when we are weak and you are strong

Spring break is over, and I’m finally able to get back to blogging about my word study on joy. And today, I’ve come across another interesting tidbit in 2 Corinthians 13. Here, as St. Paul heads toward the conclusion of his second surviving letter to the church in Corinth, we catch him warning them that, when he visits them again, he doesn’t want to discover them still questioning whether or not he was really a servant of Jesus because of all the trouble he had experienced. And so he takes a moment to explain that his physical and material stamina – or lack thereof – does not necessarily reflect on his spiritual stamina. And in fact, he declares in verse 9, “we rejoice when we are weak and you are strong.”

His weakness, of course, was the result of persecution. And ongoing travel. And more persecution. And ministry. And more persecution…. I get the picture. But yet, in the midst of that weakness, Paul rejoiced because the Corinthian believers were strong. He was suffering, but they were doing well. And Paul rejoiced.

How many times have I been in situations where I was “weak” – perhaps not physically, but mentally, emotionally, spiritually – and rejoiced when I looked over at someone that I perceived as strong? I’m rather ashamed to admit that the answer to that question is “not many.” Far more often, I have looked over at the greener side of the proverbial fence and then gone back to wallowing in my own mudpit of self-pity. Or worse, I’ve looked over there and come up with all sorts of reasons why the grass wasn’t really all that much greener. Their lawn was irrigated (i.e., they had other people helping them). Their soil was more fertile (i.e., they had a more conducive environment). Their grass was really astroturf (i.e., their apparent strength was really an illusion). In fact, maybe it wasn’t even astroturf. It was, in reality, concrete painted green.

And I hate to say this, but as I consider those who have come after me and are now on the greener side of the fence, it has gotten even worse. In the last 24 hours, I’ve received two emails from people who are either younger than I am or behind me in school, and yet they are ministering in far larger congregations than I am. Even as I read those emails, I found myself having to beat back the temptation to self-pity.

Or resent them. Oh, I hate that one. But I do it.

Paul looked down the road to the Corinthian church which was finally flourishing in every way, including spiritually, and he rejoiced in their strength, in their blessing, even though he himself was struggling, to say the very least. I need to rejoice at the success, blessing, strength of others.

And the second tidbit that I pick out of these last verses of 2 Corinthians is in verse 11, where the apostle writes, “Finally, brothers, rejoice.” And then he goes on to say, “Become mature, be encouraged, be of the same mind, be at peace, and the God of love and peace will be with you.” It’s an interesting exhortation, even more so that he would place “rejoice” at the front of his final, bullet-point rally cry. And yet here it is. And it’s important, I think, because of what follows. Follow my logic here:

“Become mature.” In my experience, maturity is gained when you deal with tough stuff. You learn that throwing a hissy fit or temper tantrum does little to get you out of a tight situation, so you resolve to endure and work your way out of it. Without complaining. In fact, the phrase reminds me of another Pauline passage, Romans 5:1-2: “We also rejoice in our afflictions, because we know that affliction produces endurance, endurance produces proven character, and proven character produces hope.” As I noted a couple weeks ago, that “proven character” is a ripeness of character. In other words, it’s ready for God to eat (in a good way). Sounds a lot like maturity to me.

“Be encouraged.” Recently, I did a message on Joshua 1, where God commanded the successor to Moses, Joshua, to “be strong and courageous.” Over and over again, the concept of courage came up in just a few verses’ time, such that even I recognized the importance of the term! So I looked up a definition: “Not deterred by danger or pain; brave.” Since the word “encourage” can be defined as “infused with courage,” we realize that, in order for Paul to say this, there must be some danger or pain present. Otherwise, courage – and by extension, encouragement – is irrelevant.

“Be at peace.” Why would you say that to someone who was already at peace or had no chance of experiencing something other than peace? You wouldn’t.

“And the God of love and peace will be with you.” It seems to me that, if we’re just doing normal, carefree stuff, there is no need for God to be with us because we can handle it on our own.

So Paul called on the people of Corinth to rejoice knowing that, even if they weren’t experiencing it right that moment, hardship, trial, tragedy, and pain were all somewhere around the corner. That challenges me, but I am even more challenged by the fact that he provided absolutely no qualification for this exhortation.

He simply said, “Brothers, rejoice.” And in doing so, he used a present active verb. In Greek, that means that “rejoice” is supposed to be a continuous,  ongoing action. Without end. Or exception. In other words, this wasn’t a “rejoice until it gets hard.” It wasn’t a “rejoice until you don’t feel like it anymore.” It wasn’t a “rejoice when things are going perfect.” And it wasn’t a “rejoice as long as you’re strong, but don’t worry about it when you’re weak.”

Paul wanted the Corinthian church to rejoice, regardless of circumstance. And especially when they looked over and saw someone else being blessed.

And I need to do the same.

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