February 26, 2019

Pre-Lent 2 - 2 Corinthians 12:9-10

Find Meaning in the “Theater of Pain”
1. The weaknesses of our bodies sustained by Christ’s strength
2. The weaknesses of our souls sustained by Christ’s grace

In a magazine on leadership, a pastor wrote about a story from his younger days in the ministry. He said that in his early 30's he began to experience sharp pain from migraine headaches. The thing about these headaches is that they became predictable, almost down to the very hour. The pastor remarked how the headaches would come during the month of May in every even-numbered year. They came on around 1:00 in the morning every other night and lasted about three weeks. Then they stopped until the next year. The pastor said he had four sequences of migraines that matched this schedule.

He went to see a specialist for more answers and to his surprise he found out that it was quite a common problem for young men in leadership roles. The specialist said that these incidents were marked by two commonalities – young men who were not at peace with themselves and had unresolved relationship issues. It turns out for the pastor that the relationship most unsettled was actually his relationship with God. When he took the time to draw nearer to God for his own personal faith, the physical pain subsided. When looking back on the problem, the pastor summarized his quest woth one question that needed answering: What does God want to teach me while I’m in the theater of pain?

That’s an interesting way to phrase the situation, but it’s also appropriate. We know God is loving. We know God is powerful. Why would He use pain to instruct? The very idea of our God connected to a theater of pain sounds absurd. And yet, the pastor learned the lesson and grew in his faith through it. The Lord used the pain to bless him, as He continues to do for so many others. Today, we explore that question for ourselves – how do we find meaning in the “theater of pain,” through another example, this time from the Bible and from the life of the Apostle Paul. We read from 2 Corinthians 12:9-10:

But he [Jesus] 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. 10 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. 

Paul was on the defensive here. He knew the Corinthians well. He helped establish the congregation. He lovingly admonished them in his first letter over a number of open and immoral sins. Yet, after all he had done for them, as a pastor, leader, and fellow Christian; near the end of his second letter here he was on the defensive. Paul was on the defensive because new teachers had entered the congregation. Paul called them “super-apostles,” or to put it another way, “teachers above and beyond.” He gave them this title because they spoke so much about their greatness. Paul was on the defensive because the Corinthians were listening to these false teachers and ignoring Paul. He was old news to them. He wasn’t relevant anymore. His message didn’t resonate with them. He wasn’t worth the time.

But the danger was that these super-apostles were not really apostles of Christ. Paul expressed his concerns for the Corinthians in this way, 2 Corinthians 11:3-4 But I fear, lest somehow, as the serpent deceived Eve by his craftiness, so your minds may be corrupted from the simplicity that is in Christ. 4 For if he who comes preaches another Jesus whom we have not preached, or if you receive a different spirit which you have not received, or a different gospel which you have not accepted-- you may well put up with it!

Part 1

So, on the defensive, both for his ministry and for the faith of the Corinthians, Paul gets personal. He takes a page out of the playbook of these super-apostles and boasts about his accomplishments. If anyone wanted to measure Paul’s worth based on qualities, or things given to God in the name of the ministry, he had quite a resume. In 2 Corinthians 11, Paul doesn’t hold back in his experiences as an apostle: 

·       in labors more abundant,
·       in stripes above measure,
·       in prisons more frequently,
·       in deaths often.
·       From the Jews five times I received forty stripes minus one.
·       Three times I was beaten with rods;
·       once I was stoned;
·       three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I have been in the deep;
·       in journeys often,
o   in perils of waters,
o   in perils of robbers,
o   in perils of my own countrymen,
o   in perils of the Gentiles,
o   in perils in the city,
o   in perils in the wilderness,
o   in perils in the sea,
o   in perils among false brethren;
·       in weariness and toil,
·       in sleeplessness often,
·       in hunger and thirst,
·       in fastings often,
·       in cold and nakedness
·       besides the other things, what comes upon me daily: my deep concern for all the churches.  

When the world measures the value of a person’s faith, it’s always done in terms of what they have gone through. Within that system, Paul was an apostle of the highest order. Even the highly regarded super-apostles, praised for their accomplishments, couldn’t hold a candle to Paul. And yet, at the very end of Paul’s list he says this, 2 Corinthians 11:30 If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness.

This was a lesson for the Corinthians, but also a confession from Paul. He didn’t want to boast. He wished he didn’t have to defend his apostleship – he had given plenty of evidence in the past to the Corinthians of his love for them, evidence that was so quickly forgotten. And he was concerned for the danger they were hastening after. So Paul did compare. He did boast. But, most important of all – he boasted of his weakness, because in His weakness the power of Christ was exalted.

