After pleading with the Lord to remove his “thorn in the flesh,” the Apostle Paul shocked his contemporaries by boasting in his weakness. Paul refused to be discouraged. Instead, he proclaimed the sufficiency of grace and the power of Christ. In this message, Alistair Begg challenges us to consider our own limitations as the key to usefulness in Christ’s service. Honestly recognizing our weaknesses enables us to battle spiritual pride and rest solely in God’s strength.
Our Scripture reading for this morning is found in the New Testament, in 2 Corinthians 12, and we’re going to read from verse 1 to verse 10.
In coming to this, we are at a point in Paul’s argument where he has been responding, as we will find out in a moment or two, to those who are his detractors and who have made accusations and insinuations concerning both he and his colleagues. And they are very boastful individuals, and as he plays with this whole idea of boasting, we pick up his line of thought:
“I must go on boasting. Although there is nothing to be gained, I will go on to visions and revelations from the Lord. 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. And I know that this man—whether in the body or apart from the body I do not know, but God knows—was caught up to paradise. He heard inexpressible things, things that man is not permitted to tell. I will boast about a man like that, but I will not boast about myself, except about my weaknesses. Even if I should choose to boast, I would not be a fool, because I would be speaking the truth. But I refrain, so no one will think more of me than is warranted by what I do or say.
“To keep me from becoming conceited because of these [surpassing] great revelations, there was given me 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. 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.”
May God bless to us the reading of his Word, and let’s ask his help as we study it together:
We thank you, Father, that your word is fixed in the heavens; that it always accomplishes the purposes that you have intended for it; that “no word from [you] can fruitless fall”; that it is the work of the Word to convince and to convict, to reprove, to challenge, to change, to train, to burst the bubble of our pride, to come to us in our discomfiture, and pick us up, and turn our gaze afresh to Jesus. And so we pray that through the voice of a mere man, in it and beyond it, we may hear the voice of God by the Spirit as we turn to these sacred pages, which you have left to us in order that we might be able to discover your mind and your will. Help us now, we pray, for Jesus’ sake. Amen.
I’d like to begin by asking a question this morning—I may ask it more than once—and it’s this: I wonder, have you ever considered the possibility that your limitations and your handicaps may prove to be the key to your usefulness in the service of Christ? Let me ask it again: Have you ever considered the possibility that your limitations and your handicaps may prove to be the key to your usefulness in the service of Christ?
It’s not uncommon to hear others say, and to find oneself saying, things like this: “If I wasn’t such a quiet person, then I think God would make much more use of me than he does.” Funnily enough, somebody else in the room is saying of themselves, “If I were just a little quieter and not as boisterous as I am, I think I might be more useful to God.” Another is saying, “If my circumstances were only brighter, then I think I would be increasingly useful. If my health were only a little better, if my mind were only a little quicker…” And so it goes on. “If I were not”—to quote Paul in earlier verses —“if I were not such an old clay pot, if I were something other than I am, then in the discovery of this new person, then I think I would be the kind of useful individual that God looks for his kingdom.”
And we’re tempted, actually, to play the part which Paul suggests we mustn’t, in referring to it in Romans 9, where he asks the question, “Should the Plasticine question the hand that molds the Plasticine? Should the clay say to the potter, ‘Why have you made me like this?’” And one of the things that we’re tempted to do when we find ourselves confronted by our limitations and our handicaps and our weaknesses is to look around on other people and say, “You know, I really should’ve been a little bit more like him,” or “I should’ve been a little more like her, and if I were, and if I could only become so, then of course, I will be far more useful.”
Or do we think that we’re just a random collection of molecules or something? That we’re just held in some suspension? Or do we actually believe what the Bible says: that we were wrought purposefully, divinely, intricately in our mother’s womb, and having been fashioned by his divine purpose—despite the fact that our lives are tainted and disfigured by our sin and our rebellion—as a result of God’s common grace in his creative handiwork, he has made every single one of us as a unique individual, and even our very limitations, handicaps, and weaknesses, which he has permitted and permits in our lives, he uses as a key to usefulness?
