It was a few months ago when a very respected minister of the Word of God, and professor and teacher, was with us, and we were having lunch and he said, “Everywhere I go, I’m increasingly burdened over the fact that so many pastors and church leaders are terribly discouraged.” He talked about that a little bit and asked if I might be willing to make some kind of contribution to the fact that this is a reality, and what we might be able to do to bring some encouragement to men in ministry.
So on the basis of that and just the way the Lord has directed my thinking, I plan to, at least from my viewpoint, my vantage point this week as I minister to the men who are here, to address this issue of encouragement, and to try to make this week an uplifting and encouraging time. And that is why I am drawn to the text that you see in the Grace Today, 2 Corinthians, chapter 12, because while it on the surface looks like the lowest point in the life of the apostle Paul, it is in reality the pathway to true encouragement in ministry.
Let me begin reading, and I’ll read starting at chapter 12. Second Corinthians, chapter 12, verse 1, and read down through verse 10. Second Corinthians, chapter 12. This is something Paul hates to do, to boast about his ministry, his life. He’s been forced to do it because he’s been criticized and he has to defend himself to the Corinthians.
So he writes in this chapter, “Boasting is necessary, although it is not profitable; but I will go on to visions and revelation of the Lord. I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago – whether in the body I do not know, or out of the body I do not know, God knows – such a man was caught up to the third heaven. And I know how such a man – whether in the body or apart from the body I do not know, God knows – was caught up into paradise and heard inexpressible words, which a man is not permitted to speak. On behalf of such a man I will boast; but on my own behalf I will not boast, except in regard to my weaknesses. For if I do wish to boast I will not be foolish, for I will be speaking the truth; but I refrain from this, so that no one will credit me with more than he sees in me or hears from me.
“Because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, for this reason, to keep me from exalting myself, there was given me a thorn in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me – to keep me from exalting myself! Concerning this I implored the Lord three times that it might leave me. And He has said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness.’ Most gladly, therefore, I will rather boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Therefore I am well content with weaknesses, with insults, with distresses, with persecutions, with difficulties, for Christ’s sake; for when I am weak, then I am strong.” One statement in verse 9 becomes the primary focus of the passage: “My grace is sufficient for you.”
As we closed out the 16th chapter of John a couple of months ago and approached chapter 17, we remember that the final verse in the 16th chapter of John, verse 33, says, “In the world you will have trouble, but be of good courage; I have overcome the world.” It’s not as if we need to be reminded of that. But the disciples did, because they thought they were sort of on the verge of the glories and wonders of the kingdom of Messiah. Instead, Jesus says, “You’re going to face trouble.” Trouble, indeed, did they face. All but one martyred, and that one an exile.
There’s always been trouble in the world. “Man is born unto trouble as the sparks fly upward,” says the book of Job. Trouble defines life in this world. It is a fallen world, everything in it is fallen, and all of us are fallen; and even those of us who are redeemed still have retained that fallen humanness. We live in a dying and decaying a corrupting world, and we ourselves are caught up in the same corruption. Trouble defines life. But you will notice here that our Lord said to Paul, “My grace is sufficient for you.” I want to talk about sufficient grace in the context of this particular passage and this time in Paul’s life.
Grace is a magnificent word. It’s used 155 times in the New Testament. It’s ubiquitous all through the New Testament. Obviously it needs to be, because everything we have received from God is by grace. And all that we have received collectively is a complex of gracious gifts. The word “grace” in the Greek language is charis. It basically means a favor bestowed on a person who didn’t earn it or deserve it. It is a kindness that is unmerited. And in terms of how grace is used in the New Testament, it is God’s divine favor on those who deserve wrath. It is God’s divine favor on those who deserve wrath or judgment. That is the essential reality of our salvation. All of it is a divine favor, a complex of divine favors granted to those of us who deserve wrath and judgment – undeserved generosity from God.
