Evangelical believers have long been taught what could be called a “theology of helplessness”, resulting in paralysis in certain areas of the life of the Church. This particular theology is based mostly on a certain verse taken from the writings of Paul the apostle.
2 Corinthians 12:9 But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me.
At first reading, this verse would appear to teach that God’s power is made perfect in our human weakness. Now weakness is normally something that human beings want to avoid; we would rather be strong. But at first glance Paul appears to be teaching the very opposite. We should instead be glad and boast about our human weaknesses in order that the Lord’s power be made perfect and evident in us. We should be “humble.” When we fail, God’s power is somehow being made perfect in our weakness. When we fail to do what God calls us to do, God shows up and does it himself—thereby bringing glory to His name. This approximates what we have been taught. Let us see whether or not it is in fact true to the Scriptures.
What is weakness? When Christians think of human weakness, we normally think of having little faith, of having failed or accomplished little for God, or of moral weakness and sin. Therefore our little faith and our failures somehow make God’s power perfect. Our inabilities to get the job done somehow glorify God. This is not far from what is traditionally taught. But is this really what Paul may have meant to teach?
Does God really want us weak and helpless?
If not, than perhaps we have made ourselves weak and helpless in vain; perhaps it has not served His purposes at all. Let us therefore examine this important matter by looking at the context of 1 Corinthians 12:9. Let’s begin earlier with Chapter 10.
2 Corinthians 10:12a We do not dare to classify or compare ourselves with some who commend themselves.
Paul is here addressing the issue of false apostles who had infiltrated the Church. He introduces the matter of “boasting.”
12b When they measure themselves by themselves and compare themselves with themselves, they are not wise. 13 We, however, will not boast beyond proper limits, but will confine our boasting to the sphere of service God himself has assigned to us, a sphere that also includes you. 14 We are not going too far in our boasting, as would be the case if we had not come to you, for we did get as far as you with the gospel of Christ.
To contrast himself with the false teachers, Paul does some boasting about what God has accomplished through him. He acknowledges that by boasting he is being foolish, but that in doing so he is making a point.
2 Corinthians 11:1 I hope you will put up with me in a little foolishness. Yes, please put up with me! 2 I am jealous for you with a godly jealousy. I promised you to one husband, to Christ, so that I might present you as a pure virgin to him. 3 But I am afraid that just as Eve was deceived by the serpent’s cunning, your minds may somehow be led astray from your sincere and pure devotion to Christ. 4 For if someone comes to you and preaches a Jesus other than the Jesus we preached, or if you receive a different spirit from the Spirit you received, or a different gospel from the one you accepted, you put up with it easily enough. 5 I do not think I am in the least inferior to those “super-apostles.”
These proud false apostles were preaching a different gospel and a different Jesus to the Corinthians. Paul was using a human argument—that of his considerable accomplishments for the gospel in the regions of Achaia—to persuade them not to be deceived and not to reject the gospel which he had first preached to them.
10 As surely as the truth of Christ is in me, nobody in the regions of Achaia will stop this boasting of mine. 11 Why? Because I do not love you? God knows I do! 12 And I will keep on doing what I am doing in order to cut the ground from under those who want an opportunity to be considered equal with us in the things they boast about. 13 For such people are false apostles, deceitful workers, masquerading as apostles of Christ. 14 And no wonder, for Satan himself masquerades as an angel of light. 15 It is not surprising, then, if his servants also masquerade as servants of righteousness. Their end will be what their actions deserve. 16 I repeat: Let no one take me for a fool. But if you do, then tolerate me just as you would a fool, so that I may do a little boasting. 17 In this self-confident boasting I am not talking as the Lord would, but as a fool. 18 Since many are boasting in the way the world does, I too will boast.
We see that Paul is using the human argument of boasting in his own ministry to keep the Corinthian believers from following the false teachers into deception. He now takes the argument to another level to boast about things which we normally do not at all consider positive. He injects a bit of sarcasm into his argument.
22 Are they Hebrews? So am I. Are they Israelites? So am I. Are they Abraham’s descendants? So am I. 23 Are they servants of Christ? (I am out of my mind to talk like this.) I am more. I have worked much harder, been in prison more frequently, been flogged more severely, and been exposed to death again and again. 24 Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. 25 Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was pelted with stones, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea, 26 I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my fellow Jews, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false believers. 27 I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked. 28 Besides everything else, I face daily the pressure of my concern for all the churches. 29 Who is weak, and I do not feel weak? Who is led into sin, and I do not inwardly burn? 30 If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness. …32 In Damascus the governor under King Aretas had the city of the Damascenes guarded in order to arrest me. 33 But I was lowered in a basket from a window in the wall and slipped through his hands.
