God’s Glory in Our Weakness
Text: 2 Cor. 4:7-5:5
Parallel Readings (in liturgy)
OT - Isa 57:14-16
NT - Romans 8:18-25; 1 Cor 1:26-31 Psalm 102:1-17
Introduction: The Story I think God is telling with my life . . . I am humbled and honored to be here in fellowship with you brothers and sisters, sitting before God’s word together. We join a living stream of thousands of years of community response to God’s saving actions and words in Christ. I have great affection for your Pastor, and am blessed to see the mutual affection you all share.
As we think for a while about God’s glory in our weakness, I thought the best place to start, for me at least, was my own story; specifically, the story I think God is telling with my life. My family and I moved to Louisville in 2001 so that I could begin working toward a Ph.D at Southern Seminary. We had moved from Vancouver, British Columbia, where I had become strongly convinced and convicted that the church needed faithful men to preach and teach. I felt called and gifted for such a task.
God had some different purposes, however. Unknown to me, the story I was writing was not big enough for what God had in mind. As I was studying in 2002-2003, different parts of my life began to erode away. I lost the ability to read, think and write in abstract ways, all things essential to a student’s life. Simultaneously I was racking up thousands in student loan debt. I limped through my last semester and decided maybe what I needed was a break. A break I’m still on, by the way!
Out of school and working full time, I still held out hope that I would one day return to Seminary. The erosion within continued and deepened, though, causing me to question whether or not I had ever been called here in the first place. I questioned lots of things during those first several years after leaving Seminary, and many questions remain unanswered. I became desperate to understand what was happening to me, and I felt a great deal of shame for being so weak! Our church at the time offered little help in this, so we sought fellowship elsewhere, where people might embrace the mystery of suffering a bit better. Once we found a community where we felt more loved, accepted and safe, I began to read authors who spoke about aspects of life with Christ that were formerly unknown to me, aspects like brokenness, suffering, mystery and how God forms us. These brought me a great deal of hope, but eventually I lost the ability and desire to read much of them either. I had to live a spiritual life I never would have chosen; I had to focus on survival, just getting through each day, more or less for the last 10 years.
As I have tried to understand what God was up to, one of the things that has helped me a great deal is looking at the life of Paul at Corinth. Paul is usually portrayed as such a high performing Christian leader that I rarely feel connected with him. That’s not true of his letters to the Corinthians. In teaching the messiest of first century Christian communities, Paul was at his most broken, raw and vulnerable. In Paul, the fellowship of Christ’s sufferings became something real and tangible, inviting me to understand myself and my story in similar terms.
Context of 2 Corinthians This letter was written about A.D. 55-56, about a year after 1 Corinthians and a year before the letter to the Romans. Paul is writing to Corinth for several reasons. At Corinth a group had arisen to challenge Paul’s authority, claiming to be “super-apostles” who possessed the true signs of an apostle. They said of Paul, that “His letters are weighty and strong, but his bodily presence is weak, and his speech of no account.” (2 Corinthians 10:10 ESV). By saying such things they meant to erode support for Paul and gain support for themselves.
Paul says of himself, "And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. And I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling, and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God" (1 Cor 2:1-6; cf. his catalog of sufferings in 2 Cor 6 and 11).
These super-apostles basically argued that Paul suffered too much to be God’s apostle. He was too messy to be a pastor! These super-apostles, much like the North American church of our day, enshrined strength over weakness, end results over process and certainty over confusion.
In response, Paul unpacks several themes that refute these impostors while encouraging the body not to lose heart over what they suffer. Paul declares, for example, that God is our sufficiency, so it’s OK to be weak (3:4-6). The defense of his ministry and it’s validity is very odd - instead of pointing to scores of converts saved and institutions built, he outlines his weakness, his shame and his sufferings. In the midst of this litany of disgrace, Paul shows that the New Covenant in Jesus meets and transforms us. This is the covenant mentioned in Jeremiah 31 and elsewhere where God writes the law on our hearts and offers forgiveness of sins and knowledge of God in new and deeper ways. Indeed, I think we shall see that the biggest requirement for accessing the provisions of the New Covenant is weakness and shame.
Read 2 Cor 4:7-5:5
4:7-12 But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. For we who live are always being given over to death for Jesus' sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh. So death is at work in us, but life in you. (2 Corinthians 4:7-12 ESV)
It is important to note how many references to the body run throughout this passage. Indeed, bodily weakness is at the core of our humanity; we have very real limits and if we don’t pay attention to those limits we pay the price! Further, we easily forget that we are made from dust. We come from dust, and we return to dust.
