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I'm Weak

A while back, a minister recounted to me how a spell of illness had brought him closer to God. It freed him from the besetting sense that he needed to achieve more. He found himself limited in his capacities, and the pressure to keep doing more was relieved. Now that he is in better health, he is struggling to retain the lesson.

I can certainly identify with that. Perhaps you can too.

Yet it is rare to hear ministers confessing their weaknesses.

I learned my own lesson about weakness when I was afflicted with a long-term illness in my twenties and early thirties. It is one of those conditions people in my part of the world would call ‘rare as hen’s teeth’. One in a million or less. Trust me to be odd!

Two things about the illness were especially difficult.


Firstly, because it was so rare, it took a long time to receive a diagnosis. I saw consultants in four different specialties and had several investigations. At first, there was a real fear that I had cancer. It was a relief to discover I did not, but after that, there was just confusion. Strange as it may seem, I reached a diagnosis myself by reading a medical text book. (I was a junior doctor at the time). I remember the relief when I discovered I was not the only person to have these symptoms. It was even greater when I finally found a consultant who had heard of the condition (although he had never had a patient).


The second challenge was the condition itself. It came on me suddenly in episodes that left me unable to work for a week or more. I found it hard to explain exactly why I was ill. As someone who took pride (to an unhealthy degree) in my dependability, I was reduced to being inexplicably unreliable. Although these episodes were sporadic and I remained dependable between them, I lived with the constant awareness that my plans could be blindsided at the last minute. That was frightening and humbling at the same time.

I am thankful that after years of suffering, the Lord has now removed this affliction from me.

But I am also thankful for what I learned through it.

I came to trust less in myself and more in the Lord. I learned to rely on his grace more fully. I came to see that I am dispensable, and that any part I may play in his glorious purposes is a gift of his glorious grace.


My experience was not dissimilar from that of my apostolic namesake. I’m sure you remember the passage in 2 Corinthians in which he writes of his ‘thorn in the flesh’. His account is fascinating.

Therefore, in order to keep me from becoming conceited, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me.

2 Cor 12.7b

‘I was given’ indicates that it’s a gift. But it’s also ‘a messenger from Satan’. I find this dual perspective hugely reassuring. Painful experiences are opportunities for Satan to harm us, but our loving Father also uses them to discipline us for godliness. Equally comforting are the words Paul heard Christ say to him in his torment:

My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.

2 Cor 12.9a

In my own suffering, I came to see the grace of God as sufficient. I believe I also glimpsed something of the manner in which Christ’s power was made perfect in my weakness. It became more evident to me, and to others, that I gained nothing by trying to place confidence in myself. Instead, my confidence and that of others who depended on me had to be in Christ.

The apostle Paul writes about this to the Corinthians:

Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.

2 Cor 12.9b-10

I do not know if I got as far as the apostle in my lesson in weakness. I am not sure I can say I delighted in it. I certainly did not boast about it. I tried to hide it. I was ashamed. Living in the era of modern scientific medicine, and after receiving medical training, I believed (irrationally perhaps) that unless I had a diagnosis, my illness was somehow not real. Or at least I believed that others would form that opinion, including my colleagues. Even when I received a diagnosis, I still felt shame because, due to its rarity, the cause and the mechanism of the illness are so poorly understood. It is only in the last two or three years, over fifteen years since the illness has been removed, that I have mentioned it at all.


Besides my shame, there was another reason for my reluctance to speak of it. I have heard Christian leaders speak about their weakness in two particularly unhelpful ways. Some manipulate others by turning it into a shield against criticism. We can’t challenge our pastor because he is weak and we might hurt him. Others present themselves with false humility. Look what I have achieved despite my weakness. I did not want to fall into either trap.

If I’m honest, however, my shame and my fear of telling others about my illness were due to my pride. I didn’t want people to think I was weak. I don’t mind confessing that I still take too much pride in my dependability.

I still have a lot to learn from the apostle Paul’s example.

Of course, if he heard me say that, he would simply point to a greater teacher. For the way of divine strength revealed in human weakness is the way of Christ.

There is divine power entrusted to us—power to demolish strongholds (2 Cor 10.4-5), but this power is not in us. Even when we use the gifts entrusted to us, the power comes from Christ and the word of his gospel.

Our weakness is the dark background against which the light of the gospel shines more brightly. So, we should not pretend to be strong. We are not, and that is okay, because we have a mighty Saviour.

I am still learning what this means in practice. I think, at the very least, it means three things:

  • MORE JESUS - I will talk much about Jesus—his perfection, his achievements, and his glorious might—and little about me and my experiences of him. I want him to be seen as the true hero of all my stories. As he is of my overall life story.

  • MORE GRACE - I will take care to remind people as often as possible that any strength (ability, quality, achievement) they see in me is a gift of God’s grace. He is the one who deserves the glory, for who praises the recipient of a gift rather than the giver?

  • MORE HUMILITY - I will try to learn appropriate disclosure about my own weaknesses. Following Paul’s pattern in 2 Corinthians 12, I will not be too specific about it (his phrase ‘thorn in the flesh’ is famously and suitably vague) and I will take care not to allow it to become a shield against criticism or a cover for false humility.

So, as we serve our Lord, let us delight in our weakness. Indeed, like the apostle Paul, let us boast.

Not for our own sakes, but for the sake of Christ.

For when we are weak, then we are strong.


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