But grace is not just an inert sort of concept; it is a force, it is a power. It is a power that transforms us. It is a power that awakens us from sleep. It is a power that gives us life in the midst of death. It is a power that is dynamic enough to transform us from the kingdom of darkness to the kingdom of God’s dear Son. It is the power that saves us. It is the power that keeps us, the power that enables us, the power that sanctifies us, and the power that one day will glorify us. You have to look at grace as a force, a divine force that God pours out into the lives of His people at all points to grant them all that they need to be all that He desires.
Not only is the word “grace” itself used many times in the New Testament, but the very idea of grace is referred to in superlative ways. For example, in Ephesians, chapter 2, verse 7, the apostle Paul speaks of surpassing riches of His grace. It’s not enough to say grace, it has to be His grace. It’s not enough to say His grace, it has to be the riches of His grace, and then it has to be the surpassing riches of His grace, the stacking on of adjectives to try to be able to understand and articulate the massive character of this grace.
One of the most wonderful statements made about our Lord Jesus Christ – and, of course, there are many in the New Testament. But one of the most wonderful is one of the briefest of all, it’s in John 1:14, and it says this about Christ: He was full of grace. He was full of grace. And you will remember that as Christians we are in Him, we are in Him.
We’ve talked about the fact that He is love and we are in Him, and therefore, we enjoy His love. He is peace and we are in Him, and we enjoy His peace. He talked about the fact that because we are in Him we have His joy. And because He is full of grace and we are in Him by faith, we are full of grace. We share in all the fullness of Christ, the fullness of His grace. This is lavish grace; this is surpassing grace. This grace is a power, is a blessing, is a bestowing of God’s kindness on us for every spiritual need that we could ever have.
In fact, verse 16 in John 1, two verses later, says this: “For of His fullness – ” He was full of grace, “ – of His fullness have all we received, and grace upon grace.” And the idea then again is to speak of it in hyperbole: grace, upon grace, upon grace, upon grace. It’s like 2 Corinthians 3, from one level of grace to the next, to the next, to the next, to the next.
“We stand in grace,” we read in Romans 5. It’s the air we breathe; it’s the realm we live in. We live in divine blessing. The power of divine blessing energizes everything from our salvation to our glorification, and we will live in grace forever.
Luke says in Acts 4:33 that the early church was experiencing abundant grace. It’s as if the Bible writers can’t just say grace, they have to add something to it. Romans 5:17, as we read, Paul speaks of an abundance of grace. In Ephesians, chapter 1, and as I mentioned, chapter 2, he says, “The riches of grace.” James adds in, James 4:6, that it’s “a greater grace.” In other words, whatever you think it is, it’s greater than you think it is. Whatever you need, it’s greater than your need.
And then Peter chimes in – not to be left out – in his epistle, 1 Peter 4:10, and refers to the multifaceted, manifold, multicolored grace of God. There’s grace for everything. There’s enough grace, sufficient grace, surpassing grace, rich grace. It’s all available. In fact, we live in that grace, because Christ is full of grace and we are in Christ, and therefore, we have received grace, upon grace, upon grace, upon grace. When you pray, the writer of Hebrews says, “You go to the throne of grace where there is all that you need supplied.”
God has not skimped on grace. There’s not a shortage on grace. And no matter how much grace God dispenses, it’s never diminished. There is plenty of grace for our salvation, every step in our sanctification, for our service, even through our suffering and carrying us into eternal glory.
In 2 Corinthians, chapter 9 and verse 8, listen to how Paul speaks of grace: “And God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that always having all sufficiency in everything, you may have an abundance for every good deed.” He just stacks on the descriptives. It’s not just grace, it’s all grace. It’s not just all grace, it’s all grace abounding; and it’s abounding always, with all sufficiency for all things in an abundance that over-supplies every single good deed that God would ever desire you to do.