The treasure that Paul speaks of is revealed in verse 6, “the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” This treasure is kept hidden, as it were, in vessels of clay so that its beauty and power might clearly to be seen as from God, and not ourselves. We easily get this mixed up, and think that the power resides with us! But as suffering and limits slowly pry our hands open, as we embrace our limits and let go of the illusion of control, the treasure can be seen. When we try to hide our weakness and cover our shame, the treasure is obscured.
I love how honest Paul is here! He openly says that he is, currently - afflicted, perplexed, persecuted and struck down. Being beat up and shredded is his current experience as a Christian. Have you felt like that? What do you do with those feelings?
Perhaps the glory and power of the New Covenant is not found in victory over brokenness and sin; perhaps it is found in encountering the risen Christ in the midst of our brokenness and our sin, finding unlimited acceptance, radical forgiveness and unfailing love.
If this be the case, then our attempts at self-promotion through looking strong and having it together actually negate the grace and promises of God and will surely cause us to lose heart, because nothing of strength and perfection can be maintained for very long.
As Paul considers his afflictions, he is quick to say that he has learned (emphasis on “learned,” meaning it took time!) not to lose heart over these things, that though these things are true, he is not crushed, driven to despair, forsaken or destroyed. He explains how death and life can coexist by talking about our union with Christ.
In the mystery of that union, we carry in our body the death of Jesus, meaning, I think, that as our bodies decay, suffer and eventually die, we mirror something essential about the death of Jesus. This is so that the life of Jesus (the treasure) might be made manifest in our bodies as well. I don’t pretend to fully understand this, but I take comfort from the fact that Jesus shares in my sufferings in a way that only He can because of his suffering and death. I also take hope that because I am in him, my sufferings will never be final or fatal, that one day life will overtake death in me, and eventually the treasure will be housed in a body that will never die.
4:13-15 Since we have the same spirit of faith according to what has been written, “I believed, and so I spoke,” we also believe, and so we also speak, knowing that he who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus and bring us with you into his presence. For it is all for your sake, so that as grace extends to more and more people it may increase thanksgiving, to the glory of God. (2 Corinthians 4:13-15 ESV)
Here Paul is referring to Psalm 116:10, which says, “I believed, even when I spoke: “I am greatly afflicted.” Faith and confidence in God gives us courage to be honest about our sufferings. There is too much teaching and practice out there that seems to say that if you believe in God, your language is always rosy praises. Here we need to remember that much of the Bible is written in the form of Lament, a form used by believing faithful people to express their painful human experience before God.
The older we get, the more our needs increase; as our needs increase, so does grace increase. As grace increases, so does thanksgiving and glory to God, who is more and more clearly our treasure.
4:16-18 So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal. (2 Corinthians 4:16-18 ESV)
O beloved, I am ashamed to admit how often I lose heart! To lose heart means to give up and to despair, even of life itself. I’ve been there - several times even this week! In one instance I felt hopeless when I thought of my participation in God’s community. All my words, all my efforts to help others felt like more than worthless, and I despaired once again of God ever using me. It even caused me to despair of life. Two other pressure points where I often lose heart are finances and in physical limits and deterioration. I have great difficulty sometimes integrating my increasing physical weaknesses into God’s Story; It usually just makes me feel ashamed and alone (another example: parenting).
Maybe you’re there today, or have been recently. Take courage that you’re not alone. Even Paul said, “For we do not want you to be unaware, brothers, of the affliction we experienced in Asia. For we were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death. But that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead.” (2 Corinthians 1:8-9 ESV)
What does Paul offer us here to combat loss of heart? He offers us perspective, a way of seeing our suffering and our pain though entirely different eyes. According to Paul, whenever we fail, whenever we mess up, whenever we are wounded, forgotten, unemployed, abused, overlooked, injured, betrayed or abandoned, God uses this event to work for us something eternal and glorious. He calls these afflictions “light” and “momentary” working for us an “eternal” and “weighty” kind of glory that cannot even compare to life on this planet. What is this glory? I am not entirely sure, but I think it ties back to the “treasure” in v.6. A glorious experiential knowledge of Jesus Christ, who suffered before us and in our place. The children of God who suffer more here, will have greater treasure with God there.
