The "Backward" Wisdom of God (2003)

Power through Weakness

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Gary DeLashmutt

2 Corinthians 12:9


The relationship between power and weakness is a key theme throughout the Bible. God's wisdom says that power is available to those who trust in God and realize their weakness apart from Him. As a result, powerful people can boast in God and their weakness while enjoying a level of contentment as they learn to depend on Christ's power to work through them more. Christ's power empowers us to serve others, be nourished by God's Word, and endure difficulties in spite of our human weaknesses.


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Key biblical truths often seem backward, counter-intuitive, contrary to common sense—even crazy. Sometimes this is because they are stated in paradoxical ways—but even when they are stated in a straightforward way they still strike us this way.

Why is this? Not because God’s wisdom is irrational or self-contradictory—but because his wisdom is based on different (higher) presuppositions (read Isa. 55:8,9). Once we understand and accept his presuppositions, his wisdom makes perfect sense.

Power through weakness

This morning, we’re going to explore another key piece of this “backward” wisdom. See if you can guess what it is by reading these passages:

2 Chron. 26:15,16 – “(King Uzziah) was greatly helped until he became powerful. But after Uzziah became powerful, (this) led to his downfall.”

Heb. 11:34 – “. . . Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets, who by faith conquered kingdoms . . . shut the mouths of lions, quenched the power of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, from weakness were made strong . . .”

1 Cor. 1:26-29 – “Consider your calling, brethren, that there were not many wise according to the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble; but God has chosen the foolish things of the world to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to shame the things which are strong, and the base things of the world and the despised, God has chosen, the things that are not, that he might nullify the things that are, that no one should boast before God.”

2 Cor. 12:9,10 – “(God) has said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness.’ Most gladly, therefore, I will rather boast about my weaknesses, that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Therefore I am well content with weaknesses, with insults, with distresses, with persecutions, with difficulties, for Christ's sake; for when I am weak, then I am strong.”

Did you catch the aspect God’s backward wisdom revealed in these passages? The subject is power—and passages like these invite us to ask two questions: What is true power? What is the relationship between power and weakness? God’s wisdom gives totally different answers to both these questions than the world’s wisdom!

Worldly wisdom says that power is rooted in “natural” resources (academic, socio-economic, intellectual, political, etc.) and requires access to them. Since these resources are limited, true power is always limited to the few.

But God’s wisdom says that true power comes from him and has no correlation with access to natural resources. True power is accessible to anyone who depends on God. Jesus is the personification of this principle. The early Christian movement had terrific expansion power—not because they had access to political or academic or socio-economic power—but because they depended on God (1 Cor. 1:26-29).

Worldly wisdom says power requires self-sufficiency. American culture has always glorified self-sufficiency (“God helps those who help themselves;” SELF-MADE MAN) and it is no surprise that it is currently drawn toward self-sufficient spiritualities (SELF-EMPOWERMENT).

But God’s wisdom says that power requires realizing and acknowledging your weakness. The Old Testament hall of fame is filled with people who “through weakness were made strong.” Gideon’s secret weapon in defeating the Midianites was his total lack of confidence. God’s wisdom also says that reliance on (not possession of) natural resources forfeits power. Uzziah was truly powerful “until he became (militarily) strong.”

Worldly wisdom says that powerful people feature/boast about their strengths and trivialize/hide their weaknesses. Therefore, there is always a certain posturing and insecurity among the worldly powerful.

But God’s wisdom says that truly powerful people are well-content with their weaknesses and even boast about them (not false humility) to others (2 Cor 12:9,10). Therefore, those who have God’s power are open about and comfortable sharing their short-comings and problems.

Worldly wisdom says that God should alleviate our weaknesses so we can become more powerful (MOST PRAYER REQUESTS; HEALTH & WEALTH).

But God’s wisdom says that God allows all kinds of weaknesses so we can become more powerful. Paul realized that his chronic physical ailment, his mistreatment by others, and the interruptions and difficulties in his ministry were the keys (not obstacles) to true power (2 Cor. 12:9a,10b).

This is central paradox— power through weakness. JAMES STEWART: “It is always upon human weakness . . . not on human strength and confidence, that God chooses to build his kingdom; and he can (do this) not merely in spite of our ordinariness and helplessness and  . . . infirmities, but precisely because of them. It is a thrilling discovery to make, and it can revolutionize our . . . outlook.”1

Like all biblical paradoxes, the apparent irrationality vanishes once you understand God’s presuppositions . . . 

The logic of God’s wisdom

It is Christ’s power that accomplishes God’s will—not human/natural power.

It is dependence on Christ (faith) that lays hold of his power—not reliance on our own power or our ability to get more “natural” resources. The problem is that as fallen people, we have a deeply ingrained tendency to rely on ourselves rather than on God.

This is why it is realization of our utter weakness that cultivates dependence on Christ. Only when we become convinced that “I cannot” do we become open/able to affirm “I need you—you can/must do this.”

Therefore, it is the difficulties in our lives that convince us of our spiritual weakness—not the blessings. God usually does not create these difficulties, but he works through them in his love and wisdom toward this good end. This is why those who experience Christ’s life-changing power are thankful for their difficulties.