Now, I think you know me well enough to know that my bent is as far away from what I’m about to read to you now as it needs to be. But it struck me this week, through a whole host of circumstances, that I should send this piece to two or three individuals, and so I did. And so I wrote a note to them, and it took me time, and I wrote to them as follows: I put their name first, and then I told them, I said,
In all the world there is nobody, nobody like you. Since the beginning of time, there has never been another person like you. Nobody has your smile, your eyes, your hands, your hair. Nobody owns your handwriting, your voice.
Nobody can paint your brush strokes. Nobody has your taste for food, or music, or dance, or art. Nobody in the universe sees things as you do. In all of time, there has never been anyone who laughs in exactly your way, and what makes you laugh, or cry, or think may have a totally different response in another.
You are different from every other person that has ever lived in the history of the universe. You are the only one in the whole creation who has your particular set of abilities. There is always someone who is better at one thing or another. Every person is your superior in at least one way. But nobody in the universe can reach the quality of the combination of your talents, your feelings.
Throughout all of eternity, no one will ever walk, talk, think, or do exactly like you.
You are rare, and in all rarity, there is enormous value, and because of your great value, the need for you to imitate anyone else is absolutely wrong.
You happen to be special, and it’s no accident that you are. Please realise that God made you for a special purpose. He has a job for you to do that no one else can do as well as you can. Out of the billions of applicants only one is qualified. Only one has the unique and right combination of what it takes, and that one is you.
The “you” that during the days of the past week has come out with some of the phrases that I just described! “If only I didn’t have this limitation. If only I was as strong as I used to be. If only I was this, or that, or the next thing,” as if somehow or another the creator of the ends of the earth, who redeems you in the person of Christ and who establishes our coming and our going, has somehow or another taken his hand off the brush, and it has begun to paint your life all on its own.
Now, why do I begin in this way? Because it’s the very issue that Paul is addressing here in 2 Corinthians 12. When these kinds of thoughts emerge, we discover that Satan is happy to champion them. The Evil One is quick to encourage us to doubt the integrity of God’s character and the integrity of his promises. So, when you or I face particular difficulties, when great sadness comes into our lives, when we face severe discomfort, one of the tacks of the Evil One is to particularly endeavor to cast doubt upon the love of God for us and to suggest to us that the way out of this dilemma is to make sure that everybody understands how phenomenally strong and capable we actually are.
Now, in the passage that we’ve just read, Paul acknowledges these peculiar challenges that have come his way. In verse 10, if your Bible is open—and it really needs to be—he says,
“Here are the challenges that I’m facing,” and he mentions just four: “weaknesses,” “insults,” “hardships,” “persecutions,” and summarizes it in the phrase “in difficulties.”
That’s quite an interesting list, isn’t it? You might say to the apostle Paul, “Now, Paul, we’d like you to come to Parkside and just give a little word of testimony as to where you are at this point in your life.” Everybody’s waiting because the mighty apostle is about to come, and of course he will be able to speak of victory, and of power, and of might, and of experiences, and of all the great conquests that he’s known in the service of Christ. And he said, “Well, I’d really like to speak to you along four lines: first of all, I want to tell you that I feel myself incredibly weak; I’ve been getting, along with my colleagues, a tremendous amount of insults; my life is really marked by hardships; that’s to say nothing of the persecutions; and frankly, we’re just living in difficulties.” Say what?
Now, in order to really get to this, you need to understand the wider context in which these statements are said, and so you need to turn with me, if you would, back to chapter 10 and to the first verse. If you’re using a New International Version, you will discover that chapter 10 has a heading—namely, “Paul’s Defense of His Ministry.” Second Corinthians is a very personal letter; he opens his heart in many ways. Second Corinthians really would never need to have been written if on a human level those who were his supporters had rallied around him when he was buffeted by all these accusations and insinuations. But he finds that he needs to write this, and he identifies, at the beginning of chapter 10, that there were essentially four accusations that were leveled against him and his colleagues.
First of all, in verse 1, the accusation of cowardice. You’ll notice he says, “I, Paul, who am ‘timid’ when face to face with you, but ‘bold’ when away!” This is exactly what the people were saying: “You know, he’s okay when he’s gone, when he’s writing; he’s a tough guy then. But if you get him face-to-face, he’s a pushover.” And so he says, “I, Paul, who am [very] ‘timid’ when face to face with you, but ‘bold’ when [I am] away!” This was an accusation: cowardice.
