Who is weak, and I am not weak? Who is made to fall, and I am not indignant? If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness.
(2 Corinthians 11:29-30)
WEAKNESS AND SUFFERING AS OPPORTUNITIES
In the previous post, we looked at the Apostle Paul’s life and how God was primarily concerned with building his relationship with Paul, which is what he’s concerned about for us, too. In this post, we’ll look at how God uses weakness and suffering as opportunities for Christ-conformity in that relationship.
Now, given that God works through process and relationship, we need to view our physical and spiritual hardships—our weakness and suffering—not as travesties but as opportunities. Opportunities for what, exactly? Opportunities for profound spiritual growth, profound shaping to the image of Christ. This is so hard for us today because our instinctive response to weakness and suffering is to escape.
ANXIETY AN OPPORTUNITY?
Our instinctive response to anxiety is to find some way to get the criminal out of our lives in hand cuffs. We don’t want the house guest. In fact, for many of us, the idea that anxiety could even be considered a house guest sounds certifiably insane! Putting “anxiety” in the same sentence with “opportunity,” however, fits much more with the drift of Scripture.
Paul is such a great example of this. Just consider some of the incredible physical hardships that he experienced; in 2 Corinthians 11:24–30, he runs down the list.
Five times I received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure.
And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches. Who is weak, and I am not weak? Who is made to fall, and I am not indignant? If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness.
Paul was no stranger to struggle and strife. Every epistle he penned shows that weakness and suffering were his bread and butter — but look at how he ends the list of trials: boasting in things that show his weakness.
WEAKNESS AND SUFFERING LED TO TOTAL RELIANCE ON GOD
The hardships that Paul experienced revealed his utter reliance on God for all things. In that utter reliance, Paul had the opportunity to build his relationship with Christ, a relationship that stood upon Paul’s recognition of weakness. We see this in the following chapter, where Paul reflects on his thorn in the flesh (a fitting analogy for those of us who struggle with severe anxiety):
So to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited. Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong. 2 Corinthians 12:7–10
This sounds so backwards to us! Content with weakness, insult, hardship, persecution?! Why would we ever be content with such things? The short answer is this: true and lasting strength is only found in God, and when we are overwhelmed by weakness, we have no confusion about that basic fact. We see with utmost clarity that a relationship with the living God is utterly foreign to the world of godless problem-solving.
WEAKNESS IS THE WAY TO RELATIONSHIP
Weakness is an opportunity for relational growth. But for Christians, this weakness is always tethered to hope. That’s why Paul can boast about his weaknesses. No one would boast about weakness without any hope of redemption. To do so would be quasi-sadistic, evoking a strange love of affliction. Instead, Paul is lifted by hope.
J.I. Packer wrote a little book titled Weakness Is the Way, in which he unpacks the wisdom of Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians. At one point, he reflects on Paul’s ability to face the trials of his life with Spirit-given hope.
For all that Paul is writing out of a situation of weakness and, without doubt, a sense of weakness more intense than we meet in any other of his letters, he is not lapsing into self-pity or voicing gloom and doom, but he is expressing his sense of ongoing triumph in Christ in the face of all obstacles. And he is declaring his sure and certain hope of glory when his course through this world reaches its end. It is this hope for his personal future—a hope which, to echo Bunyan’s Mr. Stand-fast, lies as a glowing coal at his heart—that determines his attitude toward all the pressures of the present.
WEAKNESS TETHERED TO HOPE
That’s the way to relationship with God. I know that’s a bitter pill to swallow for anxiety sufferers, but it’s the only pill we have. We must trust that God has good things in store for us, not in spite of this, but because of it. God makes no mistakes; he has divine purposes for our bitter pill.
Now, pause with me for a moment to see something critical about this Pauline paradigm—weakness tethered to hope as a way to relationship. It’s not simply the way things have to be in a broken world. In fact, it’s not even a Pauline paradigm; it’s a Christian paradigm—it’s modeled on Christ himself.
CHRIST BECAME WEAK FOR OUR SAKE
Weakness is the way to divine relationship because Christ is the way to divine relationship, and Christ became weak for our sake. He cut a path for us in the wild brush of the world, and that path leads through suffering and into glory.
Weakness and suffering aren’t obstacles to navigate around, just as anxiety isn’t something to be eliminated; instead, they are a planned means of Christ-conformity. They are footsteps on the footpath of Christ, and it’s him that we follow.
David Powlison even goes so far as to say that suffering is a means of grace. Grace! And why is that? Because it’s been ordained by God to draw us closer to Christ himself, and it does that by making us like Christ in his suffering, even in his death. Philippians 3:10. Powlison writes “The living faith that embraces Christ is formed in the crucible of weakness. The courage to carry on and the strong love that cares well for others are formed in the crucible of struggle.”
This crucible of struggle is not something to be avoided; it’s something to be embraced—not because we enjoy suffering and weakness but because we know that through them we are being called and crafted to the shape of our Lord, our elder brother, our savior.
