In Marriage as in Life, Weak Is Strong
Article by Dave Harvey, DMin, Westminster Theological Seminary
Have you ever noticed that a cellphone battery doesn’t last as long after you download an update? By now you know the drill: update > unplug > scramble madly for the charger.
I don’t get it.
People have lived in space for a year phoning Houston for box scores while having no battery problems. But here on terra firma, a longer-lasting cellphone battery still eludes us. But wait, this frustration is actually cultivated and purposeful; a sales device in an organized scheme.
In economics and industrial design, there’s a merchandizing strategy called planned obsolescence. It’s a fancy term to describe when a product is created with an artificially limited lifespan. The goal of the design weakness is to get you ready for an upgrade.
Manufacturers make their product obsolete after a certain period of time so that their customers will return to purchase the newest version. Profits boost by creating need.
The plan swings on a simple hinge: built-in weakness leads to dependence.
Did you know there’s a similar principle at work in God’s economy? And the principle plays out weekly in Christian marriage. God installs limitations, suffering, pain, and thorns into our lives to make us dependent on him. One irony of marriage is in how swiftly it yanks back the veil that covers our imperfections. With singles, weaknesses surface in other ways.
Paul experienced the effects of this plan after his magnificent and mysterious trip to the third heaven (2 Cor. 12:2–10). He was transformed by this experience, but not in the way we may think.
One of the ironies of fallenness is that sometimes even the best experiences push us to self-centered places. Our heart exults in the experience of the good rather than in the Giver of the good. So, in an act of love, God takes the things in which we most exult—things like a great marriage or a manageable parenting path—and transforms them into places that reveal our desperate need for him. To keep us from being unwisely elated, God installs a thorn in our life that pins us to our Savior.
Speaking of thorns, there’s plenty of speculation about the exact nature of Paul’s “thorn in the flesh.” Some commentators suggest it was an illness, others say persecution, still others say a physical malady, like maybe an eye condition or a speech defect. We don’t fully know.
But we know enough.
We know, for instance, that this thorn became a monumental affliction. Why else would a guy who suffered the horror of 39 lashes on five separate occasions, the dude who was beaten with rods three times and stoned once (2 Cor. 11:24–25), need to appeal to God repeatedly for deliverance?
Paul’s thorn—this built-in weakness—was substantial enough to accomplish three effects in his life.
1. God used Paul’s weakness to restrain him.
God used the suffering to keep Paul grounded in his self-assessment, to guide the direction and destination of his delight. Have you noticed that God does the same thing for us? He’ll send a thorn to some area of our life where, absent the thorn, our pride and self-elation would wreck us. Paul could’ve been puffed up by his visit to the third heaven, but with that great blessing, God sent great pain.
With great honor came great weakness.
Friends, we don’t roll through life as little gods. We’re not omniscient, omnipotent, or omnicompetent. Sure, sometimes we imagine ourselves elevated to that place, but then God pulls us back to earth by an experience of weakness. Maybe it’s a damaged fender, an overdrawn bank account, a failed test, a prodigal child, or the onset of depression.
For me it includes the fact that I’ve traveled for years with a back pillow because of lower-back arthritis. But God reminds us there is a plan for these routine weaknesses. The world’s obsolescence, and the places this fallenness touches us, restrains our pride as we learn to depend on Jesus.
2. God used weakness to convert Paul’s boasting.
I’ve known a lot of guys who begin marriage with a cocky, know-it-all bravado. I was one of them. In my thinking as a single guy, marriage as a brand was taking a serious hit and needed some fresh blood to reverse the image-problem. It’s funny, though. When we’re strong—or think we’re strong—we can easily slip into boasting. It’s easy to talk about ourselves, to slip into self-satisfied conceit, or the more Christianized version found in the harmless “humblebrag.”
At multiple points in his life, Paul confessed his temptation to boast in his own credentials (Phil. 2:4–6), his own gifting (1 Cor. 14:18), and his own spiritual experiences (1 Cor. 12:5–6). But God used suffering to show him how all these things must be counted as nothing for the sake of knowing Christ. Instead of boasting in himself, Paul learned to boast in the Lord alone (1 Cor. 1:26–31).
Over the last decade, God has repeatedly placed Kimm and me in situations where the only way forward was through dependent prayer to him. As we bow our hearts, it becomes a necessary reminder of our need for him and dependence on him. In that place of weakness, God often brings strength.
Paul tells us, “If I must boast, I will boast in the things that show my weakness” (2 Cor. 11:30). Why would he boast in his weakness? This brings us to the final effect God accomplishes through Paul’s suffering.
3. In his weakness, Paul encountered God’s grace and power.
It’s been humbling for me to realize it, but God does his best work when his power inhabits the places where we acknowledge our limits, our inabilities, and our true need for him. God doesn’t condemn us for our weakness. Instead, he’s decided to make our limitations—those patches of our human obsolescence—the very place where his strength prevails. He has a game plan that will ultimately confound the scholars and exalt the lowly: “God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong” (1 Cor. 1:27).
Paul boasted in his weakness because he knows that’s where God shows up and shows out. In the weak place we see God’s power at work. The Creator designs the flaw that will produce the weakness. Planned, but providential, obsolescence.
His Power and Glory, Not Ours
Funny, but I actually left harbor on the good ship Matrimony assuming my weaknesses would diminish as my marriage grew. And sure, knowing one another better and sharing love and pain provided a strong foundation to build many memories and weather some big storms.
But the truth is, even something as wonderful as marriage can remain difficult, because God has a built-in design that’s about more than eliminating our weakness. God wants to display his power and glory, not ours. And the stage for that spotlight is often those places of weakness that produce built-in dependence. So, take the hand of your spouse and say along with Paul: “For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Cor. 12:10).
Hmm, weak is strong. In life, in marriage, and in the process of change. That’s quite a plan.
Dave Harvey (DMin, Westminster Theological Seminary) is president of Great Commission Collective, a church planting ministry in the U.S., Canada, and abroad. Dave pastored for 34 years, and travels widely across networks and denominations as a conference speaker. He is the author of When Sinners Say “I Do” (Shepherd Press, 2007), Am I Called? (Crossway, 2012) and his most recent book, I Still Do: Growing Closer and Stronger Through Life’s Defining Moments (Baker, 2020). Dave and his wife, Kimm live in southwest Florida. He also writes at Rev Dave Harvey, and you can follow him on Twitter.