In a litany of further “accomplishments”, Paul here boasts of back-breaking labor, imprisonments, floggings, repeated exposures to death, beatings with rods, a stoning, three shipwrecks, dangers from bandits, Jews, Gentiles, false believers, dangers in the country and in the city and at sea, sleeplessness, hunger, thirst, suffering from cold and nakedness, an attempt to arrest him by the governor of Damascus, about his anxious concern for the welfare of the churches he started and for believers being led into sin. He boasts of these things that show his “weakness” (verse 30).
Clearly Paul is not referring to his weaknesses in the normal sense of the term. The apostle was anything but weak in his faith. God used him to perform great miraculous signs and wonders. His labors and ministry were anything but failures; rather he was considered the greatest missionary of all time. He taught that by the grace of God believers could put to death the works of the flesh and walk in holiness as Jesus did. The church believes that he lived what he preached and lived a life of not only imputed but actual righteousness. He was anything but “weak” in character and faith and in accomplishments as we understand it.
At the end of Chapter 11 Paul was instead referring to the many trials which he suffered as he obeyed his calling and proclaimed the gospel of Jesus Christ throughout the known world. Then Paul goes on to boast about the wondrous visions and revelations he received from the Lord.
The man who went to the third heaven
2 Corinthians 12:1 I must go on boasting. Although there is nothing to be gained, I will go on to visions and revelations from the Lord. 2 I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven. Whether it was in the body or out of the body I do not know–God knows. 3 And I know that this man–whether in the body or apart from the body I do not know, but God knows– 4 was caught up to paradise and heard inexpressible things, things that no one is permitted to tell. 5 I will boast about a man like that, but I will not boast about myself, except about my weaknesses. 6 Even if I should choose to boast, I would not be a fool, because I would be speaking the truth. But I refrain, so no one will think more of me than is warranted by what I do or say…
For the sake of consistency in his boasting in his “weaknesses”, Paul did not even acknowledge that it was he himself who had been privileged to receive the wondrous revelations from God. He simply referred to himself as “a man in Christ” he knew. In line with that Paul was given a “thorn in his flesh” to keep him from becoming proud and conceited on account of the great revelations. This thorn can be considered yet another “weakness” of Paul’s.
7 or because of these surpassingly great revelations. Therefore, in order to keep me from becoming conceited, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. 8 Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me.
Exactly what was this “thorn” in Paul’s flesh? This is a matter of controversy about which there is little agreement in the body of Christ. But one obvious possibility is the frequent suffering which Paul endured and laid out for us at extreme length in Chapter 11 as his “weaknesses.” They appeared almost to be nonstop, and Paul asked the Lord to keep him from further trials. But the Lord did not remove the thorn, because through such trials Paul would experience God’s grace to endure. He would be perfected through his suffering as Jesus was (Hebrews 2:10). In Acts 19:13-16 the Lord clearly told Ananias that the man who had persecuted the Church severely would suffer much for the name of Jesus Christ.
2 Corinthians 12:9 But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. 10 That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.
Clearly the weaknesses Paul referred to in verse 9 above are not lack of faith, failure to bear fruit for the Lord, or moral failure of any kind. He confirms this in verse 10 when he lists insults, hardships, persecutions, and difficulties along with weaknesses. These trials are what accompanied Paul as he brought the glorious gospel of Jesus Christ to the gentiles and bore wonderful fruit for the Lord. Moreover, the Lord displayed His power publicly to vindicate His servant when he suffered persecution on account of His name. In such ways Paul became “strong” and powerful for the gospel through his “weaknesses.”
A jailhouse miracle for Paul
One such incident is seen in Acts 16 on an occasion when Paul casts a spirit of divination out of a slave girl. As a consequence he and Silas are stripped and flogged and thrown into prison. This is one of the “weaknesses” Paul describes in 1 Corinthians 11. As a result of this “weakness” the Lord displayed his power by sending a powerful earthquake at midnight later that evening and miraculously opening the doors of all the prison cells. The result was Paul leading the jailer and his whole family to faith in Jesus Christ.
11 I have made a fool of myself, but you drove me to it. I ought to have been commended by you, for I am not in the least inferior to the “super-apostles,” even though I am nothing. 12 I persevered in demonstrating among you the marks of a true apostle, including signs, wonders and miracles.
Finally, Paul did not lack faith or entertain unbelief in his heart. No, his faith was very strong and he was able to perform signs, wonders and miracles to bring glory to Jesus—the marks of a true apostle. No such miracles accompanied the false apostles. Paul was anything but helpless, and was arguably the most fruitful missionary in the history of the Church.
