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 of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. 10 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. (2 Cor 12:9-10)
I know what I want. I told God so today. I’d like a guarantee that things are going to get better. We’ve reached the end of this particular time of suffering. Happiness is on the other side of the door, knocking. But the days go by, and, yes, things do get better – my son learns to manage his condition, my sorrow and bewilderment retreat – but life is still draining and difficult. Tears are never far away. We’re not yet in the land where leaves heal sorrow (Rev 22:1-4).
Maybe I’ll find the guarantee I want in the Bible. Here’s a promise that sounds like a talisman against pain: “If you make the Most High your dwelling, no harm will overtake you” (Psalm 91:9-10 NIV). But what does it mean? There are other psalms that lament the fact that harm does come to God’s people.1 Kidner says of this promise, “This is a statement of exact, minute providence, not a charm against adversity”.2 Every moment, God provides for us, or I wouldn’t be sitting here writing this, and you wouldn’t be reading it. God’s people are surrounded by walls of protection. Nothing can truly harm us in the places that matter. But this isn’t a guarantee that we will experience no pain. It’s a promise that everything that comes to us, including our trials, is part of God’s fatherly, detailed care. Our Father will keep us safe, and he will keep us to the end.3
The truth is that God doesn’t promise certain limits to suffering. He doesn’t guarantee personal happiness. He doesn’t ensure our escape from pain. His people are often crushed beyond measure: the Bible makes that abundantly clear.4 Here are some guarantees God’s word does give us:
- Suffering will come, but we will also share in Christ’s glory (1 Peter 4:12-13).
- All that happens will be for our good, to make us more like Jesus (Rom 8:28-30).
- Nothing can ever separate us from God’s love (Rom 8:38-39).
- He won’t let us be tempted – that is, tested – beyond what we can bear, but will provide a way for us to endure it (1 Cor 10:13).
- He will give us all we need for life and godliness (2 Pet 1:3)
- In our weakness, he will give us strength (2 Cor 12:9-10 cf 2 Cor 4:7-12; Phil 4:11-13; Col 1:11-14).
The last one intrigues me, because it doesn’t feel true in my experience. I once asked my husband why, if God gives us strength, I still feel so weak. He explained that it’s not freedom from weakness that God usually gives, but strength in weakness – the strength to keep obeying and serving even when I feel tired and overwhelmed and like I can’t go on. If God made me strong, all people would see was my strength, and I would become proud. But when he enables me to endure even when I am weak, people can see that the strength is from him, and I am made humble and dependent. He gets the glory, not me.
Paul knew this paradoxical truth from the inside out. When he begged God to take away the thorn in his flesh, Christ said, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor 12:9). The point isn’t that Paul rose above his pain: the point is that he was still weak, but Christ gave him strength to stand firm and press on. Paul was no triumphant victor over suffering: he was a man who feared and trembled, who was whipped and stoned and hungry, who was imprisoned and deserted by his friends (1 Cor 2:3; 2 Cor 11:23-29; 2 Tim 4:16). He said of his time in Asia,
We were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself … But that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead. (2 Cor 1:8-9)
Paul felt his weakness deeply. He knew exactly where his strength came from.
As for me, I’d like God’s power. I’d love to feel strong. But be careful what you ask for. Here is Paul’s prayer for power: “May you be strengthened with all power, according to his glorious might, for all endurance and patience with joy” (Col 1:9). The strength to endure patiently: it doesn’t sound all that powerful, and we don’t greatly value it. Who would choose the quality of patient endurance? Who wouldn’t rather have victory over pain? We want the success story, the inspirational tale of goals achieved and obstacles overcome. Yet patient endurance is highly valued by God: just do a word search and see how often it’s mentioned in the Bible (e.g. 2 Cor 1:6; Col 1:11; 2 Tim 2:12; Heb 12:3; 1 Pet 2:19-20; Rev 2:3, 13:10). He demanded it of Moses and Job and Jeremiah. He demanded it of Stephen and Peter and John. He demands it of our persecuted brothers and sisters. He demands it of us.
So what’s the secret? Where can we get endurance, this quality of such great value? How does God produce it in us? I hesitate to say it, but here’s the thing: he does it through suffering (James 1:2-4). It’s by standing firm that we learn to stand. It’s by enduring that we learn to endure. Our spiritual muscles grow strong through use. It never feels like it at the time: I was horrified at how short-tempered I could be when sleep deprivation and babies came into my life. It was only later that I realized I was responding to difficulties with a greater degree of patience, perseverance, and even, finally, hope. (I’ve still got a long way to go before I respond with joy – see Romans 5:3-4)
So this is what I pray for: not a guarantee of happiness, but the strength to endure. The strength to go on when I feel like I can’t take another step. The strength to trust when I am filled with doubt and fear. The strength to stand firm when everything in me is crying out to give in. The strength to bear my responsibilities cheerfully and well, not with bitterness or grumbling resignation. The strength to persevere in the faith to the end. The strength to rejoice, even as I mourn. The strength to seek God’s face, to find my security in him:
I will say to the Lord, “My refuge and my fortress,
my God, in whom I trust.” (Psalm 91:2)
- You only have to flip the numbers of psalm 37 – “Delight yourself in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart” – to get psalm 73 – “All in vain have I kept my heart clean…all the day long I have been stricken”. ↩
- Derek Kidner, Psalms 73-150, Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries, p. 333; and see John Piper’s post on psalm 91. Other helpful insights can be found in the commentaries on the psalms by John Goldingay (Baker Commentary) and Willem VanGemeren (Expositor’s Bible Commentary). ↩
- On God’s fatherly care, see Matthew 6:19-34 and Romans 8:28-39, and compare Luke 21:16 and 21:18. On our eternal security, see John 10:28 and Phil 1:6. ↩
- See Paul Mallard, Invest your suffering, p. 80. ↩