My grace is sufficient for thee, for power is made perfect in infirmity
These words form the climax of today’s Epistle in which we hear perhaps the most impassioned outburst in all of St. Paul’s writings. St. Paul reminds the Corinthians of all the trials and tribulations that he has undergone. In response to those who questioned his status as an apostle St. Paul replied that his life had been constantly threatened. He had been “in many more labours, in prisons more frequently, in stripes above measure, in deaths often… in journeyings often, in perils of waters, in perils from my own nation, in perils from the Gentiles, in perils in the city, in perils in the wilderness, in perils in the sea, in perils from false brethren: in labour and painfulness, in much watching, in hunger and thirst, in fastings often, in cold and nakedness; besides those things that are without, my daily instance, the solicitude for all the churches.” He had learnt through his sufferings for the sake of the Gospel to glory in his tribulations that the power of Christ might be strengthened in him. The grace of God was sufficient for him, for power is made perfect in infirmity.
But what was the context in which St. Paul wrote these words? He encountered problems in all the churches that he founded, but it was probably the Corinthian Church that caused him most problems. He founded the Church during the second of his great missionary journeys which we read about in the Acts of the Apostles. At the time of the founding of the Church it seemed as if things were going well. St. Paul had secured at the Council of Jerusalem the approval of Peter, James and John for his mission among the Gentiles (Galatians 2). They were not required to be circumcised and become Jews. It was only necessary that they renounced their pagan idols and worshipped the one God of Israel who had redeemed them in the person of Jesus. But just when things seemed to be going to plan major problems developed in the Church in Corinth. There were those who distorted Paul’s message of Gentiles not being required to become circumcised Jews into an excuse for licence. They claimed that they had superior knowledge and so did not need to be concerned about their behaviour. It is clear that this was an early form of the Gnostic heresy (the belief in salvation by esoteric knowledge rather than through the redemption wrought by Christ on the cross) that was later countered by early Church Fathers such as St. Irenaeus in the second century. St. Paul saw that the root problem was that a faction of the Corinthian Church had become proud in their claim to superior knowledge. He rebuked them for their pride and for their lack of charity. They were too proud of themselves in their self claimed superior knowledge. St. Paul therefore wrote that the message of the Cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to those who are being saved, it is Christ the Wisdom of God and Christ the power of God (1 Corinthians 1).
However, it seems that between writing the First Epistle and the Second Epistle to the Corinthians matters had got worse, rather than better. His opponents appear to have launched a full fronted personal attack on St. Paul himself. They questioned his authority and his personal character. His letters, they said, are weighty and strong, but his presence is weak and his speech contemptible. He writes what is perhaps his most personal letter in which he speaks of how he had despaired of life himself. Without there were fears, within there were fightings. He spoke of his thorn in the flesh, which he had prayed to be delivered from. It is not clear what this thorn in the flesh was. It may have been a physical illness, or it may have been the continual problems that he seemed to be encountering at that point in his life. The answer to his prayer had been “My grace is sufficient for thee, for power is made perfect in infirmity.” The attack on his personal character had wounded his own human pride, but it was precisely in this moment of weakness that he had learned to put his faith, not in his own power and authority (which his opponents in Corinth had challenged), but in God, who raised the dead. He had found through the grace of God the strength to persevere “in much patience, in tribulation, in necessities, in distresses, in stripes, in prisons, in seditions, in labours, in watchings, in fasting, in chastity, in knowledge, in long suffering, in sweetness, in the Holy Ghost”. He could now overcome all things “by honour and dishonour, by evil report and good report: as deceivers and yet true, as unknown and yet known: as dying, and behold we live (2 Corinthians 6). He had learned through his sufferings for the sake of the Gospel to glorify in his infirmities, that the power of Christ might be strengthened in him.
In this epistle above all St. Paul lays bare an aspect of his personality that is often overlooked by those who rightly see him as a heroic missionary and great theologian. He was indeed both of these things, but his strength came not from his own personal power and sufficiency, but from the grace of God. It was a power that had been made perfect in weakness. It would seem that St. Paul was not by temperament a modest man and he therefore took any criticism very personally. He may have written that charity suffereth long and is kind, but he was not himself of a very long suffering disposition. The problems he was experiencing with the Church at Corinth seemed to have come as a crushing personal blow that he found difficult to get over. But through this experience of suffering and failure the message of the Cross, of power made perfect in weakness penetrated his being at a deeper level than it had ever done before. He had learnt to rely on the grace of God not simply as a matter of theory, but in lived experience of failure. He could now glory not in his achievements, but in his sufferings, that the power of Christ might be strengthened in him.
There is much that we can learn from this at the present time. It is easy to fall into the temptation to despair about the state of things in the world. The problems we face seem to be too great for us to deal with and it often seems that all hope is gone. But it is in our darkest moments, when all hope seems to be gone, that we can learn above all to rely on the sufficiency of divine grace, of power made perfect in weakness. Our Christian commitment can easily become too theoretical and we can fall in love with our own ideas about ways of revitalising the Church. We need to learn, as St. Paul did, not to rely on our own ideas, but in God, who raised the dead. When we have found that all our seemingly well intentioned plans have ended in failure, we can then learn to no longer put our trust in anything that we do, but in the power of divine grace.
“My grace is sufficient for thee, for power is made perfect in infirmity.”