What is the connection between our weakness and spiritual strength in the Lord?
I have a purpose in sharing this message today. The Gift That Nobody Wants is part of our larger Growing Through Adversity series. This series had a lot to do with my own journey in 2015 when I was working through a very difficult place. I was learning how to suffer and be weak. The Gift That Nobody Wants is the gift that I’m calling weakness. I want to talk about that. Our goal together is that we would leave this house of worship, where the name of Jesus is loved, more encouraged. Particularly if we have any areas in our lives that we would describe as being a little bit weak. Or we’re experiencing defeat or a sense of our own limitation. The goal is for us to come out stronger than when we came in.
I mentioned that this was a theme that became very important to me. Nobody really wants to talk a lot about weaknesses. It’s not a great topic that everybody can’t wait to discuss. When you think about weakness it brings up different images of different people. When someone says, “What do you think it would mean to be weak? What does that mean to you?” For many of us, it speaks of powerlessness, fatigue, lethargy, need, inadequacy, and the inability to get something done. Weak is not a compliment. It’s a pejorative. It’s rarely used in a positive way. It’s usually used in a way that seems sad. It can be referred to as an insult.
During that time in my life almost two years ago, I was plumbing deep into my heart. I was struggling with the loss of my voice. My body wasn’t working right. I was feeling nervous. I had to leave the church to go on a sabbatical. It was a hard time. I felt a loss of control and a loss of the sense of my identity. It was a very difficult period. A lot of things I was working through had to do with weaknesses and limitations. I was praying, journaling, and writing things down. I wasn’t doing great, but I had time. I was doing what I encourage a lot of us to do when we’re in a hard place, write your thoughts down, write your prayers out, and go to the Psalms. I was writing a Psalm a day out. I was reading positive devotions in the scriptures. I also would read some books.
One of the books I came across was a very small book called Weakness is the Way by a great theologian, who’s much advanced in years now, named J.I. Packer. In his book, he described weakness. I want to read this to you. I just want you to listen and try to relate to it. This will be a foundational piece. “What is weakness? The idea from first to last is of inadequacy. We talk about physical weakness. When we say someone’s physically weak, we mean that they have a lack of vigor or energy and perhaps bodily health so that one cannot move furniture or tackle heavy yard jobs. So we say, “Physically, I’m limited. I’m weak. I don’t have any strength.” Might be feeling sick or ill. Personal weakness, indicating thereby that a person lacks resolution, firmness of character, dignity, the capacity to command.” There’s a personal weakness. They don’t have any real fiber. They’re not a strong person. They’re a weak person. They cave under things.
We talk about a weak position when a person lacks needed resources, cannot move situations forward, or influence the events as desired. They’re in a weak position. They don’t have any leverage. They’re totally capable of being taken advantage of. Weak. When we talk about relational weakness, a person who should be leading and guiding fails to do so, we say they’re weak parents. They’re not taking responsibility. Or a weak pastor, not leading well. Or a weak manager. The idea is that someone’s not stepping forward and being responsible. If you think about weakness this way, there are no statues built for the weak. Go down to AT&T, you’ll see great achievers. Different parts of the city, conquerors, overcomers, people who led things, and people who followed them. You’ll see all of that, but you’re not going to see too many things in honor of the weak, defeated, shy, timid, or non-performer. No, it doesn’t work that way. There are no statues erected to celebrate the defeated, no statues to honor the inferior.
Speaking of inferior, I remember in Packer’s book, he went on to talk about a Peanuts cartoon. Some of you’re familiar with Lucy and Charlie Brown. Lucy, boy, she’s a piece of work. She is hot normally known for anything resembling empathy. It’s the exact opposite. Lucy asked a gloomy-looking Charlie Brown, “What are you worrying about?” Charlie says, “Well, I feel inferior.” “Oh,” Lucy says, “you shouldn’t worry about that. Lots of people have that feeling.” “What? That they’re inferior?” “No,” Lucy replies, “that you’re inferior. That’s what they are. They feel that way all the time.” It’s a great line. The thing about it is the statement, “What’s wrong with me?” I really like that. That was funny to me.
