Dear friends. One of the fascinating things about the Word of God is how we can recognise something of ourselves in the stories and parables we hear. In many ways it is like a mirror in which we can see ourselves for who we are and discover anew who we are called to be. A classic example is seen in the readings this weekend with the second reading from St Paul to the Corinthians. There Paul wrestles with his own human nature in the light of his Christian faith. Let us listen carefully to what he says and walk with him on the journey through our human nature and arrive with him to faith.
Paul begins by a frank admission which risked scandalizing those who considered him a holy man. He confesses that for all his life he has struggled with what he describes as a ‘thorn in the flesh’. He doesn’t share what this was but it certainly refers to some part of his nature that was fragile, weak and that left him vulnerable to failure. Elsewhere in his letter to the Romans he refers to this weakness again when he describes the drama of his fight with temptation: ‘The good I want to do I cannot do and the wrong that I want to avoid, I end up doing’. For Paul, it was frustrating and despairing to find himself like this. He begged God to remove this thorn of flesh and to be cured of his weakness. He says: ‘about this thing, I have pleaded with the Lord three times for it to leave me’. Perhaps with these words Paul thought to himself: ‘if only I could bypass this human nature of mine and be cured of all my weaknesses and struggle, then I would be free to love God and serve him as I want’.
Yet as Paul grew in faith and wisdom, he comes to a shocking conclusion: God would not cure him of his weakness or remove his thorn in the flesh because it was God himself who had placed it there. It was only then that Paul realized that his path to God did not bypass his human nature but ran through his human nature in all its strengths and flaws. God astonishes Paul by saying: ‘My grace is enough for you, my power is at its best in human weakness’. Here the story turns on its head: the cracks that Paul was trying seal in the vase of his life, were placed there by God to allow his light to shine through and light up the darkness. God also provided Paul with a reason why he did so: ‘to stop me from getting too proud’. Paul was given these weaknesses by God to keep him humble and to remind him that only with God’s grace could they be overcome and transformed into something even more powerful than he could ever accomplish on his own. For this reason he concludes: ‘when I am weak then I am strong’. Finally, as he prays, Paul changes what he prays for. At the beginning he used to ask God to remove his weaknesses from him. Now, instead, he thanks God for them and is not ashamed to admit them saying: ‘I am happy to make my weaknesses my special boast so that the power of Christ may stay over me’. Here is a man who no longer hates his weaknesses but who has befriended them and accepted them because they reminded him of his need for God’s strength, support, forgiveness and love.
As we listen carefully to Paul’s story, it is not difficult to identify with him. It is easy for us to become discouraged by our own thorns in the flesh: weaknesses and failings that we seem to carry all our lives and that we would like to be rid of. How often have we found ourselves before the sacrament of reconciliation confessing the same failings over and over again! How often have we wished that we could be perfect, free at last to love God as we want and to be at peace! Yet sooner or later, experience teaches us that this can never be possible and that like St Paul, we come to realize that our weaknesses are not something to be cured of but to be accepted as the way God has made us. But why did God make us weak we might protest? The answer is provided by Paul: to stop us getting too proud and learn to depend on Gods’ grace. For being puffed up with pride and deciding to live without God’s offer of friendship, it is then that our weaknesses can really do damage to ourselves and to others around us. We might think we are doing good but can in fact be only serving our own needs.
One of the temptations that humanity has faced since the very beginning has been to lose sight of the fact that we are creatures and not gods. We are made by God and when we forget this we forget that we belong to Him who knows us through and through. That is why the person who says ‘I am strong’ is admitting the biggest weakness of all. In his wisdom, God has not made us to be completely independent of each other and of Him but to be interdependent of each other and Him in a way that does not enslave us but sets us free. Human nature was never meant to be lived in isolation from God or from others. Admitting a need for help from God or others is not a sign of weakness but of strength for we see the need to receive as well as to give. And it is this that makes us fully human. Admitting a weakness and a need draws us out to seek what someone else can give just as they may look for our help too. In this process of giving and receiving we are enriched, given life and experience joy.
The same is true in our relationship with God. He knows well our weaknesses and frailties for he has made us that way. Instead of asking God to remove them, let us thank God for them and ask that they serve their purpose in our lives as in the life of Paul: that of keeping us humble and reminding us of our reliance on God’s grace. Only by asking God’s grace to enter deeply into the heart of our weaknesses can we hope for conversion and change. Only by entering ever more deeply into this partnership with God can we hope to overcome our weaknesses and become strong because we are weak. Perhaps it can be best summed up in the simple prayer we can make at the beginning of each day: ‘Lord, I believe there is nothing that you and I cannot face together this day’. In this lies the hope for all of us: that we do not have do wait to be perfect to be loved by God but that we can powerfully experience God’s love now, learning to accept our weaknesses and limitations as He does.
I finish with a prayer from St Augustine who reminds us that God does not call us because we are good but to be good.
‘Lord, I cast all my troubles on you… You know how weak I am and how inadequate I my knowledge; teach me and heal my frailty. Your only Son, in whom the whole treasury of knowledge is stored up, has redeemed me with his blood. Save me… for the price of my redemption is always in my thoughts. I eat it and drink it and minister it to others; and, as one of the poor, I long to be filled with it, to be one of those who eat and have their fill’ (Confessions 10, 43).