Great Texts of the Bible
Power in Weakness
And he hath said unto me, My grace is sufficient for thee; for my power (A.V. strength) is made perfect in weakness.—2 Corinthians 12:9.
1. St. Paul has just told the Corinthians of favours strange, rare, wonderful, which had been granted him, of “a man in Christ,” by all acknowledged to be himself, who was “caught up to the third heaven,” “into Paradise,” who had there heard words more wonderful than could find utterance again in any dialect of earth, as indeed must be the case with any words of heaven; who had there glimpses of glory vouchsafed him such as have seldom been permitted to any child of man while yet abiding in this tenement of clay. But, he goes on to say, “Lest I should be exalted above measure through the abundance of the revelations, there was given to me a thorn in the flesh, the messenger of Satan to buffet me, lest,” as he repeats it, “I should be exalted above measure,” and that which was meant to be his wealth should turn out not wealth, but poverty, not a lifting up, but the most terrible casting down of all.
2. What was St. Paul’s thorn in the flesh? The resources of imagination have been exhausted; people are returning to the obvious. The thorn in the flesh was something painful, which affected the Apostle’s body; it was something in its nature purely physical, not a solicitation to any kind of sin, such as sensuality or pride, else he would not have ceased to pray for its removal; it was something terribly humbling, if not humiliating—an affection which might well have excited the contempt and loathing of those who beheld it (Galatians 4:14, which probably refers to this subject); it had begun after, if not in consequence of, the rapture just described, and stood in a spiritual, if not in a physical, relation to it; it was, if not chronic or periodic, at least recurrent; the Apostle knew it would never leave him. What known malady, incident to human nature, fulfils all these conditions, it is not possible with perfect certainty to say.
The Apostle himself is not interested in it as a physical affection. He speaks of it because of its spiritual significance, and because of the wonderful spiritual experiences he has had in connexion with it. It was given him, he says; but by whom? When we think of the purpose—to save him from spiritual pride—we instinctively answer, “God.” And that, it can hardly be doubted, would have been the Apostle’s own answer. Yet he does not hesitate to call it in the same breath “a messenger of Satan.” The name is dictated by the inborn, ineradicable shrinking of the soul from pain; that agonizing, humiliating, annihilating thing we feel at the bottom of our hearts, is not really of God, even when it does His work. In His perfect world pain shall be no more. It does not need science, but experience, to put these things together, and to understand at once the evil and the good of suffering. Paul, at first, like all men, found the evil overpowering. The pain, the weakness, the degradation of his malady, were intolerable. He could not understand that only a pressure so pitiless and humbling would preserve him from spiritual pride and a spiritual fall.
Paul’s thorn was not pleasant to him. He prayed to be rid of it. But when he found it had come to stay, he made friends with it swiftly. It was no longer how to dismiss, but how to entertain. He stopped groaning, and began glorying. It was clear to him that it was God’s will, and that meant new opportunity, new victory, new likeness to Christ. What God means is always too good to be lost, and is worth all it costs to learn. Let us learn as swiftly as we may. Time is short.1 [Note: M. D. Babcock, Thoughts for Every-Day Living, 8.]
We are all slow to learn anything like this. We think we can take warning, that a word will be enough, that at most the memory of a single pang will suffice to keep us safe. But pains remain with us, and the pressure is continuous and unrelieved, because the need of constraint and of discipline is ceaseless. The crooked branch Will not bend in a new curve if it is tied to it only for half an hour. The sinful bias in our natures—to pride, to sensuality, to falsehood, or whatever else—will not be cured by one sharp lesson. The commonest experience in human life is that the man whom sickness and pain have humbled for the moment, the very moment their constraint is lifted, resumes his old habit. He does not think so, but it is really the thorn that has been keeping him right; and when its sharpness is blunted, the edge is taken from his conscience too.1 [Note: J. Denney.]
3. St. Paul besought the Lord, that is Christ, thrice, that this thing might depart from him. The Lord, we may be sure, had full sympathy with that prayer. He Himself had had His agony, and prayed the Father thrice that, if it were possible, the cup of pain might pass from Him. He prayed, indeed, in express submission to the Father’s will; the voice of nature was not allowed in Him to urge an unconditional peremptory request. Perhaps in St. Paul on this occasion—certainly often in most men—it is nature—the flesh and not the spirit—that prompts the prayer. But God is all the while guarding the spirit’s interest as the higher, and this explains the many real answers to prayer which seem to be refusals. A refusal is an answer if it is so given that God and the soul may thenceforth understand one another. It was thus that St. Paul was answered by Christ: “He hath said unto me, My grace is sufficient for thee: for [my] power is made perfect in weakness.”