Secondly, in verse 2, they were accusing him of being worldly and unspiritual. This comes out in the final phrase: “Some people who think that we live by the standards of this world.” That’s what they were accusing him of. They were saying, “This is what you’re saying, and this is what you’re doing. You’re living by the standards of the world.”
Thirdly, in verse 7, they actually regarded he and the others as suspect members of the body of Christ. Verse 7: “If anyone is confident that he belongs to Christ, he should consider again that we belong to Christ just as much as he.” Why is he saying that? He’s saying that because the people were saying, “We’re not even sure that you belong to Christ!”
And fourthly, that his colleagues that he had with him in the ministry were essentially second-class servants of Christ. Verse 12: “We do not dare to classify or compare ourselves with some who commend themselves.” These individuals who were coming with their insinuations and their accusations were happy not only to write their CVs, but they were also very happy to write their own references. And so he says, “When they measure themselves by themselves and compare themselves with themselves, they are not wise.” That’s like me sitting watching the television and watching the Olympics and saying, “You know, I think I can do that.” Anyone who knows me at all knows, “You can’t do any of it. You’re having a hard time getting up just to turn a TV off. You are an old man. So, if you want to measure yourself by yourself, yes, you can go to bed convinced that you’re an Olympic athlete, but once stand up beside those people and it will be apparent to all.” These individuals were measuring themselves by themselves, had a very inflated notion of who and what they were, and at the same time they were saying, “You know, Paul, you’re a crock, your ministry’s a crock, and the people who are working with you are a bunch of old crocks.”
Now, so Paul jumps to the defense of his ministry. Now, it’s not that he likes doing this; indeed, if you read carefully—and I hope you might for your homework—you will discover that he is a reluctant defender of the ministry, and I think the reason that he does it is this: He’s not so much concerned to defend himself; in 1 Corinthians , I think it is, he says, you know, “I care not if I’m judged by you or by any human court; I don’t even judge myself. My conscience is clear, that doesn’t make me innocent.” So it’s not that he’s so concerned to make sure that everybody thinks rightly about Paul, but since he has been the very foundation of these churches, and this particular Corinthian church, and since the Corinthian believers are going to be buffeted by these “super-apostles,” then he recognizes that it is imperative that he defends the issue, not for the preservation of his own ego, but for the well-being of the members of the body of Christ. In other words, he takes seriously his role as a shepherd. And in doing so, he gives us this amazing passage.
And he establishes a fundamental truth in the matter of boasting, and you’ll see it there in verse 17: “‘Let him who boasts boast in the Lord.’ For it is not the one who commends himself who is approved, but the one whom the Lord commends.” In other words, “What you say about yourself means nothing in God’s work. It’s what God says about you that makes the difference.” That’s a very important principle. It’s one we can easily lose sight of. Because we’ve come out of an environment in which what you’re supposed to do is say a lot of things about yourself. And the more you’re able to say about yourself, and what you’ve done, and what you’re planning to do, and to defend all of that, then the possibility is that you may be able to advance in your career. And so we bring that mindset into the church of Jesus Christ, and we say, “Now, we’re looking for people who can say a lot about themselves.” And Paul says, “The deal isn’t that we have a lot to say about ourselves; the question is, does God have anything good to say about us? Because if you want to think about boasting,” he says, “the only boasting that’s worth boasting about is the boasting in the Lord,” which is why we started in Psalm 34, “My soul [boasts] in the Lord.” Well, there’s nothing else worth boasting in, is there?
I mean, boasting is so pathetic. I hate when I hear myself doing it, and I do it so often. You’re just blathering away, and you look out of the corner of your eye, and you see your wife. And you know, she’s just going, “Bogus!” She’s sending the signal: “Shut up!” Or if you don’t need it from your spouse, you get it from your teenage kids. They’ll sort you out real fast: “Oh, you think you’re a big shot, do you? Hey, come here. Let’s spend a little time together, Dad, Mom.”
Now, in chapter 11 Paul decides to take these opponents, these detractors, on. And what he does is, he determines he’ll take them on in their own terms. And so, that’s why he says in verse 1, “I hope you will put up with a little of my foolishness; but [you’re] already doing that.” What he means is, “It’s a stupid idea to boast, but since this is the way the argument is unfolding, why don’t I go ahead and boast a little bit as well?”
