Boasting in Weakness (2 Cor. 11:30-33)
We are all pretty adept at avoiding embarrassing topics. Most people have learned the art of maneuvering a conversation away from anything that might show them in a bad light or disclose their incompetence. And should it happen that some shameful item is noted, we're also pretty good at explaining it away or justifying it to protect our public image. Anything to save face!
So what are we to make of Paul's statement in 2 Corinthians 11:30 where he declares, "If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness"? One would think that if Paul's hand were forced and he had to stoop to the level of his enemies in this matter of boasting, the least he could do was think up a few praiseworthy accomplishments or something that would silence his accusers.
Of course, that was the strategy of the triumphalists in Corinth. They were quite good at compiling lists of noteworthy achievements that would set them apart from those less gifted. For them, image was everything. Whatever they might set upon that would distinguish them from the crowd and convince others that God had anointed them with extraordinary authority was quickly seized.
Paul's singular commitment to the preeminence of God's glory simply would not permit him to engage in such behavior. He's happy to boast, if he must, but only in such a way that, when done, all the praise goes to God and all the power is clearly seen to have come from above.
There are two specific manifestations of his weakness to which Paul draws our attention. The fact that he refuses to focus on his undeniable strengths, combined with the unusual nature of these displays of human weakness and embarrassment, compel him to employ an oath lest people dismiss his comments as beyond belief. Let's read the passage in its entirety:
"If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness. The God and Father of the Lord Jesus, he who is blessed forever, knows that I am not lying. At Damascus, the governor under King Aretas was guarding the city of Damascus in order to seize me, but I was let down in a basket through a window in the wall and escaped his hands" (2 Cor. 11:30-33).
Here we see the first of his two examples of weakness, his embarrassing, late night escape from Damascus in a basket (vv. 32-33). The second instance is his famous "thorn in the flesh" (12:7-9) that we'll take up in several future studies.
Evidently Paul believed that his escape from Damascus, his translation into the third heaven, and the resultant thorn in the flesh to keep him humble were of such an extraordinary nature that some might think he had lied or embellished the story. This isn't the first time that Paul has reinforced the veracity of his comments with an oath. Perhaps the most forceful instance is found in Romans 9:1. "I am speaking the truth in Christ," said Paul. "I am not lying; my conscience bears me witness in the Holy Spirit." The seemingly outrageous claim by the apostle that, if possible, he could wish himself "accursed and cut off from Christ" for the sake of his unsaved Jewish brothers (Rom. 9:3), called for this elaborate declaration of truthfulness on his part (cf. 1 Tim. 2:7).
This incident in Damascus was the first attempt on Paul's life and was no doubt indelibly imprinted on his memory. It was certainly a vivid example of Christ's power operating in the midst of human weakness.
Aretas is Aretas IV who ruled the desert kingdom of Nabatea (= the Arabia of Gal. 1:17) from 9 b.c. to a.d. 40. His daughter was married to Herod Antipas, tetrarch of Galilee and Perea, who later divorced her to marry his former sister-in-law. The "governor" who served under Aretas was acting on his behalf and also, it would appear, in collusion with some Jews in the region who sought Paul's life (see Luke's version of this episode in Acts 9:23-25). Paul declines to identify the reason for such virulent hostility on their part, but we may assume it had something to do with his evangelistic activity in Arabia (Gal. 1:17).
If you're wondering why Paul would have mentioned this episode, rest assured that he didn't look back on it "as a piece of high drama to spice up his memoirs. Rather, he recalled the event with shame. Probably it was the event that shattered whatever residual pride still lurked in the proud heart of Saul the Pharisee. He had set out for the city of Damascus with the avowed intent of rounding up Christians; he left the city not as the hunter but as the hunted. This toast of high rabbinic circles, this educated and sincere Pharisee, this man who had access to the highest officials in Jerusalem, slunk out of Damascus like a criminal, lowered like a catch of dead fish in a basket whose smelly cargo he had displaced" (Carson, 127-28).