The answer is, in form and in substance, a gentle refusal of the form of the petition, but it is a more than granting of its essence. For the best answer to such a prayer, and the answer which a true man means when he prays, “Take away the burden,” need not be the external removal of the pressure of the sorrow, but the infusing of power to sustain it. There are two ways of lightening a burden; one is diminishing its actual weight, the other is increasing the strength of the shoulder that bears it. And the latter is God’s way, and Christ’s way, of dealing with us.
Do not pray for easy lives. Pray to be stronger men and women. Do not pray for tasks equal to your powers. Pray for powers equal to your tasks. Then the doing of your work shall be no miracle. Every day you shall wonder at yourself, at the richness of life which has come to you by the grace of God.2 [Note: Phillips Brooks.]
February 20th, 1870.—This morning, perhaps, I should have begun with my old grumbling, “A weary week,” etc. To-night I feel as if I never should grumble again, such a spirit has come on me. It is as if my eyes were opened by God to see the self-spirit pass away, and to be able with a clear glance to read truth. I feel so happy in the many blessings of being able to do His work, so strong now that for a time the self-mist has rolled off my soul, so ready for war, as if a great war was coming which God by His revelation of Himself to me, and of myself to myself, has been preparing me to fight in quiet, humble, unselfish faith. Not that the old temptations will not come back, but the memory of the clearer vision in my spirit to-night will come too, and the power to endure patiently the wounds to vanity and self-assertion, to resist idleness, and to rejoice in the blessings of my home and Christ’s service. May God keep me and mine for ever. Amen.1 [Note: Life of Edward Thring, i. 218.]
There was an element of morbidness in all the development of his sensitiveness. But it was a morbidness which had not grown upon him from without like a fungus on a tree, but which was the natural outcome of his constitution and temperament. It was born with him. He never could have been entirely free from it, unless he had been a soldier in constant warfare. It was increased by physical disease, till it threatened to become a tyrannous power. But here, where his greatest weakness lay, appeared his greatest strength. If he could not exactly say, “Most gladly, therefore, will I glory in mine infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me,” yet those who have closely known his character can say for him that he turned his necessity to glorious gain. He transmuted the dross of his nature into gold by the alchemy of Christian effort. “He was the most inflexible person,” says an intimate friend, “with all his almost morbid delicacy of feeling—an iron will, impossible to move when it was fixed by principle.”2 [Note: Stopford A. Brooke, Life and Letters of F. W. Robertson, 163.]
“My grace is sufficient for thee.”
1. The collocation of “grace “and “strength” in the present text is characteristic of the New Testament, and very significant. There are many to whom “grace” is a holy word with no particular meaning; “the grace of God,” or “the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ,” is only a vague benignity, which may fairly enough be spoken of as a “smile.” But grace, in the New Testament, is force: it is a heavenly strength bestowed on men for timely succour; it finds its opportunity in our extremity; when our weakness makes us incapable of doing anything, it gets full scope to work.
Is grace the same as love? Yes, at the heart of it, it is the same as love. When we get deep enough down to the heart of it, love and grace are indistinguishable. The difference is that love can travel anywhere, upwards, or on the levels of equality but grace can travel downwards only. A king can always be gracious to his subjects; a subject can never be gracious to his king. He may love his king, and be intensely loyal, but he can never be gracious to his king; for grace is love able to condescend to men of low estate, leaning down with royalty of pity to the lowly and wretched and lost. That is why we call it sovereign grace; it is a peculiar prerogative of sovereignty. That is why we talk of free grace. That is why, when we think of the grace of God, our thoughts go out immediately to Christ, for it is in Christ and Christ alone we learn the love of God to sinful men.
Grace (in the Old Testament) means the immense honour—and sometimes even outward beauty—which God’s goodness confers on a man. It refers to the unspeakable ennoblement of the whole of human nature by its contact with God. So it may come to mean as in Psalms 90—the sort of “beauty” or “glory” (in the New Testament) which passes upon Christians from the presence of their Master, clothing them with radiance, winningness, and power.1 [Note: R. W. Barbour, Thoughts, 114.]
