June 6/7, 2015
Jason Meyer | 2 Corinthians 12:7-10
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. Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave 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 of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. 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 12:7–10
I want you to think about a trip to Walmart or Target or a grocery store. Imagine that you are going to check out. What do you see as you are waiting in line to check out? One thing you will see is candy or gum. Go ahead and buy some—these are imaginary calories. Because we are using imaginary money, it will be my treat. Isn’t imagination great?
You will also see magazines. Think about what is normally on the cover of these magazines. I make it a personal discipline to not look at the cover of those magazines because it seems like they have only one strategy: using sex appeal to sell. What that means is that magazine covers are fairly standardized; they portray what they believe our culture finds physically attractive.
I have never seen a glamor or beauty magazine that put someone overweight on the cover. I have especially not seen a person with a severe physical disability on the cover. The world has decreed that disability is ugly and uncomfortable to see. I wish I could say that the church has disagreed with that decree.
I read one author who has a daughter with a severe disability. They took care of her for over twenty-two years and experienced both the blessing and the burden of disability. Then they were humbled to discover that she could receive better care among a community of disabled adults. The only question the parents had was whether or not the facility caretakers would be able to take the daughter to the parents’ church every so often.
The director’s response was striking. “We would be glad to take her, along with a few of her fellow residents,” she said, then paused and slowly continued, “if your church will allow us to come back.” The parents asked her, “What do you mean by ‘if they allow you to come back’?” She reluctantly said, “Too many churches we visit ask us nicely not to come back.” When they pressed more, she explained that the wheelchairs, personal appearances, occasional noises, and drooling—all things very normal for these disabled adults—made too many people uncomfortable in too many churches.
Uncomfortable? The presence of people with disabilities created discomfort even among churchgoers, who had decided they would rather not see those things. Why? That response has so much to teach us, but only if we have ears to hear and eyes to see. Our passage today contains the answer to that question. Let’s dig a little deeper into the passage we looked at last week, and then we will come back to the question of disability and our discomfort with disability.
Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave 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 of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. 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 12:8-10
There is a threefold structure to these verses: Paul’s first response (v. 8), Jesus’ answer (v. 9), and Paul’s final response (vv. 9–10)
We noted last week how radically different Paul’s first response and final response are. The first response is a natural, knee-jerk response to pain. He asked that his chronic pain would leave him. His final response was a settled conviction that came complete with glad boasting and being well pleased.
Today we will focus like a laser beam on Paul’s final response in verses 9–10. The two points are clear: Paul’s response to weakness and the reason for Paul’s response. Look for those two things—Paul’s response and his reason for that response as I read verses 9–10.
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. 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 12:9–10
Did you see it? The response is that Paul gladly boasts in weakness. He is well pleased with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. Why? What is the rationale for that crazy response?
Paul gladly boasts in weakness because his real goal is for the power of Christ to rest upon him. He is well pleased with weakness because he knows that when he is weak, he is strong in Christ’s strength.
Here is a roadmap for the rest of the sermon: I am going to take those two points and make them into a sentence so that we have a one-point sermon. Next, I am going to make five observations that I pray will drive that point deeper into our hearts. Then, I have one illustration that I am going to use to draw out that point, and we will close with communion.
Here is the main point of 2 Corinthians 12:1–10 and also the main theological point Paul keeps coming back to in the whole of 2 Corinthians: Paul is well pleased with weakness because it is a prerequisite for the display of divine strength.
Let me say it a different way with a picture. Paul is pleased with being a weak canvas because weak canvases are the only ones that Christ will paint upon.
I pray that these five observations will draw that out further. First, notice that grace is intentionally paralleled with divine power. It is almost as if grace is defined as divine power. Look at the intentional parallel: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (v. 9).
Second, notice that grace or divine power works well with human weakness. Divine power and human weakness work well together, but divine power and human power are at odds.
Third, notice that the order matters when it comes to human weakness and divine strength. They are not simultaneous—one needs to come before the other. That is why I said that human weakness is a prerequisite for the display of divine strength. Paul makes the connection undeniable in verse 9.
