When weak is strong…

Posted by on Aug 16, 2016 in Blog | 2 comments

At Carey we are running a series on emotionally healthy spirituality based on Peter Scazzero’s book of that title. It was my turn to speak this week, and I looked at his chapter on hitting the wall. The message was based on 2Cor 12:1-10 and focused on the Pauline paradox in 2 Cor 12:10 For when I am weak, then I am strong. Clearly this flies in the face of conventional wisdom. Here are the notes I spoke from… 

You’ve probably heard the Mae West quip: “I’ve been rich and I’ve been poor. Rich is better.”

How would you complete this one? I’ve been strong and I’ve been weak… It’s a little counterintuitive to say, weak is better… and actually, that is not quite what the passage just read says… for it suggests not that weak is better, but that weak is stronger. How can this be?

We are busy with a series on what makes for a healthy spirituality, and the Scazzero’s suggest that a key part of healthy spirituality is coming to a point (often many times) when we hit the wall – when feel we can’t make it… And so depend on God.

What experiences count as hitting the wall? Like me, you can probably answer from your own experience. I remember a man saying to me, after his wife and children had left him: ‘I don’t know why – but I always drive away the people I most love and care for. I can be really nice to people who don’t matter very much to me – but when I really care, I don’t know what possesses me, but I just criticize and complain about them and in the end they think I don’t care. Actually it is because I care so much… why do I always drive away the people I love?’ Yes – he had hit the wall.

For others it is about health – perhaps mental health, perhaps physical health. For others about addictions. Others make one foolish decision after another. Sometimes it is a spiritual wall. St John of the Cross spoke of ‘the dark night of the soul’- those bewildering experiences when God seems absent, not for a few minutes, but month after month.

Our instinct is usually to view such things as a curse – but part of an emotionally healthy spirituality is the ability to see God in the flow of life – including life’s most difficult days.

Let’s track how it worked out for the apostle Paul as he records it in 2Cor 12. Paul’s statements in 2 Cor 12:10 about strength and weakness come as a complete surprise. Let his words take your breath away…

“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.”

How can it be that when we are weak we are strong? And is it possible to delight in our weaknesses, in being insulted and the rest?

It’s important to understand Paul’s position. The broader context is that a group of false apostles were trying to usurp his position. In response Paul speaks very candidly about himself, his commitment to the work of God, and now about his vulnerability.

At the time of writing (about AD55) Paul’s health had not been good. He speaks about it as a thorn in his flesh. We’re not sure what the thorn (v 7) was. Paul sees it as originating as an onslaught from Satan. There has been endless speculation as to its nature. Some have suggested his eyesight was never fully restored after his Damascus road experience when he was temporarily blinded (Acts 9:8), others that repeated beating and stoning and being shipwrecked were taking their toll. He had been close to death so often that while his body kept on functioning, it was possible that it was now reacting to its harsh treatment. Yet others see in Scripture a  hint at epilepsy. After 2000 years, we’re still not sure, and will have to wait until the afterlife for definite answers. Perhaps it is as well that we don’t know, for if we did we’d want to compare it with our struggles, concluding Paul was either better or worse off than we are. (Call that arthritis – he should know what I have to put up with!)

The Bible is content to leave it as a “thorn in his flesh”. Repeated prayer saw no miracle cure, even though Paul says the thorn was initially a “messenger from Satan” (v7) and one would have thought, therefore, that prayer would have seen it removed. Instead, God answers Paul’s prayer in an unexpected and initially unwelcome way. After 3 serious sessions of prayer, Paul is prepared to accept God’s answer, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.

Paul didn’t find it any easier than we would to be on a journey of discovery that God’s power is best demonstrated in the lives of those who have little choice but to trust in him. But in the end he was able to discover and delight in the strength that comes through weakness. He learnt the hardest of all lessons, “when I am weak, then I am strong.

What does this say to us? I’ll look at Paul’s stages in coming to terms with weakness…

STAGE 1: FLIGHT (v7-8)

Naturally enough Paul’s first response to his ailment is one of flight. He wants to be rid of it. It made sense that he should be well. He was the most effective apostle. The church was in a vulnerable stage of development. It had been growing quickly, but could fall apart as rapidly. How could he roam around the ever-dangerous countryside, face fierce opponents and live under the harshest of conditions unless he was in excellent health?