Grace has been excellently defined as “God’s love in action,” or otherwise as a “gift of spiritual strength.” Man’s kindliness too often evaporates in feeling, or in a few sympathetic words. With God to will is to act, and so His goodwill must needs energize in bounty.2 [Note: W. Bright, The Law of Faith, 14.]
As Thy Love is discovered almighty, almighty be proved
Thy power, that exists with and for it, of being Beloved!
He who did most, shall bear most; the strongest shall stand the most weak.
’Tis the weakness in strength, that I cry for! my flesh, that I seek
In the Godhead! I seek and I find it. O Saul, it shall be
A Face like my face that receives thee; a Man like to me,
Thou shalt love and be loved by, for ever: a Hand like this hand
Shall throw open the gates of new life, to thee! See the Christ stand!1 [Note: Browning, Saul.]
(1) “My grace.”—What grace is this? Note who it is that promises. It is Jesus who speaks; therefore it is mediatorial grace, the grace given to Jesus Christ as the covenant Head of His people, that is here intended. It is the Head, Christ, in whom all fulness dwells, speaking to one of the members of His mystical body, and saying, “The grace which God has given to Me without measure on behalf of all the members of My body is sufficient for thee as well as for the rest of them.” The Lord has made over to Christ all that the whole company of His people can possibly want; even more than that, for “it pleased the Father that in him should all fulness dwell”; and “of his fulness have all we received, and grace for grace”; and from that fulness we hope continually to draw for evermore. This is the grace which is sufficient for us.
A friend once told me that long ago, amidst the strong temptations of youth, he often found great deliverance given through the simple utterance of the words, “Jesus Christ.” It was no incantation; it was a personal reliance, expressed as briefly, as urgently, as much in the concrete, as possible; but no incantation in legend or fable could act more wonderfully.2 [Note: H. C. G. Moule, Temptation and Escape, 100.]
(2) “My grace is sufficient.”—The reply is not, “I will give thee grace sufficient,” but “My grace” (which thou hast now) “is sufficient for thee.” That grace is given and possessed by the sorrowing heart at the moment when it prays. Open your eyes to see what you have, and you will not ask for the load to be taken away. Is not that always true? Many a heart is carrying some heavy weight; perhaps some have an incurable sorrow; some are stricken by disease that they know can never be healed; some are aware that the shipwreck has been total, and that the sorrow which they carry to-day will lie down with them in the dust. Be it so! “My grace” (not “shall be,” but) “is sufficient for thee.” And what thou hast already in thy possession is enough for all that comes storming against thee of disease, disappointment, loss and misery. Set on the one side all possible as well as all actual weaknesses, burdens, pains, and set on the other these two words, “My grace,” and all these dwindle into nothingness and disappear. If troubled Christian men would learn what they have, and would use what they already possess, they would less often beseech Him with vain petitions to take away their blessings which are the thorns in the flesh.
“My grace is sufficient for thee.” I have heard of a life in which that sentence was a great spiritual turning-point. In the midst of an agonizing prayer, “Let Thy grace be sufficient for me,” the eyes of the overwhelmed Christian were casually raised towards a text upon the wall, where this sentence appeared. The word “is” stood out conspicuous in colour. And with the sight of it came, through the Spirit, the simple but Divine intuition that what was implored was possessed already. Reader, have you read that “is”? Does your experience this hour include faith that rests as well as seeks? If so, is it not a sacred, a blessed reality? If not so, why not? Here is the warrant, phrased in the present tense, and the words are your Master’s, your Possessor’s, words. Believe them now—that is to say, practically, act upon them now.
St. Paul did so. It is a delightful “therefore” with which he pursues his story. “Most gladly therefore”—therefore, because the Lord has said this, just for that reason—“will I glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me, may (literally) tabernacle upon me,” as the Shechinah-cloud upon the camp of Israel. And further, “Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in necessities, in persecution, for Christ’s sake; for when I am weak, then am I strong.”1 [Note: H. C. G. Moule, All in Christ, 64.]
