Theme: Are you defined by your troubles or by Christ’s power?
2 Corinthians 12:7-10 And lest I should be exalted above measure by the abundance of the revelations, a thorn in the flesh was given to me, a messenger of Satan to buffet me, lest I be exalted above measure. 8 Concerning this thing I pleaded with the Lord three times that it might depart from me. 9 And He said to me, "My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness." Therefore most gladly I will rather boast in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. 10 Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in needs, in persecutions, in distresses, for Christ's sake. For when I am weak, then I am strong.
It’s really a remarkable thing to see how humans respond to adversity. Humans have an amazing capacity to deal with difficult circumstances. God gives us in our bodies and minds the ability to take a lot of hardship, even though we don’t always do it. This resiliency in humans is recognized by everyone. From an evolutionary perspective, this quality developed from millions of years of struggle and conflict, and in the end the human species proved to be the most resilient of all. Even today, evolutionists praise the durability of the human spirit.
That explanation of the human ability to cope with hardships is only grasping in the dark for answers. God tells us where our resiliency as a species came from. He created us in His image and placed us higher than the animals and plants. Humans are God’s highest form of creation and have the capacity to endure, not because they are special of their own accord, but because God has given them this ability to live to the honor and glory of His name.
One of the ways this resiliency shows itself is by displaying strength in the midst of weakness. This often happens today in the case of disease. Humans show their strength by standing up to the difficulties that come with sickness and disease. It all comes down to what you are defined by. What is your motivation in life? How do you characterize yourself? Do others know you by your weaknesses or by your strengths? Human resiliency does not want to be characterized by limitations, instead it wants to display power and ability.
There’s no shortage of examples that we see from day to day that demonstrate this. In our culture of increasing communication the resiliency of humans is used as encouragement day after day. I remember one famous quote from a media personality who was diagnosed with terminal cancer. He said, “When you die, it does not mean that you lose to cancer. You beat cancer by how you live, why you live, and in the manner in which you live.” That’s displaying strength and resiliency in the face of affliction. This individual showed the capacity to cope with difficulties, even those out of his control, by standing up to the challenge and refusing to be defined by his weakness.
We encourage such a positive attitude but we can’t deny reality either. Regardless of how defiant we are in the face of sicknesses, death is reality for everyone, there is no escaping it. David, a man who knew the reality of death well, wrote in Psalm 39: "LORD, reveal to me the end of my life and the number of my days. Let me know how short-lived I am. 5 You, indeed, have made my days short in length, and my life span as nothing in Your sight. Yes, every mortal man is only a vapor. 6 "Certainly, man walks about like a mere shadow. Indeed, they frantically rush around in vain, gathering possessions without knowing who will get them.”
Having a positive attitude in adversity is always best, but it’s difficult when reality lurks on the horizon. A resilient attitude, while commendable, doesn’t change the fact that we suffer from a problem that is beyond our control. We can deal with the minor problems of life. There are some sicknesses that we can now control to an extent through modern medicine. But all difficulties boil down to one problem, and that’s sin. We don’t even need to go into depth about all the physical problems that we don’t have a solution for, sin is the one cause of them all. If you don’t have a way to deal with sin, then it doesn’t matter what you have for any of the other problems in life, big or small.
A courageous and resilient human spirit cannot cope with sin. There is only one hope, and that is the work of Jesus Christ. If we deny Jesus, it doesn’t matter how courageous or defiant we are in worldly problems, because eventually we will be defined by our limitations. The only way to escape succumbing to our weaknesses, is to have the power of Christ. And the only way to have the power of Christ is through faith that is established and strengthened by God’s Word.
This is true not only when it comes the end of our lives, or the really serious problems of the world, but also in the little, day to day things. Any type of hardship that comes our way is a result of sin, and a reminder of sin. In this way, the little problems of day to day life are kind of like scars. They remind us of where we’ve been and what we’ve endured, but they also help us learn for the future. We think of the scars that come with sin and they are present with us every day, but we don’t have to be defined by them. Sin does not have to be the theme of our lives, because we have access to the power of Christ.
Our verses today speak of how Paul refused to be labeled by the ailment he had, He was powerful in Christ even though he had a very serious physical problem. We’re not told the exact details about what Paul suffered from, because it doesn’t really matter. The entire point of this section is that Paul was not defined by the hindrances of sin. And when Paul spoke, he carried more authority than simply speaking from His human spirit. He had the authority and power of His Savior, because it was Christ’s power that rested upon Paul. By faith, when Paul’s weakness revealed itself, it was a testament to God’s strength and glory more than a testament to the effects of sin. God’s power outweighs our limitations.
How do we respond in similar situations? Are we content to leave things to God or do we allow ourselves to be defined by our limitations? Chances are we’ve never had a thorn in the flesh quite like Paul did. In the previous chapter we hear about many of the hardships he endured. He was a frequent resident in prisons. Five times he received 39 lashings from his Jewish opponents. He was beaten with rods on three occasions. He was stoned once. He was stranded in the sea after a shipwreck, and he confronted numerous other perils in his journeys. And yet, despite all of these difficulties, the one thing Paul singles out is this “thorn in the flesh.” It bothered him so much that he pleaded with the Lord three times for relief.
