No one likes to look weak. As humans, our natural tendency is to hide our weaknesses and highlight our strengths. We do everything we can to shift the focus from where we struggle and redirect it to where we excel. This is perhaps especially true of leaders. In order to inspire confidence, we feel that we need to project perfection. We don’t want the people we lead to see us falter and fail, we don’t want them to see us at our worst.
There is a popular leadership principle out there that teaches us to invest most of our effort and energy into improving and using our strengths, rather than wasting time trying to eliminate our weaknesses. Practically, I would agree with that principle. If you are going to maximize your effectiveness, leaning into your strengths is the way to go. But there is a spiritual principle that we must not miss. It is powerfully illustrated in the story of the apostle Paul. In 2 Corinthians, Paul describes his struggle with what he calls the “thorn in his flesh.” No one knows what Paul’s affliction was, but his language reveals a desperate fight with a weakness he just could not overcome.
“Therefore, in order to keep me from becoming conceited, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from 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 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 Corinthians 12:7-10
For when I am weak, then I am strong? Really, Paul? From a human perspective, this makes absolutely no sense. Naturally speaking, when I am strong, then I am strong. But spiritually speaking, there is something empowering about acknowledging, and even embracing, our weakness. While our power is perfected in our strength, God’s power is perfected in our weakness. Our strength empowers us to work; our weakness enables God to work. For it is only when we come to the end of our ability that we recognize just how desperately we need God to move.
If we are going to be godly leaders, we are going to need to learn how to work our weakness. Here are three things Paul’s struggle teaches us about our weakness and God’s strength.
1. Unanswered Prayers Are Not Unmet Needs
“Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me.” 2 Corinthians 12:8
Have you ever felt like God ignored your request? Paul says he pleaded with God to take away his affliction. Not once. Not twice. But three times. God didn’t ignore his request, he just didn’t grant it. If you feel like God is ignoring you, let me encourage you: the fact that God isn’t giving you what you want does not mean he has not heard you or will not answer you. But it may mean that he won’t give you what you ask for. God doesn’t always grant our requests, but he always meets our needs. I would love it if God just removed all of my weaknesses. But that’s not part of his plan for me here on earth. My weaknesses are part of his work in and through me. They make it impossible for me to fulfill my purpose in my own strength. God has all the strength he needs. He doesn’t need my strength, he needs my surrender.
2. God’s Grace Fills the Space
“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 about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me.” 2 Corinthians 12:9
Over the course of history, church leaders have accomplished incredible things. No doubt, they used every bit of strength they had to do what they did. But their strength was not enough. Every man and woman who has been used by God has been empowered by his grace. Our weaknesses serve as a reminder of our need for the grace of God. This is why we can boast about them! They tell us and others the story of God’s goodness and sufficiency. Even though we are weak, he is strong. Even though we are not enough, he is enough.
God’s grace is not just sufficient; it is sufficient for you. When it comes to the work we do for God, comparison is a killer. Because I don’t receive grace for your race. I only receive grace for mine. Comparing our accomplishments to those of someone else is misguided. We were never given the strength to do what they do. But God has given us everything we need to do everything he has called us to accomplish. Sufficient means “adequate for the purpose.” Adequate means “just the right amount.” God has given you just the right amount of grace for the purpose he has placed on your life. So be you. Everyone else is taken.
3. You Are Pierced For a Purpose
“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 Corinthians 12:7
What did Paul believe about his weakness? He believed that God was using his weakness to counterbalance the profound revelations God had given him, that his thorn in the flesh was intended to keep him from becoming conceited. This may be a hard pill for us to swallow. The thought that God would allow us to endure suffering and pain as part of his plan for us is difficult to process. But, the truth is, the one thing that never fails to destroy is pride. So God would rather allow us to endure temporary pain that refines us than remove the struggle and leave room for pride to creep in. Thorns are our protection against the predator of pride. Whatever you’re going through, you can trust that God has a plan. He is working on you. He is right there with you. He won’t leave you in your pain or let you stay as you are. He is protecting you against things that would destroy you. He is preventing you from becoming someone you don’t want to be. He is developing you into the person he created you to become. You are pierced for a purpose.
The world is looking for your strength. God is ready to work through your weakness. That’s why one of the most powerful things you can do is to be honest about the areas where you fall short. Don’t try to conceal your weakness, work your weakness. Get vulnerable with someone you trust. Nothing can heal that’s hidden. Vulnerability is scary because it makes you susceptible to getting hurt. Being vulnerable is like giving someone a gun and trusting that they won’t use it. The person you are the most vulnerable with is in a position to hurt you the most. But they are also in a position to help you the most. Don’t let fear force you into being fake. God can’t use who you pretend to be; he can only use who you really are. So expose your weaknesses and allow God to turn them into strengths. His grace is sufficient for you.