5:1-5 For we know that if the tent that is our earthly home is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. For in this tent we groan, longing to put on our heavenly dwelling, if indeed by putting it on we may not be found naked. For while we are still in this tent, we groan, being burdened—not that we would be unclothed, but that we would be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life. He who has prepared us for this very thing is God, who has given us the Spirit as a guarantee. (2 Corinthians 5:1-5 ESV)
Continuing to give us a new perspective on our suffering, Paul returns to the body. The body is central to the spiritual life! These “jars of clay” fail and crack so often, serving as a constant and ever-growing contrast to the ever-renewing Spirit of God within us. When God brings comfort and encouragement to one of his suffering children who has lost heart, it is truly a miracle of resurrection!
Try and imagine what kind of person you would need to become to embrace your sufferings and limits as gifts instead of curses. How would this person respond the next time there is a financial shortage? physical sickness or injury, or worse, cancer?
So to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited. Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave 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 of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. 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. (2 Corinthians 12:7-10 ESV)
Only when we acknowledge and own our weakness before God are we ready to be changed by it through grace, and change usually looks different than we think. It doesn’t necessarily mean less pain or less struggle. It usually means greater comfort in the knowledge of Jesus our fellow sufferer in the midst of our pain. It also means greater acceptance of ourselves as broken and dearly loved. This is easier said than done, to be sure.
Weakness is the only doorway to grace and life. This is the way of the Cross, the way of Jesus. The way of the cross in our souls is the way of taking us down, taking us from places of attaching our identity to images & illusions of strength, power and maturity and instead attaching our identity to places of weakness, brokenness and inability.
“For he was crucified in weakness, but lives by the power of God. For we also are weak in him, but in dealing with you we will live with him by the power of God.” (2 Corinthians 13:4 ESV)
Many of us have strong identity attachments not only to strength and worldly power and success, but conversely in our weaknesses we feel strong attachments of shame, guilt and rejection. In my case, the circumstance of poverty is strongly attached to the experience of being abandoned by my Dad, so it is a weakness I try to avoid at all costs. God keeps inviting me back there though, and reaffirming his love and grace. Slowly it is becoming a safe place, a grace-gift instead of curse.
This is the way God works. God takes us right to the place of our weakness and pain that we try desperately to hide from and cover up; this feels so cruel, and we deeply question the heart of God. But, as he holds us there in that place, not allowing us to run far from our weaknesses, always bringing us gently back, so gently; as we remain in that place with Him and we realize that His love remains strong and tender in that very place, undeterred by our shame and weakness, we slowly, so slowly, become convinced in the deep that God’s love is good and faithful and is able to define us. Then and only then, can we conceive of a way of life that boasts of weakness; only then can we begin to imagine a version of ourselves that rests, is content and even rejoices in inability, insecurity and need; for we have discovered there the treasure hidden in a field, the love of God reserved for the broken, the power of God reserved for the weak.
If Jesus comes to us in weakness and brokenness, how can we come to him any other way?
2. Listen to the story God is telling with your life.
Frederick Buechner said, “Listen to your life. See it for the fathomless mystery that it is. In the boredom and the pain of it, no less than in the excitement and the gladness: touch, taste and smell your way to the holy and hidden heart of it, because in the last analysis all moments are key moments and life itself is grace.” (Now and Then: A Memoir of Vocation)
If we listen, I believe we will hear a story of God meeting us in our weakness and showing his power and love. To the extent that have trouble hearing this, to that extent we need a new narrative; a narrative whose value system is based on the Kingdom of God and not on that of this world.
Jesus is telling a story with our lives. He edits and rewrites what we bring to the story, which is often a very painful process, because as characters we feel such radical changes will cause us to lose our security as “selves” or characters.
If you are willing, please close your eyes and allow your mind to settle on an area of weakness in your life; perhaps an area that you have recently felt pain and shame over. There is no longer any reason to run, hide or cover this. The Lord knows and sees - you are fully known and completely loved. He is calling to you in that very place. Spend a minute talking to him about this; if you can, surrender it completely to him and ask him to manifest his grace and power there. His grace is sufficient for you, as it is for me.
Take 15-30 seconds of silence and reflection
Beloved, do you know how radical this is? If we embrace this narrative, it changes everything. Every institution, relationship, ideology, theology or spirituality that enshrines power and strength is threatened by this reality.
As for myself, I didn’t realize how attached I still was to images and ideals of strength and power until I began to prepare this message. God is breaking me with greater grace. May the Lord bless and keep you as you seek his face. Amen.
addendum - “loss of heart” in the Scriptures - Numbers 11:14-15; Job 3:3-4; 10:18-19; Ps 32:3-4; 88:3-7; 1 Kings 19:3-4; Jonah 4:3; Jeremiah 20:14-18; Matthew 26:37-38; 27:46; 2 Cor 1:8