Service Through Weakness

2nd Corinthians chapter 12 verse 1 to 10 

Here are verses 7 to 10 of our reading from the Message version:

"Because of the extravagance of those revelations, and so I wouldn’t get a big head, I was given the gift of a handicap to keep me in constant touch with my limitations. Satan’s angel did his best to get me down; what he in fact did was push me to my knees. No danger then of walking around high and mighty! At first I didn’t think of it as a gift, and begged God to remove it. Three times I did that, and then he told me,

"My grace is enough; it’s all you need. My strength comes into its own in your weakness."

Once I heard that, I was glad to let it happen. I quit focusing on the handicap and began appreciating the gift. It was a case of Christ’s strength moving in on my weakness. Now I take limitations in stride, and with good cheer, these limitations that cut me down to size – abuse, accidents, opposition, bad breaks. I just let Christ take over! And so the weaker I get, the stronger I become."

Can you name an experience of God’s power being evident when you felt very weak?

And when God has used your weakness to help another person?

God loves to use weak people in his service. Ever realised that? God doesn’t have any choice does he, if God wants to use us! We all have weaknesses; we are a bundle of flaws and imperfections, as well as strengths and abilities.

We usually want to hide our weaknesses; deny, excuse, defend them and we often resent them. We think that God only wants to use our strengths. In recent years the church has focused on gifts and passions and finding our best fit; and all this is worthwhile. But God also wants to use our weaknesses in his purposes. God’s ways are not always our ways. God often has a different plan and perspective.

Remember Paul’s words to these same Corinthians in his first letter in 1st Corinthians chapter 1 verses 26 to 31. Verse 27 says, "God chose what the world considers nonsense in order to shame the wise, and he chooses what the world considers weak in order to shame the powerful." (GNB). Here is the same theme that Paul talks about in today’s passage, this human tendency to boast and brag, about our achievements and ability and contribution.

Throughout the Bible, God was never impressed with human strength and self-sufficiency. In fact God is drawn to people who admit their limitations. In the Beatitudes, those wonderful statements about how to discover God’s blessings. The first one says blessed are those who are "poor in spirit"; the humble, self-aware, reliant on God alone. The Bible is full of examples of how God loves to use imperfect, ordinary people to do extraordinary things in spite of their weaknesses and failings. This is encouraging news for us all!

 

What was Paul’s weakness, his "thorn in the flesh"?

Better than ‘thorn’ is the word ‘stake’ in the flesh. It appears to have been a recurring, physically painful experience, a painful disability. There have been many speculations throughout Church history: spiritual temptations, persecutions and opposition, sexual desires, physical appearance, epilepsy (like Julius Caesar, Napoleon, Oliver Cromwell), headaches, eyesight trouble (Paul was blinded during his Damascus Road experience; the Galatians said they would have plucked out their eyes and given them to him (chap 4v15); and Paul writes, "See in what large letters I am writing to you" (chap 6v1). The most popular explanation is chronic malarial fever, very prolific on the coasts of eastern Mediterranean. The headache associated with malaria is likened by suffers to "a red-hot bar thrust through the forehead", "the grinding boring pain in one temple like the dentist’s drill" which when acute, reached "the extreme point of human endurance."

In his book ‘The Purpose Driven Life’, Rick Warren considers Paul’s "thorn in the flesh" as a weakness, a limitation that we have inherited or a situation we find ourselves living in, that we have no power to change. This weakness or disability is not sinful habits or character defects that we can change.

It may be a physical limitation like a disability, chronic illness, debilitating or tiring condition.

It may be an emotional limitation such as hurtful memories, emotional scaring from some trauma, a personality trait or quirk.

Or an intellectual or talent limitation; or a relational limitation through a disabled or difficult family member, or a situational limitation through employment, financial or geographical factors.

Generally it is a situation that we have no personal power or opportunity to change.

 

Can you think of any such limitations in your life?

When we focus on such limitations we may be tempted to conclude that, "God could never use me, because I have this limitation." But God is not limited by our limitations. God can work through our weaknesses if we allow him; if we offer our limitations and invite him to use them. The apostle Paul’s experience in 2nd Corinthians chapter 12 gives us some guidelines of how to do this.

1. Acknowledge your weaknesses & struggles. We need to stop pretending to have it all together and be honest about ourselves. Most of us are great mask-wearers, good at covering up our struggles and inadequacies. Some of us live in denial not even admitting to ourselves what we are like, what we struggle with, and what limitations we live under.

Most often it is extremely liberating to share our burdens, struggles and secrets with one or two others who can help us to bear our burdens. It is what we are commanded to do for one another in the Christian community.

One of the major diseases of our culture is individualism, self-sufficiency. Not only do we feel we have to cope alone, we also tend to feel that we are the only ones facing this situation or carrying this burden, because we haven’t shared it. This applies to marriage and relationship issues, parenting and financial issues.

One of the privileges of being a pastor is that people share their burdens with me and usually I am aware of others with a similar challenge. We are unique in our personalities but not in our experiences of life. So often I’ve been able to link people with others with similar experience who’ve been able to support, encourage and share strategies for coping.

