By Pastor Glenn Pease
One of the most incredible biographies ever written is that of Robert Babcock. As a young boy he made a bomb out of some powder he found in his father's barn. He had a hard time getting it to go off, but when it finally did, it blew up in his face and he was instantly blinded, and remained so for the rest of his life. His parents, realizing there was not hope of his sight being restored, took him to an institute for the blind in Philadelphia. Robert did so well, and had such a strong will to become independent, that even as a youth he traveled home to Michigan by himself on a train.
He went on to college, and every year was near the top of his class. In 1869 at the age of 18 he began to study at Ann Arbor Medical College as the first student to ever begin the study of medicine as a blind person. You would naturally assume that he did not go far, but the fact is, he went all the way. He went to Chicago Medical School, and there had to dissect a body, which students with good eye sight find to be a difficult task. Sightless though he was, he passed the test to the astonishment of the examining board. After further study in New York, he was licensed to begin to practice in Chicago. It took him ten years to build up a strong practice, for obvious reasons. His reputation grew, however, until he was made Professor Of The Chicago College of Physicians and Surgeons. Many other honors were bestowed upon him, and he wrote three important books that made him a world figure among doctors. His thorn in the flesh was no stumbling block, but was a stepping stone to greater heights of service.
His life is an excellent illustration of the philosophy of life that Paul expounds in our text. The paradox that Paul proclaims here is that a handicap can be a help. A painful problem can be a powerful promoter of what is good. A weakness can be an asset and a strength. No one knows for sure just what Paul's thorn in the flesh was, but there is much evidence to believe those scholars who are convinced that his problem, like that of Dr. Babcock, was with his eyes. Paul was not blind, but there is reason to believe he never could have passed the eye test for a drivers license. On the day of his conversion Paul was struck blind by the glory of Christ, and remained sightless for three days. He regained his sight, but there seems to have been a weakness left, for in Gal. 4:15 he says that the Galatians would have plucked out their eyes to give to him. It is, as if he were saying,they recognized his greatest need was to have some decent eyes. In Gal. 6:11 he wrote, "See in what large letters I am writing to you." This implies that his authentic writings can be known by his large letters, the letters of a man who cannot see smaller letters.
Besides this evidence, it seems so fitting for the purpose for which God allowed the problem Paul had with his great visions. He was in danger of being overwhelmed with pride. It would be very humbling for him to hardly be able to see, and then try to boast of his great visions. People who saw him having to put his nose to a book to read, and to put his hand out to keep from running into the city gate, would laugh him to scorn, if he spoke of his great visions. The skeptics would mock him. An eye problem would definitely keep Paul humble about his visions, and prevent his boasting in himself.
Regardless of what it was, Paul was impressed by the fact that God could use a weakness to make him strong. There is power in weakness Paul learned; a power that cannot be made available in any other way. Paul is the great expert on weakness. Out of 33 references to weakness in the New Testament, Jesus used the word once, Peter used it once, and all the rest are from the pen of Paul. Keep in mind that Paul was a strong opponent of Christ before his conversion. He despised the weak Nazarenes, those followers of that weakling who perished in disgrace upon the cross. He attacked them and demonstrated what strength could do. When the Lord appeared and struck him down in blindness, he had a radical change in his thinking about the relationship of power and weakness. He learned by experience that it was his force that was really weak, and Christ's weakness was really powerful. The result was, the paradox in power and weakness running all through Paul's writings.
I Cor. 1:25, "The weakness of God is stronger than men."
I Cor. 1:27, "God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong."
I Cor. 15:43, referring to the resurrection of the body Paul writes, "It is sown in weakness, it is raised in power."
II Cor. 13:4, "For He was crucified in weakness, but lives by the power of God."
