Easter is approaching, and my Facebook memory is our first “official” family photo, taken ten years ago on Easter Sunday. Robert’s pink silk tie was carefully chosen to match newborn Olivia’s tulle princess dress–a size too big for her little frame, but adorable nonetheless. Flowers adorned the headband which attempted to tame her baby-fine hair. She always had so much hair, and at that age, it stood straight up. Olivia was so tiny in my arms, and the light in our eyes–Livi’s Mama and Daddy, glowing with pride–-puts my sunflower yellow dress to shame.
The photograph represents one of my happiest memories–celebrating new life and resurrection life all at once. It seems that this year has held more death than life for our family, and the Facebook memory with its photo reminds me of that. It’s the one thing I’d change if I could–-to have Olivia back in my arms, healthy like she was then. How many times did I pray for that very thing? For life and health. For the miracles I know God can do–-the ones I have seen him do before. Now, I pray for the grief to subside. For the pain to leave. That life wouldn’t hurt so much. I want the roses without the thorns.
The Apostle Paul did too, and he prayed three times for his “thorn” to be removed. We do not know the nature of this thorn–only that it was both “given” to keep Paul from becoming conceited and also a “messenger from Satan,” intended for torment. Though it is difficult for our minds to comprehend, God’s redemptive power is able to turn what Satan intended for torment into a protective gift. And it matters very little that we do not know the nature of Paul’s thorn. Don’t we all have a thorn? It’s the one thing we’d change if we could.
In the span of a lifetime, we’ll have many thorns. Sometimes God does remove the thorn-–miraculously even. Paul was supernaturally delivered from a Roman jail, and God answered my mom’s prayer for her 3-pound preemie baby to not only live but thrive. Some thorns are allowed to remain for a season—temporary hardships that teach eternal lessons. For a time, Paul was rejected by the Corinthian church, which he’d founded. People that he loved like his own children allowed themselves to be manipulated, deceived, and exploited by false apostles, Paul’s opponents. He was ridiculed and attacked–his ministry called into question–but eventually, the majority of the church came to its senses. My own temporary thorn is frustration with this season of motherhood. Everything feels harder than I think it should. I’m exhausted by the mundane and the holy too–-by the piles of laundry and by the gravity of my responsibility to help shape my children’s character. And then there are some thorns, we must learn to endure. Paul’s unknown thorn apparently remained until he died, and though my experience with grief will change over time, I know that I’ll always grieve Olivia until the day I see her in Heaven again. How could I not?
Whatever the type of thorn-–and perhaps especially in the case of the more lasting ones-–we are not left alone. The Lord said to Paul and to us:
“My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness”–Corinthians 12:9.
Power perfected in weakness? It’s a dynamic so different from the one the Corinthians knew, and from the one we know. The way of the world is for the strong to survive. For weakness to be crushed, or exploited, or perhaps pitied. But these grace words in 2 Corinthians 12:9 tell a different story. They’re written in red letters, because Jesus knows. He understands our pain. Like Paul, and like you and me, Jesus prayed for the thorn to be removed, for his cup of suffering to be taken away. Even so, Jesus did not avoid weakness. No, He went to the cross. And this is Paul’s message—the heart of 2 Corinthians 12:9, the good news of the Gospel, and the hope of the world: God’s power perfected in weakness. Christ crucified and resurrected. It is only Christ’s power that is made perfect in weakness.
There are those who focus so hard on the power of God that they minimize human weakness and do not expect to ever suffer. And there are also those who focus so hard on weakness and suffering that they do not ever expect to experience the power of God. Both extremes are tragic, because each robs the believer in its own way.
We live in a fallen world, and so we cannot avoid suffering. To fail to recognize that Christ’s sufficient grace sustains us in suffering is to miss out on a kind of comfort and fellowship that cannot be experienced in any other way (Matt. 5:4; Phil. 3:10). This is like trying to have the resurrection without the cross, and there is no resurrection without the cross.
We serve an omnipotent God, and so we cannot avoid God’s power. To fail to expect the miraculous is to underestimate the God “who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us” (Ephesians 3:20). This is like trying to have the cross without the resurrection, and there is no hope without the resurrection. So, we must keep both the cross and the resurrection in view. This is the grace of the gospel: Christ’s power made perfect in weakness. A shameful cross and an empty tomb.
It can be helpful to think of human weakness as the ideal container for God’s power: “But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all surpassing power is from God and not from us” (2 Cor. 4:7). While a smooth and durable jar might make us feel more secure, one that is fractured and made of clay lets the light of the glory of God shine through the cracks. If we avoid, minimize, or hide our weaknesses, we miss the opportunity to preach the gospel with our lives. Leading up to 2 Corinthians 12:9, Paul shares a long list of his personal hardships: Imprisoned, beaten and stoned. Shipwrecked, endangered, hungry and cold.
To the Corinthian church and to us today, he was saying, “Look what God has brought me through! He will sustain you too!” Paul’s willingness to be vulnerable reveals a deep trust in God. Sometimes, transparent trust preaches louder than words.
If hiding our own weakness is a mistake, so is avoiding, minimizing, or suppressing the weakness and suffering of others. Ignorance may be bliss, but it never helped anyone experience the truth of the Gospel. Surface-level sympathy is nice, but it can feel like pity, intensifying the sufferer’s feelings of loneliness. Empathy shows genuine compassion, because it crawls into the space of another person’s pain, refusing to allow them to feel alone. Is this not what Jesus did when he came as Emmanuel, God with us? Is this not the Gospel in action? God’s power made perfect in weakness. Christ crucified and resurrected. The cross and the empty tomb. Your cross-formed life, overflowing with grace and power, for the glory of God.
Thank you for your grace that is sufficient–in every moment, for every need. You take the very thorn that the enemy tries to torment me with and somehow turn it into a protective gift that helps me grow. Open the eyes of my heart to see Your redemptive hand at work in the miraculous, the mundane, and the mournful moments too. Teach me to live a crucified life full of resurrection power, keeping both the cross and the empty tomb in view. If I must suffer, let it draw me nearer to You and to Your heart, remembering that You suffered too, and I am not alone. Help me view even my losses as gains because of You, so that I never stop believing that You are “Way Maker, Miracle Worker, Promise Keeper, Light in the Darkness.” Truly, that is who You are. When I am tempted to avoid, hide, or minimize weakness, mold my “not enoughness” into a container for your “immeasurably more” than enough. Fill my weakness up with Your perfect power so that I can honestly say, “When I am weak, then I am strong.” Let the world see it, and know that You are God and You are good.
In Jesus’ Name,