 

2. Accept your weakness. The apostle Paul goes even further in verse 9 and doesn’t mean accept it grudgingly and resentfully, but accept it graciously, positively and become content with it. This is a key word of Pauls; "I have learned to be content in every situation …" (Philippians chap 4 verses 11 to 13)

This may seem strange, to accept and be content with our inborn limitations or difficult situations. But essentially ‘being content’ is an expression of trust in God, that God has our best interests at heart. Contentment is a big-picture-trust that God understands my situation, loves me deeply, will not allow anything to occur that God and I cannot deal with together, and wants to use me for his purposes in my situation.

Contentment often means modifying our expectations and dreams to fit God’s purposes for our lives; to have an eternal perspective on our situation. I think of those who set aside their own goals to nurse their sick or dying family member, believing it is the loving thing to do and of eternal value.

 

WHY SHOULD WE BE CONTENT?

The apostle Paul gives some reasons for accepting our limitations, both personal and circumstantial.

a. Our weaknesses prevent pride and arrogance, and promote our dependence on God. In verse 10, Paul says his limitation prevented him from being puffed up and proud. God often gifts a major weakness alongside a major strength to keep us humble. A limitation can modify or govern us and keep our egos in balance; keep us mindful of our need of God, keep us from getting ahead of God’s purposes.

Remember Gideon, the Old Testament leader who recruited an army of 32,000 to fight the Midianite army of 135,000. The odds were four to one. But God told Gideon to keep reducing the numbers by various tests, which only left 300 Israelite fighters at odds of over 400 to one! It appeared a recipe for disaster, but when Israel won the victory they knew it was God’s power not their skill and strength, that enabled them.

 

b. Accepting our weaknesses, draws people together and encourages genuine fellowship. We realise how much we need one another, and when many weak strands are woven together we get a strong chord. Someone once quipped that, "Christians like snowflakes are frail; but when they stick together they can stop traffic!"

 

c. Accepting our weaknesses, increases our empathy and desire to minister to others. We are far more likely to be compassionate and considerate of the weaknesses and failing of others when we accept our own, although I have noticed some people become very intolerant of others who have not addressed the issues they themselves have dealt with and overcome. They want to oppose the evil they have struggled with wherever they see it, but often lack the maturity and insight about how to motivate and help others strategise for personal change.

But so often we can minister well to others out of our own experience of pain, struggle and failure, and then of recovery and healing. We become agents that God can use powerfully to bring healing to others. As Mel Gibson said in an interview about ‘The Passion of the Christ’, "pain can be the precursor to change".

 

3. Share your weaknesses. I have already touched on this. So often ministry opportunities are sparked by sharing our vulnerability. The apostle Paul models this in his letter by sharing his feelings of failure, frustration, fears; read this chapter and chapter 13.

Being honest and open with others about our struggles and weaknesses so often encourages others to reveal theirs. I’ve found this throughout my life and ministry when talking around an issue with someone. The person may be evasive, not wanting to open up, worried that I’ll think less of them. Then I’ll share a personal struggle, failure or weakness, that’s related to theirs, and it’s like the floodgates open. People get this immediate sense that you can understand and won’t judge them because you’ve been there.

This sharing of our struggles and weakness is rather risky. Whenever we are honest about deeply personal things, we make ourselves vulnerable, lower our defences and risk being laughed at, talked about, and rejected.

 

But risking vulnerability is a sign of humility and God blesses the humble, the poor in spirit, those with an honest self-assessment, who are authentic, genuine people. "God resists/opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble", says Proverbs 3 verse 34.

Humility and vulnerability are qualities that draw people. Authenticity attracts. Proud and cocky people tend to push others away.

This is why God wants to use our weaknesses as well as our strengths. Often when people see our strengths, they feel discouraged and overwhelmed and think, "I couldn’t ever do that I’m not good enough."

But when they see God using us in spite of, or through, our weaknesses, it encourages the thought, "Well maybe God can use me too." Parenting with Confidence leader and former Youth for Christ National Director, Ian Grant, is a great example of this. He has a stutter from birth yet God called him to be a major public speaker, and he never stutters when public speaking. He says his stutter keeps him humble and reliant on God.

Our strengths can create competition and discourage. Our weaknesses create community and confidence.

 

4. Value your weaknesses (verse 5). The Message version of today’s passage says, "I was 4. given the gift of the handicap to keep me in constant touch with my limitations", something which God can use. You are probably aware of examples of Christians like Joni Eriksen (who became a paraplegic through a diving accident), who came to view their disabilities as a gift which opened up ministry opportunities for them beyond their imagining.

And when the Evil One or nasty people point out your weakness, or mock it, or put you down for it, just affirm that God values your weakness and uses it in his mission.

We can ultimately only value our weakness because of the promises of God that his grace is sufficient for our needs, that God’s power is greatest, strongest, most complete, in our weakness (verse 9); "For when I am weak, then I am strong" (verse 10). So the weaker I get, the stronger I become.

 

Please take a moment to reflect on your own limitations and offer them to God, inviting God to use them in his purposes.