How Can Christians Be Strengthened by Weakness and Why Does God Allow Satan’s Attacks? #271
Happy Wednesday, dear friends! Our Bible chapters for today are 2nd Samuel 19, Psalms 74, Ezekiel 26 and our focus passage, 2nd Corinthians 12.
One of my favorite shows is a British comedy called Blackadder. Blackadder is a clever, scheming, ambitious and sarcastic man, and Baldrick is his dim-witted servant, there for comic relief. At one point, Blackadder asks Baldrick, “Baldrick do you have any idea what irony is?” Baldrick’s reply, “Yes, it’s like goldy and bronzy, only its made out of iron.” Close, but no cigar, Baldrick. As I wannabe writer, I like both irony and paradox, but they don’t both mean the same thing. Irony is a state of being or circumstance that seems contrary to what one expects and is often amusing, or at least surprising, as a result. For instance, it is ironic that one of the most lethal guns in all of history – the Gatling gun, was not invented by an engineer, nor an arms manufacturer, but by a medical doctor, Dr. Richard Gatling. It is further ironic (and also a bit naive) that Dr. Gatling invented his gun with the stated purpose of ending wars and battles more quickly, and leading to more peace, rather than war. Of his invention, he said:
It occurred to me that if I could invent a machine – a gun – which could by its rapidity of fire, enable one man to do as much battle duty as a hundred, that it would, to a large extent supersede the necessity of large armies, and consequently, exposure to battle and disease [would] be greatly diminished.
A naive, but noble sentiment. This is irony, because his invention did not shorten wars at all, but was simply part of an ever increasing arms race that led to greater and greater lethal outcomes. It is ironically unexpected for a doctor to have such a prominent place in the history of arms manufacturing. A paradox, on the other hand is a statement that is contradictory, but may also be true in some ways. A good example of a paradox is Socrates’ self effacing statement: “I know one thing, and that is that I know nothing.” You can see both the truth of such a statement, and the self-contradictory nature of it also. Closely related, an oxymoron is a self contradictory phrase that illustrates a point, or somehow points to a paradox. Examples of oxymorons include the word sophomore (which means ‘wise-fool), the phrase terribly beautiful, and this wonderful scene from Romeo and Juliet that packs 13 oxymorons into one character’s line of dialogue:
O brawling love! O loving hate!
O anything of nothing first create!
O heavy lightness, serious vanity!
Misshapen chaos of well-seeming forms!
Feather of lead, bright smoke, cold fire, sick health!
Still-waking sleep, that is not what it is!
This love feel I, that feel no love in this.
Romeo and Juliet, Act 1, Scene 1.
A final example of oxymoron is the word itself: oxy means sharp/keen and moron means dull or stupid. Thank you for joining us today for the Grammar Corner podcast! Hope to see you Grammar Jammers back here tomorrow when we talk about adverbs that DON’T end in ‘ly’!
Okay, that sound like a scary podcast – we’ll leave it to Grammar Girl. Today’s focus passage gives us a truth that contains some level of irony, paradox and oxymoron to it, but is so profound, that it is elevated above those three categories into a category of its own. The truth that we are talking about is derived from Paul’s very simple, and yet profoundly puzzling statement, “when I am weak, then I am strong.” Ugh…Paul, that doesn’t make a lot of sense, at all! Let’s read our passage and ponder its meaning.
As we have discussed in a previous episode on the power of weakness, there is probably no Bible truth that I have struggled with more than this one: that our greatest times of spiritual strength will often be when we are at our weakest. It is worth re-reading vss 9-10:
9 But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is perfected in weakness.”Therefore, I will most gladly boast all the more about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may reside in me. 10 So I take pleasure in weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and in difficulties, for the sake of Christ. For when I am weak, then I am strong.
2 Corinthians 10:9-10
I can tell you that I see this truth born out in my life. When I am strong in the flesh and confident in myself – feeling good and feeling able to run through walls, so to speak, I often find that my pride and confidence end up causing trouble, causing a fall. Further, my strength – even at its absolute maximum is not adequate to perform any meaningful spiritual thing. I can’t save anybody. I can’t make anybody more spiritually mature. I can’t help people stop being addicted to whatever besetting sin is destroying them. I can’t heal marriages, or bring families into greater unity, or really do anything eternal, spiritual and profound. Now, lest you think I’m being too self-effacing or humble, or whatever, please know that those statements are based on the rock-solid teaching of Jesus:
4 Remain in me, and I in you. Just as a branch is unable to produce fruit by itself unless it remains on the vine, neither can you unless you remain in me.5 I am the vine; you are the branches. The one who remains in me and I in him produces much fruit, because you can do nothing without me.