This is lavish grace. This is where we live. We live in the realm where we continually, as believers, receive what we do not deserve from God, and it empowers our lives at the point of salvation, through sanctification, through service, through suffering into glory. We have been given grace to repent of our sin. We have been given grace to understand the gospel. We have been given grace to believe it. We have been given grace to obey the Word of God. We have been given grace to overcome temptation and sin. We have been given grace to endure suffering, disappointment, and pain. We have been given grace to serve effectively, and that is why it is called the surpassing grace of God in you, the surpassing grace of God in you. What a gift. What a gift.
We need all that grace, because we live in a world full of trouble. If you’re in ministry, you carry not only your own burdens and the burdens of those around you, but you carry the burdens of an entire congregation and beyond. Life is filled with enough trouble for each of us in our own lives in dealing with the matters that besiege us. And then to extend that to the ones that are near us, and then an extended group of friends and family; but then those who are in ministry serving the Lord, their arms have to embrace whole congregations of people, and they wind up accumulating all kinds of trouble.
We live in this fallen, decadent, corrupt world, and we still have decaying flesh, decaying humanity. We face incessant trouble. Difficulty in life is what defines life. And the question that comes is: How do we handle it? Should we be discouraged? Should we be despondent? Should we be despairing? Should we be medicated? How do we deal with this? Is there a source of sufficient grace? Is there a power from heaven to power us through this; because this is how life is. This is how life is for all of us, myself included.
When Paul says in 2 Corinthians 3:5, “Our sufficiency is from God.” He was saying essentially what he says here: “My grace is sufficient for you.” God is sufficient because He dispenses sufficient grace. If we don’t go to him for the grace we need, I suppose we could say what Paul said to the Galatians, “You have fallen from grace.”
There is available grace for everything. And grace is not just an idea, it is a divine power, born by the Holy Spirit into our lives. We should be rushing to the throne of grace to find help in time of need. God is sufficient because He dispenses sufficient grace. What do I mean again by grace? The necessary power and blessing to power us through our sanctification, through our service, through our suffering, into His eternal presence.
Now, as we come to 2 Corinthians 12:7-10, we come to what is a jewel in Scripture. It just sparkles from many facets. It is a passage of Scripture that has carried me through all kinds of things through my life and ministry. I remember, even as I stand here, standing in a pulpit in Scotland about twice as high as this off the floor, and hoping I didn’t drop my notes three floors from the pulpit, and talking to a very precious congregation of people in Scotland and a very heartbroken pastor about this very passage on that Sunday. This is a passage that has been an encouragement to me and to many others.
Just a little bit of background. Paul wrote 2 Corinthians to defend himself. He hated to do that. He says that several times, “I don’t like this. I don’t want to boast about myself. I don’t like doing that, it’s not profitable.” We read that in chapter 12, verse 1. “It’s not helpful. Even if you’ve been to heaven, even if you’ve had some kind of vision, it’s still not helpful to talk about it, because it’s not reproducible and it’s not verifiable. And I don’t need to add to the fact that I already tend to be proud, and I don’t need to rehearse all of those amazing experiences. But I do have to defend myself, I do.” But he says, “I will defend myself – ” verse 5 “ – by defending my weakness.” Paul wanted everybody to know that there was nothing in him that could explain his success, that what marked him was his weakness.
Back in chapter 11, he even defends his task as a slave of Christ in verse 23: “How do I defend my call? How do I defend myself as a true slave of Christ? Here’s how; I’ve had far more labors, far more imprisonments. I’ve been beaten times without numbers, often in danger of death. Five times I received from the Jews thirty-nine lashes – ” which they gave with whips, “ – three times I was beaten with rods – ” that was a Gentile form of punishment, “ – once I was stoned, three times I was shipwrecked, a night and a day I spent in the deep – ” in the ocean “ – been on frequent journeys and dangers from rivers, robbers, countrymen, Gentiles, in the city, in the wilderness, on the sea, among false brethren. I have been in labor and hardship, through many sleepless nights, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure.” That’s all external, physical.
