April 1, 2014

A Surprising Source of Strength

Typically, we do not view weakness in a positive light. However, the Apostle Paul did. In his second letter to the church at Corinth, he made this thought-provoking statement: “Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in necessities, in persecutions, in distresses for Christ’s sake: for when I am weak, then am I strong” (2 Corinthians 12:10).

As a teenager I was extraordinarily skinny. Life has a way of overcoming that problem, but back then I was self-conscious about my size, so I endeavored to gain weight. My goal was to be strong, not weak. We lived on a farm and milking cows was frequently my responsibility, so that built up strength in my arms. However, at school I saw those who were stronger. We didn’t have money to buy weights or other equipment for strength training, so I looked around for a tool to use as a makeshift weight and found what I thought was a heavy pry bar—a thin iron bar about six feet long. It probably didn’t weight over ten pounds, but I took that and began to pump iron. Later I went to work for a neighborhood farmer, and one of my jobs was to move big bales of alfalfa. We hoisted ninety-pound bales over our heads, so in time, my strength developed.

Typically, people who endeavor to be physically stronger go to a gym or fitness center for strength training, where they can sign up with coaches and enroll in programs. There is a National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA), so those who are zealous can join that. They even publish a Journal of Strength and Conditioning magazine.

It strikes me that nobody trains to be weak. There is no such thing as NWLCA—a National Weakness and Lack of Conditioning Association. There is no Journal of Weakness magazine. There would not be much interest in that. However, weakness is a fact of life. As we age, body weight shifts, muscles lose tone, and bone density decreases. These bodies deteriorate. Weakness comes.

In our spiritual lives, weakness comes as well. Although we try to avoid it with all our might, it comes. Nobody prays, “Lord, give me weakness.” We pray, “Lord, give me strength. Help me to be strong!” But in spite of our desire to be strong spiritually, there are times when we feel we are weak.

Such times came to Paul, though he was a distinguished and brilliant man who excelled academically and professionally. Even in his religion, Saul (as he was known before his conversion) was notable: he was zealous. People observed his dedication to persecuting Christians. They knew how he created havoc in Jerusalem among the followers of Christ, entering into houses and arresting those who stood for the Gospel. Then he expanded his horizons and received permission to go and accomplish the same task in Damascus. His peers no doubt looked at him and thought, My, he is strong. Look at his zeal and determination! Observe what he has accomplished!

But we learn in 2 Corinthians chapter 11 that Paul identified himself as an Apostle not because of his strength, but because of his weakness and sufferings. He had endured perils of waters, of robbers, at the hands of his own countrymen and the heathen. He had been beaten, stoned, and shipwrecked. He had suffered weariness and pain, hunger and thirst, cold, nakedness, and even imprisonment. Those who sought to subvert his authority viewed his travails as indicators of weakness, but Paul knew the truth was just the opposite; he stated that his sufferings proved his apostleship. He asked, “Who is weak, and I am not weak? Who is offended, and I burn not? If I must needs glory, I will glory of the things which concern mine infirmities” (2 Corinthians 11:30). In essence he was saying, “Do you want to talk about weakness? I know weakness. Weakness is my friend! Weakness helps me to rely upon the strength of the Lord, so I glory in it!”

Paul’s credibility and authority as an Apostle were also validated through revelation. Paul spoke often of his conversion on the Damascus Road, but only infrequently and in limited detail about his revelation experience. However, in chapter 12 we learn a bit more about why he suffered as he shared a portion of his experience of being caught up “to the third heaven.” (In relating this, he spoke in the third person, alluding to “a man in Christ.”) Paul could not tell whether what he experienced was a vision or whether it was something that actually occurred to him, but he knew one thing: He had experienced a divine revelation from God.

God wanted to remind him daily that his strength was in the Lord, and that the message he was to deliver came from Heaven.

However, along with that revelation—that strength and authority which God had blessed him with—Paul was given a thorn in the flesh to temper any inclination he might otherwise have to boast in himself. The message, after all, was not Paul’s; he was only the messenger. God wanted to remind him daily that his strength was in the Lord, and that the message he was to deliver came from Heaven. So Paul’s worst “liability”—which was probably a physical affliction or weakness—was actually God’s plan, and Paul’s greatest asset. God used it to remind him, “My strength is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9). He was letting Paul know, “I need you to be weak so I can be strong through you.”

Paul’s weakness was observable. In his first epistle to the church at Corinth, he had written, “I was with you in weakness, and in fear, and in much trembling. And my speech and my preaching was not with enticing words of man’s wisdom, . . . that your faith should not stand in the wisdom of men, but in the power of God” (1 Corinthians 2:3-5). The Corinthians knew his infirmity. They saw it. Paul acknowledged the fact that he had come to them in personal weakness, but in the Spirit and power of the Lord. He did not want their faith to be based on him, but on the Lord.

