There are times when following a lectionary creates some interesting parallels or juxtapositions to what is happening in the world. Today is one of those days; for today is July 4, the national holiday the United States of America, the most powerful country the world has ever seen. Even in this time when many Americans seem convinced that their power is waning, the US spends over three times more on its military than its nearest rival, China, and eleven times more than Russia. And this is to say nothing about the pervasive reach of its economic interests and popular culture. There is no questioning, by human standards, American power. But today, as that country with its unparalleled power celebrates its independence, our Epistle reading turns the whole idea of power on its head.
The reading, 2 Corinthians 12.2-10, begins with a discussion about mystical experiences. While such experiences could be considered cause for boasting, suggesting as they do a certain spiritual power, Paul refuses to go down that route. That would be misleading, he says, since it could lead to people putting him on a pedestal and thinking that he’s better than he actually is. Mystical experiences are just one more manifestation of God’s grace, and so have nothing to do with us, or our power or greatness. The only thing to boast about, he says, is weakness. He explains:
[A] thorn was given to me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me, to keep me from being too elated. Three times I appealed to the Lord about this, that it would leave me, but he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.’ So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong. (vv.7b-10)
We have no indication what this ‘thorn’ was, but it was clearly serious enough for it to be a problem for Paul. (The traditional translation ‘thorn,’ minimizes what he’s talking about; the word more commonly means “spike” or “stake,” so he’s talking about being impaled more than being pricked!) He prays for God to take this torment away, but God tells him, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.”
Power has a bad reputation in progressive circles. I’m sure even in my own writing here recently I’ve used it as a shorthand for the sinful desire to get one’s own way and dominate others. But power is itself value-neutral; it’s not good or bad, it just is. The most succinct definition of power I’ve come across is from Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who defined it as “the ability to achieve purpose and effect change.” So it isn’t a question of power being good or bad, but rather what we do with power — what that purpose and change we are trying to make is — and how we wield it. This is where sin can come in, but it is also where love, grace, justice, and holiness can come in.
In this passage, Paul links power with weakness, but before we talk about that, the nature of this linkage is also worth some thought. Paul says that power is made perfect in weakness. Perfection is a word we use often but rarely think about. We tend to use it to mean ‘flawlessness’; if you get a ‘perfect score’ it means that you got everything right. The Greek word Paul uses here, however, has a slightly different — and I think helpful — connotation. Here, something is perfect if it has reached its intended goal or end. You have ‘perfected’ a race by crossing the finish line. Or, to go back to the test analogy, you received a ‘perfect score’ because you met the intended learning objectives; you didn’t ‘conquer’ the test, but rather did what the test intended you to do. So what Paul is saying here is that power — the ability to make change in our world — finds its fulfillment or reaches its goal in weakness. For God, and for those of us who seek to follow God, being powerful isn’t about getting your way or having power over others, but about weakness: knowing and not being afraid of your limitations, setting aside your own advantage for the sake of others, and refusing to force your will over a situation.
This should come as no surprise for Christians, since this is the way of the Incarnation — in which Christ set aside the prerogatives of divinity for a humble human life — and the Cross — in which Christ preferred to die than to perpetuate the world’s violence. For God’s ways are not to “lord it over others” (Matthew 20.25), and not “to consider equality with God something to be grasped, but to be humbled” (Philippians 2.6-7), because “the first shall be last and the last shall be first” (Matthew 20.16, et al.).
What does this sort of power look like in practice? It certainly isn’t the sort of power we tend to think of. It isn’t something to be hoarded, but rather something to be shared. It isn’t about ‘divide and conquer’, but about building bridges between people. It isn’t about projecting omniscience or omnipotence, but admitting to uncertainty and bringing in others who have skills and answers you’re lacking. It isn’t about having power but sharing it. It certainly isn’t about being served by others, but about living life in service to others. In the terminology of Just Associates, an international organization seeking to empower historically disempowered groups, true power is not about having “power over” others, but “power to,” “power for,” “power with,” and “power within.” Being powerful means handing power to others, knowing that it is not a finite resource; using your power for the benefit of others; sharing your power with others; and finding your true power within.*
Again we are left with two different ways of being human: the way of the ‘world’, or Empire; and the way of God’s Kingdom. As always, the way of God’s Kingdom is a more difficult path, a path that feels less secure. But, it is also the way that reveals the heart of our God. And so, let us walk not in fear, but in faith, knowing that power is made perfect in weakness. And that God’s grace is abundant and is more than sufficient.
*Brene Brown has a helpful one-page summary of Just Associates’ work on power, available here.