“Internally, apart from the external, there’s the daily pressure on me of concern for all the churches.” What kind of concern? “I’m concerned because I feel the pain of those who are weak, and I feel the intense concern for those led into sin. So I carry not only all the physical things, but I carry the internal spiritual concerns for the people I love.” This is a beleaguered man.
You might think that because he’d been such a successful apostle that he would ride across the top of all those kinds of things. But everywhere he went he was brutalized physically and beaten. And also just about everywhere he went, he faced the defection of people that he had ministered to and loved. He faced the influence of false teachers and Judaizers who were corrupting the church. He comes to the end of his life and he says, “All in Asia have forsaken me.”
What was going on in Corinth was some false teachers had come in, and they were endeavoring to establish their lies in the church at Corinth. Paul was gone, after being there a year-and-a-half. He was gone. They wanted to take advantage of that. They came in; and in order to be able to find a platform to teach lies, they had to destroy the people’s confidence in Paul. So there was an all out massive assault on the character of Paul. They said he was in the ministry for money, for sexual favors. They said he was in the ministry as a liar and a fraud. He had no authority from the apostles to do what he was doing. he didn’t belong there. He fabricated his success stories. He was corrupt.
They said not only that, and not only does he have secret sin in his life, but his speech is unimpressive and his presence is detestable. They’re just shredding him to the congregation to whom he had given his life. He needs to defend himself so that they don’t follow the false teachers. He has to defend himself, so he writes this letter. It is a monumental treatise on his view of ministry, one with which every spiritual leader should be extremely familiar.
But the worst of all things that could happen had happened in Corinth. False teachers had gone in there to destroy him. And it was a satanic enterprise, and he is profoundly exercised over this because he’s not there. And that’s where we find him when we come to him in chapter 12. He’s trying to process why the Lord is letting this happen.
What is going on? Why so much trouble in the life of a faithful man? His faithfulness is unquestioned. He just gave you a recitation of what he endured because he was faithful, chapter 11. You find the same thing in chapter 1, chapter 2, chapter 4, chapter 6, chapter 10. What is going on here? This isn’t the plan. He’s where a lot of pastors are, a lot of church leaders, pouring their life in, taking internal and external abuse, struggling, disappointed, discouraged, beaten down, beleaguered, and wondering, “Why is this happening?”
And that’s exactly where Paul is, and the Lord gives him a perspective which he communicates to us here, starting in verse 7. This is one of the most powerful portions of Scripture. It reflects really the whole section, from chapter 10 through chapter 13. Very emotionally charged; maybe the most emotionally charged portion of Paul’s writings. His heart is broken and shattered. His integrity has been called into question by his enemies. His loyalty has been attacked. His ability to lead called into questions. His decisions questioned. His loved doubted, and even denied.
On top of the shipwrecks, and the floggings, and the beatings with rods, and the narrow escapes, and the terrors and all of that, and stonings, and filthy jails, and foul food, and stocks, and torture – the worst of the pain was to have his people turn against him. He even says, “What’s going on here? What’s going on here?” In verse 15, “If I love you more, am I to be loved less? Is this what I get for loving you? If I’m gladly spending my life and being expended for your souls and I love you more, do I get loved less? What’s going on?”
He knows what everybody knows who serves in ministry, and we all know it anyway just in life, that the severest pain of life is the pain that people inflict on you – people, not whips and rods and physical things. People disappoint, they reject, they fail miserably our expectations. People wound us, betray us, misunderstand us, turn on us in a rapacious form – vicious sometimes. And the deepest pain and the direst trouble in life is that inflicted by people. And the closer they are to us and the more invested we are in their lives and the more we love them, the more profound the wounds are.
This is the pain of a man who has sacrificed his life for a congregation, put it on the line, and loved them from the depths of his being, and felt their weaknesses himself; that’s how much empathy he had, and they’re turning on him. No disease is as painful as that. That’s rejection; that’s false accusation; that’s misrepresentation; that’s hatred; that’s betrayal.