The idea that Packer points out, is vintage Lucy mocking Charlie’s gloomy distress and endorsing his sadly self-resigned assessment of his inferiority. The fact is, a lot of us struggle with our confidence, our sense of inferiority, or at least an abiding sense of weakness in our life. There may be areas in our lives that we’re ashamed of. We feel limited by them. They’re hurtful. They may be unique to us, but they’re real. Sometimes they’re connected to a loss, something that we’re losing. This idea of weakness has to do with things that we wish we could change and we feel powerless to do it. That’s what we’re talking about.
In the last couple of weeks, we’ve shared about how God uses limitation and weakness for good. We spent three weeks. I know not everybody was here. But two or three weeks back, we talked about Moses. How, at the time when God really was calling him to a new phase of growth in his life, to reawaken a dream in him, he was an utterly broken man who had been so shell-shocked by a defeat chapter in his life. He felt like, “God, I believe in you. You’re real. You’re doing something amazing. I’m not your guy. You need to find somebody else.” He was so impacted by his failure that his entire capacity to trust God was distorted.
Last week we talked about Jacob, another Old Testament figure. How he was in gets through this fearful place in his life. Jaco thinks his brother might kill him. It’s been 20 years since they have seen each other. They’re going to have a reunion of sorts. Jacob is so afraid he sends his family back, because he’s not sure. His brother Esau might take them all out. In this fearful place, Jacob wrestles with God. Out of that place of fear, s a new name was given to him. He becomes Israel at that point. On top of that, we’re told in that wrestling match, Jacob’s hip is dislocated. He begins to walk for the rest of his life with a limp, and that becomes a part of his story. It’s a reminder to us that sometimes weakness is part of the deal. There are many times like Moses or Jacob when we experience things, and God’s trying to work with us past our limitations.
Now, we turn to another figure. The one we’ll sit with for the final two weeks of my sharing time. It is the apostle Paul. We want to look at a letter that he wrote to a church that he planted. A church that he had the hardest time with, in contrast to other churches he founded, did not seem to appreciate who he was. It made him feel at times like he was on the defensive. He had to defend himself. That position was not ground that Paul was comfortable on. He was comfortable defending Christ. He was comfortable getting in front of things that were very hostile. He could do that. The idea of defending himself by trying to make himself one that, “You should follow me. I’m your leader. I founded this church.” He felt that was something that he wasn’t at ease with. It didn’t come as naturally for him. You can feel it when you read his letter.
In 2 Corinthians 1, at the beginning of the passage, it says, “Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and Timothy are brother to the church of God that is at Corinth, with all the saints who are in the whole of Achaia. Grace to you and peace from God our Father from the Lord Jesus Christ. These are geographically real places. These places exist today. Corinth was a prominent port city. I wouldn’t say it was like San Francisco, but it had elements. It was sophisticated. There were elements of being cosmopolitan There were many cultures mixing together and many trade routes. The Mediterranean Sea is center of the world. It still is, in many ways, the center of the world. You see where Jerusalem is in relation to Corinth. Corinth was 50 miles from Athens.
Paul had been sent by the church in Jerusalem with a team to plant churches. Corinth was one of the churches that they planted. It becomes this Gentile church. Initially, it was a majority Jewish-believing church, believers in Jesus, Yeshua, and then it grew. The Gentiles started to come to Jesus. Before long, Corinth became a Gentile-dominated church. It’s non-Jewish, mostly Gentiles, Greeks. Predominantly mixed, but the majority were from that city. Paul writes them a letter. This is the second letter he writes. It’s mostly for three reasons. Paul has three main reasons to write and send a second letter. We call it the second book of Corinthians. He writes it because he wants them, number one, to know that he loves them and values their relationship. Two, to remind them to follow through on a promise they made for giving to a fund designed to be a relief fund for the church in Jerusalem that had been under enormous duress. Now, he’s saying, “You need to follow through on your commitment.”
The third and main reason he was writing this letter was because there were people in the church, he called super apostles and teachers, who were coming into the church saying Paul was weak and unworthy of being followed. Paul is writing this letter as a way of defending himself from the people who were calling him a weak leader and questioning his authority. As a result, weakness becomes the dominant theme of the letter. The Corinthian church was his most difficult church. They challenged him. They made him work hard. He had to work hard to keep them in line with him, partly because they tended to be unimpressed by him. “You’re not that impressive.”