So I have little doubt that when Paul’s condition (whatever it was) arose, he went to prayer enthusiastically and confidently. After all, he had seen many miracles take place. When he was in Lystra, the miraculous healing of a crippled man had seen the people falsely concluding that Paul must be a god (Acts 14:8ff) while in Ephesus the power of God rested on Paul so powerfully that if he so much as touched a handkerchief or apron it could then be put on someone who was sick and they would be healed (Acts 19:11-12). With a track record like that, surely his own healing was certain.

But prayer session one is singularly unsuccessful. Paul’s quickly concludes that this needs persistent prayer. A second and third session follows. Sure the voice of God had been heard at those times, but the message was unwelcome “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (v9).

It’s easy enough to understand what was happening here. God was speaking reasonably clearly, but the answer wasn’t to Paul’s liking. We are usually quick to hear the voice of God when it tells us what we want to hear, but it is a different matter when there is a hard message to be conveyed.

Our children are now grown, but when they were younger I repeatedly experimented with their hearing. I discovered that certain words, no matter how quietly spoken, were audible throughout the house and could even be heard in the garden. They included things like, “Anyone for a piece of chocolate?” or “Come and see the wonderful new make of ice cream I brought” or “I’m going to get a video from the shop. Should I just choose one or does anyone want to come with me to help?” The acoustics in the house were really strange though because no matter how loudly I shouted, “Whose turn to wash the dishes?” or “Will someone please help me tidy this room?” it was absolutely inaudible. In fact, even if one of the children were standing next to me, they are unable to hear at that point.

Strangely it is not always different in prayer. We often hear only what we want to hear. When God gives hard answers our initial response is one of flight and denial. It took 3 sessions of prayer before Paul was prepared to believe that God was serious.

The principle is simple. We must be prepared to pray about everything. But we must also be prepared to accept the answers. Sometimes the prayers we proclaim as “unanswered” have simply been answered in a way that is not to our initial liking.

A number of years ago, a man in a church I attended was told that he was going to be made redundant. We were all called together to pray. The instructions were clear. This retrenchment is unfair; pray that those involved will change their minds. But the more we prayed the more certain the retrenchment became. Part way through the process many of us felt that God was saying, “I’m behind this retrenchment. Why are you praying against my plans?” We were told we must be wrong and to keep on praying against this ‘injustice’ and being submissive followers we did. Hindsight is a wonderful teacher. The retrenchment went ahead. After a month of great panic, the man got a far better job, was much more fulfilled and of far greater use to God’s Kingdom. We spent all that time praying against the purposes of God because we didn’t want to listen to God’s answer.

STAGE 2: EMBRACE (v1-9)

Denial can’t last forever. Paul’s thorn in the flesh didn’t go! Paul changes strategy from flight and denial to embracing the will and purpose of God. And we are moving towards emotionally healthy spirituality when we realize that we can view our vulnerability as a friend, not an enemy. How… Indeed, it is easier to say this than to do it.

You only embrace the purposes of God when you understand certain things clearly…

  • God is love, all the time. No matter how complex the road we travel, in the end we discover that the journey has been motivated by love. There is never a moment when God does not love you. Easy to say that quickly – but hear it slowly – and hear it being spoken to you… Even when you hit the wall, God loves you.
  • God is all powerful. When we struggle it is not because God is stuck and doesn’t know how to rescue us. Isa 59:1 declares boldly “the arm of the Lord is not too short to save, nor his ear too dull to hear”.
  • God is all knowing. He isn’t taken by surprise. He has access to all the facts.
  • God is omnipresent. Even when we feel most far from God, He is still there.

All that I have said is absolutely true. But there are different ways of knowing… The theologian in you can quickly assent to all the above as tried and trusted truths about God. But our hearts sometimes speak a different language to our heads.

Someone has said: “All I have seen teaches me to trust God for all I have not seen.” I gel with that! It’s a thoroughly Biblical approach. Whenever the Israelites faced impossible odds in a battle (and that was often enough) they would begin by reminding themselves of the many ways God had come to their rescue. At some point in the retelling of the story their hearts would find fresh courage.