When you think about it, this is a huge relief. People spend exorbitant amounts of time, energy, and money trying to avoid weakness and alleviate suffering, but weakness and suffering aren’t going away anytime soon. They’re long-term guests on this side of paradise. We live with them, not around them.
LEARNING TO LIVE WITH AND THROUGH WEAKNESS AND SUFFERING
All the Christian life is about learning to live with and through weakness and suffering—anxiety included—in a way that follows the beaten path of Scripture, the beaten path of Christ. As Packer put it,
Weakness . . . meaning inability finally to control our life situation relationally, circumstantially, financially, health-wise, and so on, despite all that our therapeutic present-day culture can do for us, will be with us as long as life in this world lasts. Our Lord Jesus Christ lived in poverty through the years of his ministry and, having been despised and rejected, as Isaiah phrased it, he was “crucified in weakness” 2 Corinthians. 13:4. This tells us what kind of life road we as his disciples must be prepared to travel. Paul, depending on the risen Christ, found strength to live with weaknesses and shows us how to do the same. But our weaknesses will not go away any more than his did . . .
In our weaknesses and suffering, we look to Christ with hope. Even better: we rely on the comfort of the Holy Spirit, who gives us hope in Christ and lifts us up to our heavenly Father. On this side of paradise, human weaknesses is the way to divine relationship. The irony that we so often overlook is that the outcome of weakness or suffering or anxiety isn’t helplessness; it’s hope.
HOPE: A DIVINE GIFT
…and hope is indestructible. Hope refuses to give up. Hope never caves in (Comer, My Name Is Hope). Do you know why? Because hope isn’t a human aspiration; it’s a divine gift. We see this in one of the most beautiful little prayers Paul offers on behalf of the Christians in Rome: May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope Romans 15:13.
God is hope. He’s the source. Through the power of the Spirit of God, you will have hope. In other words, you will have God himself! Weakness is a footpath to the forever hope of God, our Giver.
This approach to weakness, suffering, and anxiety is counterintuitive to us, so we need to rehearse it continually until it sinks in.
The long-term guest of anxiety is not in our lives by his own bidding. God is always using anxiety to build our relationship with Him. In a myriad of ways, anxiety is always a tool in the hands of the triune God. That’s the refrain of my book: Struck Down but Not Destroyed: Living Faithfully with Anxiety.
This means that we need to exchange a 21st-century problem-solving mentality for the ancient truth of divine-human relationship. The former has us asking, “How can I get this to stop?” The latter encourages us to ask, “What are you teaching me, Lord? Please show me.” I have uttered that prayer so often, and (Let this be an encouragement to you.) God has answered every single time. He has answered through Scripture, since that is where God speaks to us.
THE REAL PARADOX OF ANXIETY
The real paradox of anxiety (and of weakness and suffering more broadly) echoes the paradox that Paul voiced in 2 Corinthians 12:10. We’ve looked at this truth before: weakness through anxiety is strength in the Lord.
While anxiety seems to cripple us, it has the potential to give us spiritual wings, allowing us to rise above a materialistic view of the world, helping us to see the spiritual purposes that God has for the hardships at our fingertips. When anxiety makes you weak, ask God questions that can make you strong. “What are you teaching me, Lord?” He always answers.
Anxiety, for some, is a short-term guest that God ushers out of our lives when he’s used it for his good purposes. For others, it’s a long-term guest. What I’ve tried to show in this series of posts is that this isn’t bad news. In fact, it’s very good news, for through anxiety your relationship with God can grow to untold depths — and that’s the best we can hope for on this earth: an ever-deepening, faith-based, hope-filled relationship with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Living with anxiety, then, doesn’t mean living in tormented isolation. If our hearts are tuned to Scripture, if we prayerfully rely on the Spirit’s guidance, living with anxiety can mean living closer to God, not further away from him — and there’s nothing better than that.
As odd as it sounds, I’m happy that anxiety has been a long-term guest. If he hadn’t come to stay, my relationship with the Lord would be as shallow as a rain puddle.
The passage above was originally published in Struck Down but Not Destroyed: Living Faithfully with Anxiety. Published with permission.
This post is part of a three part series.
Part 1 – Anxiety as a Long Term Guest • Learning from Anxiety
Part 2 – Anxiety and Relationships • Learning through Anxiety
Part 3 – Weakness and Suffering: Opportunities for Christ-Conformity
Pierce Taylor Hibbs
MAR, ThM Westminster Theological Seminary
Pierce is a Christian wordsmith who strives to draw others closer to Christ through words. He’s also a long-time anxiety sufferer. The passage above was originally published in Struck Down but Not Destroyed: Living Faithfully with Anxiety, used with permission. Readers may also be interested in Still, Silent, and Strong: Meditations for the Anxious Heart, and Finding Hope in Hard Things: A Positive Take on Suffering. For more information about the author, along with free downloads, visit piercetaylorhibbs.com.