Now, if you go to verse 16 of the same chapter, he says, “I repeat: Let no one take me for a fool. But if you do, then receive me just as you would a fool, so that I may do a little boasting.” Okay? ’Cause it’s a stupid idea to boast, so, “If you want to take me as a fool, that’s okay, because then I’m just playing the part of the fool, because these people are foolish and boasting about all this stuff, so I’ll go ahead and do that.” And then he follows it up in verse 17; he says, “I didn’t learn this kind of talk from Christ. Oh, no! It’s a bad habit I picked up from the three-ring preachers that are so popular these days.” That’s really a paraphrase of verse 17: “In this self-confident boasting I am not talking as the Lord would, but as a fool [would].” And here the preachers come to town, and they make much of this, and make much of that, and make much of who they are and what they’re doing and so on, and Paul says, “This isn’t the kind of thing that I learned from Jesus, because he never did that, but this is the kind of thing that I’ve picked up from these three-ring-circus preachers.”
Now, what was it that his detractors boasted about? Verse 22 and verse 23 of chapter 11 tell us: one, they boasted about their Jewishness, and then two, they boasted about their service for the Lord Jesus Christ. And so Paul goes down that road and he says, “Well, I can talk about Jewishness, and I can also talk about service for Christ.” And then he goes on with this amazing list that points out what a hammering he’s taken for following Jesus: “Are they servants of Christ?” He says, “([I’m] out of my mind to talk like this.) I am more. I have worked much harder, been in prison more frequently, been flogged more severely … been exposed to death [and] again and again,” and so on, and he runs through a list which is all about weakness. And purposefully so! Because he is moving to his conclusion, where he points out in verse 30, “If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness.”
Again I say to you that it is the very reverse of what happens within the context of our day-and-daily routine. We are encouraged constantly to make much of who we are and what we’ve done, and then we come within the context of the church, and the thought is, “We’ll do the same.” And he says, “If you are in any doubt about my weakness,” he said, “just let me give you one final little illustration in concluding my thought,” in verse 32: “In Damascus the governor under King Aretas had the city of the Damascenes guarded in order to arrest me”—the whole place was besieged—“but I was lowered in a basket from a window in the wall and slipped through his hands.”
Do you get the picture? “Oh, good evening, we’re delighted to have you here, and we have the apostle Paul. He has come most recently from Damascus. We’ve asked him to come this evening and just explain how well things have been going in his life and ministry and to bring us a word of testimony.” He stands up. First of all, he doesn’t look anything half-good at all. You get the impression that he’s stooped as a result of the hammerings that he’s taken. And he says, “Well, I just want you to know that I crawled out through a hole in a wall, through a window in Damascus; they let me down in a basket, and I had to run for my life. And that’s why I’m here.”
Someone says, “This doesn’t sound like the kind of person you invited me to hear. I thought I was coming to hear the mighty apostle Paul.”
“So did I! I thought he would be here with a great cavalcade, you know? I thought there would be at least motorbikes in front of him, and a few flags: ‘Here he comes!’”
But no! He crawls through a hole in the wall, gets let down in a basket, and runs for his life. And he says, “Here I am. And if I’m going to boast, let me boast about all of my weaknesses. Let me tell you about all of the handicaps, all of the limitations, all of these elements which actually are the key to power.” And what he tells us about here is the power of weakness. It is this embracing of weakness which unites men and women. It is pride in our powerful endeavors which divides us . There is a principle here which is so lost in many of our lives that it is no wonder we’re in the predicament in which we find ourselves—that the level of usefulness we may know as a church is severely inhibited by our pride as a church! We want everybody to know that we have it together, that we’re successful at this, that we don’t have a problem with the giving, that we’ve been able to do that, that we go there, that these people are there. And so what’re we doing? We’re making much of these things!