That brings us to a slightly longer passage of scripture. As I read this through, I need you to listen for Paul. Hear how he’s struggling to simultaneously defend himself not sound proud. He’s not comfortable with this terrain. He needs to make the case that he is legitimate. Paul is saying, “Look, I founded you. I was the founder of this church. Now, how could you not respect that and honor that authority?” At the same time, he feels awkward about saying, “You need to follow me because of this and this and this.” We can sense it in his words. So as we read it through, it’s going to serve not only as a foundation for what I want to talk about in the minutes we have left and have us apply, but I’m also using it as a platform for where we’re going next week.
We talk about the famous teaching many people have often thought a lot about called the ‘thorn in the flesh.’ We’re going to explore Paul’s thorn in the flesh. In order to get to that point, we need to understand the context. This next reading will at least serve a little bit of a dual purpose. Try to focus our energies in this direction. We’ll start with 2 Corinthians 10:7. “Look at the obvious facts. Those who say they belong to Christ must recognize that we belong to Christ as much as they do. I may seem to be boasting too much about the authority given to us by the Lord, but our authority builds you up. It doesn’t tear you down. I’m not abusing you. I’m not taking advantage of you. I will not be ashamed for asserting my authority, using my leadership, or making a claim for it. I’m not trying to frighten you by my letters. Some say, ‘Oh, Paul’s letters. They’re demanding and forceful, but in person he is weak. His speeches, they’re worthless.'”
Paul is not a good orator. He can’t communicate in an environment in Greece that prizes both philosophy and the capacity for rhetoric and oration. Paul was solid. He wasn’t great. That wasn’t his field of training. He was a gifted writer, however. He says, “Those people should realize that our actions when we arrive in person will be as forceful as what we say in our letters from far away. Don’t think there’s going to be any incongruity here. What we write, we’re going to back it up when we get there. Don’t worry. We wouldn’t dare say that we are as wonderful as these other men.” Remember, I told you about these false teachers who were coming in, laying the heavy on the people, and saying Paul’s weak. He doesn’t really have anything. He’s soft. He’s unreliable. He’s not strong enough. These are the things they were saying.
Paul says, “We wouldn’t dare say that we are as wonderful as these other men who tell you how important they are. They’re only comparing themselves with each other, using themselves as a standard of measurement. That’s just ignorant. We will not boast about things done outside of our area of authority. We will boast only about what has happened within the boundaries of the work that God has given us, which includes our working with you.” He was a man who is cognizant of the fact that God gives us boundaries in our lives. This is a key to leadership and life governance for all of us. What is the sphere of influence at this point in your life that God has entrusted to you? What would it look like to faithfully honor Him in the boundaries of that sphere of influence? That is a key to living a life that is successful in the eyes of God.
Pushing forward, Paul says, “We will boast only about what has happened within the boundaries of the work God has given us, which includes our work with you. Obviously, we’re not reaching beyond these boundaries when we claim authority over you as if we never visited you. We were the first ones to travel all the way to Corinth with the good news of Christ. Don’t forget this church started because we were sent here to bring you this good news. We started this, and now you’re questioning whether I have any real responsibility or authority here? I’m your father. I’m a founder. Nor do we boast and claim credit for the work someone else has done. Instead, our desire is that your faith will grow so that the boundaries of our work among you will be extended. We’re hoping that your faith will grow so much that you’ll end up wanting to send us into places where the message of Jesus has never gone in the same way that we were sent to you. Then, there will be no question of our boasting about work done in someone else’s territory. As the scriptures say, if you want to boast, let’s quit comparing ourselves to one another. If you want to boast, boast only about the Lord. When people commend themselves, it doesn’t count for much. The important thing is for the Lord to commend them.”
Jumping to the 16th verse, “Again, I say don’t think that I’m a fool. I’m going to talk. I’m going to say something. It’s going to sound silly. I don’t mean it to sound this way. I would never do this. The only reason I’m about to do it is that I feel like I have to. I don’t want to.” Look at how he’s tacking back and forth. He’s going to say, “I sound like a fool, a madman, but I feel I need to boast. If I’m going to boast about it, I need to at least put my credentials out there.” You can see how uncomfortable he is defending himself because he’s being accused of being weak. Paul says, “But even if you do, listen to me as you would a foolish person. Give me a little space here while I boast a little. Now, such boasting, I tell you, is not from the Lord. I know that’s not the best way. I’m acting a little bit silly here, I get that, or at least immature. Since others boast about their human achievements, I feel compelled. I need to do it as well.”
