Our opening devotional for the summer “Counterintuitive” series will look at the theme of being strong by being weak. That seems so wrong, doesn’t it? We would think (being intuitive) that our strength comes from working hard to be strong and aggressive and in charge! And though we are not discrediting responsibility and disciplines in the Christian life, we are highlighting that over and over the Scriptures (and Christ himself) teach us that our strength is not in ourselves. In John 15, what did Jesus say we could do without him? NOTHING.
There are more than merely a couple passages we could highlight for this theme, but let’s choose Paul’s second letter to the church in Corinth, Greece … chapter 12 …
2 Corinthians12:1 – I must go on boasting. Although there is nothing to be gained, I will go on to visions and revelations from the Lord.
What we are doing here is beginning in the middle of the story. We need to recall some of the background of this 2nd Corinthian letter to understand what Paul is saying here.
In spite of the proclivity of the Corinthians toward worldly and licentious living, Paul had a great love for this church and its people. He had poured out his heart for them in serving them with his teaching and leadership. But some outside teachers had come into the church, claiming super-apostle authority for themselves and belittling the Apostle Paul’s authority and message.
Exactly who these opponents were is not precisely known, though they claimed themselves to be in the authoritative line of Moses – able to interpret his writings accurately.
Among criticisms of Paul were…
– He lacked their authority and credentials connected to the church in Jerusalem. They produced some sort of documentation of their greater authority – and though Paul knew this to be very suspect, it was impressive to many of the Corinthians.
– They said that Paul was very suspect because of his many travels and unusual adventures.
– They implied that Paul was in this ministry business for personal gains, especially related to offerings being collected for the poor in Judea.
– Their view of Paul was that he was not personally very impressive – perhaps not in appearance or public posture, especially being critical of his lack of speaking abilities. For an example of this criticism, Paul says in 2 Cor. 11: 5-6 – I do not think I am in the least inferior to those “super-apostles.” I may indeed be untrained as a speaker, but I do have knowledge. We have made this perfectly clear to you in every way.
So Paul has been put into an unenviable position of having to defend himself and his teaching – not because he needed assurances personally, but because he knew that the truth of the real gospel message was at stake. Therefore, he had to lay out his credentials for the Corinthians to be reminded of – credentials that came from an equal background as his critics, along with an impressive list of incredible experiences that God had sustained him through. Much of the 11th chapter is given to this. So Paul was saying … hey, I’ve got credentials, not just on paper, but from the real life of ministry – presenting the gospel in a world that largely rejects it, just like they rejected Christ.
So in chapter 12, Paul says he must go on “boasting.” Having given his background credentials, he goes to a second line of authentication – about “visions and revelations,”
Paul really did not believe that his arguing and boasting about credentials was stuff that would build up the church, but he continues by telling them a story from his own experience. Being a bit uncomfortable about boasting about himself, he writes about himself from a third-person sort of view …
12:2 – 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. 3 And I know that this man—whether in the body or apart from the body I do not know, but God knows— 4 was caught up to paradise and heard inexpressible things, things that no one is permitted to tell.
This was an experience that Paul had that was very early in his Christian life. He was “caught up” to heaven – the same word in Greek (harpazo) that is used to speak of the rapture of the church. He calls it both “the third heaven” and “paradise” – words that would speak to that generation of the heavenly realm.
Paul could not honestly say if this was in the material body, or merely a spiritual experience – only God knows. But there he heard and received communications that were for he alone – not something he could share. So this was quite an extraordinary experience.
Paul continues to talk about himself in the third person …
12:5 – I will boast about a man like that, but I will not boast about myself, except about my weaknesses. 6 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, 7 or because of these surpassingly great revelations.
Paul says he is willing to “boast” about such a thing, not because it is he himself, but because of what Christ had done with such a weak person as Paul had been – knowing of his previous career of hostility to the gospel message.
But Paul continues to show his discomfort with this external game of talking about who had the most spectacular experiences, but he says that if he has to play this game, he’s not a fool, because what he is saying is fully the truth (implying that the claims of his critics were likely to be very suspect).
Yet Paul continues to refrain from going on and on with more details about these “surpassingly great revelations” … as drawing attention to it would draw attention too much to himself, and too much away from the preaching and accomplishments of the gospel.
These revelations were indeed apparently totally amazing and unique. And we can sorta understand that in light of the ministry that God had given Paul. He was really THE main man to make the spread of the gospel happen; it was a huge calling and ministry, along with all of his writings that inform us and all of God’s people over the past 2,000 years! So to keep Paul from ever falling into any measure of self-aggrandizement, God in grace gave something else to the Apostle …
12:7-9 – Therefore, in order to keep me from becoming conceited, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. 8 Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. 9 But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”
So what was this thorn in the flesh? What we can say for sure, beyond the purposes of producing humility and dependence upon God, it was something sourced ultimately in Satan. And though Paul apparently on three occasions went very specifically to the Lord to have this thing removed, we can see that God allowed it to stay in his life so as to produce ultimately greater good and results than would be otherwise achieved.
So again, what was this malady? Many suggestions have been made about certain physical ailments. We don’t know. But perhaps the two best suggestions might be …
- An eye problem – poor vision … also maybe something a bit grotesque?
- A speech malady – that would take away from the personal impression – forcing the listener to be impressed more by the content than the presenter.
The answer he got from the Lord is that God’s sustaining grace would be sufficient for him to endure in the midst of the problem, and that God’s power was more evident in the midst of the obvious weakness. Really? That seems a bit counterintuitive also, but, we have all known people who have great impact in life and communication because of their victory over very obvious limitations.
So Paul’s conclusion was …
12:9-10 … 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.
Paul says that here is where real boasting can take place. This thing that appears to be a great loss is actually a great winner! He had learned that when he was weak, Christ’s power was strongest in and through him. So this was something to be happy about and to be content about having. All the bad things (seemingly) that happened to him were in fact the prime contributors to the good things that happened through him.
So what do we learn from this passage today? Can we list some takeaway points?
- Earthly/Worldly Credentials are of Minimal Value. We are drawn to honor strength and beauty. But being impressed with worldly credentials and skills alone is to be merely intuitive, merely instinctual… senses that are of this world alone and not cognizant of the larger picture.
- Deficiencies Position Us to Receive Christ’s Sufficiencies. It is true that natural skills and the work of the flesh can take some people rather far, but not far enough. And it is commendable to be responsible and seek to work hard. But at some point, the true work of serving God is a spiritual work that needs spiritual empowerment.
- Our Weaknesses are Windows for God’s Power to be Seen. Think of some of the most powerfully-used people we have known. Is it because of his exceptional giftedness and extraordinary abilities that God uses them? More likely it is because they live moment by moment as a window through which God’s power can be seen.
Why does all of this work? It is because when we recognize our weakness and even embrace our sufferings, we are most like Jesus himself. The Scriptures say that he was a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief. When we serve others, when we are ridiculed, when we suffer persecution, when we submit to the frailties of life in a fallen world … THEN, we are most like Christ who did all of those things, depending daily upon the Father in prayer in submission and obedience.
In a sentence, here is the big idea of this theme: God allows things to happen to us, so that change can happen in us, so that ministry can happen through us!
And that is counterintuitive, not merely intuitive, not merely instinctual.