Grace to you and peace from our loving God, and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
In this odd passage from Second Corinthians, Paul Speaks of himself in the third person: "I know a person..." What he reveals, in strange imagery, is that he was caught up in an almost out-of-body experience of God's mystery and glory. And that was balanced by a troubling and tormenting weakness—a "thorn in the flesh." The meaning he gives to it all is also recounted here. He says it is "to keep me from being too elated."
But what this weakness might be has stumped scholars for centuries, and we are never likely to figure it out. Just as a review for those of you who haven't encountered this text lately, let me sketch the debate as William Barclay has it.
Some have suggested spiritual temptation, persecution (which was Luther's view), temptations of the flesh, or even some physical disfigurement as Paul's "thorn." But the word translated thorn means "stake," like the ones criminals were impaled upon. If so, Paul's trouble may have been physically painful, not only psychologically distressing.
Some of what we read in the scriptures might indicate that epilepsy or eye troubles plagued Paul. It could also have been severe headaches, or even recurrent attacks of malarial fevers. Any of these are reasonable. We just simply do not know which of these, or some other condition, is referred to by Paul.
And so, we're thrown back to the meaning that Paul gives his trouble as we look for relevance for our own lives.
In addition to his affliction keeping him humble, that is, "not too elated," Paul says this: "For when I am weak, then I am strong."
I find Paul to be a fascinating character, in part because of the profound ways in which he portrays God's reversals of human judgments. For human society, personal weakness is often considered with contempt. For Paul, it becomes a strength—a way of gaining blessing, insight, and humility before God.
Now, we all have weaknesses, and Paul provides an opportunity to think about that fact from a faith perspective. There are, of course, no perfect people, although it may not be easy for some of us to admit. It has been reported, for example, that 90% of men rank themselves above average in athletic ability. I guess men sometimes exaggerate. They are sometimes, as the saying goes, legends in their own minds. We all have our weaknesses.
Some of our weaknesses are physical, some are mental, some are moral. Some of those weaknesses have to do with our work, some with our family life, and some with our relationship with Christ. There are short tempers, a lack of diplomacy, too much pride, and too little courage. There are no perfect mortals. And, so far as I'm concerned, it's just as well. I suspect that a perfect person wouldn't be all that interesting—or at least it would be difficult to be around them.
As to Paul's "thorn in the flesh," if it was epileptic seizures, he was in good company. Two of the most powerful men who ever lived—Julius Caesar and Napoleon—were epileptics, as have been many other great individuals. But in Paul's day there was no Dilantin or Phenobarbital to control seizures. If that was his thorn, he was stuck with it.
Still, he prayed repeatedly that God would deliver him from his affliction. God's answer: "My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness." In other words, in Paul's weakness, God's power could be more fully revealed. If one with a persistent affliction could accomplish so much for God, what's to stop us?
We can learn from Paul. He not only grew to accept his "thorn," he even began to boast about his weakness in order to show the power of Christ. Paul helps us consider the possibility that our weaknesses can become our strengths as well—opportunties to reveal the power of God. We might even learn—rather than killing ourselves in order to approach some personal or social notion of perfection—to rejoice in the face that we are not and never will be perfect. Our weaknesses can be seen as signs of strength, and they can become opportunities for us to grow in faith, maturity, and compassion.
George Reedy was President Lyndon Johnson's press secretary. It was Reedy who convinced Johnson he should never have assistants who were under forty years of age and who hadn't suffered any major disappointment in life. Without that maturity and without that disappointment, Reedy felt such people thrust into positions of power would come to think of themselves as little tin gods. And he was probably right. Too much early success in life has a tendency to spoil people. They begin to think of themselves as clever and deserving. They begin to rely on their own ability rather than hard work. Worse yet, people can begin to rely on themselves rather than God.
Failure seasons us and gives us a broader view of both our humanity and our limits. It is well known, for example, that Woody Allen, a successful film producer, flunked Motion Picture Production at the City College of New York. Leon Uris, writer of one of the most popular novels of the last century, "Exodus," failed English three times in high school.
Perhaps you caught the movie "Happy Feet" that has been running on the Disney channel this week. It's about an imperfect penguin, Mumble. Penguins, in this animated fantasy, find their mate through song. But by an accident of birth, Mumble was born unable to carry a tune. His gift is very different—that of dance—a neat version of tap-dance on the snow and ice. Hence the title, "Happy Feet." He leaves his colony, an outcast, only to discover that his "imperfection" is valued by many. In the end, he inspires human beings to follow him to his home colony and motivates them to change their ways and help to save the penguin's food source being slowly depleted by overfishing.
This is a very common perception. Many young people grow up believing that they're different, that they're somehow less acceptable than others, somehow imperfect and less useful. I know that was true for me.
As some of you already know, my twin brother was quite an athlete. He played basketball through our schooling together—he's 6'10"—and gained a full scholarship to college. I was a mere academic, hardly what young folks desire for themselves or what others tend to value within the society of secondary education. I felt compromised socially and inadequate personally.
I recognize from this distance of time and experience that God was as fully active in my life as in my brothers. I wasn't as popular, but I have become fulfilled. Our paths are not qualitatively different; they were merely distinct. We are both useful human beings doing useful work, equally blessed and loved by God.
Stories like this even of famous people abound. Winston Churchill had such a congenital lisp and stutter that doctors advised him against entering any occupation in which speaking was an important part. Yet he became one of the most influential speakers of the twentieth century.
James Earl Jones battled a severe stuttering problem for many years. From age nine through his mid teens, he had to communicate with teachers and classmates by handwritten notes. A high school English teacher gave him the help he needed, but he still struggles with his problem to this day. Yet he has been listed among the ten actors with the most beautiful speaking voices.
Elie Wiesel writes that according to Jewish tradition, creation did not end with the creation of human beings. It began there. When God created us, we were given a secret—and that secret was not how to begin, but how to begin again. In other words, "it is not given to (human beings) to begin; that privilege is God's alone. But it is given to (us) to begin again...." Most of us need to begin again at some time or another.
We may use our perceived and real weaknesses to increase our determination to succeed and our courage to begin again as often as is necessary. It is an ally in building human beings who are sensitive, faithful, mature, and compassionate.
What we consider our weaknesses may also become strengths if they remind us of our dependence upon God. Perhaps if it hadn't been for his thorn in the flesh, Paul would have leaned upon his own ability rather than the power of God working through him. And you and I would never have heard the name of Paul.
His weakness became his strength. And the same thing can be true for us, if our weaknesses helps us to grow in grace, if they increase our determination and bolster our courage. They may help us to know more deeply in our souls that we can do nothing apart from God. And in the end, we may be assured that what we see as weakness God uses for the benefit of all. Amen.
May the peace of God, which passes all understanding, keep our hearts and minds through faith in Christ Jesus our Lord unto eternal life. Amen.