We need to remind ourselves of the faithfulness of God in our own lives.

Someone has said “We come into the world naked, hungry and wet. Then it gets worse!”  The cynic in me smiled when I first read that… but as I thought about it, I realized, “But that’s not true! We come into the world naked and vulnerable and the vast majority of us find warmth and comfort and nurture. None of it is earned. It is freely given for no other reason than that we are alive. Our lives begin with a parable about grace.”

And our journey of faith is a journey of discovering the times that God turns up for us. The trouble with fear is that it makes us forgetful . A sudden crisis and it’s as though we accidentally press the delete button. Years of the faithfulness of God get forgotten about. But fortunately the deleted items go to the “recycle bin” in the computers of our soul. They are there waiting to be claimed back if we have the sense to make the journey of remembrance and naming. So if you doubt the love of God for you, cast your mind back before the crisis of the present.

This is the strategy Paul uses. In v 1-7 he speaks of being “caught up to the third heaven” (v2). The first heaven is the sky above the earth, the second heaven is outer space, with its many galaxies and unexplored wonders, and the ancients saw the third heaven as the realm where God lives. Paul is saying that he was ushered into the presence of God. God does not give Paul permission to speak of the wonderful things he saw there, but it’s clear he was deeply impacted by it. It is no accident that Paul recounts this experience before he speaks of his present struggles. The logic is simple… In the light of all that I have been shown, why should these temporary troubles disturb me?

While Paul speaks of his vision of glory, it took place 14 years earlier (v2) . Some followers of Jesus speak as though every day is a ‘glory hallelujah’ experience. Usually, it doesn’t work like that. Most days are ordinary and sometimes God seems far away. It can be hard to locate God in the relentlessly rapid routine of our lives. Paul wasn’t that different. He isn’t able to say, “In my prayers yesterday…” The experience he draws strength from is now 14 years old. As I thought about that I reflected on my own experience of God. Sure, there have been lots of little things that have happened, but in the last 35 years, I was able to identify just 7 really dramatic encounters with God. But even as I say “Just 7” I know that these are the reasons I could never seriously doubt God. I can’t claim to have been caught up to the third heaven, but these have given me endless mileage.

So how do we embrace God’s purposes? By trusting more in the character and love of God. And we remember that as we keep a record of what God has done for us.

STAGE 3: FINDING NEW SOURCES OF STRENGTH (v1-7)

The passage ends on an upbeat note. Paul is confident of this… he may be weak, but his weakness is turning out to be a strength, for it is making him dependant on God.

When next you’re tempted to shake the fist at God and ask “Why?” ask instead, “Lord, how can this present weakness be turned into a strength for your glory.” You could be surprised by the new sources of strength and blessing that come in strange disguise…

Oh – and was Paul actually strong when he was weak? We have no indication that his thorn was ever taken away… And he lived about another 12 years after writing this – and they were incredibly fruitful years. It is probably true to say that other than for Jesus, Paul is the most influential person who ever lived. He totally transformed the course of human history… Not bad for someone who was so weak that he had to depend upon God…

I concluded the message by a slow reading of 2 Cor 12:7-10. What do I mean by a slow reading? It taps into an old spiritual tradition of reading and rereading a short passage of scripture, often only a few words at a time, sometimes backtracking and repeating them, sometimes configuring some phrases together in a slightly different sequence to experience their power. We often speak so much about scripture, and then forget to let it speak to us… In listening to the Spirit speak through these powerful verses, some found strength to face their own wall… and to face it in the strength that comes from outside of our own self. Perhaps if you slowly read this passage, it will speak to you as well…

Therefore, in order to keep me from becoming conceited, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. 10 That is why, 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.

Nice chatting…

2 Comments

  1. I’m not sure how it happened that I started to receive your writings Brian, but I’m very glad I did. You often tackle issues that others may avoid. And with such clarity and insight. Thankyou!

  2. Trixie Oates August 17, 2016

    I’m not sure how it happened that I started to receive your writings Brian, but I’m very glad I did. You often tackle issues that others may avoid. And with such clarity and insight. Thankyou!

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