The false teachers who were attacking Paul’s ministry [which he writes about in Second Corinthians] were using tactics similar to those that some use today to try to gain influence and wield power among the people of God. They boasted of their “accomplishments” and they criticized Paul for NOT boasting about his.
These guys were doing the equivalent of holding con- ferences or seminars or writing books in order to promote themselves and some experiences they had had which they wanted people to believe were “super- natural.” You can almost hear them saying, with a sneer of superiority, “Has Paul had any experience like this? If he has, why hasn’t he told you about it? If he hasn’t, why should you trust him? What evidence of God’s authority does he offer you?”
So Paul decides to play their game… up to a point. In 2 Corinthians 12:2, the first verse of last Sunday’s Epistle lesson, Paul acknowledges that he has indeed had a supernatural experience. At first, it’s not clear that he is referring to himself, but that comes out in due course. Here’s how he put it…
2 I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven. Whether it was in the body or out of the body I do not know—God knows. 3 And I know that this man… 4 was caught up to paradise and heard inexpressible things, things that no one is permitted to tell. 5 I will boast about a man like that, but I will not boast about myself, except about my weaknesses.
Paul exhibited a character trait with which very few contemporary Christian leaders are afflicted—pure, unadorned and unalloyed humility. Most prominent Christian leaders, it seems to me, are concerned that they won’t attract all the attention or gain all the recognition or achieve all the fame they deserve (or at least, all that they desire). Paul’s concern was exactly the opposite. He wrote, beginning in verse six…
6 Even if I should choose to boast, I would not be a fool, because I would (simply) be speaking the truth. But I refrain, so no one will think more of me than is warranted by what I do or say, 7 or because of these surpassingly great revelations.
Then, Paul acknowledges how difficult it was, even for him, to keep from boasting after an experience like that. And he writes that God had to step in and do something to help Paul keep his spiritual balance.
(7)Therefore, in order to keep me from becoming conceited, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me.
We don’t know for sure what this “thorn in the flesh” was, but it was something significant. It was something Paul couldn’t ignore. It may have been poor eyesight or some other physical affliction. All we know for sure is that Paul didn’t like it one bit. So he writes,
8 Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me.
Three times he asked, and three times God said, “No.” Well, actually what God said was, “I’m not going to give you what you asked for. I’m going to give you something better, something far more valuable.” Or, as Paul puts it…
9 But (the Lord) said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”
Now let’s make sure we hear what Paul is saying here. He is the guy who has been through all that stuff that I pointed out in my last post by citing all those quotes from 2 Corinthians. This is a guy who gave up the prospect of marriage, a home and family, creature comforts and security, in order to devote his life to advancing the Gospel of the Kingdom. If we read the rest of 2 Corinthians, we also learn that he isn’t a very effective orator and his personal presence isn’t very impressive.
But he does have one resource that he could tap into to gain a hearing for his message and support for his ministry. Fourteen years before, as it happens, God took him up to heaven and showed him things too wonderful to be described in words. But then, to keep him from trading on that experience to gain fame and fortune and influence, God also gave him a “thorn in the flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment” him.
And when he made what appears to be an altogether reasonable request that this “thorn” be taken away from him, God said, “No.” Why?
Because of a principle absolutely unheard of in contemporary American business or politics or finance… a principle also unheard of, so it seems, in much of American Christianity. The principle which says that God’s grace is sufficient and, even more startling, God’s strength is seen most clearly and most perfectly in our human weakness!
Remember I wrote in my last post that the main reason I didn’t want to preach from this text, when I first read it as part of the lectionary lessons for last Sunday, was not the text itself, but rather, it was me? Well, here’s what I meant by that. I didn’t want to preach from this text for two reasons.
First, it seemed to me there was a danger that a sermon on the virtues of weakness could come across as a way to excuse a lack of accomplishment in ministry. In other words, when it comes to power and influence and substantive accomplishment, I don’t have a lot to show for forty years of ministry, at least not in my current set of circumstances. I was concerned that the effect of this powerful passage of scripture would be muted if anybody thought I was simply using it as a way to excuse my apparent failure.