Have you ever endured so much? Personally, I know I haven’t. And yet, I’m usually more than willing to be defined by my limitations, insignificant as they are. The big temptation in focusing on our limitations is that we receive attention. When we dwell on all the hardships of life and tell others about it, we’re more likely to receive sympathy, and that feels good. It feels good to be recognized by others and to know that others are thinking about you, even if it’s for the wrong reasons. In this way, our society has really softened. It’s become much more popular to the defined by struggles rather than work through them. It’s much easier to complain until someone listens rather than going about your day doing the right thing without anyone noticing. It’s become so common for us to be defined by what’s going wrong in life, rather than being thankful for the many blessings we have.
We must confess that we have allowed sin and its effects to have a tighter grip on our lives than they should, especially for the selfish reason of gaining attention from others. We want others to look at all we’re doing or enduring and tell us how impressed they are at what great people we are. Often Christianity today is defined by what we are able to endure, rather than what Christ endured on our behalf. According to this definition, the status of Christianity becomes a measure of me as an individual and my own resiliency, rather than the Lord’s strength and power.
This problem was present in Paul’s life too, and he understood it. That’s why, even though he pleaded for relief from his ailment, he ultimately understood the purpose behind it. God was humbling Paul so that he would not boast in himself. As a Christian leader Paul probably received a lot of praise and thanks from his fellow believers. As an apostle, gifted with “an abundance of revelations” as he put it, there was a temptation to fall into the sin of pride. So, the Lord used this thorn in the flesh to humble Paul and reveal true power through Christ.
We may not suffer from the same problems. Paul certainly didn’t live in an age where being a Christian was easy. His immediate danger was not complacency as it is for us. Given all of his hardships he certainly didn’t live a soft and cushy life. But God teaches us the same lesson in our lives, even though our problems don’t perfectly mirror Paul’s. When you encounter hardships, do you ever stop to think about what God might be trying to tell you?
· Is there a chance that you’re getting too soft in your spiritual life?
· Might you be complaining a bit too much instead of being thankful?
· Could it be that you are allowing yourself to be defined by the scars of life, rather than the Lord’s power?
· Is it possible that you’re focusing too much on yourself, rather than staying connected to God’s Word?
· Do you ever spend more time seeking your own attention rather than giving all the attention to God?
If you take the time to stop and think about it, it’s usually pretty easy to see what the Lord is doing. He may allow sicknesses and struggles to come your way, but He has a greater plan through them. Paul, through the Lord’s grace, was able to recognize the Lord’s plan in his life. You can do the same. Use this example from Paul for help. Learn from his past experiences, because you share in the same struggles. And more importantly, you share in the same solution to sin. Your life can be defined the very same way Paul’s was, not by your limitations, but by your Savior from sin.
When we plead to the Lord, we too can know as Paul did that He will never be silent. We may not always get the answer we are requesting, but God always responds. God will never return silent, He is continually speaking to us through His Word. That is where we find the answers to our questions. We often think that God will always work through the events of life. He is certainly able to point us to things or give us answers through life’s events. But the Word is the most powerful resource because God speaks to us directly through it. The problem we often have with the Word is that the more we use it, the more difficulties come our way. The stronger we confess, especially in the unpopular areas of God’s wisdom, the more the world will fight against us. To endure these setbacks, we need strength, and it doesn’t always feel like we get that from God’s Word. Often we are tempted to believe that God is silent. But, just as Paul said, when we are weak, Christ is strong. He displays His strength through our limitations. It’s not the glamourous fanfare that our sinful flesh craves, but it is the effective power of Jesus. We may not get the attention we want when we stand firm in His Word but we do gain a much greater gift – true spiritual strength.
Therefore, we echo the same theme as Paul, we find our boast not in ourselves, but in Christ. Not only should we be willing to suffer shame for being a Christian, we should expect it. Scars will always be present from a variety of foes in the world. And those scars remind us and learn from them. But they don’t define us. In Christ, we are much more than what the world does to us.
Even in the final days of his life, Paul was defined by Jesus. As he sat in prison, he wrote to Timothy: “For I am already being poured out as a drink offering, and the time of my departure is at hand. 7 I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. 8 Finally, there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will give to me on that Day, and not to me only but also to all who have loved His appearing (2 Timothy 4:6-8).” Many believe these were some of Paul’s last words to his fellow Christians. Even in a moment of what seemed like complete defeat, Paul was confident in the work of Christ. He was content to have his life “poured out as a drink offering” for the Lord’s glory. What a strange attitude to have in the midst of such affliction! Ever since Paul became a Christian, he encountered hardship after hardship. It was a never ending assault by Satan who must have been so angry that God converted Paul of all people, and turned him from an agent of evil to an agent of righteousness. What a rare gift of contentment! Where did it come from?
It’s in our text, it comes from God Himself when He said to Paul: “My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness.” What a beautiful thought! The Lord’s grace is enough for us, literally we can be content with it, no matter what else is going on. God’s grace is not something we talk boldly about but in the back of our minds know that it holds no power. God’s grace is not like our natural human resiliency that looks good on the outside, and is commendable in human’s eyes, but has no strength against sin. Those who have Christ don’t lead double lives, one as a Christian and one as a regular person in the world. His grace holds the day. His grace is sufficient for us, in good times and in bad. And we are defined by it. Amen.
The peace of God which surpasses all understanding will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.