I am that branch that is absolutely incapable of producing ANYTHING apart from Jesus. Adding this together with what Paul is saying, it appears that the times where God moves strongest in and through us will not be the times when we are at our healthiest, wealthiest, most charismatic, most able and strongest…but at the times when we are weakest. I like how Martin Luther endeavors to explain this mystifying spiritual reality:
Martin Luther: “It is a strange sort of strength which is weak and by its weakness grows stronger. Who ever heard of weak strength? or more absurd still, that strength is increased by weakness? Paul would here make a distinction between human strength and divine. Human strength increases with enhancement and decreases with enfeeblement. But God’s power–his Word in us–rises in proportion to the pressure it receives. “
I love how pastor John Piper expounds on this dynamic too, and also answers the question of why a loving and all powerful God would allow a much weaker Satan to attack one of God’s great servants in Paul:
And where did it come from? Paul calls it a “messenger of Satan” (v. 7) given to harass him. So one clear answer is that some weaknesses come from Satan. Satan afflicts the children of God through his angels or messengers. His aim is destruction and death and misery.
But it is not that simple is it? Satan is not the only one at work here. God is at work. This thorn is not just the work of Satan to destroy. It is the work of God to save.
The Work of God to Save
We know this for two reasons. First, because Paul describes the purpose for the thorn in terms of preventing pride. But Satan’s whole design is to produce pride not prevent it. That’s how he kills: either with pride in what we have done, or despair over what we haven’t done. Paul’s revelations in Paradise made him vulnerable to pride and self-exaltation. So God uses the hostile intentions of Satan for Paul’s holiness. Satan wanted to make Paul miserable and turn him away from the faith and the ministry and the value of the visions he had seen. But God wanted to make Paul humble and turn him away from self-exaltation. So God appointed the thorn of Satan for the work of salvation.
The other reason we know the thorn is God’s work and not just Satan’s is that when Paul prays in verse 8 that God would take the thorn away, the Lord says, No, because my power is made perfect in this weakness. In other words, I have a purpose in what is happening to you. This is not ultimately Satan’s destroying work. It is ultimately my saving, sanctifying work.
Just like it was with Job—God permits Satan to afflict his righteous servant, and turns the affliction for his good purposes. (See also Luke 22:31–32.)
The Truth of God’s Sovereign Grace
So the answer to our second question is that the source of our weaknesses may sometimes be Satan and his destructive designs for us; but always our weaknesses are designed by God for our good. This is why the truth of God’s sovereign grace is so precious in the midst of hardship and calamity. God is in control of Satan. Satan does nothing to God’s children that God does not design with infinite skill and love for our good.
Which brings us to the final question, which we have already answered.
3. For What Purpose?
What is the purpose of such weaknesses? Is there a goal or an aim for why the weaknesses come? Why insults, hardships, persecutions, calamities, troubles? Why can’t I find a job? Why am I trapped in this awful marriage? Why does my dad have cancer? Why can’t I have children? Why do I have no friends? Why is nothing working in my life?
Paul gives three brief answers about his own experience and I think they are tremendously important for us to live by.
Satan’s Purpose to Buffet You
First, he says that Satan has the purpose to buffet you or harass you (v. 7). And so it is OK to pray for relief. That’s what Paul did until he got word from the Lord. Pain is not a good thing in itself. God does not delight in your suffering. Satan does and he must be resisted.
God’s Purpose to Humble You
Second, God’s purpose over and through Satan’s harassment is our humility. Paul was in danger of pride and self-exaltation and God took steps to keep him humble. This is an utterly strange thing in our self-saturated age. God thinks humility is more important than comfort. Humility is more important than freedom from pain. He will give us a mountain top experience in Paradise, and then bring us through anguish of soul lest we think that we have risen above the need for total reliance on his grace. So his purpose is our humility and lowliness and reliance on him (cf. 1:9, 4:7.
God’s Purpose to Glorify Jesus
Finally, God’s purpose in our weaknesses is to glorify the grace and power of his Son. This is the main point of verses 9–10. Jesus says, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” God’s design is to make you a showcase for Jesus’ power. But not necessarily the way the market demands: not by getting rid of all our weaknesses; but by giving strength to endure and even rejoice in tribulation.
Let God be God here. If he wills to show the perfection of his Son’s power in our weakness instead of by our escape from weakness, then he knows best; trust him. Hebrews 11 is a good guide here. It says that by faith some escaped the edge of the sword (v. 34) and by faith some were killed by the sword (v. 37). By faith some stopped the mouths of lions, and by faith others were sawn asunder. By faith some were mighty in war, and by faith others suffered chains and imprisonment (see also Philippians 4:11–13).
The ultimate purpose of God in our weakness is to glorify the kind of power that moved Christ to the cross and kept him there until the work of love was done. Paul said that Christ crucified was foolishness to the Greeks, a stumbling block to the Jews, but to those who are called it is the power of God and the wisdom of God (1 Corinthians 1:23f.).
John Piper, Sermons from John Piper (1990–1999) (Minneapolis, MN: Desiring God, 2007).