Paul says, “I’m gonna boast to you. I’m gonna boast about my weaknesses.” Because our weaknesses are assets. Have you considered that? Have you honestly considered the possibility that your handicaps, your limitations, and your weaknesses, far from being a detriment in your service of Christ, are actually the key to usefulness? That the things that you and I want to run from, hide, cover up to others—and we’re not talking about sin, now, but the very handicaps and limitations of our lives that we want to say, “Oh, no, no, no, we don’t have that; no, no, oh, no”—that those are the very things, if we would acknowledge them, would suddenly open the door to phenomenal ministry. ’Cause who helps the person who’s powerful? Nobody! “Can I help you with that?” “Not at all. No, I’m fine. No, I’m fine, fine.” Fine! Be “fine.” A person is struggling: “Can you give me a hand with this, please?” He’s surrounded by people, she’s surrounded by people. She acknowledges weakness, there is support. There is no expression of weakness? You’re on your own.
God does the same thing. That’s why he puts his treasure in “old clay pots,” so that nobody’ll be surprised that the power is God’s! And yet we instead spend our life shining up our pot, so that everyone will say, “My, what a nice pot, what a shiny pot, what a clever pot,” what a whatever pot. Pot, just the same! Fragile, weak, totally useless—except filled by the power that invades my weakness.
Now, when we come to chapter 12—and you ought to be relieved that we’re back there, because it signals some measure of going towards the end, ’cause it’s where we began—Paul mentions another area in which his detractors challenged him—namely, the realm of spiritual experiences. These “super-apostles” were very proud of their experiences, and they loved an opportunity to say, you know, “I’ve come to know God in a very special way, and if you have forty-five minutes, I’ll tell you all about it.” And then they seek to impress others with these amazing experiences that they’ve had. “Well,” says Paul, “if you want to talk about spiritual experiences, I’ve got a real winner and zinger for you right here.”
Incidentally, in all of the contexts in which boasting is inappropriate, this surely heads the list—that we would boast of any experience of God. Because any experience of God into which he brings us is obviously a gift from God. We couldn’t conjure it up, we didn’t apply for it; he met with us. Are we then going to use that encounter with God as a mechanism for saying to other people, “Oh, you know, I have experienced God”—this whole idea of, you know, experiencing God as some esoteric discovery that you can make as a reading of a certain book or going through a certain manual.
Let me tell you how you experience God: read your Bible and do what it says, and he’ll meet with you along the journey. There is no special, weird place to which you’re going. He has made perfectly clear his will. That’s why he gave us the Bible. You’re not supposed to sit around and wait and discover it—to discover where God is going, and then go there. Let me tell you, he wrote a whole book to tell us where he’s going, and he’s been going there ever since eternity, and he’s going all the way to eternity. So don’t waste your time sitting in an upper room trying to find out where he’s going; just read your Bible, he’ll tell you where he’s going. And someone said, “Well, I’ve had an amazing experience, and I’m sure you haven’t had this experience.” Oh, terrific! Thanks for the encouragement that’s represented in that. That’s good. No, I haven’t. I don’t know what you’re talking about.
So, what does Paul do? Well, he’s had an amazing experience; he got “caught up to paradise.” “A man,” he says, and he speaks in the third person to make the point. This was clearly Paul: “Fourteen years ago, I was caught up into the third heaven. I experienced paradise. I heard things that shouldn’t be expressed to other human beings.” The details are not important. The point is simply this: that his experience was, in human terms, worth bragging about, but he determined that he wouldn’t do so. His experience was worth, in human terms, bragging about, but he determined that he wouldn’t do so.
Incidentally, loved ones, of all the ugliness of pride, there is nothing uglier than spiritual pride . And when I am guilty of spiritual pride, then it is clear that I have lost sight of the cross and I have ceased to really depend on Jesus. I’ve moved away from the old hymn that says,
Naught have I gotten but what I received;
Grace hath bestowed it when I have believed;
[So] boasting excluded, [and] pride I abase;
[’Cause] I’m only a sinner saved by grace!
And indeed, my very weakness is the key to usefulness.
So Paul makes it clear. He says, “Because”—and I’m paraphrasing now—“because of the extravagance of [these] revelations [that I had], and so that I wouldn’t get a big head, I was given the gift of a handicap to keep me in … touch with my limitations.” Do you get that—verse 7? You read it and let me paraphrase it for you: “Because of the extravagance of [these] revelations, and so [that] I wouldn’t get a big head, I was given the gift of a handicap to keep me in … touch with my limitations.”