Paul gladly draws attention to his weaknesses so that the power of Christ may rest on him. Don’t miss the point: Christ’s power will not rest on Paul unless Paul first provides the backdrop of his own weakness. Christ will not display his power in Paul unless weakness is there first. Human weakness must come first—it is a prerequisite for the display of Christ’s strength. When—and only when—I am weak, the grace of Christ comes, and I am strong in his strength. Christ will only paint on a weak canvas, not on a proud one.
Fourth, don’t miss the lavish language of gladness that Paul associates with weakness. He gladly boasts of his weaknesses (v. 9). The word in verse 10 is a little misleading. Content can have a somewhat forced connotation. It can sound like the man’s prayer for change in the Red Green Show: “I’m a man, but I can change, if I have to, I guess.” But the word is a lavish word. It means “well pleased.” It is the same word that the Father uses to express his delight in Jesus when he says, ‘This is my Son with whom I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:17; 12:18; 17:15). It is Paul’s word for how cheerfully the Corinthians and Macedonians gave to the poor saints in Jerusalem (Romans 15:26–27). Paul called them to be cheerful givers, and he reported to the Romans that they were. They were well pleased to give.
Fifth, this is not merely a lesson Paul learned that became a conviction. It is the very conviction of Christ. Jesus did not just say, “My grace is enough for you.” He gave the reason: “My power is perfected in weakness.” Paul adopted Christ’s conviction as his very own. When Christ explained the rationale, Paul gladly embraced this conviction. Paul expresses this conviction he received from Christ in his own words in a way that is both pithy and profound. Why in the world could someone be well pleased with unpleasant things like weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities? “For when I am weak, then I am strong” (v. 10). He is well pleased because he is saying, “I love it when Christ shows up in strength. I love being a weak canvas because I love it when Christ paints on me.”
Let us take one more step down. Why is this Christ’s conviction? Why is he well pleased with displaying his strength only with human weakness as a prerequisite? This is more like a drop down, not a step. I don’t know if you noticed, but the depth-finder reading here is really deep. It is a gloriously steep drop-off. One of my prayer partners uses the image of a base jump into the Bible. We jump into the depths and behold the vast majesty of God’s word. I wish I could take more time and make this more like a hang-glider jump, but I only have time for a bungee jump. Here we go. There is glory here, dear friends.
Jesus perfectly reveals God because Jesus is God. God has no limitations from any outside force. No one can force him to do something he doesn’t want to do. But God does have self-imposed limitations, and they are glorious. He cannot do anything that is inconsistent with his perfect character. Some things are not possible for God. It is impossible for him to lie, and it is impossible for him to sin. It is impossible for him to be guilty of idol worship. He will not and cannot worship something other than himself. If he did, he would cease to be God, and he would cease to be good.
Listen to how passionately God states this conviction that controls everything he says and does:
For my own sake, for my own sake, I do it,
for how should my name be profaned?
My glory I will not give to another.—Isaiah 48:11
There is a reason God will not use human strength. He will not share his glory with anyone else. God has no rivals—no contenders or competitors for first place in the universe. He cannot share the throne. He cannot stop being the Only God, the Only Sovereign, the King Eternal.
If God loves his infinite glory infinitely, now imagine his infinite hatred of pride. Can you feel the evil of pride? Pride is contending with God for supremacy that belongs to him alone. The pride of man and the glory of God cannot coexist.
Have you ever seen a betta fish? The males are colorful, but they have to be kept in separate containers because if they ever see each other, they puff up and try to attack each other. In our pride, we are like a betta fish trying to contend with God. But when we try to contend with God, it is like a betta fish contending with a blue whale—it is not going to end well.
But things go well for the humble because God loves to give grace to the humble, to give his almighty power to the powerless. Other sins lead us away from God, but pride seeks to put us above God. Humility, on the other hand, places us under the mighty hand of God to receive grace.
That is why God never allows human strength and divine strength to coexist. God knows that we are so fallen that we can twist anything God does and take credit for it. We are like a black hole that sucks everything in and makes it say something about us. Human strength and divine strength would become blended together, and the line between them would become blurred, and then we would try take credit for something that belongs to God.
Paul was the case in point. He took something good (a vision of heavenly glory) and turned it for bad in his conceit. This is a universal problem for fallen humanity. We can easily take credit for things that belong to God.