(3) “My grace is sufficient.”—How modestly the Master speaks about what He gives! “Sufficient”? Is there not a margin? Is there not more than is wanted? The overplus is “exceeding abundant,” not only “above what we ask or think,” but far more than our need. “Two hundred pennyworth of bread is not sufficient that every one may take a little” says Sense. Omnipotence says, “Bring the few small loaves and fishes unto Me”; and Faith dispensed them among the crowd; and Experience “gathered up of the fragments that remained” more than there had been when the multiplication began. So the grace utilized increases; the gift grows as it is employed. “Unto him that hath shall be given,” And the “sufficiency” is not a bare adequacy, just covering the extent of the need, with no overlapping margin; it is large beyond expectation, desire, or necessity; so leading onwards to high hopes, and a wider opening of the open mouths of our need that the blessing may pour in.1 [Note: A. Maclaren.]
(4) “For thee”—Not merely a general sufficiency is spoken of, when our Lord assures His suffering servant of His saving help; “sufficient for thee,” He says. And it is only the assurance of a special adaptation of sympathy and succour to our individual needs that can suffice to allay our fears. In every one’s case there is an individuality of character that makes the case peculiar; but the manifoldness of Christ’s perfect character touches our specific necessity, and we know that He understands us, and that we have His sympathy. There is also a singularity of experience through which we have been called to pass; but He Himself has trodden the changeful path of life’s pilgrimage; and “hath been in all points tempted like as we are,” so that His own experience qualifies Him to understand the experience of His people, while His sovereign control of the vicissitudes of this world’s history is the guarantee that He will adjust and adapt it to their good.
It is a strange feature of the Pilgrim’s Progress that Hopeful, generally so true to his name, is here so diffident. All sorts of questions arise, as to God’s willingness to save, the limits within which the atonement operates, the mystery of election and so forth, just as they arose for Bunyan and are recorded in the long struggles of Grace Abounding. He receives the book, the same which makes Christian, from the first page of his narrative, distinctly “the man with a book.” He prays the Father to reveal Christ to him, grasping here the double truth of revelation—Christ reveals the Father, and the Father reveals Christ. He goes so far as to cry with the boldness of simplicity: “Lord, take this opportunity, and magnify thy grace.” Yet the battle swings to and fro for a long time, betwixt hope and despair. The silence of God baffles him, but he continues crying to God. “Oh friends!” says Bunyan in Grace Abounding, “cry to God to reveal Jesus Christ unto you; there is none that teacheth like Him.” He continues, “for thought I with myself, If I leave off I die, and I can but die at the throne of grace.” Again we are in Grace Abounding—“Yet, my case being desperate, I thought with myself I can but die; and if it must be so it shall once be said, that ‘such an one died at the foot of Christ in prayer.’ ”
But now we are to witness the full daybreak of light upon this tortured soul. He sees Christ at last, “with the eyes of his understanding.” It is not a vision, or an access of emotion, or an ecstasy of any kind. It is a man’s intellect applied to the promises of God. A flood of texts is poured upon him, but most of all these words, “My grace is sufficient for thee.” Yet again Grace Abounding gives the key—“These words did with great power suddenly break in upon me: ‘My grace is sufficient for thee, my grace is sufficient for thee, my grace is sufficient for thee,’ three times together. And oh! methought that every word was a mighty word unto me; as ‘my,’ and ‘grace,’ and ‘sufficient,’ and ‘for thee’; they were then, and sometimes are still, far bigger than others be.”1 [Note: John Kelman, The Road, ii. 144.]
Though I am slow to trust Thee, Lord,
Slow to believe Thy gracious word,
Yet sweet Thy promise is to me,
“Sufficient is My grace for thee.”
Though trials often here, and care,
This weary heart of mine must share,
How comforting Thy word to me,
“My grace sufficient is for thee.”
Thus I can triumph in distress,
And find that even pain can bless,
Feeling how sure Thy word to me,
“Sufficient is My grace for thee.”
Thy love I know, O Lord, can shed
Its beams o’er every path I tread,
Reviving me and teaching me,
“Sufficient is My grace for thee.”
For Thou canst feel each grief I feel,
Canst sympathize, sustain, and heal,
And sweetly bring the truth to me,
“Thy grace sufficient is for me.”
O Saviour! grace on me bestow,
Then though my tears may sometimes flow,
The precious truth my faith shall see,
“My grace sufficient is for thee.”
And when I see Thee in the light
Thy matchless glory makes so bright,
Then shall I own, adoring Thee,
“Sufficient was Thy grace for me.”1 [Note: E. O.]
