God’s Strength in Our Weakness
In 1958 the great British preacher John Stott led an eight day evangelistic mission at the University of Sydney, Australia. On each evening of the mission John preached the gospel in the great hall of the university and gave an invitation for people to come forward to commit their lives to Christ. The first seven days went very well, and a good number of people responded to John’s invitation. However, on the last day of the mission John caught a bug that almost deprived him of the use of his voice. Shortly before the final meeting some student leaders gathered around him, and one of them read the words from our epistle for today, where God says to Paul ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness’ (2 Corinthians 12:9). The students prayed that those words might be fulfilled in John that night. This is how he goes on to describe what happened:
The hall was packed. But I could only croak my address into the microphone in a monotone, unable to assert my personality or modulate my voice in any way. When the time came for the invitation, however, there was an immediate and eager response. I have been back in Australia ten times since then, and every time someone has accosted me somewhere, asking “Do you remember that meeting in the great hall of Sydney University when you had lost your voice? I came to Christ that night”.
John Stott is an outstanding preacher, but on that night people didn’t notice his incredible talent. What they heard was a man with a croaky voice with no compelling power in his presentation at all. And yet, God was able to use that croaky voice in a powerful way.
Nowadays, in the church and in the world, we put great emphasis on competence. We look for qualifications, for training, for expertise, and no doubt this is a good thing. But we need to guard against the tendency to think that God can’t use you unless you have the proper qualifications. So, for instance, you might think that your visit to a sick person isn’t as good as the rector’s, because his prayers are somehow more powerful than yours (at least, that’s what some people believe!). Or you might decide to skip church on a Sunday that you know one of the lay readers is preaching – perhaps because you don’t think God can speak to you through someone who hasn’t had a seminary education.
In today’s epistle Paul offers us a different vision, a vision of a God who works through weak and struggling people to bless a weak and struggling world. In these verses Paul offers his own life as an object lesson of how God works. Look at the conclusion he draws in 2 Corinthians 12:9-10:
So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. 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.
Let’s look a bit more closely at what Paul is saying here. The relationship between him and the church in Corinth was a complex one, and sometimes hard for us to follow. But reading between the lines in the book of Acts and the two letters to the Corinthians, we can figure out that it went something like this.
Paul went to the city of Corinth in Greece to preach the Gospel in about A.D. 50, and a Christian church was soon planted there (we can read about this in Acts 18). In Corinth Paul found a tentmaking couple, Aquila and Priscilla, and since he was a tentmaker himself he lived with them and shared their business, while at the same time preaching in the synagogues and sharing the Gospel with the local Jewish population. Eventually he got thrown out of the synagogue, so he started holding meetings next door at the home of a man called Titius Justus. The ruler of the synagogue, Crispus, became a Christian, and many Gentiles were converted to Christ as well. Paul stayed in Corinth for a considerable length of time and a strong church was planted. But eventually he went on to do further missionary work in other places.
This is where we have to start reading between the lines. It seems that after Paul’s departure other preachers either came to Corinth or arose in Corinth itself. They denigrated Paul for a number of reasons. He hadn’t been one of the original Twelve apostles, so his message was suspect. He wasn’t a good orator in the Greek tradition and he wasn’t much to look at either. These new preachers emphasised spectacular charismatic gifts such as speaking in tongues and miracles. These things had been present in Paul’s ministry too, but not front and centre: he had given pride of place to the message of the Cross of Christ. But these new preachers seem to have emphasised visions and boasted of their powerful miraculous experiences.
As a result, the church in Corinth began to split into little camps of people, each claiming to follow their favourite leader and putting down the others. Some claimed to be followers of Peter, some of Apollos, some of Paul. Most of what Paul wrote in his two letters to the Corinthians deals with this tragedy and attempts to correct the wrong emphasis of the new movements in Corinth.
Paul had no doubt about what had caused this situation: a sinful pride that takes the marvellous spiritual gifts that God gives and uses them as an opportunity to compete for the highest positions and to build personal empires. These people had forgotten a fundamental truth about Christian life and ministry: it’s not about me, it’s about God. Of course, what you often find underneath this pride and desire for recognition is a deep insecurity, a low sense of self-worth, and a desperate hunger for affirmation. But if this is not dealt with it can have a devastating effect in a church.
This can happen with a person who is in music ministry. Perhaps an organist, a keyboard player or a guitarist is very competent, and a congregation begins to take great pride in his skill, listening to his playing rather than worshipping God. Perhaps the musician himself loses sight of his call to assist others to worship God, sensing that here is an opportunity to get recognition for his talent. All of us who play music in churches are tempted in that way; I know I’ve done it sometimes. I forget that it’s not about me – it’s about God.