How do you deal with that? You’re asking yourself, “Why is this happening? I’m being faithful. What’s going on here? I’m feeling the deepest trouble in my soul. I’m trying to confront the most taxing problem in my life. I’m being attacked most violently by the people to whom I’ve made the deepest investment.”
To be unloved, unappreciated, untrusted; to have his affections maligned and unrequited, his integrity questioned, his fruitfulness denied, his honesty attacked, his sacrificial service rejected, credentials scoffed at. What is going on here? Well, ministry can be tough; it can be very tough. This dear sacrificial apostle has been hammered and he doesn’t deserve it; he’s been faithful. He’s been abused in the midst of his faithfulness.
When you put your whole life into something unselfishly and sacrificially into people – sometimes your own family, your own children – and you get resentment, rejection, disloyalty, hatred in return, it’s the deepest kind of suffering. Well, that’s how pastors feel. This calls for the greatest amount of divine intervention. This calls for surpassing grace, rich grace, abundant grace; and that’s what we find here in this passage. Paul learns in the midst of this four great, profound lessons, and he lays them down for us so we can understand, four great lessons: how to approach the deepest disappointment in life, how to approach the deepest trials in life. I’ll give you the four-fold answer, that is what sustained Paul.
I have lived in this passage for years in my own life going back to it many times, many times. Sometimes my response to trouble is to say, “I’m not concerned about it. I’m not worried about it.” And when I say that, it’s not indifference, it’s 2 Corinthians 12 coming through. I’ve learned to embrace the trouble, I’ve learned to embrace the disappointment, embrace the pain, and I’ve learned it from Paul here; and we all need to learn it.
Lesson Number One: God uses suffering to humble us. God uses suffering to humble us. This is crystal clear, verse 7: “Because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, for this reason, to keep me from exalting myself, there was given me a thorn in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me – to keep me from exalting myself!” Twice he says it. “This trouble has come for one primary, initial reason: to keep me from exalting myself, or in other words, to humble me.”
Why did he need to be humbled? Because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations. He had four personal encounters with the risen, ascended Christ in his life, four times. And then you can add verses 1 through 3, a trip to heaven, which he couldn’t even actually define. This is surpassing. This is surpassing greatness of revelation. Nobody else saw the risen Christ. No one else got a trip to heaven and back, no one.
This is extraordinary. Why? Why does Paul have these marvelous revelations from God? I think the answer’s very obvious; because he suffered so profoundly, he could have been devastated under the overwhelming power of those sufferings if God had not uniquely granted him confidences that came through those encounters with Christ. He had privileges of indescribable value which would make anybody proud.
If he was in a debate with one of his ministry partners over what they ought to do, he might end up simply saying, “Well, how many times have you seen the Lord? And how many trips have you made to heaven?” “Well, none.” “Well then we’ll do my plan.”
I mean there’s a lot of leverage in that, isn’t there? He could have been very proud about that, and that had never happened to anybody among the apostles. “So for this reason of these great, surpassing revelations, to keep me from exalting myself, that’s the reason I’m suffering what’s going on right now.”
Let me give you a simple principle. Humility is the Number One Christian virtue. Humility is the Number One Christian virtue. It’s the Number One spiritual virtue.
You look at the Old Testament and you think of Moses, the greatest leader in the Old Testament – incredible leader. Do you know what it says about him in Numbers 12:3? “Now the man Moses was very humble, more than any man who was on the face of the earth.”
The humbler you are, the more powerful you become. Humility is the Number One spiritual virtue. “To be poor in spirit, not thinking more highly than you ought to think of yourself, looking not on your own things but on the things of others, having the mind of Christ, humility took on himself the form of a man and went all the way to death, even death on a cross,” Philippians 2 says.
