In this audio file I explore a passage of scripture where Paul the apostle tells about a difficulty that drove him to plead to God. He calls it a thorn in his flesh, and he prays for its removal. And then Christ responds – but the response is different than what Paul asked for. Sometimes our prayers are for a change in circumstances. We ask for outer change, but God gives us grace for inner change. I shared this originally with Lusaka Community Church and with some of my students at Justo Mwale University. To listen or download, click here.
Our faculty had a good discussion about this Bible study I wrote, so I thought I would share it.
Justo Mwale Theological University College
Faculty Bible Study
READING: 2 Cor 10:1; 10:10; 11:2-6; 11:20; 12:7-10; 12:19; 13:4-5
When I was getting started in ministry, I watched the Christian leaders around me very closely. I was trying to learn from their example and figure out my ideal image of a Christian leader.
It’s likely that many of our students are doing the same, searching with their eyes and hearts for an image to follow, an image of what kind of pastor, preacher, and leader they will become. Naturally they look at the leaders and pastors around them and ones that appear on TV and the radio. A problem is that the media only allows us to see a public image, which tends to promote the preacher as a successful, larger-than-life personality. We don’t get a view of the pastor as a real human being, weaknesses included.
As people who train pastors, it’s important that we faculty members be aware of our own image and expectations of a pastor. Does our image only allow for strength and success?
OUR TEXT AND ITS CONTEXT
In our passage, Paul faces an attack. His opponents say his appearance is “lowly” and “weak” when he’s among the Corinthians, even if he comes across as strong in his letters. The Corinthian church isn’t sure Paul measures up to their preferred image of a teacher and leader. It is curious that Paul does not respond by saying, “Appearances don’t matter.” Instead, he spends most of 2 Corinthians 10-13 explaining his manner of ministry. Instead of denying that he has weaknesses, he rejects the idea that his weak personal presence does not suit his position and authority. In fact, he gives his weakness a basis in his own experience with the Lord (12:7-10) and in the weakness (crucifixion) of Christ (13:4).
Most scholars who interpret these chapters say that Paul is preoccupied with defending himself and fighting his opponents, but he gives us clues that he is also trying to teach the Corinthians something about the gospel and the Christian life. Paul himself says: “Do you think that all this time we have been defending ourselves to you? Before God we speak in Christ. Everything, beloved, is for building you up” (12:19). Paul speaks about himself for the sake of his pastoral task, to build up the Corinthians.
Paul thinks that the Corinthian church has a problem with misplaced confidence in human strength (10:7, 10, 12). The Corinthians reject weakness, including Paul’s unimpressive appearance. Paul is concerned about where his opponents place their confidence and about the effect this has on the Corinthian church. He sees a different Jesus, Spirit, and gospel behind their actions. Paul takes his cue to boast from his opponents, but he turns boasting on its head by concentrating on weakness, thus challenging the Corinthians’ ideals. Paul is saying of his critics’ standards: “I can boast in those ways, too, but I do not.” He states: “I will boast of things that demonstrate my weakness” (11:30). As he talks about himself, he emphasizes his vulnerability as he carries out his ministry.
In 12:7-10, Paul tells the story of the thorn. Instead of removing the thorn of weakness in response to Paul’s repeated prayer (12:8), the Lord replies that his grace is sufficient for him (12:9). In Paul’s narration of the Lord’s answer, and his own reaction to it, we can identify numerous clues indicating that Paul wishes to teach the Corinthians an approach to power and weakness.
1) Even before the account of Christ’s words, the reality that it is Christ the Lord speaking (very rare in Paul’s letters) sets these words apart for the Corinthians’ reflection.
2) Paul uses the term “he said” in the perfect tense, the only time he uses this word in the Greek tense that indicates a completed action with continuing significance. The result of Christ’s words is of lasting significance.
3) When Paul presents Christ’s words, the first half of the saying, “My grace is sufficient for you,” is made on the basis of a broad, general principle: “For power is perfected in weakness.”
4) Paul does not identify the nature of the thorn, leaving it to remain general in its application. Perhaps Paul does not name the thorn so that more of the believers can appropriate its message in their own lives.
5) Similarly, Paul keeps the list of afflictions in 12:10 general: he is content in weaknesses, hardships, and calamities. Such experiences are not unique to apostles. We see a similar list of sufferings in 1 Cor 4:10-13, where the call to imitate Paul follows the list.
6) Finally, Paul’s use of the phrase “for the sake of Christ” in 12:10 explains why he is glad to endure hardships. Hardships provide points of entry to Christ’s power. His use of the phrase reminds us of Phil 3:8, 10, where suffering is a means toward the knowledge of Christ and the experience of fellowship with him.
In 12:7-10, by presenting a personal illustration instead of only defending himself, Paul is able both to answer his opposition and teach the Corinthians. Christ’s reply to Paul, and the apostle’s response, establishes an example for holding weakness and power together in Christian life and ministry. Situations of weakness open believers’ lives to the power of Christ. Such circumstances are times when Christ’s power may enter and become manifest: “When I am weak, then I am strong.” The Corinthians can learn through Paul’s situation to anticipate God’s presence and power in the midst of weakness. Therefore they don’t need to be ashamed of weakness or hide its reality.
Paul is concerned that his opponents are distorting the Christian life and its connection with Christ crucified and raised. His adversaries’ boasting has led the Corinthians to put confidence in human strength and in the absence of weakness. Paul models for the Corinthians the way to true strength: by the path of the cross, through weakness. 2 Cor. 13:4 states: “For he was crucified in weakness, but lives by the power of God. For we are weak in him…” Paul presents a model of participation in the crucified and risen Christ. Just as the cross and resurrection go together, Paul maintains that power and weakness must go together, even though this brings him into conflict with the cultural ideal that says a strong public presence is a fundamental precondition for a leader and teacher.
Paul’s personal example illustrates that Christian life and leadership are not matters of moving beyond weakness. Experiences of vulnerability are not aberrations from an ideal; they grant access to the grace and power of Christ. If Paul can win the Corinthians to this truth, the recognition of it will authenticate Paul’s authority, undermine the boasts of his opponents, and secure the congregation’s relationship with Christ and the gospel.
QUESTIONS FOR DISCUSSION
1. What images of pastors and leaders do we see in Christian media? What images do our students have of a successful pastor? Do these images allow a pastor to experience weaknesses like sickness, opposition, and financial hardship?
2. Do the images mentioned above serve what we are attempting to do at this college? Do they detract from what we are trying to accomplish?
3. Can 2 Corinthians 10-13, especially 12:7-10, offer guidance for how we define what a pastor should be like?
4. What images and ideals are we placing before our students? What are our hopes for them? And what do we expect of and for ourselves?
Dustin W. Ellington