Throughout 2 Corinthians, Paul has repeatedly challenged us to say yes to the weakness and foolishness of the cross, to embrace everything that makes us an unremarkable clay jar. But as Paul begins to wrap up his letter, he ups the ante. Now our challenge is not only to embrace our weaknesses and limitations, but to actively brag about them! Can you imagine bragging about your flaws and limitations in a job interview or first date? Paul can. Three times toward the end of the letter he says, “I will boast of the things that show my weakness.” (2 Cor 11:30) He feels forced into bragging. Those who have made themselves his opponents, the “super-apostles,” demand that boastfulness is a natural part of being an apostle, so Paul will play along, except he turns the bragging on its head.
Paul tells the Corinthians that he could very well beat these super-apostles at their own game. They seem to be saying that Paul is not spiritual enough because he doesn’t brag about any intense spiritual experiences. But Paul does have such a story. Fourteen years earlier he was “caught up to the third heaven” (he also calls it “paradise” like in Luke 23:43). Paul speaks as if this happened to someone else, but it quickly becomes clear he’s talking about himself; he’s just so allergic to boasting that he can’t find it in himself to speak in the first person! As for this “third heaven” business, “heaven” is a more versatile word in scripture than we often give it credit for. It sometimes refers to sky and atmosphere. It sometimes refers to the infinite cosmos we see when we look up at the night sky. And sometimes it refers to that completely new kind of time and space into which God invites us once this present earthly phase of our existence is at an end. And this appears to be what Paul means by third heaven. This was quite an experience for Paul. It was so strange and unfamiliar and transcendent that he’s not even sure if his physical body was present or not. And it was far too strange and unfamiliar to later put into words. He “heard things that cannot be told, which man may not utter.”
How’s that for a spiritual experience? Except, Paul began to approach the likely pitfall, that of forgetting that this experience was a gift from God and not his own accomplishment. Paul felt his ego growing, but then “a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me, to keep me from becoming conceited.” Whatever this “thorn” was (sudden illness, temptation, or malicious person), Paul committed it to prayer only to receive back the answer, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” (2 Cor 12:9) So Paul decides, “I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For when I am weak, then I am strong.”
Human weakness is where God does his best work. Human weakness is the Spirit’s playground. It is where we get out of the way and make room for grace. Grace makes of us people who don’t just tolerate weakness, but respond to it with actual joy. So we don’t keep our weaknesses and limitations at arm’s length. We welcome them in, because by welcoming in the weakness and limitation (and even bragging about it), we welcome God in too.