So God is going to humble Paul to make him powerful, to make him useful. So he says in verse 7, “There was given me, there was given me by God.” This is a gift unsolicited by Paul; he didn’t ask for this trouble. This is a gift that Satan wouldn’t want to give him because, necessarily, Satan doesn’t want him powerful. This is God-given gift. “There was given me by God, who is interested in my humility.” Satan is not interested in your humility, God is. “So there was given me by God to keep me from exalting myself a thorn in the flesh.”
I wish the translators had used the word “thorn” because that is not the intent of the original. Don’t think of a thorn on a rosebush. This is the word “stake,” stake – a sharpened, wooden shaft that could be used to impale someone. This is a major inflection. This is not like catching your finger on a thorn, this is like having a spear rammed through your flesh. And it’s not a thorn in the flesh, it’s not “in” in the Greek, it’s a thorn “for” the flesh, to assault the fleshly tendencies to be proud. The Lord had to drive a stake through his otherwise proud flesh, because he had so many surpassing, great revelations.
He further describes it, I think so interestingly, as a messenger of Satan. Now there have been many interpretations of that. Messenger is the word aggelos, a satanic angel. A satanic angel is a demon. It is not wrong to assume that what is going on is some unleashing of demonic power. It’s not directly on the apostle Paul however; I think it is being exercised by the demons who are possessing the false teachers.
If you look at the bigger context of 10 to 13, it’s all about the false teachers. He says in chapter 11:14 and 15 that there are messengers of Satan disguised as angels of light. So what he is referring to here are messengers. Whether they are false teachers, using the word “messenger” to describe false teachers, or messenger to describe an angel, they are satanic messengers.
By the way, 188 times in the New Testament, the word aggelos is used, and 188 out of 188 it refers to a person. It’s not talking about a disease, an eye disease, malaria, or some external trouble; it’s always a person. These are persons, person. It might be the earthly false teachers; it might be the earthly false teachers occupied by the fallen angels. I like to think that this messenger of Satan is the ringleader of the conspiracy against Paul at Corinth. The effective enemy is Satan.
You say, “Wait a minute. You mean God, God gave Paul, God gave to Paul an assault from Satan?” That’s what it says, “For this purpose, to torment me. There was given me by God a thorn in the flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me.”
Why would God want to torment Paul? Why would God want to do that? The word is used in Matthew 26:67 and Mark 14:65 to speak of the soldiers beating Jesus in the face. The Greek word has at its root “knuckles.” It’s used in 1 Corinthians 4:11 of Paul being physically abused.
Why is God allowing messengers of Satan to abuse Paul? Why? Why is God allowing him to be punched constantly in the face, as it were? Why does God allow this? Answer? Paul got it: “To keep me from – ” what? “ – exalting myself.” That is a pretty severe place to go to humble your servant. I can’t think of anything more severe; for God to unleash, by His purpose and will, forces from Satan to humble an apostle?
Trials had a lot of purposes. Trials can test the strength of our faith. Trials can wean us from worldly things. Trials can make heaven more inviting. Trials will reveal what we love. Trials will reveal what we value. Trials will enable us to help others who suffer. Trials will produce in us some endurance. But mainly, God uses trials to humble us.
That’s what we read in Romans 5; out of trials comes proven character. God wants His children humble – are you ready for this – to the degree that He even allows the emissaries of Satan to torment His children if it assists in their humility. You say, “God using Satan to humble a man?” Oh, that is the entire book of Job, in case you were wondering – the whole book, God using Satan to humble a man. And at the end he’s humble, and Satan was the instrument.
Oh, by the way, that’s Peter’s story in Luke 22. Jesus says to Peter, “Satan desires to have you, to sift you like wheat,” and Jesus says, “I gave him permission.” It was ugly, wasn’t it, when Satan was sifting Peter at the trial of Jesus, and he kept denying Jesus. It was ugly; it was vile; it was corrupt. But it humbled him, and Jesus said to him, “When you’re converted, you’ll be able to strengthen the brethren. This is going to make you the man you have to be. I have to humble you Peter, you’re way too proud.”
