Power in Weakness
Let's take a closer look at today's Second Reading, 2 Corinthians 12:7-10, focusing specially on the background of these verses and the depth of meaning in the Greek words Paul uses to express his ideas.
At the beginning of today's reading, Paul mentions an “abundance of revelations.” In Greek, this is huperbolē apokalupseōn. The word huperbolē suggests an excess or exceedingly great number, and apokalupseōn, most commonly translated as “revelations,” has connotations of uncovering or unveiling something that is hidden. So Paul has come to know a large number of hidden mysteries. How did this happen?
Earlier in Chapter 12, Paul says he knows someone who fourteen years before “was caught up to the third heaven,” i.e., into Paradise. This person heard unspeakable words that no one may utter, words that signify mysteries, truths still hidden from the people on earth. Paul is, of course, referring to himself even though his humility does not allow him to say so outright. In any case, Paul has glimpsed something unearthly, something wonderful, something divine.
Paul could easily have grown arrogant because of these special revelations. He might have boasted and adopted an “I'm better than you are” attitude. But, although Paul firmly maintains that he is telling the truth about what happened to him, he does not exalt himself. He does not become “too elated” (the Greek word here is huperairomai, which means becoming haughty or lifting oneself up). Why doesn't Paul go on an ego trip? He tells us as our reading continues.
Paul was given a “thorn in the flesh,” something he also calls an “angel of Satan” that beats him. What is this thorn or angel of Satan? We don't really know. Saints and scholars have suggested numerous possibilities. St. Augustine thought that Paul might have been suffering from a very painful physical complaint. St. John Chrysostom wondered if Paul was referring to the constant persecution that seemed to follow him everywhere. St. Gregory the Great speculated that Paul was plagued by temptations. Any or all of these might be correct. The Greek text doesn't tell us. What it does indicate is that this ailment, whatever it was, was striking Paul violently (from the Greek verb kolaphizō, which refers to pummeling with a closed fist).
In his suffering, Paul begged the Lord three times to remove this thorn. Jesus said in reply, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” The Greek verb for “is sufficient” here is arkeō, which can also mean “defend” or “assist.” Jesus' grace will defend or assist Paul; it will give him all he needs to get him through his suffering.
Further, Jesus tells Paul, and us, that “power is made perfect in weakness.” At first this seems like a contradiction in terms. How can power (Greek dunamis, meaning inherent moral and physical power in action) be made perfect in weakness (Greek astheneiai, meaning weakness, infirmity, or lack of power)? We have to remember, though, that real power is the power of Christ, and if we are to access that power, we have to become small and weak. We have to surrender ourselves to God and get out of His way so that He can use His power in us.
That's why Paul boasts (Greek verb kauchaomai, which can also mean to speak loudly, to glory in, or to rejoice) in His weakness. For the sake of Christ, he is content with all the infirmities, insults, hardships, persecutions, and constraints that come his way. The Greek verb translated here as “is content” is actually eudokeō, which could be translated as “to take pleasure in” something. Paul can go so far as to take pleasure in his weakness, in the thorn in his flesh, in the beatings from the angel of Satan, because he knows that when he is weak, then he is strong. When he cannot do anything on his own, when he surrenders himself and relies on God to do all things for him, then he is truly strong with God's power working and active in him.