Therefore, to keep me from being too elated, a thorn was given 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.” (2 Corinthians 12:7b-9a)
Recently I was at a conference on mental health issues and Christian responses to them. I heard one speaker quote from this passage, using the words ‘For my power is made perfect in your weakness’. ‘No’, I thought to myself, ‘that’s wrong – surely it’s “my power is made perfect in weakness”; the “your” isn’t there, she or the translation she’s using has put it in.’ Now today I look at this version, the NRSV, and discover that not only is ‘your’ not there, but ‘my’ isn’t there either! Simply ‘power is made perfect in weakness’. What are we to make of this?
One reason I objected to the way the speaker had quoted it, was that it seemed to me to imply that in order for God to be powerful or strong, we had to be weak. Doesn’t this sound rather like a bullying or abusive God? What kind of Father (or Mother) requires their children to be weak so that they can show their power? Surely a creator God would want her/his children to exercise the strengths and gifts that God had placed in them, not to relinquish those strengths to make God even more triumphant?
What I originally wanted to say in this post was something like this: Without the ‘your’, surely Paul is saying here that God’s power is made perfect in God’s weakness; that when God is a helpless, incontinent, uncoordinated baby in a feeding trough, or when that baby, grown up, is nailed wrist and foot on an instrument of torture, barely able to breathe, that is paradoxically God at God’s most powerful, defeating the powers of evil and death by sheer vulnerability, by refusing to use the weapons of oppression and violence.
But now I’ve noticed that the ‘my’ is the translator’s addition too, I think there is even more going on here. Paul appears to be stating a universal law: that when God or ourselves are at our most powerless, when we refuse to use the world’s ways of gaining power, it is then that we have most impact, then that we are truly victorious. It occurs to me that there are really only two types of Christian in the world: those who think their faith makes them invulnerable, and those who believe their faith calls them to be vulnerable. I know which type I like better, and which type I aspire – though I have a long way to go – to be.