“So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me.” —2 Corinthians 12:9
For most Christians, there is no first-century person (excluding Jesus) more influential than the apostle Paul. From the time of his conversion from a persecutor of early believers to a believer himself, until his life seems to have come to an end in Rome during a persecution of Christians under the Roman Emperor Nero, Paul carried the good news of Jesus’ victory over evil, sin, and death into new cities and regions, telling everyone he could about what Jesus had done. His letters to other early Christians have shaped Christian belief and practice for every generation from his onward. He is undeniably one of the giants of the Jesus movement.
It’s sometimes the case that we forget how precarious the reputations of great historical figures were during their lifetimes. We know that Abraham Lincoln was opposed by pro-slavery forces, but it’s harder to keep in mind that he also faced suspicion from abolitionists as well as from Northerners who hoped for compromise and peace with the Confederacy. We remember that Martin Luther King Jr. was opposed by segregationists and reactionary forces across the U.S., but he also faced suspicion and challenge from within the broad and complex movement for racial equality. These were real people who needed to navigate complicated problems in a messy world.
The apostle Paul was like that, too. In the letter we call 2 Corinthians, Paul grieves at the deceitful, arrogant opposition his ministry has faced. It seems that some group of false apostles has come into Corinth and persuaded some number of believers to turn away from the true teaching Jesus had entrusted to Paul. These false apostles seem to have mocked Paul’s ability, tearing him down in order to build themselves up. (As is often the case with these letters, it’s hard to know exactly who these false apostles were, or what they taught, or what they said about Paul. We only have this letter, so it’s like listening to one side of a telephone call.)
Paul responds with a recap of his work on behalf of the Corinthian Christians: he’s suffered for them, he’s made sure not to be a burden to them, he’s told them the truth without building himself up. Reading this section, one can see that Paul is uncomfortable with what feels to him like boasting. He points to the uselessness of boasting, but wants to set the record straight lest these believers be deceived.
Paul ends, however, with this paradoxical idea of boasting about his weaknesses. Paul suggests that our own openness to Christ’s presence and power is in an inverse relationship with our sense of our own strength: “For when I am weak, then I am strong” (12:10b).
There is, of course, a lesson here for each of us. When we catch ourselves boasting, building ourselves up—and especially if we’re building ourselves up by tearing someone else down—we’re in danger of cutting ourselves off from the true source of strength. In contrast, when we’re aware of our brokenness, our weakness, our insufficiency, there is room for God’s power to work through us.
This is not to suggest that we ought to go around telling everyone how bad we are all the time. (In fact, that would probably just be another strange form of narcissism.) But it is to say that we ought to be skeptical of anyone who seems to need to let everyone know how great/strong/smart/good/accomplished he or she is, especially if that “anyone” is us.