Bless God for what humbles you, and remember that James 4 says, “He gives grace to the humble, sufficient grace to bear the humbling.” That’s not a lesson we want to learn. But as Spurgeon used to say, “There are only two kinds of men in the ministry, the humble and the humbled.”
God uses suffering to humble us. Why is that important? For Reason Number Two: God uses suffering to draw us to Himself. What happens in the midst of the humiliation? Verse 8: “Concerning this I implored the Lord three times that it might leave me.” Where did he go? Where did he go in his suffering? He fell on his knees, didn’t he; he went to the Lord.
This is the right response. The time of greatest need, deepest pain, severest trial, God letting false teachers ruin his reputation in Corinth and tear into his church; the delight of his ministry there lost; the joy of service gone. He had nowhere to go. Where’s he going to go, but to the Lord. “Entreated” is used frequently. That word is used in its Greek form repeatedly in the gospels to speak of the pleas of people who come to Jesus for healing.
So he goes to Jesus, goes to his Lord three times. He goes, and he goes back, and he goes back on three separate occasions; he’s praying. He’s fulfilling the requirements of Luke 11. This is importunity. He’s asking, and asking, and asking. He keeps going back, and he keeps going back, and he keeps going back. He’s persistent.
He doesn’t rebuke Satan. He doesn’t talk to Satan; he doesn’t chase demons. He goes to the only one who can stop it, and that’s the Lord, and he pleads three times “that it might depart from me.” He’s had enough. That “it” with this verb usually refers to persons, not things. So this is the onslaught of Satan through the false teachers: “Lord, stop it, stop it.”
Listen, he said back in chapter 11 that the greatest suffering he ever did was concern for the churches: “Who is weak without my feeling the pain? Who sins without me feeling it?” He goes to the Lord. Well, guess what? That’s the best place he could be, isn’t it?
Just to remind you, that the Lord will allow troubles to come into your life to humble you; and, secondly, to drive you to Himself, to turn you away from all lesser resources. At times in my life when life reached a level of difficulty that was totally overwhelming were the times of the most intense prayer in my life. Patricia had an accident and broke her neck. My son Mark had a brain tumor. Times of very difficult challenges and betrayals and disloyalty through the life of ministry through these years; they drive you to the Lord. It shouldn’t be that we’re driven to the Lord until those times. But that tends to be how it is, isn’t it? We don’t live in desperation. We could well do better spiritually if we did have a level of desperation.
So Paul faced his great trial knowing now that God uses – when he writes this letter, he knows that God uses suffering to humble us, and God uses suffering to drive us to Himself. And after three times with the Lord and pouring out his heart, he backs away. And that leads to the third great lesson: God uses suffering to display His grace to us. He uses suffering to display His grace to us. Verse 9: “And He has said to me – ” on all three occasions got the same answer “ – My grace is sufficient for you. My grace is sufficient for you.”
This is a perfect tense standing answer, permanently in place. Every time he asked, he got the same exact answer: “My grace is sufficient for you.” Yes, it is sufficient grace; it is surpassing grace; it is abundant grace. Christ is full of grace; and because we are in Him, we are full of grace, upon grace, upon grace. He answered not by removing the pain, not by removing the trouble, but by increasing the grace, the enduring grace. He gave relief, not by the removal of the problem, but by the sufficient strength to persevere through the necessary humbling process.
Why would God want to give you the grace to make you persevere through that? So that at the other end of it, you come out humble. What’s the value in that? The value in that is immediately expressed in verse 9: “For power is perfected in weakness. Power is perfected in weakness.”
When you’ve gone through the humbling and you’re at the end and nothing is left, nothing to turn to, you learn the final lesson. Lesson Number Four: God uses suffering to perfect His power in us. Paul was like Moses; he was powerful because he was humble, he was powerful because he was humble.
