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By Barbara Leonhard, O.S.F.

The Bible: Light to My Path

St. Anthony Messenger has invited several biblical experts to contribute to this column in 2002. Each month, one author will choose a passage that comforts, challenges or seems neglected. He or she will explain how to apply this passage and connect it to everyday life. This month’s guide:

Barbara Leonhard, O.S.F., is an Oldenburg Franciscan with an M.A. in Scripture from Catholic Theological Union and a Ph.D. in Christian spirituality from Graduate Theological Union. She teaches in and does
supervision for the Spiritual Direction Internship at the Benedict INN (Beech Grove, Indiana).

 

Q U I C K S C A N

Rescue Me—Now
Hanging On—for Dear Life
Biblical Background


My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.

2 Corinthians 12:9

 

Suppose that, like Paul, you were challenged by the people with whom you share your faith to offer some reason why they should listen to you. What would you say?

You might list your degrees, your experience, your years in the parish. Would you be inclined to claim, as Paul does, that your weakness qualifies you to be a witness of the gospel?

In 2 Corinthians 12:1-10, Paul shares an experience of his own transformation. The notion of experiencing strength in weakness evidently did not come easily to him. He tells us that he repeatedly begged the Lord to remove his “thorn in the flesh.” Scholars have offered various theories about this thorn: a physical illness, a speech impediment, an experience of despair. It may have been Paul’s way of symbolically describing his opponents. Whatever it was, it wore him down. He feared that it would keep him from effectively sharing the gospel. Therefore, he begged that it be removed.

Rescue Me—Now

Who of us cannot relate to this prayer? We find ourselves faced with some new limitation and, like Paul, we fear that it will hinder us from doing what we want to do. Health crises, depression, times of great loss or self-doubt can leave us reeling and praying that this situation will ease up or, better yet, go away!

Several years ago, when I was feeling quite overwhelmed with ongoing health problems, the loss of a ministry I loved and the very unexpected death of my nephew, I worried that I was not able to minister effectively.

One day, someone asked if there was anything at all in my ministry that I
felt my present experience enabled me to do well.  I realized that, as a spiritual director, I was hearing people more clearly than ever before. Something about my own experience of “weakness” enabled me to be more compassionate with others in their struggles— the gift of strength in weakness.

Hanging On—for Dear Life

Paul tells us that his “thorn in the flesh” was not removed. What changed was that he came to recognize the presence and the strength of God within that very situation. The promise he heard from Christ was, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.”

What a challenge it is to trust that! As a spiritual director, I hear others speak of the same amazing experience of grace that Paul knew.

The person who feels absolutely unable to forgive finds mercy rising up within her. Strength in weakness. Someone wading through depression actually experiences himself comforting another. Sufficient grace. The young parent with chronic pain discovers that, while her activities may be fewer, she is parenting more effectively than ever. Strength in weakness.

The challenge in this passage is not to learn to “tough it out.” It is precisely the opposite. In our times of greatest struggle, we are asked to be gently present to our own vulnerability and to believe that in that very place we can experience the powerful gift of God’s strength.

 



Biblical Background

Paul’s Second Letter to the Corinthians is, in large part, a defense of his apostolic mission in Corinth. In his absence, other preachers with impressive words and persuasive signs have caused the community to question Paul’s authority. When Paul is informed of this, he is both personally hurt and deeply concerned about the type of faith to which the Corinthians now seem to be attracted.

In his response, he inverts the power/weakness scheme. Rather than deny his weakness, he boasts of it. Ultimately, Paul asserts that he has learned to perceive weakness not as a hindrance, but as characteristic of authentic Christian ministry. Paul shares with the community his own struggle with “a thorn in the flesh” and the assurance given him by Christ that divine power is more clearly witnessed in weakness.


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