Have you ever considered the possibility that the thing that wakes you up at night is the key to usefulness? You lie awake at night and say, “God, I don’t want to wake up at night. I wanna stop waking up at night. Why do I wake up every night at three thirty in the morning? We gotta cut this out!” Maybe God is waking us up at three thirty at night because he has somebody for us to intercede on behalf of. Maybe he just wants to wake us up at three thirty in the morning to show us that we can’t even sleep through the night except by his power and his ability, and when we finally admit it, then maybe he’ll let us go off to sleep again. I don’t know where I got that illustration from; maybe it’s because I’ve been awake two o’clock, three o’clock, and four o’clock in the morning for the last five nights, but that has to do with jet lag; it has nothing to do with a spiritual experience, you know, so I’m not trying to turn it into that. But have you ever considered the possibility that God has allowed to pass through his hands into your life, and into mine, handicaps to prevent us from becoming conceited and to keep us in touch with our limitations? So that we might be useful! In other words, it is an evidence of his grace. The worst thing that he could do from a human perspective is take it away from us, because it’s the very thing that keeps us. If we didn’t have that, then we’d be even more unbearable than we are.
When I go to these conferences and they introduce me, it is pathetic. It is pathetic! It is one of the most pathetic things you’ve ever heard. You hear these guys trying to come up with something that sounds like a reasonable résumé to introduce me, and they’ve got nothing to say: “And Alistair was the… and the… and the… so here’s my friend Alistair Begg.” There’s nothing to say! And I sit there and say to myself, “Why couldn’t I have something they could say? Why couldn’t I have, like, you know, ‘Yale Divinity School’? You know, ‘Fulbright Scholar, known for his contributions to scientific journals before turning to theology at the age of twenty-one,’” you know—something like that, that you would go up and go, “Yes, here I am!” You gotta just sit there time after time after time, conference after conference, as they say, “This is Alistair Begg, he went to London Bible College, here he is.” And people are going, “Oh, yeah, we can’t wait to hear this!”
Now, the reason for all of that I don’t fully understand, but I know in part it’s this: that if you were to add to my sorry life more of that stuff, I’d be more unbearable than I am. And in order to keep me—to keep me—God says, “Okay, this is where you’re gonna go, and this is what you’re gonna do, and this is how it’s going to be.” Now, I apologize for using myself as an illustration, but that’s the kind of thing I’m talking about. Instead of going out and saying, “Well, no, actually, this is… it’s a lot better than you realize, I was… and…” Shut up. Just shut up.
Now, that’s not to denigrate academic success. That is not in any way to deify or say, you know, “Dumb is great!” It is simply to acknowledge the fact that God uses very unlikely people. And he can entrust others with more than he can entrust some of the rest of us. Because you are able to handle it, and he knows that I can’t. So to keep us from becoming conceited—more conceited than we already are—he gives to us thorns. And there are lessons in the Christian life that cannot be learned without thorns.
And Paul is the classic illustration of the principle. “This thorn,” he says, “is a messenger from Satan.” What does that mean? Simply means that when he was confronted by this predicament, Satan came to him and said, “Hey, why you, Paul? Why didn’t Peter get this? Hey, Paul, if you didn’t have this, you’d be a lot more effective than you are. Paul, why would God allow this in your life?”
What was the thorn? It was physical; it was a thorn in his flesh. It wasn’t a passing thing; it was intense and it was regular. It was such an issue for him that we’re told that on three separate occasions he asked the Lord, “Would you please take this away from me?”
Now, it’s really profitless searching for illustrative material, and I probably shouldn’t have gone where I’ve gone already, so I’m not gonna try and apply it. But you just think it out in your own life. Allow this question to keep coming across your screen: Is it possible that the very limitations and handicaps in my life are the key to usefulness in the service of God? The things I’m trying to cover up, the things I’m trying to distance myself from, the things that show me to be actually phenomenally weak, are the keys to usefulness.