Or perhaps a vestry member is very competent in the area of her expertise. People defer to her views, and gradually, subtly, she begins to fall in love with her own power. She gets a charge out of getting things done the way she wants. Soon every vestry meeting is a war. She has this need to control the agenda of the church, and if her authority is challenged she becomes furious. She’s forgotten that it’s not about her – it’s about God.
Do you see the bind that God is in? He has these wonderful spiritual gifts and talents that he wants to give to us, but when he dares to give them he runs the constant danger that we will use them to glorify ourselves rather than to do his work. How is he going to deal with this danger?
The answer often seems to be that he gives us these gifts and talents in combination with weaknesses and struggles. Paul’s experience is a case in point.
In today’s epistle Paul describes an incredible spiritual experience he had, in which he was caught up to the third heaven and saw things so wonderful that human language just could not express them. But God was well aware of Paul’s sinfulness and his weakness for boasting, and so he balanced this vision with an experience of suffering; ‘a thorn’, Paul says, ‘was given me in the flesh’ (v.7). God did not originate this ‘thorn’ – Paul calls it ‘a messenger of Satan’ (v.7) – but God did allow it, for Paul’s ultimate good.
What exactly was this suffering? I have read dozens of theories about it. One of the most well known theories was that it was a disease of the eyes; in a couple of places in his letter to the Galatians Paul refers to difficulties he had with his eyesight. Another theory is that Paul was subject to frequent attacks of malaria, which apparently are often accompanied by a splitting headache that feels exactly like a stake driven into one’s head. But the most honest answer is that we don’t know for sure exactly what Paul’s ‘thorn’ was. However, it’s quite plain that his Corinthian friends did know what it was. His opponents may even have seized on this ‘thorn’ as another opportunity to ridicule him, but Paul’s response shows his appreciation for it as a vital part of his spiritual growth.
There’s a very important truth here. In our day we’ve seen a recovery of the ministry of Christian healing and the fact that God can and does intervene in a miraculous way to remove suffering. But we need to balance that fact with the truth we see in this passage: that God sometimes gives, not miraculous healing, but miraculous grace to live with the suffering and not be overwhelmed by it.
When this happens, it is very obvious that the power is not ours but God’s. I think of our old friend Lloyd Robinson who died a couple of years ago. When he first came to St. Margaret’s he had recently lost his dear wife Maisie, and it was obvious to everyone that he was really struggling with this. But as if this wasn’t enough, a few years later he lost his only daughter Dahlia. I can only imagine what that must have done to Lloyd, and yet he remained faithful to God, he continued to worship and rely on God, and he was able to go through the suffering with the help of God. Everyone could see it was not that he was strong but that God was strong.
Sometimes it’s easier for God to use human weakness than human strength. A few years ago, in the space of a couple of days, I heard two very different preachers. One was on a video at a clergy conference; a sermon by a very famous American priest who has written several books on preaching. She was a real poet with words and she spoke with great eloquence. Afterwards as we were discussing the sermon it was obvious that we all admired her artistry. “What a great preacher she is!” was our thought.
But then a couple of days later I heard Gordon Light preach at an ordination service at our cathedral. Gordon’s presentation was simple, quiet, even modest. He was not a great orator and I remember hearing no memorable phrases. But I left that service thinking, not “What a great preacher!” but “What a great message from God!” In many ways Gordon’s presentation was weaker than that of the American priest, but there’s no doubt in my mind that his sermon had the greater impact for Christ on me.
So I come back to where I started. You don’t have to be strong in order to be useful to God. In fact, sometimes strength can be a liability. A person who is strong, or a person who has a lot of natural talent, can start to think that they don’t have to rely on God any more. But weakness forces us to rely on God. We have to cry out to him for help and depend on him consciously every moment.
Speaking personally, I’m very aware of this when I’m counselling with people. I don’t consider myself to be a gifted counsellor, and so when I’m doing this ministry I’m always conscious of a sense of desperation. “I’m weak, Lord – I need your help!” On the other hand, I know that God has gifted me as a preacher and a teacher; the temptation for me in those ministries is to rely on my own ability and competence instead of the guidance and power of God.
Some years ago I heard my Dad preach one of the best sermons I’d heard in a long time. He preached it here at St. Margaret’s, on a Sunday evening on which we held a special service of prayer for healing. Dad spoke very strongly about the power of God to heal the sick, but in a moment of irony he alluded to the fact that he had made his way to the pulpit with the help of a walking stick. This, he said, was testimony to the fact that he himself was still a needy person.
The one who prays for others doesn’t need to be perfectly healed herself before she can be useful to God. Every one of us is a work in progress. None of us has complete health, holiness or giftedness. And so we all cry out to God for help and depend on the grace of God to carry us through. This is good, because what people see as a result is not human expertise, but the power of God. This was true of Paul too; it was why he said ‘So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. 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 12:9-10).