Discipling in Times of Weakness
Since fourteen, I have struggled with a long list of health problems. While many doctors have helped me manage my symptoms, no one has been able to attribute my condition to any specific cause. My symptoms have varied. The severity of each symptom has varied. But I have yet to feel healthy. That much has been constant. For over a decade, I have given massive amounts of attention, time, and energy to individually managing each symptom. And it feels as though I’ve been living a circus act, keeping twenty plates spinning on twenty poles.
Over the past three months, with no explanation, my symptoms have worsened. I have several appointments lined up with doctors around Memphis. I hope one can point me in the right direction. But the waiting has been rough. All the plates are slowing down, forcing me to work harder and harder to keep them spinning, to keep myself functioning. My body hurts. I’m physically exhausted. I’m emotionally spent. Even as I write this, I am weak.
While this area of my life has been very difficult, the Lord has also been very faithful. Six months ago, He gave me the most wonderful husband to lead me, love me, and walk with me through this trial. He has given me a job that aligns with my passions, through which I get to oversee the spiritual development of young adults. He has given me other relationships and hungry young women to invest in. He has given me a local church body to support me in ways I hadn’t before experienced.
These gifts have fostered a lot of thankfulness, but honestly, they have also raised some confusion. My time with the Lord over the past few months has involved a battle with some form of this question:
Lord, I feel you calling me to so much. You’ve called me to serve and support my new husband. You’ve called me to invest in my church, my role with Downline, the spiritual development of young women, and much more. I want to do it all, and I want to do it well. But I am weak. I am very limited in what I can handle. Why won’t you heal my body so that I can invest in all of this to the best of my ability?
In his battle with the thorn in his flesh, I imagine that the apostle Paul carried similar questions.
While we don’t know exactly what Paul’s thorn was (it could have been a physical ailment, but it could have been a number of other things), we do know that it weakened Paul, and that, at least initially, Paul wanted it gone. In 2 Corinthians 12:8, he writes, Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. Paul didn’t just ask the Lord to take his thorn away, he pleaded. And he pleaded with the Lord, not just once, but three times. Why did Paul want God to take away his thorn so desperately? Paul was human, so just like any of us who face suffering, of course, he wanted to escape it. He wanted relief. However, we can gather enough about Paul from the rest of Scripture to see that the motive behind his pleas could have ran deeper. And one reason Paul begged God to take away his thorn was likely because he thought it would limit him in his ministry.
Much like me, Paul believed that his weakness was a barrier to His purpose of making Christ known.
The Lord did not respond to Paul’s pleas by removing his thorn, but instead with the following words:
“My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (12:9).
God did not answer Paul in the way Paul had hoped, but He did answer. Rather than removing Paul’s thorn, God told him that He would meet him in his circumstances with His never-ending grace. God told him that through this thorn, He was going to make His power even more evident.
Paul’s thorn was not an obstacle but rather an opportunity to make Christ known.
I have to remember this. My health struggle is not an obstacle to making Christ known, but rather an opportunity for Christ’s power to shine through me.
Your weaknesses—whatever they may be—are not obstacles to making Christ known, but rather opportunities for Christ’s power to shine through you.
This encounter between Paul and the Lord changed the way Paul viewed not only his thorn, but all of his weaknesses and trials. He goes on to say,
Therefore, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong (12:9-10).
These words have carried me through many seasons of weakness. Not only does God say “I’m enough for you in your weakness”, but He also says “I’m going to use your weakness to display my glory”. It is through our limitations, our brokenness, and our weakness that Christ’s power can be seen. He’s the strong one. We must change the way we view our weaknesses and let them be a means to display Jesus.
HOW SHOULD THIS AFFECT YOUR DISCIPLESHIP?
1. Acknowledge Your Weaknesses
Though I want to know what Paul’s thorn was, I am glad the Lord didn’t reveal it explicitly. Not knowing makes this passage relevant to each and every one of us. We all have areas of weakness—whether physical, emotional, or spiritual—and the ways we could insert ourselves into this passage are endless. We are all human. We all sin. We all go through times of trial and pain. We will all have times during which we struggle to believe a truth about God.
