“For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses… For when I am weak, then I am strong.” (2 Cor 12:10)
We do not want to be weak. To be weak is to be vulnerable, to be open to rejection, suffering, or defeat. It is natural for us to recoil from weakness, to shield or strengthen our emotional, physical, and spiritual weak points.
When Lent calls us to a time of repentance and transformation in Christ, our focus particularly shifts to our spiritual weak points. These weak points are the areas where we are tempted to sin, the inclinations the devil most often exploits to ensnare us. They are our tendencies toward self-reliance, our impatience, the way we cannot focus during prayer. They are our human imperfections which frequently lead us to sin against God.
In an effort to root out sin during Lent, we attempt to board up these spiritual weak points. Do we rely more heavily on caffeine for our energy than God? Time to get rid of that and muscle our way through exhaustion. Do we struggle with being patient? Time to say a Hail Mary whenever we feel the urge to snap at someone. Do distractions keep us from prayer? Time to ruthlessly eliminate those.
But when we seek to strengthen or cover these weak points, we discover they truly are weak points. They are places where we struggle, and inevitably places where we fail. So, we may find ourselves a ways into this Lenten journey with more sins than sacrifices to show God.
How can we say with St. Paul, in these places where we have failed over and over since before Lent began, that we are strong? How can we say with him that we are content with these weaknesses that tempt us to sin and send us back to the confessional month after month? How can God be pleased with repeated failure?
We find ourselves in discouragement, begging God that our weaknesses be taken away so that we may cease to offend Him and hurt others and ourselves. There, as He did when St. Paul prayed similarly, He tells us,
“‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’” (2 Cor 12:9)
In our prayer and in His answer is the key to St. Paul’s initial words about weakness.
What has our weakness done? It has driven us to God. Our weaknesses force us to fall to our knees in prayer, to frequent the Sacraments. What inclines us to sin may instead become a magnet drawing us back to God.
In our weaknesses, we witness our insufficiency that draws us back to His sufficiency. What are our weaknesses but signposts pointing back to God? They tell us, “Run back to Him, for you will do no good on your own here.”
St. Paul is only strong in his weakness because his weakness draws him back to his strength: Christ. He is only content in his weakness because his weakness forces him back to the only One he is content in: Christ.
But even when we fall, even when our weaknesses lead us to sin, that is not the end. No matter how often our weaknesses turn us from God, His mercies are new every morning (Lam 3:23), and the invitation to return to Him, to repent, and to try again is constant.
This return to God is not done from an attitude of despair, thinking it is only a matter of time until we fall again, and berating ourselves for yet again testing God’s patience. Rather, St. Francis de Sales tells us to return to God in the following manner:
“Raise up your heart when it has fallen, all gently, humbling yourself deeply before God for reason of your misery, without surprise at your fall—since it is not something admirable but the frailty of the frail, the weakness of the weak, and the misery of the wretched. Nevertheless, detest with all your might the offense God has received from you, and with great courage and confidence in his mercy, return to the path of virtue you had abandoned.”1
Even our sins are not obstacles to our relationship with God when we humbly return to Him after every fall. Our weaknesses become doors for His grace to enter, reminding us time and again that our salvation is from Him and Him alone.
This Lent, no matter whether we succeed or fail in our penitential undertakings, let us not fear our weaknesses. Rather, let us see them as opportunities to rely more heavily on God, to draw closer to Him, to constantly beg for the sufficiency of His grace. Even when our weaknesses lead to sin rather than intimacy with Him, let us return to Him with a hopeful heart, knowing that He can use all things for good, and that His “power is made perfect in weakness.” (2 Cor 12: 9)
Saint Francis de Sales, Introduction to the Devout Life (Aquinas Press Classics, 2013), 161.