For the sake of Christ, then, I am pleased with weaknesses.
—2 Corinthians 12:10
In The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe by C. S. Lewis, the Christ-figure Aslan, the Lion, appears to Lucy and Susan after being killed by the Witch. He’s alive again. He explains why:
Though the Witch knew the Deep Magic, there is a magic deeper still which she did not know. Her knowledge goes back only to the dawn of Time. But if she could have gone a little further back, . . . she would have known that when a willing victim who had committed no treachery was killed in a traitor’s stead, the Table would crack and Death itself would start working backwards.
Because of the death and resurrection of Jesus, death is starting to work backwards. For everyone who has opened up to Jesus, life is getting stronger within, and death is getting weaker within, even though our bodies will die. This startling new insight changes everything.
Here is what everyone needs to know. God has created new ground rules for how life works. We don’t believe it – not enough for it to change us. We think we’ll finally be happy when we get life arranged around us in just the way that pleases us. But God’s surprising strategy is this. Life comes through death. Progress comes through setbacks. Gain comes through loss. Power comes through weakness. And so forth. The ways of God are so surprising that we never stop adjusting. And God’s surprising m.o. isn’t a stunt. It isn’t that God has a personality quirk that just enjoys paradox for its own sake. It isn’t that he thought we’d bring strength to the table, but when he saw how badly we performed he then decided to kick in more than he had initially expected. God’s power through our weakness is not God’s Plan B. It’s the whole point. It’s the gospel entering into our experience. It’s the resurrection of Jesus making a difference even now in our mortality. It’s in our weaknesses, not our strengths, that Jesus becomes too real to be ignored.
What is Immanuel Church here to do? We are here to make the real Jesus non-ignorable in our city and far beyond. Each one of us is thinking and praying through what to do about that. This mission is sacred. It must change every one of us. But we might think, “I can’t advance that mission. I’m too sinful.” And last week we saw that it’s repentant sinners through whom God works. We might also think, “Sure, I’d love to do something for the Lord. And if I could just get past this barrier to my usefulness and my confidence, I’d get after it. If only I didn’t have this job, if only I were smarter, if only I had a better personality, if only if I didn’t have this embarrassing background, if only I didn’t have so much to live down, if only ______________.” That’s how we all think. Here’s what I want you to know, as you consider what you are doing to do to make the real Jesus non-ignorable. Don’t think of your weaknesses as a barrier to serving Jesus. Weaknesses are your breakthrough to serving the real Jesus. Our limitations are how Jesus proves how unlimited he is. God wants to make Jesus non-ignorable through you – not the idealized you you wish you were, not the better you you could have been, but the real you you’re stuck with. The God who raises the dead can use anybody, on this one condition – if you’re willing for your life not to be about you any more but only about Christ. Verse 10: “For the sake of Christ….” Let’s think it through together.
I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows. And I know that this man was caught up into paradise—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows—and he heard things that cannot be told, which man may not utter. On behalf of this man I will boast, but on my own behalf I will not boast, except of my weaknesses—though if I should wish to boast, I would not be a fool, for I would be speaking the truth; but I refrain from it, so that no one may think more of me than he sees in me or hears from me. —2 Corinthians 12:2-6
Here’s why Paul is saying this. He is under attack by false teachers who are boasting of their spectacular spiritual experiences and putting Paul down as inferior. The Corinthians are dazzled. They’re in danger of being exploited by these impressive big-talkers. How can Paul help them? In a surprising way. He matches the boasting of the false teachers with his own boasting, but he chooses to boast about unboastable things.
The false teachers presented themselves as being above weakness and need and problems. They were on a constant spiritual high. So Paul reveals his second greatest spiritual experience ever, when God gave him a guided tour of heaven. But for fourteen years he told no one. He never wanted to be perceived as above anyone else. Paul knows how God really works – not through big shots but through ordinary people. Once-in-a-lifetime experiences are not the Christian platform for spirituality; everyday life is, even a hard life.
There are basically two ways to do Christianity and to do life. Our way is climbing up and up and up to greater glory and impressiveness and winning. God’s way is stepping down and down and down to the cross. Martin Luther called our way the theology of glory and God’s way the theology of the cross. It’s the difference between our false gospel and God’s true gospel. Here is the key insight into life: God does the opposite of what we expect. We think God will empower and bless our formulas for success. But the truth is, God succeeds by doing what we think will fail. We see this most clearly at the cross. How did God triumph over our sin and guilt? By allowing our sin and guilt to triumph over him. We don’t understand God. We think he’s going to use the same ground rules everyone else uses. We look at the world and we see raw power and intimidation winning everywhere. It looks like the cross-approach is stupid. But the truth is, God’s weakness is stronger than our strength and God’s wisdom is more shrewd than our genius. This is the real Jesus. And he wants to show us how life really works.
What do we see here in Paul? His greatest spiritual breakthrough came not through his mountaintop experience; it came through the worst thing that ever happened to him – getting his thorn in the flesh, and learning to live with it happily:
So to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited. —2 Corinthians 12:7
Whatever this “thorn” was, it hurt. Thorns always do. Whatever it was that hurt Paul so deeply, it reduced him to constant need. Without it, he might have been tempted to become glib and flashy about his sacred experience of heaven. He might have opened up Jesusland in ancient Rome, a theme park with thrill rides and popcorn, where everyone could come and catch the afterglow of his own amazingness. That’s the theology of glory. It’s swagger and big-dealness and throwing one’s weight around and using Jesus, even Jesus, for self-display. We’re all capable of it. So God in mercy sends into our lives some kind of pain and loss, some kind of thorn, to keep our feet on the ground, where even the Son of God chose to live, where everyone lives through whom God is going to work. God saves us from our foolish self-glory and takes us to the cross, so that the power of the resurrection can also come to us. The gospel does not produce a race of conceited, super-human people, a cut above everyone else. Our city does not need more of that. The gospel takes us in the opposite direction – God’s power received with the empty hands of faith, and even the pierced hands of pain. Without a thorn, would we even open our hands to God?
Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. —2 Corinthians 12:8
This explains the kind of weakness Paul is talking about. Some weaknesses come about through our own laziness and sloppiness. If your opportunity in life is diminished because you’ve failed to take advantage of what God has given you, you need to repent and get yourself in gear and make something of yourself. But that’s another topic for another day. What we’re talking about today is the second kind of weakness. We’re talking about hardships and limitations and setbacks we have no control over. They crash into our lives, and there is nothing we can do about it but pray. That’s what we see in verse 8. This passage is for catastrophic losses so overwhelming all you can do is fall to your knees because you’re thinking, “I can’t even go on living, if this doesn’t change.” What was God’s answer when Paul prayed? The same answer every one of us is going to hear:
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 of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. —2 Corinthians 12:9
That answer to Paul’s prayer is not second best. It is not God’s consolation prize for losers. It is the highest privilege of life. Paul looked at his wounded life and all he could see before him was two options. One, go on living with the thorn and be too crippled to serve Jesus. Two, get rid of the thorn and get back to “normal.” Then God showed Paul a third option: keep the thorn in his life, add in all-sufficient grace, and become living proof of power from above that can’t be ignored.
“My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” What was the Lord saying? He was saying, “I’m not going to pull that thorn out of your life. But my grace – my friendship, my nearness, my promises, my presence – all that I give will match, and more than match, all that you suffer. A wounded life is perfect for the display of my power.” Your real life is perfect for God’s grace and power. Your weakened condition is not evidence against you; it is God’s way to turn the page to a new chapter in a story only he can tell, a story that draws others in Christ.
After Paul’s third try with the Lord, he finally got it. In fact, he was happy with it: “Therefore, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me.” The verb translated “rest upon” reminds us of the Shekinah glory, back in the Old Testament, hovering over Israel in their wilderness wanderings. The Bible says that Moses could not enter the tent of meeting because God’s glory had settled on it. But in the New Covenant the afflicted Christian believer is where the glory rests. The weakened believer is the dwelling place of God.
If God intends to use you for his glory, something will come into your life, something undesirable, unforeseeable and unavoidable. It will feel like the end of your story. But the Lord will help you. He will show you it’s a new chapter, a better chapter, because you’ve come to the end of yourself, all you have left is desperate need for God, and you find him to be enough. That is how God will show many people through you that the real Jesus is enough for anyone facing anything. People will see him in your resilient hope and ruggedness and joy. Your weakness will make his power non-ignorable. Here is the decisive step God wants you to take this morning:
For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong. —2 Corinthians 12:10
The ESV reads, “I am content with weaknesses….” But the NIV reads, “I delight in weaknesses….” Is Paul claiming contentment or enjoyment? The Greek word can be translated either way. But the NIV is right. Paul is saying that he likes what God is doing. How do I know? Verse 10 is restating verse 9: “Therefore, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses….” So we should read verse 10 as, “For the sake of Christ, then, I am happy with my weakened life.” No self-pity, not even contentment, but cheerfulness. And there is no end to it. Paul broadens his message beyond his own thorn-experience to every kind of pain we face: “…weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions and calamities.” Fill in the blank with every kind of hardship. The risen Jesus is saying to you today, “Give your weakness to me, whatever it is, and I will give my power to you.” God is not into sparing us hardship. He is into giving us more of himself. Earlier in this letter Paul said, “We were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death. But that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead” (2 Corinthians 1:8-9).
Maybe you came into church today thinking, “All I have to offer the Lord is my exhaustion and sadness and embarrassment and impasse and even despair.” The Lord is saying to you today, “I can work with that. Only when you are weak will you become strong in me.” The real you can make the real Jesus non-ignorable for other broken people.
What is your part? Look at verse 10: “For the sake of Christ.” Those words are the death of self-focus. Those words define a new purpose. It’s when our reason for living changes from “For my own sake and my own glory” to “For the sake of Christ and his glory.” I was humbled to read a sentence from Jack Miller’s book, The Heart of a Servant Leader, recently: “Only prayer with a goal of glorifying God at any cost can give God’s vision to a man or woman.” We’re starting to think and pray and dream about how we’re going to make the real Jesus non-ignorable in our city and far beyond. The most important thing we can do to prepare our hearts for the answers is humility – putting Jesus and his glory above ourselves at any cost.
When we lift this banner over our lives and over our families and over our church – “For the sake of Christ” – that’s we might even stop asking God to take the thorn away. We start thinking, “Now I have the privilege of seeing what only he can do.”
Three simple take-aways. One, the way God wants to use you is probably in the most impossible part of your life. Two, the more your heart can say, “For the sake of Christ,” the more you’ll experience his power. It doesn’t even say, “For the sake of evangelism.” God might not have that for you. But the point of your life is not evangelism. The point of your life is Christ. You can advance the mission in many ways, as long as it’s about him and not you any more. Three, the real barrier to a great life is not weakness and pain. The real barrier is the perfect designer life you thought you’d live. If you’ll let that go, your life will start looking like the real Jesus.