Paul is going to go for a shot here. “After all, you think you’re so wise, but you enjoy putting up with fools, so I guess it shouldn’t be a problem for you. You put up with it when someone enslaves you, takes everything you have, takes advantage of you, takes control of you, and slaps you in the face. I’m ashamed to say we’ve been too weak to do that.” In other words, you had these hard-line teachers who are coming in with authoritarian ways. They were asserting themselves dramatically Paul says using figurative language. “Do you see what these guys are doing to you? They’re strong-arming you, they’re slapping you around, and yet you take it. But for me, who comes in soft trying to make the case, you treat as some weakling. They’re saying I’m weak because I’m reasonable. I’m trying to appeal to you in love, not manipulate you by misusing my authority. Because of that, you reject me? I guess, then, that I am weak.”
What follows is, “But whatever they dare to boast about, I dare boast about it too. They say they’re Hebrews. Well, so I’m I.” He’s talking about the pedigree to qualify him as a teacher of the message of Jesus that went back into the older Testament. He asks, “Are they Israelites? So am I. Are they descendants of Abraham? So am I. Are they servants of Christ? I know I sound like a mad man, but I’m telling you I have served Him. I hate comparing myself with other people who follow Jesus. That’s the worst thing you can do, but I’m going to tell you right now, I’ve served Him far more than they ever have. I’ve worked harder. I’ve been put in prison more often, been whipped times without number, faced death again and again. Five different times the Jewish leaders gave me 39 lashes,” which was the legal allowance. You couldn’t give more than that.
Paul says, “I faced death. I’ve been whipped times without number. I worked harder. I’ve been put in prison. I faced death again and again. Five different times the Jewish leaders gave me 39 lashes. Three times I’ve been beaten with rods almost to a point of death. Once, I was stoned with rocks and left for dead. Three times, I was shipwrecked. Once, I spent a whole night and day adrift at sea. That is scary. I have traveled on many long journeys. I faced danger from river crossings, robbers, and bandits. I’ve faced danger from my own people, the Jews, as well as from the Gentiles. I’ve faced danger in the cities. I’m telling you, in the deserts, on the seas. I have faced danger for men who claim to be believers but were not. I have worked hard and long, enduring many sleepless nights. I’ve been hungry and thirsty. I’ve gone without food. I have shivered in the cold with not enough clothing to keep me warm. On top of all of this, I have the daily burden, the weight of my concern for all the churches. Who is weak?”
Paul asks, “Who is weak?” Look at that phrase. He says, “Who is weak without me feeling weakness?” He basically says, “I can relate to people who are in trouble. I understand what that’s like. The one thing I can do is I can relate to people who are at the end of the rope because I’ve been there many times on behalf of Christ. I know what it’s like to feel weak and desperate. Who is led astray, and I do not burn with anger?” He’s saying, “One, don’t confuse. I do care. Yes, my suffering has softened me to people. That’s true. Two, I’ll tell you I am angry. I can get angry about it when I see false teachers leading people into spiritual places that are going to destroy them. That makes me burn with anger. It bothers me when people get duped, tricked, manipulated, and let off course.” He’s making the point, tricked into sin. He says, “It makes me angry.” That’s his passion. “So if I’m going to boast, I’m going to boast about the things that show how weak I am. If I have to brag, I’ll brag about the humiliations that make me more like Jesus. God, the father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who is worthy of eternal praise, knows. He knows I am not lying. I am telling you the truth.”
