“I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” (2 Cor 12:7-10)
“For when I am weak, then I am strong.”
How many us can say that? Most of us wilt in times of weakness. When we face insults or hardships or persecution or difficulties we get depressed and miserable. Yet, Paul says that when he is weak, then he is strong. Quite obviously, Paul has some insights into weakness that he has undoubtedly obtained from his observations of how God deals with the weak, and we could learn something from them.
Throughout history we have seen that God channels his power through the weak. He does not choose the strong, the articulate, the super achievers, the go-getters, but rather opts for the nobodies, the people hidden in the shadows, people who are largely unnoticed and insignificant; people like you and me. He chose Abel, the meek farmer over the belligerent Cain. He chose the younger Isaac over Ishmael. He chose Jacob over Esau. He chose David over his more impressive brothers. He chose Gideon, youngest in his family. Gideon’s is an interesting story and as there is much that we can get from it, let’s take a look at it in some depth.
The Bible starts off the tale very well: “The Israelites did evil in the eyes of the Lord, and for seven years he gave them into the hands of the Midianites. Because the power of Midian was so oppressive, the Israelites prepared shelters for themselves in mountain clefts, caves and strongholds. Whenever the Israelites planted their crops, the Midianites, Amalekites and other eastern peoples invaded the country. They camped on the land and ruined the crops all the way to Gaza and did not spare a living thing for Israel, neither sheep nor cattle nor donkeys. They came up with their livestock and their tents like swarms of locusts. It was impossible to count them or their camels; they invaded the land to ravage it. Midian so impoverished the Israelites that they cried out to the Lord for help.” (Jud 6:1-6)
One wonders why the Israelites took so long to cry out for help, but presumably they were like some of us in thinking things would change and willing to wait for that to happen rather than ask God for assistance. In any event, in answer to their prayers God sent an angel to Gideon, a young man who at that moment in time was threshing wheat in a winepress. A winepress is not quite the place to thresh wheat but it says a lot about how beleaguered the Israelites were that they had to grow food in hiding, and it also says a lot about Gideon’s determination to feed his people.
When the angel of the Lord appeared to Gideon, he said, “The Lord is with you, mighty warrior.” “Pardon me, my lord,” Gideon replied, “but if the Lord is with us, why has all this happened to us? Where are all his wonders that our ancestors told us about when they said, ‘Did not the Lord bring us up out of Egypt?’ But now the Lord has abandoned us and given us into the hand of Midian.” (Judges 6:12-13)
“The Lord is with you.” This is a standard greeting to every human from an emissary of the Lord and are words as true as God. But Gideon’s response is questioning, not unsurprisingly for someone whose nation has been oppressed for seven long years by a powerful enemy. “If the Lord is with us, then why has all this happened to us? Why has he abandoned us?”
It is the same question that we ask of God whenever we undergo strife in our lives. (The word Midian, incidentally, translates as strife.) The strife is usually a result of sin, living in disharmony with God (although sometimes it also can be the strife caused by others who are not having a harmonious relationship with the creator), and we break under it. And when we are told that the Lord is with us, we too question the truth of the statement, arguing that we don’t see or feel his presence in our lives, and stating that we feel abandoned by him. Truth be told, God is not the one to have abandoned us, but we who have abandoned God, supplanting him with false gods of greed, power, lust, wealth and other things of the world. The only solution is getting rid of these idols that we have enthroned in our lives and turning back to the living God.
It is what Gideon was told to do: “Tear down your father’s altar to Baal and cut down the Asherah pole beside it. Then build a proper kind of altar to the Lord your God.” (Judges 6: 25-26)
Correction begins with oneself. Gideon had to get rid of his idols. What are your idols? These are not always obvious. Look at the things you are attached to and you might realize what are.
A young man went to Jesus once, asking him “Teacher, what must I do to get eternal life?” Jesus replied. “Keep the commandments. ’You shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, 19 honor your father and mother,’ and ‘love your neighbor as yourself.’” “All these I have kept,” the young man said. “What do I still lack?” Jesus answered, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” When the young man heard this, he went away sad, because he had great wealth. (Mt 19:16-22)
The problem was not that the young man was wealthy but that he was inordinately attached to his wealth. We can be attached to anything. I know of another young man who became very attached to his collection of movies and couldn’t bear to be parted with them. As Jesus says, “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”(Luke 12:34)
Gideon decided to get rid of his idols, but afraid of his family and townspeople, he waited until nightfall when everybody was sleeping before proceeding to demolish Baal’s altar and chop down the Asherah pole beside it. Here, too, is a lesson for us. We are often afraid of doing the things that God asks us to, but we should still do them - afraid! God understands our fear and respects—and rewards—us when we do things despite being afraid.
The Lord turned to him and said, “Go in the strength you have and save Israel out of Midian’s hand. Am I not sending you?” “Pardon me, my lord,” Gideon replied, “but how can I save Israel? My clan is the weakest in Manasseh, and I am the least in my family.” (Judges 6:14-15)
Making excuses is normal, even for leaders in the making. Nearly every single person called upon by God to lead his people tried to back out of the job, from Moses (see Exodus 3 and 4) and Jeremiah (see Jeremiah 1:6) to Saul (see 1 Samuel 10:22) and Jonah (see Jonah 1). Gideon shows himself to be no exception as he tells God that not only is his tribe the smallest in Manasseh, his family is the least in it, and he is the youngest in his family!
