his weakness. In spite of his infirmity, he laboured on just as though he had nothing of the kind about him. He was impelled to do this. (1) By his faith. Men as they looked on Dante when he walked the streets after he had written his “Inferno,” and marked the intensity of his earnest face, said one to another, “See the man who has been in hell.” The apostle moved in the midst of unseen realities. (2) By gratitude. Never was consecration more thorough than his. He felt that he owed everything to Jesus, and to Jesus he yielded all. Conclusion: 1. Here is a use of explanation. You wonder, perhaps, why you have such feebleness. When you see others with robust frames and unbroken health, you are apt to say, “Ah, if I had but their strength how much more might I do for my Saviour!” But you are mistaken. If you had their strength you might not really be so strong as you are now. 2. A use of consolation. You wish to work for the Lord, and think you can do nothing because of your feebleness. Then see in Paul’s life how much can be accomplished, weakness notwithstanding. Nor is he a solitary instance. Think of Calvin and his irritable temper and a fragile and diseased body. 3. A use of direction. We can overcome our weakness only through a faith and a consecration like Paul’s. The one answer that will avail to the cry “Who is sufficient for these things”? is this: “My sufficiency is of God.” “Out of Saul, what has made Paul?” Faith. (W. M. Taylor, D.D.)
Strength in weakness:—Note—
- This general law apart from its religious bearings. 1. Weakness is sometimes perfected in strength. Its greatest manifestations are constantly seen in those whom the world deems the strongest. A strong man is likely to be a self-reliant man, and such a man is morally certain to display some weakness. A man, again, who is consciously strong at some point, is likely to think that his strength at that point will make up for his carelessness at other points. For instance, you often see men of great intellect who are morally weak and loose, and who count on their intellectual strength to cover their moral deficiency. The man who is financially strong is now and then tempted to believe that money can carry him over the lack of courtesy or consideration for others. The strong men of the Bible are also its weak men. Abraham’s falsehood, Noah’s excess, Jacob’s worldliness, Moses’ unhallowed zeal, Elijah’s faithless despair, David’s lust and murder, Solomon’s luxuriousness and sensuality—all tell the same story which we read in the biographies of the scholars, statesmen, monarchs, and generals of later times. 2. On the other hand, strength is perfected in weakness. Let an ignorant but conceited man go to a foreign city. He says, “A guide is a nuisance, and I will have none of them. I will find out the objects of interest for myself.” And so he goes blundering along, exposing himself to insult and even to danger, wasting hours in his search for a palace or an art-gallery—a sorry exhibition of weakness. Another man goes into the same city, quite as ignorant, but follows a trustworthy and intelligent guide. He gains new ideas, while the strong man, so independent of help, is standing at street corners and painfully studying his guide-book. When they return home, the man who was weak enough to accept guidance is the stronger man in knowledge. Can you imagine any object more weak and helpless than a blind child, and yet what a strength it wins from that very weakness! Out of weakness the child is made strong. And then there is the familiar fact of the increased power imparted to touch and ear by the very infirmity. Then, again, the consciousness of infirmity often makes its subject so cautious that he really accomplishes more than another who is free from infirmity. The man whose health and strength are exuberant, is likely to be careless of them; while he who rarely knows what it is to be without an aching head or a feverish pulse, therefore works by rule and economises minutes and brings discipline to bear on rebellious nerves and muscles. It is this power of self-mastery wrought out through weakness, which gives such power over other minds and hearts.