This is not new; I told you about Job. Listen to the experience of Jeremiah in the book of Lamentations, chapter 3. Hear Jeremiah: “I am the man who has seen affliction because of the rod of His wrath. He’s driven me and made me walk in darkness and not in light. Surely against me He has turned His hand repeatedly all the day. He has caused my flesh and my skin to waste away. He’s broken my bones. He’s besieged and encompassed me with bitterness and hardship. In dark places He’s made me dwell, like those who have long been dead. He has walled me in so that I cannot go out; he has made my chain heavy. Even when I cry out and call for help, He shuts out my prayer. He’s blocked by ways with hewn stone; He’s made my paths crooked.
“He is to me like a bear lying in wait, like a lion in secret places. He’s turned aside my ways and torn me to pieces; He’s made me desolate. He bent His bow and set me as a target for the arrow. He made the arrows of His quiver to enter into my inward parts. I have become a laughingstock to all my people, their mocking song all the day. He has filled me with bitterness, he has made me drunk with wormwood. He has broken my teeth with gravel; he has made me cower in the dust. My soul has been rejected from peace; I have forgotten happiness.” Who’s the he here? God. “So I say, ‘My strength has perished, and so has my hope from the Lord.’”
Something happens after verse 18. Listen to verse 19: “Remember my affliction and my wandering, the wormwood and the bitterness.” Like Paul, he goes to God. “Surely my soul remembers and is bowed down within me.” He’s humbled. “This I recall to my mind, therefore I have hope. The Lord’s lovingkindnesses, the Lord’s grace never ceases. His compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is Your faithfulness.” This is not a new means by which God humbles His most powerful and most effective servants. Power is perfected in weakness.
There are very, very few men weak enough to be powerful. There are many men too powerful to be powerful. Power is perfected in weakness. No one is too weak to be powerful; many are too strong. Embrace the suffering; it humbles you, it drives you in dependence to the Lord. And in the midst of your own weakness you become powerfully strong.
So Paul, in the middle of verse 9, says, “Most gladly, therefore, I will rather boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Therefore I am well content with weaknesses, with insults, with distresses, with persecutions, with difficulties, for Christ’s sake; for when I am weak, then I am strong.” That’s the culminating point. That’s the lesson; that’s the life lesson. Through suffering the Lord humbles us, drives us to Himself, pours out His grace, and in our weakness, we become strong.
Sampson was strong in weakness; crushed the enemies of God. Joseph was strong in weakness; rose to the throne of Egypt. Job was strong in weakness and saw the glorious face of God. I asked for prominence, God gave me humiliation. I asked for power, God gave me weakness. “So – ” says the scripture “ – count it all joy when you fall into various trials. Those trials have a perfecting work.”
Now, let me just say this for those who minister. We’re not indispensable to the kingdom. I’m not indispensable to the kingdom. God isn’t holding His breath that I continue doing what I’m doing so He can accomplish His eternal purpose, or you, or anybody else. What God is concerned about, even in the case of the apostle Paul, was that man’s humility, that man’s spiritual integrity. That’s what God is concerned about in every one of us as believers. It’s not the extent of our influence, it’s the character of it. He wants us all to be honoring to Christ who is the model of humility and power, humility and power.
No one ever humbled himself like Christ. No one was ever more beleaguered and besieged, and attacked and assaulted than Christ. In His weakest moment on the cross, He comes out of the grave in absolute triumph. It is through that same death to our pride that we rise to power in our weakness. And let God determine the range of that influence. Every one of us needs to be who God wants us to be, and leave the results of that to Him.
Father, we thank You that You’ve called us together this morning for such a wonderful time of worship together. We know that every time that we gather on the Lord’s Day like this, we have come into Your presence in a very special way, because we have heard from heaven in Your Word. We sing the truth of Your Word, we read it, we preach it. You have spoken to us today. We are now accountable for what You have said.
We love Your truth; we love Your Word. We embrace it; we long to fulfill it. So we ask, Lord, that You would work a work of humility in us, that You would humble us, that You would make us weak in our own confidence and our own strength, so that we can be strong in You, and useful. These things we pray for the sake of Christ. Amen.