How Paul learned to be helpless in the strength of the Lord Patrick Henry Reardon is a Senior Editor of Touchstone: A Journal of Mere Christianity

The Apostle Paul did not like ‘hanging around.’ An industrious go-getter, he preferred to have things settled. Thus, his anxious spirit finding no rest while he waited for Titus at Troas, Paul took early passage over to Macedonia to meet him sooner [2 Cor. 2.12–13].

We see this sense of industry even on those occasions when Paul was in prison, a place where many folks are unable to do much more than kill time. Imprisonment was a thing that apparently happened to Paul ‘more often’ [11.23] than he would have liked, but he took those occasions as opportunities for robust hymn singing and a good measure of evangelism [cf. Acts 16.24– 34; Phil. 1.12–14]. All of which is to say that Paul was not the man just to hang around.

In a rather literal sense

Yet he confessed that on the one occasion when he was obliged, rather literally, to hang around, the Lord used the occasion to instruct him. It was one of those instances in which it is not difficult for the reader to discern Paul arriving at a spiritual insight through a lived experience.

He describes the incident. ‘If I must boast, I will boast in the things which concern my infirmity. The God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who is blessed forever, knows that I am not lying. In Damascus the governor, under Aretas the king, was guarding the city of the Damascenes with a garrison, desiring to arrest me; but I was let down in a basket through a window in the wall, and escaped from his hands’ [2 Cor. 11.30–33].

Paul wrote of this occasion as one of deliverance. And exactly from what was he delivered? Clearly he was delivered from his enemies [Acts 9.22–25]. But obviously Paul saw a more significant deliverance in the incident. He wrote explicitly that this occasion of hanging around taught him something about ‘infirmity.’

Paul felt his profound helplessness in that situation, and he began to learn, in those days that immediately followed his conversion, that divine power is made perfect in human infirmity. It was during that experience of absolute helplessness that Paul came to see that the weakness of God is stronger than men. He arrived at the important theological truth that lies at the heart of his theology; namely, we carry this treasure in vessels of clay.

He describes this insight in the same epistle. ‘But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the excellence of the power may be of God and not of us. We are hard-pressed on every side, yet not crushed…always carrying about in the body the dying of the Lord Jesus, that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our body’ [4.7–10].

Learning from his powerlessness

If we had only Luke’s account of this incident in Acts 9, we might not suspect how important Paul’s hanging in that basket proved to be in the formation of his soul. It was there that he began to perceive an essential dimension of divine strength, namely, that it is perfected in human weakness. This was no piece of theory; it was an insight tested on the quickened pulse of a man obliged to hang, helpless, between heaven and earth, dependent (in a most literal sense) on a source of strength distinct from himself.

When I described this experience as ‘crucial’ to Paul’s theology, I meant that adjective to bear its full etymological significance. ‘Crucial’ is derived from the Latin crux, and in Paul’s theology that the cross signifies the weakness of God [1 Cor. 1.23–25].

Paul experienced divine deliverance in a situation of human helplessness. This is the burden of his metaphor ‘earthen vessels,’ fragile containers that hold the treasure of the Gospel. Paul gained this insight into the mystery of grace one night. Hanging there in his basket, Paul learned something essential of Jesus hanging on a cross.