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260. St Paul on Strength in Weakness

even considering the exceptional character of the revelations. Therefore, to keep me from being too elated, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me, to keep me from being too elated. Three times I appealed to the Lord about this, that it would leave me, but he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. 10 Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong. (2 Cor. 12:7-10, NRSV)

Saint Paul makes two very catchy statements:

  • “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”
  • “for when I am weak, then I am strong.”

But what does he mean? And, what life-applications do they hold for us today?

We must render attention first to the context of Paul’s two statements.

Paul has himself (even though he spoke of a third party – a man) been granted visions and revelations of exceptional character from God . It was something he did not consider proper to talk about, lest he be judged boastful. In fact, what he wrote suggests that, like a mystic, he had an out-of-body experience, a wonderful “detachment” no doubt, as his spirit rose to an unsurpassable ecstasy in its nearness to God. Using the word “paradise,” Paul referred to an intimate companionship with God. Paul had been the companion of God!

A Price for Vision of the Divine

In Paul’s view, the surpassing nature of the revelation granted to him obliged him to exercise refrain. In this, Scripture captures for us the warning inherent in the Christian journey where the vision of the glory of God is granted, one to which the story of the Transfiguration had already pointed, that is, after the vision of glory, comes the pain. As the story after the Transfiguration has shown, the first disciples of Christ were helped by the remembered-vision of the transfigured glory of Christ to see them through their times of severe hardship after the Lord had departed from them.

Now in the case of Paul, to stop him from getting puffed up with pride over the exceptional gift of revelation, a skolops (Greek for a thorn or stake) was given him in the flesh. It is, for him, like “a messenger of Satan” to harass him. He says it again: it is to keep him from being too elated.

What did he do about it? Three times he begged the Lord to relieve him of the skolops. But the Lord directed him to divine grace as sufficient remedy for his woes: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”

Understanding all this, despite the great discomfort of the “skolops”, Paul learned to gladly boast of his weaknesses, so that the power of Christ could work all the more powerfully in him. He then concludes in what has now become powerful substance of his famous spirituality, that is, “strength in weakness”:

10 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.

What Is Paul’s “Skolops”?

The word skolops in 2 Corinthians 12:7, translated as “thorn”, is used only once in the entire New Testament. It normally meant a pointed piece of wood – a stake.

As to what St Paul actually referred to, opinions from scholars boil down to three possibilities.

  1. The first reading takes the thorn to refer to human opposition and persecution that often stalked Paul in his ministry.
  2. The second sees the thorn as a physical pain caused by some constant bodily ailment or infirmity, an illness, or disfigurement, or disability of some sort such as a poor eyesight. [Paul wrote in large letters – Gal 6:11.]
  3. The third is a popular Catholic view of the thorn as a moral (or carnal) temptation that constantly plagued the apostle. As he had written: “Do we not have a right to be accompanied by a wife, as the other apostles and the brothers of the Lord and Cephas?” (1 Cor 9:5). Concupiscence or sexual lust, after all, is the most difficult basic human instinct to tame.

Saint Francis de Sales wrote that concupiscence is left in us for our discipline to the end that we may exercise spiritual valour by resisting it. It is something that we need to always fight against but never subdue, weaken but never destroy. It lives with us, and it never dies until we die. It is truly accursed and detestable, since it issues from sin, and tends to sin. And yet, it can never make us guilty unless we assent to it and obey it. This skolops, though truly a “rebellion of the sensual appetite”, does not reign in us unless we give consent to it. Grace strengthens our resistance against giving that consent (see Rom 6:1-14).

St Paul might have lived in a world way apart from us, but his issues remain just as relevant today. We have the same issues. So the struggle is still on. So long as we are human and alive, we all live with what the Chinese call the “seven emotions and six desires”    (七情六欲).

Pointers for Spiritual Reflection in Paul’s Experience

Whatever the skolops in Paul’s flesh was, two truths from the context seem obvious:

Firstly, the reason for the skolops to be given to Paul was to prevent him from getting too proud. There is a clear message to all this for us: We need to check self-exaltation, and becoming puffed up by pride. Of course there is an expression that we find encouraging at times: “I must take pride in what I do.” This form of pride is pleasant and tolerable and we would all do well with it. But when we allow this pride to cause us to be “high and mighty”, to be conceited, then our pride becomes unhealthy.

Secondly, consider the fact that though Paul “implored the Lord three times that this skolops might leave him,” the Lord’s reply forms the basis of the second reason why the skolops was given, that is: “My grace is all you need. My power works best in weakness.” [NLT]

So we learn from Paul that if you have a “thorn in the flesh” that you have been praying to the Lord for it to leave you, but it still remains, take courage. For the Lord is up to something wonderful in your life. St Paul guarantees that God’s grace and power is all we need in “thorny” times, so long as we remain humble and weak before God. As we surrender our temptations over to God, Paul’s dictum points to God’s grace that turns temptations into opportunities to grow in spiritual valour. Then, our “power” gets perfected in weakness, as God becomes powerful in us.

Copyright © Dr. Jeffrey & Angie Goh, November 2020. All rights reserved.

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