We have been made helpless in vain
Therefore we are not to think that God is somehow glorified in our unbelief, our lack of faith, lack of fruitfulness, and lack of holiness. In fact, the Lord is not pleased with such failures.
Luke 8:24 The disciples went and woke him, saying, “Master, Master, we’re going to drown!” He got up and rebuked the wind and the raging waters; the storm subsided, and all was calm. 25 “Where is your faith?” he asked his disciples. In fear and amazement they asked one another, “Who is this? He commands even the winds and the water, and they obey him.”
John 15:5 “I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. 6 If you do not remain in me, you are like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned.
Luke 3:9 The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.”
Hebrews 12:14 Make every effort to live in peace with everyone and to be holy; without holiness no one will see the Lord.
Jesus expects believers to heal the sick and obey his commands
Perhaps the most obvious example of the Church’s helplessness is in the area of the miraculous. Traditionally we teach that in this area we are helpless to do anything except pray to God and trust Him to perform the miracle in His time. Only God Himself has the power to perform miracles; believers do not.
New Testament Scripture does not quite teach this. Although there are many areas where we certainly have no authority to take action, Jesus did give power and authority to his disciples to heal the sick and cast out demons when he sent them out to proclaim the kingdom of God (Luke 9:1-2; 10:9). He clearly expected them to use this power and authority effectively to set free the oppressed.
Matthew 17:14 And when they came to the crowd, a man came to Him, kneeling down to Him and saying, 15 Lord, have mercy on my son, for he is a lunatic and grievously vexed; for oftentimes he falls into the fire, and often into the water. 16 And I brought him to Your disciples, and they could not cure him. 17 Then Jesus answered and said, O faithless and perverse generation, how long shall I be with you? How long shall I suffer you? Bring him here to Me. 18 And Jesus rebuked the demon, and he departed out of him. And the child was cured from that very hour. 19 Then the disciples came to Jesus apart, and said, Why could we not cast him out? 20 And Jesus said to them, Because of your unbelief. For truly I say to you, If you have faith like a grain of mustard seed, you shall say to this mountain, Move from here to there. And it shall move. And nothing shall be impossible to you. (MKJV)
Matthew 14:28 “Lord, if it’s you,” Peter replied, “tell me to come to you on the water.” 29 “Come,” he said. Then Peter got down out of the boat, walked on the water and came toward Jesus. 30 But when he saw the wind, he was afraid and, beginning to sink, cried out, “Lord, save me!” 31 Immediately Jesus reached out his hand and caught him. “You of little faith,” he said, “why did you doubt?”
Matthew 8:24 Suddenly a furious storm came up on the lake, so that the waves swept over the boat. But Jesus was sleeping. 25 The disciples went and woke him, saying, “Lord, save us! We’re going to drown!” 26 He replied, “You of little faith, why are you so afraid?” Then he got up and rebuked the winds and the waves, and it was completely calm.
Based on these Scriptures, it’s clear that when the Lord commands us to do something and we fail to accomplish it because of little faith, doubt and unbelief, he is not at all pleased with us. (We would in fact argue that Jesus expected the disciples to rebuke the winds and waves themselves in Matthew 8 above.) The Lord desires us his disciples to have the faith to move mountains and to accomplish the impossible for his kingdom. He is not pleased when we are paralyzed by fear because of our little faith.
Unfortunately the traditional “theology of helplessness” has resulted in the crippling of the Church in the supernatural ministry of healing the sick and casting out demons.
So what does Jesus command us to do?
Among other things, he commands us to:
- Produce good fruit for him
John 15:16 You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit–fruit that will last–and so that whatever you ask in my name the Father will give you.
- To be holy in all that we do
1 Peter 1:15 But just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do;
- Heal the sick & proclaim the kingdom of God
Luke 10:9 Heal the sick who are there and tell them, ‘The kingdom of God has come near to you.’
- Make disciples of all nations according to the Great Commission (Matthew 28:18-20)
Not only does the Lord command us to do these things, he enables us to accomplish them as well. He gives us power and authority to heal the sick and cast out demons. He teaches us to say “No” to sin and enables us to live holy and self-controlled lives. He gives us the faith to carry out his commands, and the strength to produce much good fruit for Him as we remain in Him. This is the true grace of God.
Yes, indeed, His grace is sufficient for us—not despite our failures or in the midst of them, but rather to obey His commands and to live holy and fruitful lives for Him while enduring suffering for His name if necessary.