Three times he asked the Lord, three times he got the same answer—similar to Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane: “Father, if you’re willing, let this cup pass from me.” He left his disciples, he went, he left his disciples and he went, and on three occasions the Father said, “We’re going right through with this.” I wouldn’t be at all surprised but there are things in many of our lives this morning that we’ve had at least three encounters with God over: “God, if you would remove this,” or “if you would provide this,” or whatever else it is, and as we’ve gone through our earthly pilgrimage the answer’s just “No, no, no, no, no.” And it’s clear it’s never going to happen.
Father knows best. Father knows best. And his purpose is not to make our journey pleasurable. His purpose for us now is not to meet all our hopes and satisfy all our dreams. His purpose for us is far grander than that; it is to conform us to the image of his Son . And he wants us to reach heaven not like a shipwrecked sailor, but like a returning Olympic athlete. Lovely sign down there on Solon Road, is it? Where it says, “Home of the Olympic gold medal winner.” And I said, “How fabulous is that! I wanna just get out and touch the sign.” I said, “This is great! And how much joy is represented in that! All of those years of sacrifice, and pain, and commitment, and thorns, and weakness.” Well, there’s gonna be a sign up in heaven. You wanna sell out now for the “Well done!” of men, for the accolades and approbations of those who are around us, as if that was what life was about? They’ll never remember your name, nor will you remember theirs. No, God is working on a far bigger canvas, you see.
And so it was that he made the discovery. God said to him—verse 9, and we wrap this up here—“My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” In other words, he says, “Listen, Paul, my grace is enough; it’s all you need. My strength comes into its own in your weakness.” Now, you’ll notice that the principle didn’t alter his pain, but it did change his perspective. And as soon as this truth really gripped his heart and mind, “Therefore,” you will notice he says, “okay, in light of that…”
Let me paraphrase it once again. This is from “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Says Paul, “Once I heard that, I was glad to let it happen. I quit focusing on the handicap and began appreciating the gift.” That’s a big day. That’s a big day. “I quit focusing on the handicap and began appreciating the gift.” This is a handicap? This is a gift! This is a thorn? This is a rose! This is something I don’t want? This is something God gave! “I quit focusing on the handicap and [I] began appreciating the gift. It was a case of Christ’s strength moving in on my weakness. Now,” says Paul, “I take limitations in [my] stride, and with good cheer, [’cause] these limitations … cut me down to size …. I just let Christ take over! And so the weaker I get, the stronger I become.”
Are you as helped by this as I am? Do you find this helpful? What we discover is that God makes even Satan’s insinuations work for our good in that they cause us afresh to turn to Christ in childlike and prayerful dependence upon his promises. As I am humbled by my difficulties, so I am strengthened by God’s grace. Therefore, we ought to recognize that it is a rewarding thorn that brings a believer into the discovery of verse 9. Difficulties, disappointments, failure, weakness are all inevitable in the Christian life.
I signed up for something not so long ago, and when I got my first statement in relationship to it, I noticed that there was a charge of twenty-nine dollars. So I immediately went on the phone and said, “What’re you doing, charging me twenty-nine dollars?” And the lady on the other end of the phone said, “Didn’t you read the small print?” And I said, “No.” She said, “Tough.” Now, don’t let’s suggest for one moment that Jesus puts the issue of difficulty, pain, discouragement, frustration, limitation, weakness, challenge, struggle, in the small print. He puts it right up at the head of the agenda: “If anyone’d like to be my disciple, let him take up his cross every day and follow me. Don’t give it to me with the stuff about you gotta bury your father; let the dead bury their own dead. Your family considerations are secondary; do you understand that? ‘Focus on the Family.’ No! Focus on the lordship of Christ and put the family in its place. You wanna deal with the family? You can’t follow me. Follow me. I’ll take care of the family.”
“Well, I bought a field.”
“Big deal. You wanna deal with your field? You can’t follow me.”
“I’ve got places to go and people to meet.”
“Fine. You can do it. You won’t be able to follow me, because no one putting his hand to the plow and looking back is fit for the kingdom of heaven.”
That’s not in the small print. That’s right up at the head of the contract. Saying what? “Welcome to difficulty, welcome to handicap, welcome to limitation, welcome to weakness.”