2. Consider now when it is that we most need this reassurance.
(1) We need it when we are awakened to a sense of sin.—Sooner or later, if one believes in Christ, he is awakened to a sight of his own sin. It may be given him at his first approach to Christ, be the cause that leads him to the Saviour; or, being brought to Christ in gentler ways, it may visit him further on in his journey. Sometimes he is awakened in the heart by contact with a pure and holy life, sometimes it is by the preaching of the Word or by the singing of a simple hymn. Sometimes it is in the seasons of the night, when a man is alone with his conscience; sometimes it is by the reading of the Bible; or it is born of great sorrow falling, not upon us, but upon another; there is something in the suffering of our loved ones that makes us feel mysteriously guilty. It is in these ways, as in a hundred others, that the Spirit of God convicts us of our sin. We get a swift glimpse of what we are; see what we are for ourselves. Now there is no talk of reformation, we want something more radical than that; and for the first time we cry despairingly, “Lord, be merciful to me a sinner.” Is it not in such an hour that this text reveals the richness of its meaning? It is then that we awaken to the Godhead of Christ: “My grace is sufficient for thee.” Deeper than our deepest sinfulness is the grace of God in Jesus Christ; able to forgive and to redeem is the love that was revealed on Calvary.
(2) We need it in suffering.—It is a condition of our present life that no one ever is exempt from suffering. That is a stated part of the agreement on which we get our leasehold of the world. To one suffering is of his body, to another it may come in mind. One it may reach in his material fortunes; another through a brother or a son. In one case it may be swift and sharp, vanishing like a summer tempest, while in another it may be long and slow and may linger through the obscurity of years. There are many to whom God denies success, but to none He denies suffering. Sooner or later, stealing from the shadow, it lays its piercing hand upon our hearts. Had it been otherwise, man would never have required a man of sorrows to suffer as He suffered who is our ideal. Now when we are called to suffer there is nothing more beautiful than quiet fortitude; to take it bravely and quietly and patiently is one of the noblest victories of life. There are few sights more morally inspiring than that of someone who has a cross to carry; someone of whom we know, perhaps, that every day must be a day of pain; yet we never hear a murmur from him, he is always bright. He is so busy thinking about others that he never seems to think about himself. We have all known people such as that; let us thank God that we have known them. There is no sermon so moving in its eloquence as the unuttered sermon of the cheerful sufferer. Among all the thoughts that God has given to make that victory possible to us there is none more powerful than this, “My grace is sufficient for thee.”
A friend of mine not long ago visited one of the hospitals in London. She was greatly touched by the look of happy peace on the face of one of the patients in a ward. A little while afterwards she asked a nurse who was the sorest sufferer in that ward, and the nurse, to her intense surprise, indicated the man she had first noticed. Going up to him, she spoke to him and told him what the nurse had said, and how she admired his courage when night and day in such pain. “Ah, miss,” he said, “it is not courage, it is that,” and he pointed to his bed-head, and there was a coloured text with this upon it. It was this that upheld him in the night; it was this that sustained him in the day.1 [Note: G. H. Morrison.]
When thy lone dreams sweet visions see
And loving looks upon thee shine,
And loving lips speak joys to thee
That never, never may be thine;
Then press thy hand hard on thy side,
And force down all the swelling pain;
Trust me, the wound, however wide,
Shall close at last, and heal again.
Think not of what is from thee kept;
Think, rather, what thou hast received:
Thine eyes have smiled, if they have wept;
Thy heart has danced, if it has grieved.
Rich comforts yet shall be thine own;
Yea, God Himself shall wipe thine eyes;
And still His love alike is shown
In what He gives, and what denies.1 [Note: H. S. Sutton.]