Now let’s see how this wisdom works out practically in two crucially important areas . . . 

Christ’s power for salvation

God wants us to come to Christ so that he can unleash the power of salvation in our lives (Rom. 1:16)—the power that forgives us of all our sins, the power to adopt us as his children and indwell us with his Spirit, the power to seal us eternally in his kingdom. He wants us to experience the power of salvation so much that he sent Jesus into the ultimate weakness of the Cross, where this power was unleashed.

Why doesn’t everyone experience the power of salvation? Not because God is unwilling, not because certain people are ineligible. The only thing that keeps us from experiencing the power of salvation is our self-righteousness &/or self-sufficiency. That’s why God in his love allows difficulties to come into our lives—so that we’ll realize and acknowledge our weakness and turn to Christ for the power of salvation. And the power of salvation is so wonderful that once we experience it, it so overshadows these difficulties that we actually become glad that they happened.

I’d like to say that I came to Christ out of intellectual honesty after a time of careful inquiry, or because life was so good that I wanted to thank God for it. But the truth is that I came to Christ because a girl that I’d put my hopes in rejected me, and that rejection was so painful that it broke my heart and shattered my self-sufficiency. In agony, I admitted my lostness to myself and asked Christ (if he was there) to come into my heart and lead me. His answer resulted in such transformation that within a year I was profoundly grateful for that broken heart!

What about you? Are you ready to admit your weakness to Christ so he can give you the power of salvation? Is Jesus a crutch for weak people? Yes! We are finite, contingent people who must lean on someone or something else. The question is not “Do you need a crutch?—but “How long you will keep leaning on broken crutches that result in more serious injury?” How many of these crutches have to break on you before you are willing to throw them away and ask Jesus to be your crutch? This is a deliberate, conscious, personal decision to call out to him in your own words and admit your weakness and need, and ask him for his forgiveness, adoption and eternal life. He will answer you, and you will be thankful for this difficulty and weakness sooner than you think!

Christ’s power for service

Once you come to Christ and experience the power of salvation, he wants you to experience his power for service. He wants to pour his power into your life so that your transformed character draws others to him and inspires Christians to live for him. He wants to empower your speech so that when you share the message of his love it becomes a light to guide people to him and enlightens/encourages Christians in their walks with him. See Paul’s description of his own power-filled life in Col. 1:28,29.

There are many ways that we access Christ’s power—by committing ourselves to live for Christ and serving others, and by spiritually feeding ourselves regularly through his Word and prayer and fellowship with other Christians. But there is another way that is equally mandatory if we want our lives to be filled with the power of Christ—the way of difficulties. So ingrained is our self-sufficiency (even as Christians) that only difficulties will break our self-confidence and deepen our dependence on Christ.

This is the lesson Paul relays (long after he received the power of salvation) in 2 Cor. 12:7-10 . God allows “thorns” in all of our lives for this same purpose. In his wonderful book Enjoying Intimacy with God, Oswald Sanders speaks of four such “thorns.”

Disturbance – Because of our inclination to let comfort and good fortune make us spiritually complacent, God allows our lives to be disturbed so that we are cast back on to dependence upon him. See mother eagle illustration (Deut. 32:11,12). Do you confess this tendency to God and ask him to disturb your life to prevent this? When disturbances come, do you see this good that God wants to bring?

Darkness – God allows us to go through periods of spiritual depression, when the sunshine of his love is obscured by dark clouds. One of the most powerful servants of God, Martin Luther, went through periods of intense spiritual darkness his entire Christian life. God permits this in order to deepen our trust (and ultimately our intimacy) with him.

Disappointment—God is committed to his will and our best interests for our lives. This is why his thwarting of our self-centered plans (e.g., make lots of money, etc.) is an act of love. But in his wisdom he sometimes even disappoints our plans to serve him (e.g., ministry aspirations not materializing; ministry failure; etc.)—because he knows we are not yet ready, or because he has a better role. This drives us to deeper abandonment to his will and wise plan for our lives.

Inequality—God allows us to experience difficulties that others (perhaps less committed) do not have to go through (e.g., teenage rebellion; serious illness). He sometimes delivers others from difficulties that he does not deliver us from. Why did God heal others through Paul, but refuse to heal Paul of his “thorn?” Why did God release Peter from prison, but leave Paul in prison for over 4 years? Depending on our response, these inequalities may precipitate resentment toward God—or they may drive us to cast ourselves more deeply on his loving wisdom so that we often see later the wisdom of God’s treatment.

How are you responding to God’s current “thorns?” Are you resenting him for them, compromising to alleviate them, etc.? Or are you choosing to trust God’s loving wisdom and asking him to work through them to convince you of your weakness and deepen your dependence on him? This is the response that leads to greater spiritual power and gratitude for God’s wisdom!


1 James S. Stewart, quoted in Oswald Sanders, Dynamic Spiritual Leadership (Grand Rapids: Discovery House, 1999), p. 204.

Copyright 2003 Gary DeLashmutt