Editor’s note: This article is an updated version of the homily Dr. Frankland preached at the Opening Convocation for the June 2019 intensive session. You can see the recording of that address here.

In 2008, a golfer named J.P. Hayes was disqualified from a tournament for using an unapproved, illegal golf ball. The disqualification was not unusual or undeserved. What is striking about the loss is that the only person who knew that J.P. Hayes had used the wrong ball was J.P. Hayes. He discovered the ball at his hotel room while cleaning out his bag—no one else was around to see it. But, unable to live with the deception, he turned himself in. He lost his PGA status for the year, but his integrity was kept intact.

Sometimes a defeat is really a victory.

The Bible is filled with examples of God’s people leading out of weakness. Moses needed someone else to be his voice in order for him to speak for God. David, a boy with a slingshot, killed a giant. Gideon had an army with too many men, and God whittled it down to the appropriate size. Joshua fought the great battle of Jericho with his worship band. Joseph was sold into slavery by his own brothers, and when finally reunited with them acknowledged that what they intended for harm, God intended for good.

Sometimes a defeat is really a victory.

Paul knew about these heroes of the faith of course, but as he wrote the second letter to the Corinthian church he was probably feeling defeated. The struggles surrounding this body of believers are well known. Along with the fighting and immature behavior from within, Paul was also dealing with detractors from without who had infiltrated the church. They were show-offs, and braggarts. He sarcastically called them “super-apostles.”

These Corinthians were drawn to the outwardly impressive, to rhetoric, intellect, athleticism, beauty. Paul was none of those things. He was seen as unskilled in his speech, unimpressive in stature, weak and cowardly, unloving, and had not accepted payment for his ministry.  

By this time, Paul had grown weary of the arguments against his apostleship and turned the tables a bit on his detractors. In chapter 11 he had described his sufferings for the sake of the Gospel; in chapter 12 he described a man who was taken in to inexplicable places, who heard inexpressible things. The man, of course, was Paul himself. These visions were a secret he had kept for fourteen years that could have gained him an enormous amount of respect among those who were speaking out against him.

In this passage, Paul, the humble apostle, lays out his credentials—visions, knowledge, Jewish heritage, service, and suffering. But instead of dwelling on them he says, “I am not going to brag about these things.” Paul is not even trying to win this fight—he is rejecting their criteria for engaging in the contest. My only legitimate claim to boasting, Paul says, is not through these outward forms of power and success, but through weakness.

Sometimes a defeat is really a victory.

The weakness Paul discusses here is so well known it has become a cliché. Whatever this “thorn in the flesh” was, and nobody knows, it was debilitating enough to cause him great pain and anguish. This is a man who had suffered imprisonment, beatings, shipwrecks, hunger, and thirst. He suffered daily over his anxiety for the churches, yet pleaded with God, not just once, but three times, to remove the thorn.

Only after God said, “No,” did Paul realize that the thorn was a gift, given in order to prevent him from becoming prideful like his Corinthians rivals. His humiliation insured his humility. We do not like this idea—not in this culture, where you have to be faster, higher, stronger. Nobody likes a sissy. Nobody likes to lose. Nobody wants to relinquish power. If we do submit to vulnerability, we are careful to hide it. Paul lays before us what is perhaps the greatest biblical paradox: “When I am weak, then I am strong”.

The thorn was a constant reminder to Paul that the only way for his work to be completed was for Paul to supply weakness and Christ to supply power. The peculiar way out of weakness is not self-made strength—rather it is the strength of God’s all-encompassing power, the power that is manifested through the Holy Spirit, the power that comes through Jesus Christ in His resurrection, the power that is seen in His supreme authority.

At this reading, we are all facing the same obvious and debilitating thorn that is COVID-19. The disease, the consequences, the fear and the uncertainty are cutting deeply within our ministries and our own well-being. Additionally, other thorns may inflict us daily: chronic illness, family dysfunction, ministry detractors, a disability, economic insecurity, depression, addiction… something that could keep you from fulfilling your ministry.

Sometimes you think you cannot do it—the ministry that God has called you to. You cannot record another online service, be hopeful and supportive for your choir, praise team or spiritual formation group. You cannot write another paper, read another book, answer another message board post. You cannot deal with those who want to open the church building again or those who don’t, cannot put up with the disappointment of limited engagement, cannot be patient with your quarantined family another minute, cannot come up with another creative way to teach online, cannot continue feeling like you aren’t making a difference, cannot leave the lost in their lonely world, cannot keep trying so hard to be light when no one lost in darkness seems to notice.

If the paradox is strength out of weakness, the mystery is the sufficiency of God’s grace. God’s power is not in releasing us from weakness, but in bringing us through it. Sufficiency is the ability to live with what God give us. The self-sufficient have no need for God.

Near the end of C.S. Lewis’ Prince Caspian, Peter leads Caspian to Aslan and Caspian kneels and kisses the Lion’s paw. Aslan says, “Welcome, Prince. Do you feel yourself sufficient to take up the Kingship of Νarnia?”

Caspian replies: “I—I don’t think I do, Sir, I’m only a kid.”

To which Aslan responds: “Good. If you had felt yourself sufficient, it would have been a proof that you were not.”

Weakness that requires the sufficiency of God’s grace is not the everyday annoyances of life; it might be those chronic, debilitating issues that haunt you every day. I can tell you, absolutely, what weakness looks like in the eyes of the world—God hanging on a cross, displaying all the frailty of humanity, battered, bruised, bleeding, dying a gruesome and humiliating death. 

You say that you cannot make it through, cannot stand up to the weakness that stands in the way of God’s mission, cannot find the power? Look to the cross. Because sometimes, a defeat is really a victory.

Photo by Akin Cakiner on Unsplash.