(3) We need it in temptation.—Like suffering, temptation is universal, and like suffering it is infinitely varied. Probably in all the human family no two are ever tempted quite alike. It is true that temptations may be broadly classified, clustered, as it were, around common centres. There is one class that assails the flesh, another that makes its onset on the mind; yet every temptation is so adapted to the person tempted that perhaps in all the ages that have gone no one was ever tempted just like us. To us there is no argument so strong as this for the existence of the devil. There is such subtlety in our temptations that it is hard to conceive of it without a brain. We are tempted with incomparable cunning; temptation comes to us all so subtly and so surely that nothing can explain it but intelligence. Temptation is never obtrusive, but it is always there. It is beside us in the crowded street; it has no objection to the lonely moor; it follows us to the office and home; it dogs our footsteps when we go to church; it insists on sharing in our hours of leisure, and kneels beside us when we pray. There is not a relationship so sweet and sacred but temptation chooses it for its assault; there is not an act of sacrifice so pure but temptation meets us in the doing of it. It never despairs of us until we die. So tempted as we are, is there any hope for us at all against that shameless and malevolent intelligence? Yes. There is hope in unremitting watchfulness; there is hope in every breath of prayer. But above all there is hope in this: when we are tempted and are on the point of falling, we can lift up our hearts to Christ and hear Him say, “My grace is sufficient for thee.” Was He not tempted in all points like as we are, and yet was He not victorious? Did He not conquer sin, lead it captive, and lay it vanquished at His feet for ever? And now we are His and He is ours; that victory which He has won is ours. It is at our disposal every hour.
When we are made one with Christ, then His power is really made ours for the warfare against sin. When we abide in Him, we are really and in very deed kept by Him. At no point is there greater need of wise and cautious statement than here, for unguarded and exaggerated language may go very near the claiming of actual perfection. We shall see how Mr. Macgregor himself did not always quite escape this danger. Yet we are to understand broadly that such a promise as, for instance, “My grace is sufficient for thee” is not to be thinned down or emptied of its meaning. If we are one with Him, and His life is being manifested in us, then He is able to keep and His grace is sufficient. There is here not the smallest claim to perfection. That is in this life impossible, alike on the negative side of avoiding every transgression, and, still more manifestly, on the positive side of attaining full conformity to the Son of God. But without any thought of what is unattainable, it is certain that in the daily warfare the issue in innumerable cases would be very different if we could but remember, and act upon the remembrance, that Divine help is ever at hand for all God’s children to claim, and that He means us to claim it, and to live in the joy and power which it brings.1 [Note: D. C. Macgregor, George H. C. Macgregor, 115.]
The Book of the Spiritual Tabernacle is the longest work of the hermit, and contains a strange, naïve, and arbitrary interpretation of the symbols of the ark of the covenant, and of the sacrifices of the ancient law. Here is what he says with regard to the offering of the poor as commanded in the Jewish law:—
“And the doves shall keep near streams and beside clear waters, so that if any bird flies downwards to seize them or to do them any injury, they may recognize him by his reflection in the water and beware of him. The clear water is Holy Scripture, the lives of saints, and the mercy of God.”
In the following passages he pictures, with the help of these same doves, the offering of Saint Paul:—
“And our Lord replied that His grace should be sufficient for him, for virtue is perfected in the weakness of temptations. When he understood this he offered these two doves into the hands of our Lord. For he renounced self, and willingly became poor, and bent the necks of his doves (that is, his desires) under the hands of our Lord Jesus Christ and of the Holy Church. And Christ broke the necks and the wings of the doves, and then he became incapable of desiring or of flying towards any desire except that which was God’s will. And then Christ placed the head (that is to say, the will, which was dead and powerless) under the broken wings, and then the doves were ready to be consumed; and so the holy Apostle says: ‘Most gladly, therefore, will I rather glory in my weakness, that the power of Christ may rest upon me.’ ”1 [Note: M. Maeterlinck, Ruysbroeck and the Mystics, 46.]
(4) We need it in the hour of death.—Again, shall we not need this word when life is ending, when we come to die? There is no pillow for a dying head except the grace of God in Jesus Christ.
When I was a young minister in Thurso, I was called into the country one beautiful summer day to the bedside of an elder who was dying. He was a godly man, grave and reverent, a man whose only study was the Bible, and who, summer and winter, was never absent from his familiar corner in the sanctuary. Now he was dying, and, as sometimes happens even with the choicest of the ripest saints, he was dying in such a fear of death as I have never witnessed from that hour. Outside the open window was the moor with a shimmer of summer heat upon it: far away there was the long roll of the heavy waves upon the shore; here in the cottage was a human soul that walked reverently and in the fear of God overmastered by the fear of death. Well, I was a young man then, very ignorant, very unversed in the deep things of the soul, and I tried to comfort him by speaking of the past—what an excellent elder he had been; and I shall never forget the look he gave me, or how he covered his face as if in shame, as he cried, “Not that, sir, not that! There is no comfort for me there.” It was then I realized for the first time that the only pillow to die on is free grace. It was then I felt how all we have done is powerless to uphold us in the valley of death, for all our righteousness is as filthy rags, and brings no ease upon a dying bed. This is our only stay: “My grace is sufficient for thee.”2 [Note: G. H. Morrison.]