The cross is the greatest illustration of the power in weakness, for by that experience of going like a helpless lamb to the slaughter, Jesus conquered all the obstacles in the way of man's salvation. Paul not only learned to accept the truth of power in weakness, but he tells us he learned to boast, and even be glad for his weaknesses, for they became potential channels through which the power of God could be manifest. In II Cor. 11:30 he writes, "If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness." This seems to be contrary to all logic. Everyone preaches that God uses our gifts, but when do we hear that God uses our weaknesses? Yet, if we take Paul seriously, his greatest power was not in abilities, but in his weaknesses. In I Cor. 2:3 he says, "And I was with you in weakness and in much fear and trembling."
We picture Paul as a dynamic ball of fire erupting from a volcano like stature, but the facts are, he was small in weak in appearance, and by his own testimony, full of fear and trembling as he preached. Paul was a handicapped man, and the reason God used this, far from perfect, specimen of manhood to proclaim the perfect Savior, is stated by Paul himself in I Cor. 2:5, "That your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God." If a powerful, talented, dynamic man moves people to respond to the Gospel, one never knows how much of the movement is generated by the power of personality. But if a weak and handicapped person is used to motivate people, one can see that the power of motivation must come from the Holy Spirit.
If this be a true understanding of the way God works, the logical conclusion is that the typical American way of witness is not necessarily the best and Biblical way. The American way tends to exalt the strong and ignore the weak. Get the top athlete, the most popular movie star or singer, and the finest politician or author, and let them tell the world what Christ means to them. Only a blind man would deny that this bears fruit, but I wonder if it does not rob us of the greatest resource in the church, which is the masses of adults and youth who are not strong, but weak, handicapped and in large measure ungifted.
Is it possible that the fruit of the spirit growing on weaker branches might be even more impressive, at least to those God wants us to reach in our community? Can our very weaknesses in any way be an asset to the kingdom of God? Let us keep this question in mind as we continue to explore this paradox of power in weakness. As a principle for natural life we can see how it holds true, for weakness is what has made man strong. It is the very fact that man cannot protect himself against other creatures who are stronger, that has forced him to develop weapons of strength. Man is so weak he can only jump a short way off the ground, and that weakness has driven him to develop ways to fly, not only around the world, but beyond the world. Weakness leads to power when the weakness motivates men to find a way to offset that weakness.
This is certainly involved in what Paul is saying. It is only the Christian who is fully conscious of his weakness who will depend upon God, and seek for God's power. The strong and talented Christian can easily become self-sufficient and independent. That very strength can become their weakness. And honest awareness of weakness, therefore, is the starting point in the spiritual quest for God's power. You can only really seek with all your heart after that which you are fully aware that you lack. They only find God's power who fully realize their own weakness. Spurgeon said, "God helps us most when we most need his help." If you are strong and feel no need of God's help, then you are weak. When, however, you are weak and know it, and so depend upon God, then you are strong. Paul's paradox is not strange at all, but a fact of life we all experience. When we can grasp the words of Christ, "Without Me you can do nothing," then we are in the state of weakness where we can say with Paul, "I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me."
The stronger a Christian is the greater is his danger of depending upon his own abilities. It is possible for believers to rely on their own power to live the Christian life. God has built a paradox into the divine-human relationship. It is only when man surrenders to God that he conquers. It is only when he submits to be dependent upon God that he becomes a channel of divine power. Gideon had to learn this paradoxical truth. Gideon had too strong an army, so God made him send 32,000 of his men home. He deliberately made his army weak in order to demonstrate the divine power in weakness. They could have won the battle with a stronger army, but their very strength would have led them to boast of their own power, and that would have been their weakness.
God said He made them weak in Judges 7:2, "Lest Israel vaunt themselves against me, saying, mine own hand hath saved me." It is because of the great danger of pride that weakness is the way to power. Weakness leaves us no alternative but to praise God, and give Him all the glory. James Stewart wrote, "It is a thrilling discovery to make that always it is upon human weakness and humiliation, not human strength and confidence, that God chooses to build His kingdom; that He can use us not merely in spite of our ordinariness and helplessness, and disqualifying infirmities, but precisely because of them."
