The New Testament contains many shocking, radical, challenging, and unsettling statements.
Near the top of any list of startling pronouncements in the Christian Scriptures must be Paul’s announcement in 2 Corinthians that
on my own behalf I will not boast, except of my weaknesses (astheneia) (2 Corinthians 12:5)
It goes against every grain of our culture, our up-bringing, and our personal inclinations to think of boasting in our “weaknesses”. But Paul’s statement is even more challenging than this English translation might seem to suggest.
“Weakness” is a good translation. But it is hardly large or dramatic enough to embrace the full meaning of that astheneia in which Paul is claiming he will “boast”.
The Greek word astheneia is a word filled with meaning. It contains many of the things most of us spend much of our time, energy and effort doing everything in our power to avoid. Most of us would never think of boasting in our astheneia.
Astheneia means feebleness of health or sickness, frailty, or lack of strength. It is an inability to understand what is going on in our lives or to do great and glorious things. It is a lack of ability to restrain corrupt desires or to bear the trials and troubles that inevitably surface in our lives. To acknowledge astheneia is to acknowledge that we do not know how to operate the mechanisms of life all that well. We are frail and frequently incapacitated by our thoughts, emotions or circumstances.
When we get in touch with our astheneia we find ourselves compelled to acknowledge that we are unable to leap tall buildings at a single bound; in fact we have a hard time jumping over the neighbour’s fence. We cannot run faster than a speeding bullet and we are not stronger than a locomotive. There are times we find ourselves almost paralyzed by the challenge of dealing with the details of our daily lives.
Astheneia reminds us that our lives do not for the most part really work all that well. Some people do a better job than others at hiding their asthenia; but beneath the surface anyone who is honest knows that astheneia is a reality of the human condition.
Most of us would prefer to deny our astheneia. We want to push it away, determined not to reveal the ugly secret we try desperately to keep hidden from the world. If astheneia, somehow forces its way into our consciousness, we rush to find a quick-fix solution and to tidy things up. In our darkest moments we may find ourselves hating or feeling deeply ashamed of our astheneia.
We take courses in an attempt to defeat astheneia; we try to discipline ourselves so it will not surface in our lives. When astheneia seems to be raging out of control, we take pills to anesthetize ourselves against the pain it causes.
Our problem with astheneia is that we fear it defines us. It becomes our identity. When we find ourselves struggling or in pain, when we feel unable to cope, we see ourselves as nothing more than our weakness. We locate our full identity in this one place and come to believe that astheneia, defines the totality of our being.
Paul has a completely different approach to astheneia. Not only is Paul willing to “boast” in his astheneia, he has also come to the place where he is able to be
content (eudokeō) with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. (2 Corinthians 12:10)
“Content” does not do justice to the full weight of Paul’s statement here. Paul is not just putting up with his weaknesses; he is not merely tolerating his astheneia. Eudokeo means to “take pleasure in, to think something good.” Paul takes pleasure in his weaknesses; he thinks they are good and so he boasts about them to the Christians in Corinth.
What good can we possibly find in astheneia? How could Paul take “pleasure” in this quality that we so often dread?
(see “Weakness #2 tomorrow)