Loved ones, I tell you, I haven’t even begun to understand this principle, as I stand before you. I want to! And to the extent that I am at all representative of the group, I’m not sure that we have as a group either. And we need to! For we want to be involved in the most effective use in the service of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the very things that we point to as evidences of our usefulness may actually be the very detriments to prevent us being of use in the kingdom of God, and the things that I want to run away and hide from, God says, “Those are the very things that will open you up.” Right? Now, I’m not talking about some strange, bizarre, you know, baring of our souls—you know, “Would you like to see my dreadful toes?” or something, I mean, that silly stuff. I just mean a humble acknowledgement of things.
Well, let me finish. It would be one thing if we went to 2 Corinthians 12 and we said, “Well, this is a very interesting emphasis, but it’s nowhere else in the Bible.” It’s everywhere in the Bible. Isaiah 40, who is it that receives strength? “The weak.” When Paul describes those that God has chosen in 1 Corinthians, he says, “God [has chosen] the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; [and he’s chosen] the weak things of the world to shame the strong.” And he has put his treasure in old clay pots, and even those whom we most admire for their godliness and their giftedness are themselves old clay pots.
[John Berridge], an eighteenth-century Christian, once observed, “A Christian never falls asleep in the fire or in the water, but grows drowsy in the sunshine.” You don’t fall asleep in the fire. You don’t fall asleep with the water coming up over your head. But it’s real easy to fall asleep in the sunshine. Where did we get this new late-twentieth-century, early-twenty-first-century brand of Christianity? No wonder it doesn’t ring true in Egypt or in Pakistan. No wonder nobody from Nepal would even listen to it or countenance it. No wonder people from the mainland reaches of India would say, “I don’t even recognize what you guys are talking about over there in the continental United States. Where did you come up with that stuff? ‘Follow Jesus and join the sunshine party,’ you know? You oughta come over here for a little while,” they’re saying. “We’ll show you sunshine.”
Wouldn’t it be a dreadful thing if Parkside fell asleep in the sunshine? Do you know, when you fall asleep, you don’t know you’ve fallen asleep? ’Cause you’re asleep! (That’s brilliant, isn’t it? See, I’m not as dumb as I said.) It’s only when you waken up you find that you’ve fallen asleep. “Was I asleep?” “Yeah, you were drooling!” “Ah, I’m embarrassed.” Please, Lord Jesus, wake us up if we’ve fallen asleep, right? Help us not to run to our strengths. Help us to acknowledge our weaknesses.
Have you ever considered the possibility that your limitations and your difficulties—either specifically right now in the experience of illness, because of what God wants to do with this illness, or because of what God wants to do with this disappointment, or because of what God wants to do with this failure—have you ever considered the possibility that this is actually not a detriment but an asset, and it is the key to your usefulness in the service of Christ?
 Psalm 119:89 (paraphrased).
 Isaiah 55:11 (paraphrased).
 Henry Twells, “At Even, ere the Sun Was Set” (1868).
 See 2 Corinthians 4:7.
 Romans 9:20 (paraphrased).
 Psalm 139:13 (paraphrased).
 Source unknown. Paraphrased.
 Psalm 121:8 (paraphrased).
 1 Corinthians 4:3–4 (paraphrased).
 2 Corinthians 11:5 (NIV 1984).
 2 Corinthians 10:17–18 (NIV 1984).
 2 Corinthians 10:18 (The Message).
 Psalm 34:2 (NIV 1984).
 2 Corinthians 11:22–23 (paraphrased).
 2 Corinthians 11:23 (NIV 1984).
 2 Corinthians 11:32 (NIV 1984).
 2 Corinthians 4:7 (paraphrased).
 James Martin Gray, “Naught Have I Gotten but What I Received” (1905).
 2 Corinthians 12:7 (The Message).
 Matthew 26:39, 42 (paraphrased).
 Romans 8:29 (paraphrased).
 2 Corinthians 12:9–10 (The Message).
 Luke 9:23 (paraphrased).
 Matthew 8:21–22 (paraphrased).
 Luke 14:18 (paraphrased).
 Luke 9:62 (paraphrased).
 Isaiah 40:29 (NIV 1984).
 1 Corinthians 1:27 (NIV 1984).
 John Berridge, quoted in Words Old and New: or, Gems from the Christian Authorship of All Ages, ed. Horatius Bonar (London: James Nisbet, 1866), 281.