God, of course, doesn’t care, because he has a thing for the underdog. It is in weak people that his power is most manifest and he delights in using them.
The Lord answered, “I will be with you, and you will strike down all the Midianites, leaving none alive.” (Judges 6:16)
And Gideon, of course, is not convinced. He would like to believe God but he needs some kind of confirmation. “Look,” he tells God. “I will place a wool fleece on the threshing floor. If there is dew only on the fleece and all the ground is dry, then I will know that you will save Israel by my hand, as you said.” And that is what happened. Gideon rose early the next day; he squeezed the fleece and wrung out the dew—a bowlful of water.
Then Gideon said to God, “Do not be angry with me. Let me make just one more request. Allow me one more test with the fleece, but this time make the fleece dry and let the ground be covered with dew.” That night God did so. Only the fleece was dry; all the ground was covered with dew.” (Judges 6:37-40)
This is not testing God. Quoting Deuteronomy 6:16, Jesus warned us against that when he was in the wilderness for forty days. “Do not put the Lord your God to the test,” (Mt 4:7) he said. Gideon wanted to obey God; he just wanted to be certain it was God giving him the instructions and not anybody else. We need to be equally discerning with messages that we receive, especially from those people who claim to speak for God.
Once convinced that it was actually God talking to him, Gideon issued a call for warriors. 32,000 people showed up, which might seem quite a large number until you weighed it against the opposition. The enemy had 135,000 soldiers, a ratio of 1 : 4! This would not have made Gideon very happy, but he was in for a further shock when God told him to let those afraid to fight leave. 22,000 lit off leaving him with just 10,000 men.
God, however, said this number was still too high and another sifting was needed. He told Gideon to take the men to the river to drink water. 9,700 men immediately dropped to their knees and bending forward began drinking water from the river. 300 men drank standing from water scooped out with cupped hands. God told Gideon to pick these men. Why? Although these men were very brave, putting their lives at tremendous risk as they faced up against astronomical odds, unknown to them their hearts were being tested to see how many were alert to the dangers that surrounded them and how many placed their own immediate desires over anything else.
We are not very different from the Israelites. Consider this. Like the 32,000 who showed up to follow Gideon, many of us follow Jesus out of some sense of obligation or duty. Given the option of leaving without facing any untoward consequences most of us would take off like birds frightened off a wire. Among those who remain are many people who believe they genuinely seek to follow Jesus, but their hearts are tested when it comes to choosing who they give priority to—their pressing needs or God’s.
If they do opt for the latter, it isn’t easy because God’s way isn’t easy. It often defies logic. In Gideon’s case, of instance, when the time came to prepare for the battle that lay ahead, the soldiers were not given super-weapons like you see in the X-men movies that may have annihilated the 135,000 men arrayed against them (now in a ratio of 1 : 450), but instead were given clay jars with torches inside them and trumpets! What were they supposed to do? Play out of tune and have the enemy die laughing?
Gideon divided the three hundred men into three companies and placed them around the enemy soldiers whom Scripture describes as being “thick as locusts”, their “camels could no more be counted than the sand on the seashore.” Then, just as the enemy changed their guard, “the three companies blew the trumpets and smashed the jars. Grasping the torches in their left hands and holding in their right hands the trumpets they were to blow, they shouted, “A sword for the Lord and for Gideon!” While each man held his position around the camp, all the Midianites ran, crying out as they fled. In moments the battle was over, the confused and frightened enemy routed.” (Judges 7: 20-21)
God had granted the Israelites victory, just as he will grant us victory, if we understand that our battles can be won if fought supernaturally with a total reliance on God rather than in our own strength. Then, it doesn’t matter how weak we might be, we are strong because we have God’s strength in us. As Paul asks, “If God is for us, who can be against us?” (Rom 8:31)
The weapons we fight with are the same weapons that were given the Israelites. A jar of clay, a torch, and a trumpet. What do these signify?
“For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of God’s glory displayed in the face of Christ. The light is the light of Christ within us, burning brighter the more we let him live within us. But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. We are the jars of clay that hold this light that is Jesus, with his infinite power that is all surpassing. Nothing can prevail against it, which is why Paul says as he continues writing: “We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. (2 Cor 4:6-9)
All these things—the struggles, the persecutions, the strife—serve to do is crack the pots letting the light that is God’s shine through us confusing the world around us. They expect to see us defeated by what they throw against us; instead we are joyful and happy. And victorious! The light is powerful and Jesus tells us that it needs to shine constantly. He says: “You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. 16 In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.” (Mt 5:14-15)
It is the weak that let God’s light shine. The strong are usually too full of themselves. As Paul writes, “Brothers and sisters, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him.”(1 Cor 1:26-29)
Pots broken, light shining, we need to blow the trumpets—not our own, but God’s, proclaiming his greatness and his glory for the entire world to see. In this passage we also see why he chooses the weak and the lowly; because they understand that they are made strong by God. Imagine if 32,000 men had marched against the Midianites with their spears and swords and bows and won. They could very well have attained victory, inspired by the knowledge that God was with them. But although they might have given token credit to God, they would have claimed much of it for themselves. After all, it was they who had fought. With only 300 men, however, and very unorthodox weapons (to say the least!), they would have had to have accepted that it was only God who could have given them victory and, consequently, given all the credit to him.
Let us depend on the Lord for everything, understanding that the more dependant we are on him, the stronger we will be, so we too, like Paul, will be able to say: “That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.”