Listen to what God said to Israel:
“For you are a people holy to the Lord your God. The Lord your God has chosen you to be a people for his treasured possession, out of all the peoples who are on the face of the earth. It was not because you were more in number than any other people that the Lord set his love on you and chose you, for you were the fewest of all peoples,but it is because the Lord loves you and is keeping the oath that he swore to your fathers, that the Lord has brought you out with a mighty hand and redeemed you from the house of slavery, from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt.—Deuteronomy 7:6–8
Know therefore today that he who goes over before you as a consuming fire is the Lord your God. He will destroy them and subdue them before you. So you shall drive them out and make them perish quickly, as the Lord has promised you. “Do not say in your heart, after the Lord your God has thrust them out before you, ‘It is because of my righteousness that the Lord has brought me in to possess this land,’ whereas it is because of the wickedness of these nations that the Lord is driving them out before you. Not because of your righteousness or the uprightness of your heart are you going in to possess their land, but because of the wickedness of these nations the Lord your God is driving them out from before you, and that he may confirm the word that the Lord swore to your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob. Know, therefore, that the Lord your God is not giving you this good land to possess because of your righteousness, for you are a stubborn people.—Deuteronomy 9:3–6
In Judges 7, Gideon is the least in his tribe, and his tribe is the least of all the tribes. He is truly a nobody. He is exactly the kind of person God chooses to use. Then Gideon assembles his army, and it turns out to be too big. Have you ever heard of such a thing? The Lord scaled the army back from 22,000 to 10,000. That was still too big. Then the army went from 10,000 to 300. God decided that was just right. Why?
The Lord said to Gideon, “The people with you are too many for me to give the Midianites into their hand, lest Israel boast over me, saying, ‘My own hand has saved me.’”—Judges 7:2
Now some of you may nod your head and give mental assent to these things, but my experience is that people need to be broken down until they see they have nothing before they really understand that grace is everything. Paul wants to draw attention to his weakness and our weakness. Maybe the best way to do that is to talk about disabilities for a few moments.
I’m making this connection because Paul does. The word that Paul uses for weakness is almost always used in Greek classical literature (as well as in the New Testament) for illness, or more generically as “powerlessness.” Think about it—Paul uses a word to describe himself that was a stock reference to people with physical sickness or bodily weakness (see also Mark 6:56; Matthew 10:8; Luke 4:40). The word commonly refers to profound powerlessness—even people with physical disabilities. Two very interesting uses are Luke 13 and John 5.
And behold, there was a woman who had had a disabling spirit for eighteen years. She was bent over and could not fully straighten herself. When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said to her, “Woman, you are freed from your disability.” And he laid his hands on her, and immediately she was made straight, and she glorified God.—Luke 13:11–13
Luke 13 is interesting because the woman has a disabling spirit. The word Paul uses for weakness in 2 Corinthians is the same one he uses here for disabling. Perhaps the messenger from Satan was a kind of disabling spirit.
The other interesting text I want to highlight briefly is John 5.
In these lay a multitude of invalids—blind, lame, and paralyzed. One man was there who had been an invalid for thirty-eight years.—John 5:3–5
Now why do I even bring up this connection? How does it help answer the question I posed at the beginning? Jesus often used physical disabilities as a parable pointing to our spiritual disabilities. He used the healing of the blind man to show the disciples that they needed to ask to have their remaining spiritual blindness removed (see Mark 8). John 9 makes the point powerfully because Jesus says that God gave the blind man the disability in order that the “works of God might be displayed in him” (John 9:3)
Jesus made the reason that he healed the man who was born blind very, very plain: that man’s blindness was a parable.
Jesus said, “For judgment I came into this world, that those who do not see may see, and those who see may become blind.” Some of the Pharisees near him heard these things, and said to him, “Are we also blind?”—Luke 9:39–40
What a question! God was standing there in the flesh right in front of them, and they didn’t recognize him. The worst kind of blindness is when you are so blind that you don’t know you are blind.
The vast majority of the world thinks that we do not need people with disabilities. The world regards them as unnecessary. What contribution can they possibly make to society? Survival of the fittest means discarding them. Cut your losses. Doctors today put incredible pressure on parents to abort unborn children who have chromosomal abnormalities or Down syndrome or the like.