Before we can fully understand the sufficiency of God’s grace, we must know our own insufficiency. Apart from Christ, we are completely depraved. But within that, we each also have specific weaknesses. Don’t be afraid to acknowledge them. They don’t make you less of a Christian, less effective, less valuable or less lovable to people or to God.
2. Repent of Trusting in Your Own Strength
The reason Paul was given a thorn in the flesh was to keep him from becoming conceited (12:7). God had allowed Paul to experience amazing revelations that he was not permitted to share with other people (12:2-3). This kind of spiritual insight could have led to a spiritual pride in Paul. The thorn protected him from developing that attitude. God absolutely gives gifts and talents to His children, and He absolutely wants us to use them for His purposes. The problem arises when we think more highly of ourselves than we should or when we forget that He is the source of our talents. He doesn’t give us gifts and abilities because of who we are, but because of who Christ is. He doesn’t give them to us so that others will elevate or praise us, but so that others will elevate and praise Jesus. When we minister in any context, God doesn’t want us to trust in the gifts He gives us, but to rely on Him.
If you believe that any strength, quality, or gift that you possess is what is going to grow those you disciple, you’re mistaken. It is always the work of the Spirit and only the work of the Spirit (often through our gifts) that leads to changed hearts. Anytime you catch yourself trusting in yourself as the source of anyone else’s spiritual growth, turn to the Lord and confess an attitude of self-sufficiency. Stop relying on your own strength.
3. Let Them in on Your Weaknesses.
In response to the Lord’s words in this passage, Paul said that he would boast all the more gladly of his weaknesses (12:9). As you disciple others, you will go through times of difficulty. Many people assume that they shouldn’t let those they lead see that they struggle. But this isn’t gospel-centered thinking. It’s also not what Paul teaches us here.
Don’t let those you disciple believe you have it all together when you don’t. Making yourself appear more sinless than you actually are is an integrity issue, and it can be dangerous. I have seen this type of spiritual leadership affect young Christians in a number of detrimental ways. Here are a few:
Some live in guilt and shame because they struggle to overcome sin. They believe that their difficulties indicate that they are not right with God. Some feel distant from their spiritual leader, and unworthy of him or her, because no matter how hard they try to be like him or her, they can’t. They start closing off when they feel trapped by a fear of rejection, which starts a pattern that carries over into the rest of their relationships. Some fall into legalism, and they begin performing spiritual duties to try to earn approval from their discipler or from God.
The gospel begins with our insufficiency. Therefore, those you lead should be able to see your humanity. Show them your weaknesses. Don’t just share your victories with them, but your failures as well. When times are hard, to whatever degree it is appropriate, let them in. This is so important.
4. Let Jesus Shine Through.
Paul gave a reason for why he would boast in his weaknesses: so that the power of Christ would rest upon him (12:9). Share your weaknesses with others with a purpose—so that the power of Christ will rest upon you. Ask God to use your weaknesses to display His glory to those you invest in.
Seek Jesus in the midst of your struggle, rely on the Lord fully through it, and as you do, talk about the process with those you lead. Become a model for everyone of what it looks like to pursue Jesus through a time of weakness. Show them how to struggle well. This is something they desperately need to learn. Then, when you have moments like Paul where Jesus meets you in your weakness with His grace and strength, tell them about it. When they see the Lord’s power meet you in your weakness, it won’t lead them to marvel at you, but rather to marvel at Christ. And in discipleship, this should be our ultimate aim.
“For God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness.’ Has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us.” – 2 Corinthians 4: 6-7
Written by Ali Zimmerman
This post was original published on Downline Ministry’s blog, which you can view here.
Ali is connected to Discipleship.org through her work with our partner, Downline Ministries. She has studied psychology at the University of Oklahoma, where her passion for discipleship and God’s Word began. She graduated with a Master’s degree in Christian Education at Dallas Theological Seminary and working for Downline Ministries as Emerging Leaders Women’s Director.