Harris insightfully points out that "what made Paul's escape from Damascus so memorable was that it took place at night, not in daylight; he exited through a window and down the city wall, not via the city gates; he left in a basket, not on foot or horseback. It is highly ironical that the man who had set his face toward Damascus in a daylight advance against his foes (Acts 9:1-2; 22:6) now turned his back on Damascus in a nocturnal retreat" from them (826). And who could possibly fail to see the striking contrast between this embarrassing descent to escape the clutches of unrighteous men and the exhilarating ascent into the glorious presence of a righteous God (see 12:1ff.).
A handful of scholars also point to a custom in ancient Rome in which a unique military honor was awarded for courage to the first soldier to scale the walls of the enemy during an attack (commonly referred to as the corona muralis). Ben Witherington thus believes that Paul is "parodying the images of what it means to be truly heroic in a culture saturated with Roman imperial propaganda. . . . Paul is saying that while the typical Roman hero is first up the wall, he is first down the wall" (444, 459). Of course, there's no way we can know for sure if Paul had this in mind.
I'm inclined to agree with Scott Hafemann that the most likely reason for Paul's adducing this experience is that, "as a result of his conversion-call on the road to Damascus, it was the initial and foundational example of his newly granted weakness as an apostle. As such, it stands in stark contrast to the strength in which he had originally left for Damascus to persecute the believers - the same foolish ‘strength' his opponents continue to boast in (11:22). But the one who left for Damascus to persecute Christians left Damascus as a persecuted Christian" (443-44).
And what significance does it have for you and me? The answer is found in Paul's use of the word "weakness" (v. 30). In using this term, Paul is not speaking of sin or the result of unrepentant disobedience to the revealed will of God. Weakness refers to his perceived failures and shortcoming as judged by fleshly standards. His enemies in Corinth, those given to a pompous, self-serving, over-inflated triumphalism, viewed Paul's lack of worldly success as proof that his apostolic claims were fraudulent. Paul, on the other hand, embraced them as opportunities for the glory and power of Christ to be seen in vivid and unmistakable display.
He will draw attention to such perceived failures, which is to say he will "boast" of them, in order that the all-sufficiency of divine grace and the limitless power of the Lord may be magnified.
Perhaps your "weakness" is some chronic physical affliction that, in spite of constant prayer, reduces you to utter dependence on God and magnifies your inability to accomplish anything apart from his sovereign intervention. The world may vilify your faith as a mere "crutch", a psychological prop that is unworthy of an accomplished, self-made and self-reliant person. Such "weakness" is an embarrassment to the triumphalist but a ground for boasting to those who revel only in the exaltation of Christ.
Perhaps your "weakness" is the failure to be promoted at work because of your obvious moral convictions that will not permit the cutting of corners to increase company revenues. Others pass you on the corporate ladder, not because of incompetence or sloth on your part but solely due to the ethical standards on which you steadfastly refuse to compromise.
Perhaps your "weakness" is the daily heartache of a rebellious child who, notwithstanding your lifelong devotion and prayers and love and godly example, has chosen to walk away from God and into the world of sexual promiscuity, drugs, and alcohol. Although no parent is perfect, you have faithfully followed the Word of God only to witness your child persistently spurn the overtures of grace and mercy and life. Were it not for the strength of Christ, sustaining and upholding you moment by moment, each hour of every day, all that would be left is utter despair. On the platform of your "weakness" the power of Almighty God makes its appearance!
Or perhaps your "weakness" is a paucity of natural gifting, an obvious lack of outward beauty, or some lifelong physiological handicap that limits what you can achieve educationally, financially, or how far you can advance in the competitive world of business. Yet your commitment to Christ never wavers. Your devotion to him does not diminish. Your worship of him only intensifies.
Clearly, then, to boast in weakness does not mean we cease striving for excellence. To boast in weakness does not mean we passively yield to obstacles in our way or capitulate, without a fight, to mediocrity. It simply means we renounce self-reliance and worldly triumphalism and wholly depend on the strength of Christ to accomplish in and through us whatever will bring him glory (cf. Rom. 15:18a). It means that we joyfully pay the price and gladly embrace the stigma that inevitably comes with godliness of life and obedience to the gospel of Christ.