If we were to study a portrait of Paul painted by a realistic artist, we would first notice his scars and bruises. Depending on when the portrait was finished, some wounds would be red and swollen, a few still bleeding. Paul writes of those wounds at the end of his letter to the Galatians. In an unguarded moment he picks up the stylus and writes, "See with what large letters I am writing to you with my own hand" (Galatians 6:11.) Whoever read from the autographa, the original letter from Paul's own hand, would have noticed a change in handwriting toward the end of the letter. They could see the difference with their own eyes. It must have brought an emotional stirring to read that part of his original letter to the Galatians. The oversized writing may have been due to Paul's extremely poor eyesight, or a raging migraine may have blurred his vision. Perhaps he had permanent nerve damage to his arm. Whatever the reason, he wrote larger letters. He was determined to allow his emotions to bleed onto the page. My preference is to write out, by hand, my books or articles that I'm preparing for publication. Sometimes in the passion of writing I push the pen so hard it digs through the page. Paul may have done just that when he wrote by hand, "From now on let no one cause trouble for me, for I bear on my body the brand-marks of Jesus" (Galatians 6:17). I appreciate Paul's candid appeal. I'm convinced he had grown a bit impertinent by this point in his ministry. He's had it with troublesome folks. He says in effect, "Don't mess with me. Back off. I'm writing this letter bearing in my body the marks of one who has suffered greatly for you. I've paid for the right to instruct you. I carry around on my body the scars, the wounds, the marks, physical evidence of torture-these brands of Christ." In the first century, slaves had the names of their owners burned onto their bodies. They were branded like cattle. Roman soldiers would often tattoo on their arms the names or numbers of the military units in which they served. In the same way, devotees of false gods tattooed the names or symbols of their gods across their flesh. But Paul's scars were different. His brands signified his sufferings for Christ. That's why he was stoned. That's why he was punched in the face. That's why he was beaten with rods. And every one of those scars was a permanent reminder that he belonged to his Master, Jesus.
The Power of Weakness
Paul pressed ahead through a mind-boggling series of intense hardships, which he lists later in the same letter (2 Corinthians 11:22-28):
Are they Hebrews? So am I.
Are they Israelites? So am I.
Are they descendants of Abraham? So am I.
Are they ministers of Christ? I have more claim to this title than they. This is a silly game but look at this list:
I have worked harder than any of them.
I have served more prison sentences!
I have been beaten times without number.
I have faced death again and again.
I have been beaten the regulation thirty-nine stripes by the Jews five times.
I have been beaten with rods three times.
I have been stoned once.
I have been shipwrecked three times.
I have been twenty-four hours in the open sea.
In my travels I have been in constant danger from rivers and floods, from bandits, from my own countrymen, and from pagans. I have faced danger in city streets, danger in the desert, danger on the high seas, danger among false Christians. I have known exhaustion, pain, long vigils, hunger and thirst, doing without meals, cold and lack of clothing.
Apart from all external trials I have the daily burden of responsibility for all the churches. On top of all that, the Lord gave [Paul] a thorn in the flesh. The Lord answered his desperate prayers to remove the thorn-whatever it may have been-in a most unexpected manner. The Lord simply answered, "My grace is sufficient for you, because power is perfected in weakness." Surprised? "You mean, I don't have to be super-strong and endure each trial relying my own resources?" It's not like that at all. In fact, the only way you qualify to receive His strength is when you admit your weakness, when you admit you're not capable and strong, when, like Paul, you're willing to boast in nothing but your weakness and God's power. We'd rather admire Paul for his strength in trials. We want to applaud his fierce determination against vicious persecution. If the man were alive today, he would not tolerate our congratulations. "No, no, no. You don't understand. I'm not strong. The One who pours his power into me is strong. My strength comes from my weakness." That's no false modesty. Paul would tell us, "Strength comes from embracing weakness and boasting in that." It is that kind of response that brings divine strength and allows it to spring into action.
Reflecting on Your Responses So much for Paul. How about you? Fast forward to the twenty-first century. Are you afflicted and burdened excessively? Do you feel as if you're under such intense pressure these days that you, too, are close to despair? I have some surprising news: You're exactly where God wants you to be. It took all these years to get you this low, this needy. Now, look up! Are you feeling crushed and confused, misunderstood and beaten down? Resist the temptation to roll up your sleeves and muster a self-imposed recovery plan. This is your opportunity! Rather than fighting back, surrender. Embrace your weakness. Tell your heavenly Father that you are trusting in the strength of His power. If Paul could do it, so can you. So can I. At this moment I am facing a few impossible situations.No doubt, so are you. To be honest, I'm too weak to handle any of them. So are you. I'm often near tears. I'm frequently discouraged. There's hardly a week that passes that I don't slump into a mild feeling of discouragement. Sound familiar? Admit it! Some nights I don't sleep well. There are times that I absolutely weep out of disappointment in some individual's failure . . . or my own. You, too? You and I need to face the fact that we will never be able to handle any of these pressures alone. When we acknowledge this, and not until, His strength will be released in us. .
Now that you and I are beginning to grasp what Paul modeled so well, strength in weakness, I suggest we truly embrace it. You and I have slugged our way through life long enough. What do you say we stop that habit? Let's both come before the Lord and say, "Lord, if You don't come through, I'm sunk. If you don't open that door, it isn't going to open. My situation is in Your hands. I'm tired of pushing and shoving and relying on myself. I surrender." When we do that, we hear Him say, "My grace is sufficient. My strength is perfected in your weakness."