Some of those in the religious world today create a following based on their charisma. There is nothing wrong with charisma, but once those individuals are dead and gone, what will happen to the faith of their followers? Where is their foundation? Our faith needs to be anchored in the Lord and in the sound doctrine that has been passed down over the years by faithful and humble followers of God.

In 2 Corinthians 10:10, we find that Paul’s critics stated, “His letters . . . are weighty and powerful; but his bodily presence is weak, and his speech contemptible.” Paul was well aware of his weakness, but he also knew that God was glorified through it. When the messenger was weak but the message still blessed, it was clearly of God’s doing.

We do not expect anyone to get down on their knees today and say, “Lord, make me weak.” Remember, weakness comes. We do not have to ask for it in the physical, nor do we need to ask for it in our spiritual lives. We do not long for weakness; rather, we long to be strong in the Lord and that is what we pray for. However, God has His own ways of accomplishing His purpose, and at times that may include reminding us of our own insufficiency and reducing us to complete dependence upon Him.

The word reducing brings to mind a process in cooking. In our household, I am usually in charge of roasting our Thanksgiving turkey. For a few years, I brined our bird. We found the drippings made good gravy. Like most families, ours likes Thanksgiving gravy! The first time I came to a part where the recipe said to “reduce” the turkey drippings for the gravy, I didn’t really like that idea. We wanted more gravy, not less! So I asked my wife, “What does it mean to ‘reduce’?” She explained that through the reduction process, flavor is intensified. The end result is that there is not quite as much of it, but what is left is much better. It is stronger!

That is what happened to Paul on the road to Damascus. In the eyes of his peers, he was strong as he traveled that road. But then a light that was brighter than the noonday sun shone down from Heaven on him, and he fell to the earth. This mighty man was rendered helpless and had to be taken by the hand and led into the city. As a helpless and weak man, he became a vessel that God could use. After Paul went through the “reduction process,” God said, “He is a chosen vessel unto me, to bear my name before the Gentiles, and kings, and the children of Israel” (Acts 9:15).

To a degree, we all go through that reduction process when we get saved. We do not come to the Lord with a flowery prayer and a “look what I have to offer” attitude and negotiate with Him for salvation. We come as sinners. We are helpless, weak, not even sure we can get the prayer through that needs to be prayed. And in our weakness, God’s mercy is extended. He saves our souls, though we could never have done anything to merit it. I could never have been saved had the Lord not spoken to me and put me in a position where I knew I had nothing to offer. But in the moment that prayer of helplessness was prayed, the grace of God availed and the Lord’s strength and love was revealed in my heart. That’s what salvation does.

In the next chapter, Paul speaks of Christ himself, saying, “Though he was crucified through weakness, yet he liveth by the power of God.” Then he goes on to say, “We also are weak in him, but we shall live with him by the power of God” (2 Corinthians 13:4).

After his conversion experience, Paul continued to learn that less is more—less of Paul, and more of Christ living through Paul.

After his conversion experience, Paul continued to learn that less is more—less of Paul, and more of Christ living through Paul. He wrote to the Philippians, “What things were gain to me, those I counted loss for Christ” (Philippians 3:7). He emptied himself and God was glorified through his Spirit-filled life.

We want to model our lives after the life of Paul, and appreciate the blessing of weakness. When weakness comes, we find ourselves dependent upon the strength of the Lord, and that is a good thing. In 1 Corinthians 1:25 we read that the weakness of God is stronger than men. Paul stated, “God hath chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things which are mighty; and base things of the world, and things which are despised, hath God chosen, yea, and things which are not, to bring to nought things that are” (1 Corinthians 1:27-28). Why? The answer is given in the next verse: “That no flesh should glory in His presence.”

God does not need our strength; He needs for us to be strong in Him—to rely on Him. We read Paul’s admonition in Ephesians 6:10, “Finally, my brethren, be strong in the Lord, and in the power of his might.” In the Book of Hebrews, when he spoke of the heroes of faith, he said, “The time would fail me to tell of Gedeon, and of Barak, and of Samson, and of Jephthae; of David also, and Samuel, and of the prophets, who through faith subdued kingdoms, wrought righteousness, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions, quenched the violence of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, out of weakness were made strong” (Hebrews 11:32-34).Those godly men of old didn’t obtain their great victories through their own strength, but through the power of God. Even Samson, who had been a strong man physically, found it was at his weakest point that he accomplished his greatest feat. In his dying hour, the might of the Lord came upon him and he obtained the victory.

When God calls today, we do not need to present Him with a resume that flatters ourselves. We should present Him our lack, our emptiness, and our weakness. The point is not how strong we are but how strong God is! He is strong enough to implement His plan through our weakness. He is strong enough to transform our offerings, however lacking and inadequate they may be, to accomplish His purpose.

Do you have nothing but weakness to offer God today? Be encouraged! He will take your weakness and do something with it that glorifies Him.

apostolic faith magazine