History has demonstrated the truth of this paradox over and over. The Greeks and Romans hated weakness and loved strength, and they conquered the world by brut force. Yet, it was the weak and despised Christians who ministered to the slaves, outcasts, and the masses of nobodies of the world, who eventually conquered both Greece and Rome, and carried their values into the future. In our own country it was the weak and despised Baptists and Methodists who were driven out of the original colonies by the powerful established churches. These two lowly groups, who ministered to the weak and uneducated masses, have gone on to become the two most powerful denominations in the country.
In spite of Scripture, and the facts of history, it is contrary to our nature to believe this paradox. Paul knew the Old Testament and the man illustrations of the power of weakness in it, yet he fought submission to it. He did not accept the thorn in the flesh as a blessing, but prayed earnestly for it to be removed. It is normal and right that our first response to any weakness, handicap, or limitation, should be to be free of it. If, however, God will not remove it, then the only wisdom is to find the power in it, and see the truth of verse 9 demonstrated, which is God's power made perfect in weakness.
God's power is only imperfectly shown in great gifts, for even the ungodly have great gifts and skills, and it is hard to identify what is divine from what is human. When God uses a weak instrument, however, you see clearly that the power is of God. That is why His power is made perfect in weakness. If an elephant stepped on a board and it broke, you would not be surprised. But if a weak man did it to rescue someone from a dangerous trap, you would praise God, for it would be obvious that the power was given to the man from above. If a man of charming personality and a unique gift of gab persuades someone to come to church, you are not amazed, for you would expect him to be effective. But if a person of little ability to communicate brings someone, and they respond to the Gospel, you are impressed, for clearly it was luck, or the power of God. The point is, the power of God is much easier to identify when it is seen working in weak instruments.
The practical application should be clear. All of us are clearly inadequate, and have fewer gifts than we wish we had. None of us are all that we want to be, and so we think we can do very little for the kingdom of God. The real growth of the church depends on the gifted few is the common conviction of Christians. Yet, the facts of Scripture and history tell us that all of us can do great things for God; not because we are able to, but just because we are not able. It is not ability, but availability that God wants. He did not want Moses to take a speech course. He just wanted him to obey, and He would use him. If we could dedicate our weaknesses, and make ourselves available to God, He could demonstrate in us that His power is made perfect in weakness.
Catherine Marshall tells of her experience of writing the book A Man Called Peter. She needed to succeed in this effort, for she left her job to give to herself to it. About half way through she asked a trusted friend for his opinion. He said, "The manuscript lacks warmth, emotion. The facts are here-but not the heart." She was shattered, and back in her apartment she threw herself on her bed and cried. Self-pity enveloped her. "I lost my husband in his prime, I have to raise my son alone, and with no abundance of money, and I am expected to write a book with no training. How much can one person take?"
After much struggle she realized she was inadequate, but that God was not. She prayed the prayer of helplessness, and asked God to guide her in writing. She got the heart into the book, and masses have been moved to tears by it. Her achievement, she knows, was entirely of God's doing, and she has no tendency toward egocentricity that success can bring. She writes in her book Beyond Ourselves, "Since then God has never allowed me the fulfillment of a soul's sincere desire without first putting me through an acute realization of my inadequacy and my need for help."
There are more women than men on the mission field fulfilling the great commission, and, no doubt, one of the reasons for this is because, as the weaker sex, they tend to be more willing to submit to God and allow Him to use their weakness. Men want only to yield their strength. We are always dedicating our talents, gifts and resources, to Christ, and rightly so, but we rarely or never dedicate our weaknesses. This is a tragic neglect in the light of the fact that God can often use them for greater glory. The beauty of dedicating our weaknesses is that we can all do it, for we all have plenty to give. May God help us all to surrender our weaknesses, for His strength is made perfect in weakness.