- The truth on its religious side. 1. Real strength comes only out of that weakness which, distrustful of itself, gives itself up to God. (1) Take the case of Paul. Here is a man beset with various infirmities. And yet at this distance we can see that that very weakness of Paul was his strength. For it gave God’s power its full opportunity. It is a strange gift that we have of preventing God from doing for us all that He would. God often sees fit to use the very elements you and I would throw away. We do not count weakness among the factors of success. The world is at a loss what to do with it; but when God takes hold of weakness it becomes another thing and works under another law. So then Paul, having abandoned the idea of doing anything by himself, God took this weakness and wrought out victory for Christ’s cause and for Paul by means of it. (a) Take the impression which the character and history of Paul make on your own minds. You know something of the power which Luke’s record of his life and labours exerts in stimulating Christian zeal and in educating character. Do not all these things get a stronger hold on you through the very sympathy which the apostle’s sufferings call out? Did not his very infirmities endear him to the churches in his own day? Had not these somewhat to do with the liberal supplies from Philippi, and with the heart-breaking sorrow of the Ephesian elders at Miletus? (b) After all that we read of Paul, we rise from his story and from his writings with a stronger impression of Christ than of him. The radiance of the light eclipses the wonder of the lamp. That is as Paul would have had it. (2) Or go farther back. Christ called Peter a rock; and yet at that stage Peter reminds us rather of those rocks which one meets with in clay-soil regions, which crumble at the touch, and are, least of all stones, fit for foundations. Peter, blustering, forward, boastful, with a great deal of strength of his own, which crumbled into weakness at the first touch of danger—and yet—“On this rock will I build My Church,” &c. The Church which began under the ministry of weak Peter is surely no feeble factor in to-day’s society: but the Peter of Pentecost was not the Peter of Gethsemane. Between these two he had learned a great deal about the weakness of human strength and the strength which God makes perfect in human weakness. The consequence is that whereas in Gethsemane Peter asserts himself, at Pentecost he asserts Jesus. Where he asserts himself the issue is a coward and a traitor. Where he passes out of sight behind Jesus, he is the hero of the infant Church, whom we love and honour. 2. The text is no encouragement to cherish weakness. The object of Christian training is to make men strong: and Paul can do all things, but only through Christ that strengtheneth him. How beautifully the context brings out this thought! What was the ark of the covenant? Nothing but a simple box overlaid with gold, such a thing as any skilful workman could make. And yet, when it fell into the hands of Israel’s enemies, the priest declared “the glory is departed from Israel.” What gave it this importance and meaning? It was that which rested upon it—the glory which made its resting-place the holiest spot in the world. And so, when the power of Christ rests upon a life, all its commonplace, its weakness, are transfigured, and the weak things of the world confound the things which are mighty. Thus it comes to pass that out of the mouth of babes and sucklings God ordains strength. 3. The truth of the text is wider than some of us have been wont to think. It asserts not only that God will assist our weakness, but that He will make our weakness itself an element of strength. We are, naturally, like one who carries round with him a rough precious-stone, ignorant of its value, and ready to throw it away or to part with it for a trifle. This thing, weakness, we should be glad to throw away. Christ comes like a skilful lapidary and shows us its value. I remember a little church among the mountains, which sprang up through the labours of a man the best of whose life was spent in trouble—a church founded among a population little better than heathen; and in the church building there was framed and hung up a magnificent rough agate which he had picked up somewhere among the hills, with the inscription, “And such were some of you.” And that stone tells the story of our text—the story of the Church on earth; a weak, erring church, its leaders stained and scarred with human infirmity, yet with a line of victory and spiritual power running through it like a track of fire: rough stones hewn out of the mountains, carved into polished pillars in the temple of the Lord. (M. R. Vincent, D.D.)
10. Hence, I take delight in weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and difficulties for the sake of Christ. For when I am weak, then I am strong.
Paul began his discussion about boasting in 11:1 and continued it through his lengthy catalog of hardships in that same chapter. After his revelation of his celestial experience, he returned to his emphasis on weaknesses (vv. 1–6), and now brings his discourse to an appropriate ending.
The repetition of the preceding passage (v. 9b) is evident:
|Therefore, all the more gladly
|I will boast of my weaknesses,
|I take delight in weaknesses …
|so that Christ’s power
|for the sake of Christ.
|may dwell in me.
|For when I am weak,
|then I am strong.
The apostle gladly accepts the weaknesses that he has to endure: “insults, hardships, persecutions, and difficulties.” This is a shorter list of adversities than the one in the preceding chapter (11:23–29). For the sake of Jesus Christ, Paul joyfully accepts all these sufferings to further the gospel. He knows that he has to suffer much for the name of Jesus (Acts 9:16). But he also knows that he “can do everything through Christ who strengthens [him]” (Phil. 4:13; compare 2 Tim. 4:17).
The conclusion ends on a note of triumph: “For when I am weak, then I am strong.” He reiterates what he wrote at the beginning of this verse, namely, that he delights in weaknesses for the sake of Christ. All things are performed through and for Christ, so that he may receive glory and honor.
 MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (2003). 2 Corinthians (pp. 405–406). Chicago: Moody Publishers.
 Barnett, P. (1997). The Second Epistle to the Corinthians (pp. 574–577). Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
 Scott, J. M. (2011). 2 Corinthians (pp. 230–231). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.
 Calvin, J., & Pringle, J. (2010). Commentaries on the Epistles of Paul the Apostle to the Corinthians (Vol. 2, pp. 379–380). Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software.
 Kruse, C. G. (2015). 2 Corinthians: An Introduction and Commentary. (E. J. Schnabel, Ed.) (Second edition, Vol. 8, p. 267). Nottingham, England: Inter-Varsity Press.
 Exell, J. S. (n.d.). The Biblical Illustrator: Second Corinthians (pp. 493–496). New York; Chicago; Toronto: Fleming H. Revell Company.
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