A dramatic transition from helplessness to supernatural strength
In ourselves, we are of course weak and can do nothing. But through Christ we can do mighty exploits through him who strengthens us. A dramatic illustration contrasting the two can be found in Psalm 18 written by David. In the first half of the Psalm we see a David who in himself was helpless and overwhelmed by destruction. He cries out to God to save him. But following verse 28 in the second half of the Psalm we see a David completely transformed by God.
Psalms 18:1 For the director of music. Of David the servant of the LORD. He sang to the LORD the words of this song when the LORD delivered him from the hand of all his enemies and from the hand of Saul. He said: I love you, LORD, my strength. 2 The LORD is my rock, my fortress and my deliverer; my God is my rock, in whom I take refuge, my shield and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold. 3 I called to the LORD, who is worthy of praise, and I have been saved from my enemies. 4 The cords of death entangled me; the torrents of destruction overwhelmed me. 5 The cords of the grave coiled around me; the snares of death confronted me. 6 In my distress I called to the LORD; I cried to my God for help. From his temple he heard my voice; my cry came before him, into his ears. 7 The earth trembled and quaked, and the foundations of the mountains shook; they trembled because he was angry. 8 Smoke rose from his nostrils; consuming fire came from his mouth, burning coals blazed out of it. 9 He parted the heavens and came down; dark clouds were under his feet. 10 He mounted the cherubim and flew; he soared on the wings of the wind. 11 He made darkness his covering, his canopy around him– the dark rain clouds of the sky. 12 Out of the brightness of his presence clouds advanced, with hailstones and bolts of lightning. 13 The LORD thundered from heaven; the voice of the Most High resounded. 14 He shot his arrows and scattered the enemy, with great bolts of lightning he routed them. 15 The valleys of the sea were exposed and the foundations of the earth laid bare at your rebuke, LORD, at the blast of breath from your nostrils. 16 He reached down from on high and took hold of me; he drew me out of deep waters. 17 He rescued me from my powerful enemy, from my foes, who were too strong for me. 18 They confronted me in the day of my disaster, but the LORD was my support. 19 He brought me out into a spacious place; he rescued me because he delighted in me. 20 The LORD has dealt with me according to my righteousness; according to the cleanness of my hands he has rewarded me. 21 For I have kept the ways of the LORD; I am not guilty of turning from my God. 22 All his laws are before me; I have not turned away from his decrees. 23 I have been blameless before him and have kept myself from sin. 24 The LORD has rewarded me according to my righteousness, according to the cleanness of my hands in his sight. 25 To the faithful you show yourself faithful, to the blameless you show yourself blameless, 26 to the pure you show yourself pure, but to the devious you show yourself shrewd. 27 You save the humble but bring low those whose eyes are haughty. 28 You, LORD, keep my lamp burning; my God turns my darkness into light.
Following this in the second half of the Psalm we see the work of God’s grace on David, transforming him into a supernatural victorious warrior.
29 With your help I can advance against a troop; with my God I can scale a wall. 30 As for God, his way is perfect: The LORD’s word is flawless; he shields all who take refuge in him. 31 For who is God besides the LORD? And who is the Rock except our God? 32 It is God who arms me with strength and keeps my way secure. 33 He makes my feet like the feet of a deer; he causes me to stand on the heights. 34 He trains my hands for battle; my arms can bend a bow of bronze. 35 You make your saving help my shield, and your right hand sustains me; your help has made me great. 36 You provide a broad path for my feet, so that my ankles do not give way. 37 I pursued my enemies and overtook them; I did not turn back till they were destroyed. 38 I crushed them so that they could not rise; they fell beneath my feet. 39 You armed me with strength for battle; you humbled my adversaries before me. 40 You made my enemies turn their backs in flight, and I destroyed my foes. 41 They cried for help, but there was no one to save them– to the LORD, but he did not answer. 42 I beat them as fine as windblown dust; I trampled them like mud in the streets. 43 You have delivered me from the attacks of the people; you have made me the head of nations. People I did not know now serve me, 44 foreigners cower before me; as soon as they hear of me, they obey me. 45 They all lose heart; they come trembling from their strongholds. 46 The LORD lives! Praise be to my Rock! Exalted be God my Savior! 47 He is the God who avenges me, who subdues nations under me, 48 who saves me from my enemies. You exalted me above my foes; from a violent man you rescued me.
There may in fact be situations in our lives where we cry out to God helplessly as David did in the first half of the Psalm. But the Lord hears our prayer and can transform us and use us to perform mighty exploits to destroy the work of His enemies as David did in the second half.