In any seminar that teaches you how to compose a stellar resume, I’m positive that none of them advise you to mention any of your failures. A resume is supposed to be your finest qualities all packaged up and easy to read. That’s why it is astounding to take note of what the apostle Paul includes on his resume.
As kitschy as that might sound, 2 Corinthians is just that: it’s Paul’s apostolic resume. And what makes it so surprising is that instead of listing all of his achievements — all the churches he founded, all the people he evangelized — Paul boasts about the things that show his weakness (2 Cor. 11:30; 12:5, 9). His resume simply reads, “When I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Cor. 12:10). Every “resume writing coach” would be questioning Paul’s sanity at this point, especially when he possessed a resume that everyone else would pay good money for. We’re given a hint of this in 2 Corinthians 11:21–23, where he writes, “Whatever anyone else dares to boast of — I am speaking as a fool — I also dare to boast of that. Are they Hebrews? So am I. Are they Israelites? So am I. Are they offspring of Abraham? So am I. Are they servants of Christ? I am a better one.”
This is reminiscent of Philippians 3:4–6, where he catalogs all the reasons why his resume is better than anyone else’s: “I myself have reason for confidence in the flesh also. If anyone else thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel of the tribe of Benjamin a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law a Pharisee; as to zeal a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law blameless.”
Paul isn’t writing boastfully. Rather, he’s taking the Corinthians at their own game. He had zero interest in spouting off his religious resume, nor was he keen on talking about himself. But he’d effectively been forced into it due to the sudden rise in popularity of the so-called “super-apostles” (2 Cor. 12:11). A segment of the Corinthian congregation had begun to drop the doctrines of Paul in favor of these whom Paul mockingly calls “super-apostles” (2 Cor. 11:1–6). They were a group of religious teachers who were preaching a “different gospel” about a “different Jesus,” which, as Paul says, makes them no better than the serpent of Eden himself (2 Cor. 11:3).
We might summarize the doctrines and philosophies of these “super-apostles” with what we’d know as “the prosperity gospel” in today’s lingo. It’s the belief that God rewards those who believe in him with health, wellness, and money. It’s the “Name It and Claim It” gospel that does little to differentiate itself from the spiritualized jargon of Oprah and Dr. Phil — that is, a loosely “Christian-based” message that has next to nothing of Christ in it. And despite how good it sounds, and how well it is communicated, all it really succeeds in doing is leaving people utterly deceived by the idea that following God means they won’t have trouble following them. That, in a nutshell, is what Corinth had begun to believe about Paul.
How could he be a true apostle? How could one so troubled be a representative of God? How could so much difficulty constantly bombard one of God’s messengers? Shouldn’t that disqualify him? This was the rhetoric of these “super-apostles” who, with their skillful speech and eloquent messages, used their personality to garner a massive following. Paul, however, is less than impressed. “Such men,” he says, “are false apostles deceitful workmen disguising themselves as apostles of Christ. And no wonder, for even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light. So it is no surprise if his servants, also, disguise themselves as servants of righteousness. Their end will correspond to their deeds” (2 Cor. 11:13–15).
Paul, however, concedes and takes them at their own game (2 Cor. 11:16–18, 21–23). “Okay, fine, if you wanna compare resumes, I’ll play along,” we might render his words. “I don’t want to, I think this is foolish, but I’ll play the fool if it means you’ll listen.” But his greatest boast is not at all what anyone would anticipate. He doesn’t brag about church plants or divine revelations. Rather he boasts of “weakness.” “If I must boast,” he concludes, “I will boast of the things that show my weakness” (2 Cor. 11:30; 12:5, 9). How could he say that? Why would he say that?
This isn’t what we expect to find on a competent leader’s resume, especially one who is leading the church. But Paul had learned the greatest lesson anyone can learn this side of eternity — namely, that in the Final Analysis, when all is said and done, no measure of our own strength or success will even amount to a hill of beans. All that’s going to matter is your dependence. This is what Paul gets at when he juxtaposes his exciting testimony of heavenly visions with the less-than-thrilling testimony about his “thorn in the flesh.” (2 Cor. 12:7).