The Reason for the Reassurance
“For my power is made perfect in weakness.”
1. From the Greek of this passage it is quite obvious that the words “power is made perfect in weakness”—there is no “my” in the original—are an axiom, or proverb, and that they are intended to convey a law of the spiritual life. They are intended to teach us that, at least in the spiritual province, and for all men as well as for St. Paul, there is a certain finishing and perfecting power in weakness. Not that we are to cherish our infirmities, to remain children when we ought to be men, to continue weak when we may be strong. To be weak is to be miserable. It is not weakness that our Lord commends, but strength struggling against and striving through weakness. Weakness of itself will perfect nothing. But when strength and weakness are combined in the same nature, the weakness may prove a fine discipline for the strength; it may induce watchfulness, prayer, a humble dependence on God, a tender consideration for the weakness of our fellows. Perfect strength is apt to be very far from perfect. It is apt to be rude, self-sufficient, untender. But a strength which has to contend with weakness, to pierce through hindrances, to show itself through reluctant and imperfect organs, is likely to become a gracious and friendly strength. If it is good to have a giant’s strength, but not to use it like a giant, then there is no discipline for strength like that of weakness.
Now the sun is strong, and I get my strength for arm and limb from him: but for its strength my heart travels to God and to home; for he who is near Christ is near the hearth-fire.1 [Note: R. W. Barbour, Thoughts, 115.]
You will allow if weakness was ever pardonable, it has been so in my case; not that I apologize for it—I love it, and I glory in it. If ever there lived a bold-hearted man, St. Paul was one, and he said, “I glory in my infirmities.” Oh yes! there is a certain holy virtuous weakness, without which something would be lacking to the perfect harmony of man’s nature.2 [Note: Ernest Renan, in Brother and Sister, 295.]
It is not the weakness which we admire, but the strength which is exercised by weakness and triumphs over it; it is not the cloud, but the sun which shines through the cloud; it is not the veil, but the Divine beauty which shows through the veil; it is not the infirmities, but the grace which is able to subdue these very infirmities to its own quality and complexion.3 [Note: S. Cox.]
What are your prison walls? Broken health, failing limbs, while you would choose to be all movement for God? Aching head, weary nerves, while it is your duty to be surrounded with toil and bustle? A sphere of service curiously unlike what you would have chosen, in view of your knowledge of your own capacities or weakness, yet in which you are to-day, and out of which your Lord does not—at least to-day—lead you? Home service, when you would prefer to be a missionary pioneer? A parish, when you would like to evangelize a province? A sickroom to fill with patient service, when you would like to organize a hospital? Study, when you would like out-door preaching? Out-door preaching, when you would choose study? A life of entirely secular conditions, when you would choose the holy ministry? Limited abilities, difficulty of speech, when you would like to be able, eloquent, for Christ? Poverty, when your heart aches for riches, that you may spend for Him? Riches, when you would fain have done, for His sake, with their solemn responsibilities, and be free in the restful simplicity of humbler life? Surroundings marred by the mistakes and perhaps injustice of others, while you long for co-operation and intelligent, healthy sympathy?
You know, in all these things, what it is to “take pleasure.” They are delightful, not in themselves, but from this point of view. The restraint, the negative, has become blessed to you, for it is your Lord’s chosen opportunity for saying to you, “My grace is sufficient for thee.” Your former fret and worry under circumstances are gone; for circumstances are literally as full as they can hold of occasions for the acceptance and working of His power. You would rather be weak, and the subject of His power, than be strong. You would rather be at uncongenial work, and have it filled with Him, than be at your most darling occupation, of your own mere will. In the mistakes, in the wrong-doings of man you yet see and welcome the unmistaking love and wisdom of your Lord. Your deep, calm, silent desire is that He should be glorified in you. And as this is, manifestly, very often best done “in your infirmities,” you can, you do, in Him, take pleasure in them. For infirmities of every scale, for little as for great, for great as for little, by a blessed inclusion, His grace is sufficient.1 [Note: H. C. G. Moule, All in Christ, 66.]