Almost all of the ordeals that Paul mentioned dealt with his physical life. As Paul transitioned into chapter 12 he mentioned a specific physical ailment that he had. He doesn’t describe it in detail, other than calling it a “thorn in his flesh” and something delivered from Satan. Paul says he pleaded with the Lord three times to relieve this ailment, but the Lord chose not to. And in a direct message, Christ told him, “My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness.”

With everything that Paul endured as an apostle, we don’t know why he spoke most directly of this “thorn in the flesh.” He had been through a number of things that many of us will never experience. It might sound easy to say on the surface that none of these things should have been an issue for Paul at all. It might be easy to criticize him as if he didn’t trust in the Lord enough. But those responses are as incorrect as they are heartless. Paul wasn’t complaining that the physical problems are more important than spiritual. He wasn’t doubting God’s grace or strength. Rather, like all sinful and forgiven mortal humans, Paul felt the connection between his body and his soul.

Ultimately, all believers know what is most important in life, and all believers trust that nothing can take away the love of Christ that promises eternal life. But it’s natural to feel the pain of physical burdens too. What happens to our natural bodies has an effect of the status of our souls. And as children of God who trust that He works everything for the best in our lives, we ponder the same questions about finding meaning in the theater of pain. Paul tells us what he learned. His strength was found in His almighty and powerful Savior and that strength was displayed to its fullest extent in the moments where Paul suffered the most. By grace we can say the same.

Like Paul, you can boast in your weaknesses. Don’t be like the super-apostles. They tried to mask their weaknesses in the vanity of their own strength. But, that thin veil was sure to rip apart under extreme trial. What might your thorn in the flesh be? You don’t have to feel ashamed about it. Don’t worry if others ignorantly try to minimize your struggles. Only you will ever know the full extent of its effect. But also learn and accept the greater lesson by faith. Whatever you go through, God is stronger. You become a stronger person too, the greater your weaknesses are evident, not because of who you are, but because of who Jesus is. And so in any state, there is always hope in His name.

Part 2

God is in control and cares for our physical lives. He is able to use His almighty power to take away our problems. Yet, there is so much more to our relationship with God than just these simple points. And without a deeper understanding of God grace, as well as His power, we will never find an answer to that question of understanding the theater or pain. Remember, Jesus said no to Paul’s prayer of deliverance three times. Remember, Paul did not boast in his mission of deliverance being accomplished, but instead in his abundant weaknesses. And most of all, remember what Jesus said to Paul. “My grace is sufficient.”

Grace is not a gift for our bodies. It’s a blessing that applies to the soul. Grace is what changes our hearts so that we can say with Paul, “When I am weak, then I am strong.” Grace may not change any of the details of our physical lives. To the untrained observer, there may seem to be no change. And yet, grace moves obstacles that are insurmountable to our own efforts. This is part of the amazing miracle of God’s love in Christ. It defies observation just as much as it defies Satan’s ploys. It seems ordinary and insufficient but in reality it unlocks untold treasures of eternity. And so just as Jesus said, so Paul believed. “My grace is sufficient for you.” We’ve described grace to some extent. Let us move on to the second feature of that promise that defies expectation – Christ’s grace is sufficient. 

The thought of sufficiency means to bring an activity to completion, and not only to end it, but to complete it in the best way possible. This was the same word spoken by Christ on the cross, at the height of his physical and spiritual suffering – in the moment of being forsaken by His righteous Father, Jesus declared, “It is finished.” Literally, it is sufficient. Jesus completed the task that was necessary for the salvation of the world – in the fullest way possible and in the best way possible. He was the acceptable sacrifice. Through faith, our sufficiency flows from Christ’s. Just as the Father put His divine approval on Jesus as the payment for sin, so also Jesus now has the power to declare that His love and mercy is approved to cover your problems. No matter what you face, whether a pain of body or soul, you are made complete in Christ’s grace.

Now the third amazing aspect of this promise. My grace is sufficient for you. Here’s where we see more than just the power of God’s grace. Sure, it can cover any sin, it can erase any mistake, it can blot out any transgression, it can heal any disease, or bind up any broken heart. But, I propose this is where it means the most – that it for you. If Christ was not for you, nothing else would matter. Grace becomes tender and personal when we see that God promises it for you. That’s when we can finally lower our defenses and trust God, when we see Him as both divine Lord and merciful Savior, who knows and calls us each by name.

So, how do we understand the theater of pain that so often afflicts our bodies and souls? Paul’s answer is surprising but also spot on. When I am weak, then I am strong. Not because of any boast I can make of my life. But because my sufficiency is from Christ. When He says, “My grace is sufficient for you.” I can trust that, because He verified that promise with His own life.

That doesn’t mean you won’t feel pain, or you won’t be touched by sorrow. Quite the contrary in fact. You might suffer more for being one of Christ’s. But, what it does mean is that you are complete, no matter how you might feel like your lacking. And it means you have a truth worth hanging onto – for eternity in fact. Amen.

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