That’s powerful. Let’s take it and apply it. Sometimes there is a fine line to walk when we feel like we’re unfairly attacked or characterized, especially around a perceived weakness in our life. Should we speak up and defend ourselves, make the case or not? This was the exact thing that Paul was working with. “Do I speak up and defend myself, or do I let them just keep taking shots at me?” There’s a pattern with Jesus who modeled when he made his way to the cross, letting it be. There’s also a time when the Bible’s pretty clear that there’s a time to speak. There’s a time to be silent, but there’s also a time to speak. There’s a time to make a case for ourselves, and there’s a time to back off. There are times when speaking up is very appropriate and, like apostle Paul, we feel compelled to at least defend our record a little bit, or at least set the record straight. “You’re mischaracterizing me. This is wrong. I have to defend myself. I don’t want to do it, but I will. Hear me tell you this.” In Ecclesiastes, we’re reminded there’s a time to speak and a time to be silent. The key is getting it right.
Some of us speak when we should be silent. Others of us become silent when we should be speaking. I was talking to someone after one of the services. He said, “There are times.” All of us struggle in one. We lean one way or the other. Some of us have a tendency when things get hot to back off. Others, bite our tounges. In either of those ways, the danger is we start speaking our mind. We can say things we might regret. We get reckless with our words. How many of us can do that? I know I do it all the time. Others don’t want to say anything. Maybe we feel like we don’t do it that well, so we just start tucking in. This person I was talking to said, “My natural tendency is to tuck in because I feel like when I say it, it doesn’t come outright. I just start tucking it in there.” Eventually, whatever gets pushed down is like a cork in water. At some point, you push, push, push, and it will come out. Sometimes people are stunned because it’s like a torrent or an explosion. They wonder, “Where did that come from? That’s not you.” It explodes out. Next thing you know, wow.
Some of us over-talk. Some of us under talk. Some of us don’t communicate. I’ll tell you this, the Lord wants to help us in our weak zones. God wants to teach us how to communicate our hurts without becoming overly defensive and angry. There is so much wisdom in God’s word for living. There is so much wisdom relationally for the Lord’s ways. The way of Jesus has so much. It has so much life in it. There are patterns of communicating that we have had modeled for us. The Lord might want to tweak those things in our lives because He wants life and blessing to flow. For others, it might be speaking less of our mind to defend ourselves. Or it might be learning how to communicate because it’s important. Some of us over talk, some of us under talk. That’s partly what Paul was wrestling with himself.
Secondly, I don’t think we notice it right away, but Paul’s offering made him more empathetic. It forged in him a sympathy for others who struggled in weakness and suffered. I particularly refer to that 29th verse where he says, “Who is weak without me feeling that weakness?” Many times we think Paul is this hard guy. The truth is, he was being accused of being soft. Part of the reason he is soft, he says, “You’d think these things in my life would’ve made me hard, and they have. I know how to suffer for God.” He says, “But the truth is, they’ve also created for me a love for people who struggle with things, are weak, and suffering. That matters to me.”
I can’t help thinking about things like suffering, loss, and limitations in our lives when we have to deal with stuff, or weakness when we just don’t have it. Some of us are dealing with that as we’re aging or facing things that just remind us that we don’t have the resources other people have. Or, “Why isn’t this happening for me?” When we go through seasons like that, we’re either going to get harder or softer. We won’t come out the same. The adversity that we often talk about that we want to grow through will help us grow in a harder or softer direction. When we’re in an extended season of it, we’re either going to come out better or we’re going to come out bitter. I know what God wants. He wants that for all of us. When we’re under a hard place, experiencing loss or weakness in our lives, or feel like we’re on the short end of the stick, we’re either going to get edgier, meaner, harder to be with, or we’re going to move towards, becoming more compassionate, tender, and sensitive to others because we understand. There is such a thing that I call the fellowship of the wounded. When we understand what it’s like to hurt, then it’s hard for us to be unsympathetic to others who are hurting. It doesn’t mean everybody has the same situation. We’re all different. There’s something about it. The ultimate example is Jesus because He suffered and was wounded for our transgressions. He is the model of how to move through things victoriously or in a way that prevails.
