“I asked for power that I might have the praise of men; I was given weakness that I might feel the need of God.” Taken from a Confederate Soldier’s Prayer
The spiritual battle we fight is long and hard. We just can’t win it alone. Thankfully, God has given us a host of helps to take us through to final victory. Support for his troops includes a group of seasoned veterans, who are put alongside us to train and to teach us in the art of spiritual warfare. Their wisdom and biblical insights have helped to shape my beliefs and strengthen my faith. Many of my mentors I have never met. They have impacted my life through their books. There is a sense where I can say I have been impacted by some of the best: James Boice and Donald Bloesch; D. A. Carson and Oswald Chambers; Jonathon Edwards and Jim Elliot; C. S. Lewis and Martin Lloyd-Jones; Andrew Murray and John MacArthur; R. C. Sproul and Ray Stedman; John Piper and J. I. Packer. I am so thankful for these godly men, for their walk, as well as their writings reveal the power of God’s truth upon their lives. They are a disappearing breed of spiritual giants in a religious world more impressed with image than integrity.
Near the top of my list I would put J. I. Packer. His books have carried me to the heights of spiritual truth, and then brought me down to show me how to apply them on the field of spiritual conflict. I was re-reading one of his classics the other day [Rediscovering Holiness] when I was struck by the timely insights he had teased out of the text of God’s truth. They were just the weapons I needed to get through the battle in which I am presently engaged. Here is the passage Packer was preaching.
To keep me [Paul] from becoming conceited because of these surpassingly 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. [2 Cor 12:7-10]
This passage goes to the heart of God’s ways and means of training wise warriors. It squares off against our celebrity intoxicated, media manipulated, numbers validated ministry of today. In fact, Paul himself was being subjected to severe criticism because he was not the “shining star” that a celebrity of his status should be. He did not throw his intellectual weight around. He was not impressive in his appearance. He wasn’t exciting in his delivery. He was too negative in his preaching. And, if he was living among us today, we would probably think him too serious, needing to throw in some jokes and some videos to keep our attention. But, his biggest problem was that he embraced weakness.
He did this, not because he had low self-esteem or was in some way inferior to his rivals. For, not only did he have the finest of pedigrees, not only was he schooled in the greatest institutions of learning of that day, he actually saw the Risen Lord and received his calling in a pretty impressive display of God’s glory. And, as this text reveals, he was also given heavenly revelations, so great, that he could not fully disclose them to his listeners. As strange as it may seem to our “in your face,” “slam dunk,” “I did it my way,” world, Paul discovered that godly success was only achieved by inward humility rather than outward superiority.
It was Paul’s “great revelations” that were the occasion for the Lord to allow what Paul called a “thorn in the flesh, a messenger of Satan,” to torment him. The thorn was probably something physical, not the nagging wife as some have suggested. It was more than an irritation. It was torment! It was agonizing pain all the time. Although it was delivered by a messenger from Satan, it was the Lord who sent it, turning apparent evil into a tool to shape his own good purposes.
Three times Paul asked to have the thorn removed. It is right and normal to want to get rid of pain in our lives. But, Paul recognized that this thorn could not be removed by normal human agency. It demanded a miracle, so he prayed. Two times he prayed and there was no answer. He persevered. On the third try, God answered and said “no” to his request. His request was denied, not because his prayer was not pure or because God didn’t have the power, but because God had a better plan. God always reserves the right to give us something better than what we ask. In our torment, we just have a hard time imagining it.
On the third try, God finally answers. “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” In other words, “You are going to keep your thorn. I won’t take it away but I will give you my grace to live with it. Using this thorn, I am going to display my power in you. Your ministry will grow, but in your weakness my strength will be more obvious to all who wonder at your future effectiveness. My power will be made perfect in your weakness.” By God refusing to answer Paul’s initial request, what Paul truly desired would be given him. What was that? Paul had passion for greater effectiveness in ministry, not to receive celebrity status, but to see greater glory for the Lord. So, he learned to delight in “weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties.” When they came, he knew that God was using them to prepare him for greater ministry, greater joy, and greater glory for Jesus.
So, how do we apply this principle to our own lives? How do we come to delight in weakness? I think the answer is that we must maintain a conscious awareness, or as Packer states it, “knowing and feeling” that one is really weak. The normal worldly characteristics of powerful personality, great mind, and indomitable spirit, will not accomplish the things of God. Only when we face, feel and admit our own insufficiency does the divine empowering begin in us. Here is how Packer addressed this issue in his own life.
If I could remember, each day of my life, that the way to grow stronger is to grow weaker, if I would accept that each day’s frustrations, obstacles, and accidents are God’s ways of making me acknowledge my weakness, so that growing stronger might become a possibility for me, if I did not betray myself into relying on myself- my knowledge, my expertise, my position, my skill with words, and so on- so much of the time, what a difference it would make to me!
How God reminds us that we are weak or what he puts us through to keep us weak, is unique for every individual. For me, one of the ways I am kept weak is the constant reminder that I cannot do what I have been called to do with the resources I have in me. Every time I sit down to write on my book and am met with a mental iron wall, I am reminded how weak I am. Every time I go to the post office in need of financial help and find the box empty, I am reminded how weak I am. Every time I feel like I should be out there declaring the truth of God’s word and I have no invitations, I am reminded how weak I am.
Here is the deal. Power for ministry is not a thing. It is personal and moral. When we ask for grace God does not give us a power pill, he changes us. He brings affliction so that in our weakness we might lean harder on him. John Newton expresses this so well in a poem he wrote. He began, “I asked the Lord that I might grow- In faith, and love, and every grace…” He hoped that God would in one moment answer his request. But, God didn’t act as Newton thought he would.
Instead of this, he made me feel- The hidden evil of my heart,
And let the angry powers of hell- Assault my soul in every part.
Yea, more, with his own hand he seemed, Intent to aggravate my woe,
Crossed all the fair designs I schemed, Blasted my gourds and laid me low.
“Lord why is this?” I trembling cried, “Wilt thou pursue thy worm to death?”
“Tis in this way,” the Lord replied, “I answer prayer for grace and faith.
These inward trials I employ- From self and pride to set thee free,
And break thy schemes of earthly joy, That thou mayest seek thy all in me.”
His ways are hard and often painful. He calls us to deny ourselves and take up our cross daily. But, in doing so, we get to follow him. In losing ourselves we find ourselves. The reward for living and the goal of winning is not achieving fame or attaining a great name. Life’s greatest joy is found in knowing, enjoying and declaring Jesus Christ. We must go down to go up. Weakness is the only path to greatness!
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