Beauty in Imperfection
- Psalm 48:1-7,8-14, our call to worship, reminds us that while people can let us down, God is our Guide who will never fail us.
- David’s rise to power, as discussed in 2 Samuel 5:1-5,9-10, occurred because “God was with him” despite his flaws.
- In Mark 6:1-13, Jesus shares his disappointment with the people’s hardheartedness.
- Our sermon text comes from 2 Corinthians 12:2-10, where Paul tells the story about how weakness can actually be connected with power.
Beauty in Imperfection
2 Corinthians 12:2-10 (NRSV)
Kintsugi (pronounced kin-SOO-kee) is a Japanese art form that repairs broken pottery by mixing gold dust with lacquer. Instead of hiding the cracks, the art form highlights them. Kintsugi reportedly started around the 15th century in response to a pottery repair for the Japanese leader (called a shogun) that was mishandled by using ugly metal staples. By the 17th century, kintsugi was not only used for repair but also to decorate and make ceramics used for tea more beautiful.
Kintsugi is more than just aesthetics. It also is linked to Japanese philosophical ideas, such as wabi-sabi (pronounced WAH-bee-SAH-bee) which accepts imperfection as part of life and advocates seeing beauty in the imperfect.
When we think about our personal imperfections, we don’t want to highlight them with gold dust. We would prefer to keep them in the dark. However, social scientist and researcher Brené Brown believes that imperfection can be a gift. She’s written a book called The Gifts of Imperfection, and in that book, she links our imperfections with our ability to be vulnerable … and our vulnerability with our ability to connect to others.
Vulnerability is an English word that has a negative connotation. Most dictionaries define it as a quality that makes you weak, easily hurt, or attacked. That’s the way most of us view vulnerability: a trait that seems to work against our survival.
As Christians, we struggle with the idea that we are enough. We know our “dark side,” and we somehow feel we’ve failed God by not having our flaws under control. It’s hard to be vulnerable about our struggles, especially in church, because we want people to think well of us. We want to be better.
But it’s there, in that place of being both very good and very flawed, that the apostle Paul speaks to us in 2 Corinthians 12. In this passage, Paul talks about a mystical experience he had and a weakness that was a point of vulnerability that God used.
What can we notice about this passage?
I know a person in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know; God knows. And I know that such a person — whether in the body or out of the body I do not know; God knows — was caught up into Paradise and heard things that are not to be told, that no mortal is permitted to repeat. On behalf of such a one I will boast, but on my own behalf I will not boast, except of my weaknesses. But if I wish to boast, I will not be a fool, for I will be speaking the truth. But I refrain from it, so that no one may think better of me than what is seen in me or heard from me, even considering the exceptional character of the revelations. Therefore, to keep me from being too elated, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me, to keep me from being too elated. (2 Corinthians 12:2-7 NRSV)
Although Paul talks about this in the third person, as if it happened to someone else, he is evidently talking about himself. (Simply knowing a person who had a vision isn’t much of a basis for boasting, nor of being too elated.) Paul is, in an indirect way, saying that he had this vision, but that it is not a experience in which he can boast – it does not make him better than other people.
Paul had a mystical experience where he heard someone speak to him. This reveals that there is a time and space that is a mystery to us. Notice that Paul does not dwell on the experience itself. He doesn’t use the experience to set himself apart as “special.” By not sharing the details of this mystical experience, Paul emphasizes that our belonging isn’t affirmed by having a mystical experience but by our inclusion in Jesus Christ. He further emphasizes that God will do what it takes to keep us from becoming too self-focused so that we can keep our focus on Jesus.
Three times I appealed to the Lord about this, that it would leave me, but he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. (2 Corinthians 12:8-9 NRSV)
Paul asked God to remove this undefined weakness from him three times, but God said that his grace was enough. Typically, we assume that “weakness” means something that we can’t do. While weakness usually refers to a physical ailment, it can also refer to a lack of courage or determination when faced with hardship. This might look like our human vulnerabilities and flaws, the eccentricities that can bother others and discourage us. Paul says that he will boast in this vulnerability because it is an area where others can see how Paul falls short even while he asserts that God is working through him.
In 2 Corinthians 12:9, where the NRSV translates “for power is made perfect in weakness,” power is being redefined. Power is found by admitting fallibility and working in spite of it. This is the essence of vulnerability: acknowledging one’s shortcomings while understanding that we can still be used by God to help others. As proof, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit love us just as we are, as shown in Romans 5:8. The Son of God didn’t wait for us to be worthy before he became a human through the Incarnation. In fact, the incarnation offers further proof that being embodied, being human, with all its weaknesses and vulnerabilities, is not an obstacle to God’s work.
The Expositor’s Greek Testament reports that the Greek word used in the latter part of 2 Corinthians 12:9 and translated “dwell” hearkens to the imagery of the Shekinah, the glory of God as it rested in the Holy of Holies of the Temple. Paul said that similarly, Christ’s power was staying in him.
But his point is that God’s power was perfected in Paul’s weakness. God’s power was able to be used in a right way because of Paul’s weakness. This reminds me of the lyrics from Leonard Cohen’s song Anthem:
Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.
Perhaps our “cracks” or weaknesses work both ways: they allow God to enter and work in us, and they are the way that His work is extended out of us (Christ in us, the hope of glory – Colossians 1:27). As Christians, we are witnesses to the world that God works in everyone despite their weaknesses.
Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong. (2 Corinthians 12:10 NRSV)
Paul says that he is “content” with being vulnerable (which sometimes includes sufferings). Not hiding his weaknesses and vulnerabilities helps him preach the gospel of love for all humanity. He is a more effective Christian leader because he doesn’t have to hide his vulnerabilities, and he is more relatable because of those shortcomings.
- Vulnerability is not weakness as we typically define it. It can be our best witness for the gospel. When we humbly acknowledge our mistakes and struggles, we are living proof of God’s grace and love.
- Vulnerability can make us more effective as leaders. Whether we are parents, managers at work, or church leaders, being vulnerable helps our relationships. It isn’t easy, and it takes courage to admit that we don’t always have all the answers or to ask forgiveness when we misjudge. Letting others extend grace to us when we slip up reminds us of God’s grace to all humanity.
- Vulnerability embraces truth and rejects secrets. When we think we have to hide parts of ourselves because they aren’t acceptable to God, we are weighed down with secrets. Vulnerability is based on the truth that humanity is imperfect but still very good in Christ and that the beautiful world we live in is imperfect, too. We reject the idea that we must hide our “shadow sides” from God, who knows us from our very conception and formed us in the womb (Psalm 139:13-16). We are held firmly by Jesus Christ, and we are made new in him (2 Corinthians 5:17-19). Believing we are loved — flaws and all — opens the door for the Holy Spirit to gently transform us.
Redefining weakness and reorienting our minds to see vulnerability as part of being human rather than a character flaw enables us to share the goodness of God’s grace with others. It makes us witnesses to the great love of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit for all humanity when God’s light shines through our cracks to illumine and encourage us and those around us.
Small Group Discussion Questions
- Have you ever considered that your weaknesses or vulnerabilities could be used by God to draw other people to him?
- If so, reflect on how comfortable you feel around someone who is not perfect vs. someone who seems to have it all together.
- Can you think of a specific instance where being vulnerable has made you a more effective leader, parent, or employee?
- Share about how your “lack” of perfection helped you to relate to others more effectively