And then it dawned on me. This truth about God’s strength being perfected in our human weakness is not something I made up for personal reasons. This is a powerful spiritual principle which is being taught in 2 Corinthians 12 by the most successful, the most influential preacher of the Gospel in the history of the Christian church.
It’s not Eric Kouns who is making this argument. It is Paul of Tarsus, the Apostle to the Gentiles, the author of nearly half of the New Testament. And Paul was a man who, about ten years after he wrote this letter, came to the end of his ministry, not in retirement in some Mediterranean villa, but in the Mamertine Prison in Rome, where he was beheaded as a threat to the Emperor.
The second reason I didn’t want to preach from this passage was that, even though I know the principle is true, it is not what I want to hear right now.
I’ve never been imprisoned, flogged or pelted with stones for the sake of the Gospel. But I have been going through a time of “troubles, hardships, and distresses” for the past four years since I lost my job for being faithful to God and to the convictions He had planted in me.
Truth is, I have been waiting for things to get better, and I have assumed they would. In fact, I’ve assumed they had to; that it was only a matter of time. But that is not what 2 Corinthians 12 promises.
Rather, Paul says, in verse 10—
10 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.
That is very much like what he wrote in chapter six—
16 Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. 17 For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. 18 So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.
The fact is that when I am alone at home or in my office, and I have time to think about my circumstances, I see no way for the current situation to change. Then I feel overwhelmed, and I have difficulty believing that my troubles are only “momentary.” And while I really do believe that there is “an eternal glory” that outweighs all the troubles, I fear that I may surrender to the circumstances and dishonor the Lord Christ because I gave up too soon.
That’s why I didn’t want to preach on this passage.
But in the end, I did preach from this passage last Sunday, because it is true whether I can bear witness to it from my own experience or not. I think, however, that even recognizing the truth of Paul’s words might not have been enough to convince me to preach this sermon had God not done for me what He has done so often when I have come up against a wall of doubt and uncertainty. He brought up, out of the depths of my recollection, the words of one of my mentors.
This time it was Brennan Manning. Sometime I’ll write about Brennan Manning and how God has used his writing, over and over, to refresh and revive my parched and barren soul. For now it is enough to say that, sometime last Friday evening, when I was re-reading 2 Corinthians 12 for the twentieth time in two days, I seemed to recall something that Brennan Manning had written—something that sounded a lot like what Paul wrote there.
So I pulled all my Brennan Manning books off the shelf and tried to find the line that I vaguely recalled. Finally I gave up and did what I should have done to start with. I “Googled” the words I could remember, along with Brennan’s name, and sure enough, I found it. It’s in his book called The Relentless Tenderness of Jesus, and here’s what he wrote:
In our kitchen we have a saying enclosed in an old, beat up wooden frame. It says this. (When you finally stand in the presence of God), He will not look you over for medals, diplomas, or honors, but for scars.
Somebody once said, “If you want to make God laugh, tell Him your plans.” To that we could add, “If you want to impress God, show Him your scars.” Even the self-inflicted ones. But especially those you got by standing firm in your faith despite the opposition and the consequences.
In Mark 9, Jesus crosses paths with a man whose son is demon-possessed. When the demon senses the presence of Jesus, it sends the boy into convulsions, and you can sense the father’s deep pain when he says to Jesus, “If you can do anything, have compassion on us and help us.” Jesus answers him, “If I can do anything? All things are possible to him that believes.” And the man cries out, “Lord, I do believe; help my unbelief.”
When it comes to the message of 2 Corinthians 12—the truth that God’s strength is made perfect in my weakness and the reality that, when God looks me over, it won’t be for medals, diplomas, or honors, but for scars—I have to pray that very prayer. “Lord, I do believe; help my unbelief.”