I’ve told myself that even though I can’t stand difficult places, and I would never go back to what happened in 2015 if I had a choice. The Lord was able to do some deep work there in the difficult place, so it will be for you. It’s like that Robert Browning Hamilton poem. I walked a mile with pleasure. She chattered all the way, leaving me none the wiser with all she had to say. But I walked a mile with sorrow, never a word said she, but all the things I learned from her as sorrow walked with me. There’s something to that. That’s why Paul would say, “I can boast. I can glory in my limitations, in my hardship, in my weakness. I see them as a gift for two reasons. One, he says, “it makes me more empathetic.” I think that’s true. Two, he says, “the other thing is the reason I glory in it is that it makes me more Christlike. It teaches me where my real strength is found. Not in myself.” As we’re going to see next week, that was one of his big problems. He had a high sense of his value. He had pride. One of the things we’ll see is that God uses things sometimes that are weak as weakness in our life as a way of binding Him to us and vice versa.
We’ll leave it with this last piece. It seems so obvious, but in the Christian life let’s never forget this. Spiritual strength is always connected to weakness, or at least it frequently is. Remember, Paul’s critics said, “Oh, you’re weak. You’re weak.” By the time Paul’s done, he’s going to accept the accusation. He’s going to wave it like a flag. He’s going to start saying, “this is the secret sauce to my spiritual strength. Weakness.” Paul writes this later on. You’re going to see it in 2 Corinthians 12. He says, “Therefore, I’ll take pleasure in infirmities, reproaches, in needs, persecutions, and distresses for Christ’s sake.” The key phrase is at the back end. In his case, it was because he suffered for Christ. It could be other types of suffering, like the relational one he was having with the church at Corinth. He said, “For when I am weak, then I am strong.”
Whoa, what did you just say? When I am weak, then I am strong? That is both paradoxical and counterintuitive. It’s certainly countercultural because we honor the strong. God says weakness is a gift, even though it may not look like one. Weakness tends to bring two things if we open our lives. One, it tends to make us more open to God. Not just open, but we start casting our care in His direction. The harder it is, it starts moving us naturally towards the Lord, or way more open than I was. The other thing that happens is, God in turn casts something our way called grace. We cast our gaze towards Him. He casts grace in our direction. What starts to happen is things start to transform in us. Stuff starts to grow, and strength emerges in zones that have always been our weakness. We’re wrestling and struggling still, we have our ups and downs, but we’re starting to see change. We’re seeing growth, and we’re seeing things like the Lord’s faithfulness showing up in our lives. We’re seeing that this works in my life. All of a sudden, I’m finding myself in a very different kind of mindset because I’m learning how to trust Him. We realize God is capable of sustaining, transforming, and redeeming us. Redeeming means He takes the bad and brings good from it. That is huge.
I’ll leave it with this. I think the Christian life tends to flourish when we distrust our goodness and capacities. We say, “You know what? I’m not myself made. I have limits. I have weak areas. It’s okay. It’s good.” That is the blessed one. “The fool,” God says, “has said in their heart, ‘I don’t need God. There is no God. I am my God.'” I was reading somebody’s blog because they were struggling with something so hard for them around their identity. They were disowning Jesus and letting God go. As I was reading, I thought “All you’ve done is make yourself God. You just pushed Him out, and you put yourself on the pedestal. Now, I am God.” That’s the exact opposite. It wasn’t meant to pull you away from God. It was meant to draw you towards Him, to stress your goodness and capacities, embrace your weaknesses and vulnerabilities. Not because they are good, but because God can bring good from them.
Rely on God. Cultivate dependence as a way of life. If I had another point, I would say, “Stay optimistic and hopeful.” When the Lord is with us, there is nothing ever that is truly dead. I’ll say this again later. Wherever God isn’t, there is death. But wherever God is, there is life. In your handout, you’ll see the prayer that we’re going to pray together. We’ve been praying this just for this series, we’ve been writing daily prayers for the week.
Lord of my weakness and God of my strength, you’re both the one who is with me in my weakest places and you’re also my guide in my strongest places. I would like you to have your way in my life. Help me to embrace hard things, things like the criticism Paul was dealing with, limitations, weakness, things that aren’t working the way we want them to, things that we feel like we’re losing. Yes, even the suffering places where it’s hard, and we’re hurting, and it feels bad. Help me to embrace hard things in a way that causes me to lean towards you, like someone walking into the sunlight, warmth, and let the goodness of that light shine in. Please break me of my pride and self-reliance and give me the gift of humility. Bend me like a branch towards the sunlight of your love. Bend me like a branch, not away from you, but towards you, towards the sunlight of your love. This is what we pray in Jesus’s name. Amen.