On the other end of the spectrum, the world is increasingly favoring physician-assisted suicide or mercy killings. As people become elderly and more disabled, they are viewed as less valuable. What can they possibly contribute to society now? They have chronic needs. We don’t need them; we just take care of them. Condescending care. Aren’t they lucky they have us?
The church looks deeper. The first thing we say is that disabilities are not an accident. God makes disabilities. He is not embarrassed about them at all.
Then the Lord said to him, “Who has made man’s mouth? Who makes him mute, or deaf, or seeing, or blind? Is it not I, the Lord?—Exodus 4:11
People with disabilities are a gift. But the weak look at them with solidarity. They are a parable. They are not just people who need us to serve them—we need them to serve us. How? Their very presence ministers to us. They give us the gift of sight. They are a physical reflection of the spiritual reality we all share. Their physical weakness or disability shows us our spiritual weakness or disability. Do you see yourself? They belong in the family. They are part of us.
They are not a separate group that we serve because we pity them. They serve us by their very presence. They show us something profound about who we are. Their presence puts us more in touch with how weak we all really are. They have obvious needs, and our spiritual needs may sometimes be less obvious, but they are just as real. We are just as needy.
Yes, people with disabilities need a lot of help a lot of the time. But don’t you see? You need more help, more of the time. Pause to consider what you would be apart from grace. God constantly serves us. We need physical life and breath, and we also need spiritual strength.
They may have a disability, but you have something much worse—you have complete inability. In fact, it was completely impossible for you to do anything to earn your salvation.
Jesus said that we will not enter the kingdom unless we become like a weak, dependent child. As I have said before, in some ways spiritual maturity is the opposite of physical maturity. Physical maturity moves from childhood to adulthood as you become less and less dependent upon your parents, but spiritual maturity means growing in your awareness of how dependent you are on your heavenly Father. In our thinking, we do not remain as children or immature. It is immature thinking to think we are strong and not childlike.
Why do disabilities make people even in the church uncomfortable? Because people cannot relate. They put the disabled in the “them” category rather than the “us” category. It is hard to accept the thought that we are as dependent upon God as those with the most severe disabilities are dependent upon their caretakers.
Deep down we have a gag reflex to things we think are ugly or awkward or weak or abnormal. Why? Because we are proud. The idea of helplessness does not settle well with our pride. It is a big pill to swallow, and sometimes it gets stuck in our spiritual throat. We don’t think we are like them. But that is exactly why we need people with disabilities among us.
In fact, we are more disabled than the most disabled person you know. We are spiritual corpses before salvation. That is not just a disability—it is ultimate inability. With man this is impossible. Remember Ephesians 2? Do you want proof that grace is divine power? Paul says we have been saved by grace, which means the giving of life those who are spiritually dead.
The grace that saves us is the same grace that sustains and works powerfully within us. Jesus told his disciples, “Apart from me, you can do nothing” (John 15:5). Paul made the same point. He said the Spirit is at work in his ministry, but he knows better than to take credit for it.
Not that we are sufficient in ourselves to claim anything as coming from us, but our sufficiency is from God, who has made us sufficient to be ministers of a new covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit. For the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.—2 Corinthians 3:5–6
If you can’t see beauty in your brokenness, how can you see beauty in the broken bread, which represents the body of Christ broken for us? If you see beauty in the broken bread, then why would you deny that there could be beauty in our brokenness and weakness and dependence?
We also see love. God’s love is not reactive. He does not find lovely people and then love them. His love is not a reaction—it is a creation. We are loved because we are loved. God is ferociously free with his love. That means you can rest in all that Christ did for you rather than always wondering if you have done enough to be loved.
In our brokenness, we celebrate the greater beauty of hope. It is the Last Supper in the old age as we look forward to the new age. We proclaim his death until he comes again. When he comes again and we eat and drink anew, the former things—things characterized by mourning, crying, and death—will be no more.
Sermon Discussion Questions
Main Point: Paul prizes human weakness because it is a prerequisite for the display of divine strength.
Pray for the gift of self-awareness when it comes to the absolute way we are dependent upon God.