To prevent him from getting too arrogant, God allowed a splinter to fester and “harass” Paul. Lots of theories have been offered for what this “thorn” might have been. The short answer is: no one knows, we can only surmise. But the real kicker is recognizing that it was God who allowed it. Paul calls his malady “a messenger from Satan,” but this “thorn” was allowed to exist because God said so — which begs the question, Why would he do that? Why would God put an impediment on the greatest ambassador of his gospel? Why would he allow this to happen? And why would he not answer Paul’s prayers for this “thorn” to be taken away?
His successes were not the result of his brilliance, might, and ability as an apostle. They were the result of the all-sufficient grace of God.
Perhaps you’ve wondered the same thing. Perhaps you’re wondering that right now. Why won’t God take this chronic pain away? Is he even listening? Does he even care about me? Does he even love me? Paul, no doubt, asked the same string of questions, to which the Lord gave that resounding reply: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor. 12:9). For as memorable as those words are, we should pause to note how unexpected they are, too. Paul’s questions are not really answered. His pleas for escape from the “thorn” remains unresolved. But God adds that his grace is more than enough to tread through the thorns. Rather than pluck the thorn out of Paul’s life, God invites him to drink from a well of grace for the rest of his life, a well that will never run dry.
Paul’s “thorn in the flesh,” then, was a catalyst for his dependence, for his faith. He couldn’t rely on his own strength because he was fully aware of just how weak he was. His successes were not the result of his brilliance, might, and ability as an apostle. They were the result of the all-sufficient grace of God. And the more he was brought face-to-face with his weaknesses, the more he depended upon the God of all grace. Paul’s “greatest boast,” therefore, the headline of his resume, were all of his “great weaknesses.” He had learned that it was precisely in those weaknesses that he was brought face-to-face with the God who clothes himself in weakness.
When the Lord tells Paul that his “power is made perfect in weakness,” he wasn’t only talking about Paul’s weakness but his own. When God came down in the person of Jesus, he clothed himself in the weakness of human flesh. He bore “our griefs and carried our sorrows” in a body that was as weak and vulnerable to affliction as yours and mine (Isa. 53:4). In so doing, he’s able to “sympathize with our weaknesses” because he has felt every single one of them (Heb. 4:15). Beyond what anyone could imagine, God chose to demonstrate the extent of his power and might by showing up in the form of a servant who dies. And not only does he die — he dies in the most harrowing display of weakness ever conceived.
That image of a weak Jesus dying on a cross for a world chock-full of sinners is the fullest indication we get of whom God values: he values weak and wobbly sinners enough to take their place in death. Indeed, he chooses to dwell with weak and wobbly sinners.
The world is not desperate for more Christians who toot their own horns and sing the praises of their own piety and “put-together-ness.”
This message was directly opposed to the one being platformed by the “super-apostles.” Where they were boasting in their self-proclaimed resumes of spiritual superiority and strength and insight, Paul boasts in a resume fraught with weakness. Because he knew that’s where God was found. “The all-powerful Christ,” R. Kent Hughes says, “‘pitches his tent’ with his people in their weakness” (215).
It’s not our strengths that ready us for God’s service, it’s our weaknesses. We are conditioned to think that our “put-together-ness” is what qualifies us to serve the Lord and this is seen in how we approach going to church. We enter the sanctuary like we’ve been invited to Cinderella’s ball: you have to clean yourself up, you have to look the part, and you have to fit in. We bibbidi-bobbidi-boo our masks of “put-together-ness” and walk into church hoping no one notices. But the irony is that so long as we go to church dressed in the pretenses of our own “put-together-ness,” we are going to the one place where we are free to lay down our pretenses in light of the enough-ness God gives us in pure grace. “With Christ,” writes Dane Ortlund fondly, “our sins and weaknesses are the very resume items that qualify us to approach him” (64).The world is not desperate for more Christians who toot their own horns and sing the praises of their own piety and “put-together-ness.” Rather, the world needs to see that God never hesitates to embrace those who are weak and broken (John 6:37). The church’s greatest witness to the world, its best resume, is its willingness to embrace its weakness. After all, that’s where the Christ of God resides.