2. It is an application of general truth to the case in hand if we translate as in A.V. (with some MSS.): “My strength is made perfect in [thy] weakness.” It is enough, the Lord tells Paul, that he has this heavenly strength unceasingly bestowed upon him; the weakness which he has found so hard to bear—that distressing malady which humbled him and took his vigour away—is but the foil to it: it serves to magnify it, and to set it off; with that Paul should be content.
3. “My strength is made perfect”—that is, of course, perfect in its manifestation or operations, for it is perfect in itself already. “My strength is made perfect in weakness.” It works in and through man’s weakness. God works with broken reeds. If a man imagines himself to be an iron pillar, God can do nothing with or by him. All the self-conceit and confidence have to be taken out of him first. He has to be brought low before the Father can use him for His purposes. The lowlands hold the water, and, if only the sluice is open, the gravitation of His grace does all the rest and carries the flood into the depths of the lowly heart.
I fancy if we each had to single out some one person as exhibiting in his or her life the power of Divine Grace, we should not generally select those who stand highest in the world’s esteem for intellect or power of will, but we should take one whose transparent simplicity and modesty seemed to allow the light of Christ to shine through him in all its purity, so that none could be in his company without feeling that they had been brought nearer to Christ Himself. These are the living witnesses of the unseen realities; one such humble Christian man or woman exercises a power for good of which they are themselves altogether unconscious, and which will be fully understood only in that day when God shall judge the secrets of men.1 [Note: J. B. Mayor, The World’s Desire, 74.]
4. Christ’s strength loves to work in weakness, only the weakness must be conscious, and the conscious weakness must have passed into conscious dependence. There, then, you get the law for the Church, for the works of Christianity on the widest scale and in individual lives. Strength that counts itself strength is weakness: weakness that knows itself to be weakness is strength. The only true source of power, both for Christian work and in all other respects, is God Himself; and our strength is ours but by derivation from Him. And the only way to secure that derivation is through humble dependence—which we call faith—on Jesus Christ. And the only way by which that faith in Jesus Christ can ever be kindled in a man’s soul is through the sense of his need and emptiness. So when we know ourselves weak, we have taken the first step to strength; just as, when we know ourselves sinners, we have taken the first step to righteousness. In all regions of life the recognition of the doleful fact of our human necessity is the beginning of the joyful confidence in the glad, triumphant fact of the Divine fulness. All our emptinesses are met with His fulness that fits into them. It only needs that a man should be aware of what he is, and then turn himself to Him who is all that he is not, and into his empty being will flow rejoicing the whole fulness of God.
Many modern Englishmen talk of themselves as the sturdy descendants of their sturdy Puritan Fathers. As a fact, they would run away from a cow. If you asked one of their Puritan fathers, if you asked Bunyan, for instance, whether he was sturdy, he would have answered with tears, that he was as weak as water. And because of this he would have borne tortures.1 [Note: G. K. Chesterton, Heretics.]
If an electric car stands motionless on the tracks, it is nothing against the power of electricity. If an invalid has no appetite, and cannot go out of doors at night, it is no argument against things to eat and the joy of starlit air. If a man does not know a flower by name, or a poem by heart, it is no indictment of the beauty of a rose, or the charm of poetry. If we bear the name of Christ but give no other sign of Him, if we go through the forms of godliness, but live powerless lives, it is a thousand reproaches to us. To be powerless when Christ has all power, and we can have all we want, is an arrangement to which we can make no answer that is not self-incriminating.2 [Note: M. D. Babcock, Thoughts for Every-Day Living, 32.]
Thou knowest, Lord, that we alone
Should surely fail;
We have no wisdom of our own
That could prevail;
Yet Thou, through human helplessness,
Canst work Thy will—canst help and bless.
Take these weak hands, and hold them, Lord;
Our Helper be,
In Thee is all our fulness stored;
We come to Thee,
And know that, by Thy Spirit’s might,
We must be victors in the fight.3 [Note: Edith H. Divall, A Believer’s Rest, 54.]
Power in Weakness
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Baring-Gould (S.), Our Parish Church, 40.
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Christian World Pulpit, xlvii. 97 (N. Smyth); lxxvi. 185 (H. H. Henson); lxxvii. 390 (G. H. Morrison); lxxviii. 365 (H. E. Thomas).
Clergyman’s Magazine, 2nd Ser., v. 65 (R. P. Smith).