Monday, November 17, 2014

Grace and......weakness?

This is the text of a message I gave recently at the OPTSA thanksgiving service in CMC, Vellore. The text for this message was from 2 Cor 12:9. 

"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."

OPTSA Thanksgiving service

Thank you, OPTSA, for inviting me to speak at this celebration and thanksgiving service. Thank you for the very moving and meaningful time of singing and praise and worship.

The beautiful theme that you have chosen and asked me to speak on today is from the well known and loved passage in 2 Cor 12:9, “My Grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness”. I am sure this verse is a favourite verse for many of us seated here. This verse has encouraged and comforted and blessed me many times, in different circumstances over the years. I pray that as we reflect together on this passage this evening, God may use His word to minister to each of us according to our varied needs, accomplishing His purposes in our lives. Let's pray:

Father, thank you for the opportunity to gather together like this around Your Word. We thank You that You are here, as You have promised, to meet with each of us. You know our hearts better than anyone else. Speak to each of us according to our own needs. May Your power be made perfect in my weakness today. Let Your word to us come with clarity and authority, accomplishing Your purposes, and glorifying Your Name. In Jesus' Name we pray, Amen.

Grace and....... Weakness?

Let me begin with a little background to this passage. There was a little rebellion in the Corinthian church. A group of people were questioning Paul's authority. They said he had no right to speak the way he did. “His letters are weighty and forceful, but his physical presence is weak and his speech is of no account." they said. They felt Paul was projecting himself to be a much greater person than he really was.

And so, Paul finds himself, unexpectedly, having to defend himself to a church he himself founded. He defends his apostleship, pointing out the various 'signs of the apostle' that had taken place while he was with them. He is forced to boast of the various difficulties and hardships he has gone through for the sake of the Gospel. He defends the fact that he never took money from them, but rather preached the gospel to them faithfully without depending on them to meet his needs.

And finally, in the passage we have heard today, Paul, uncomfortably, talks, in the third person,  about one of the most extra-ordinary supernatural experiences he had, when he had been 'caught up into the third heaven, into Paradise', where he heard 'inexpressible words, which a man is not permitted to speak'. Paul was an ordinary human being, like you and me, and just as we are tempted to think we are special and super-spiritual because of experiences we go through, or insights we get from God's word, or our reputation before others as a religious person, or people appreciating us for being a blessing to them, perhaps Paul too was tempted to think he was something special.

He writes that God, to protect him from spiritual pride, instead, allowed him to have a thorn in the flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment him daily, and keep him from getting puffed up, but help him instead to live in daily, continuous, uncomfortable dependence on God.

What this thorn in the flesh really was was probably clear to the original readers of Paul's letter (which is why some of them despised Paul, and looked down on him), but to us, looking back almost 21 centuries later, it is hard to imagine what this might have been.

Perhaps this was some physical disability or chronic illness. Tradition tells us that Paul was probably quite blind, which is why he dictated most of his epistles to others who wrote them down. In the book of Galatians, Paul writes that there were people in the church at Galatia who would have gladly plucked out their own eyes and given them to Paul. When brought one day before the court for trial before his imprisonment, we read that Paul accidentally cursed the High Priest, not recognising who he was, and apologised when he realised what he had done.

Perhaps the 'thorn in the flesh' was a difficult, unsolvable situation, like a troublesome co-worker, or family member, or some other similar situation for which Paul did not have any solution in sight.

Whatever it was, Paul prayed fervently three times that it should be removed from his life. Instead, God allowed this unhappy situation to remain unchanged, saying, instead, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”

In other words, it is good for you to remain weak in this way. It is good for you to experience this persistent, unresolved, uncomfortable situation. It is good for you to be humbled by what you are going through. In this way, you will be able to experience My Grace. In exchange, you can experience My Power made perfect, in spite of your own weakness and difficulty. This way of painful, daily weakness that results in dependence on Me, is far better than being able to manage everything well on your own.

Now, what type of crazy logic is this? 

What is this Grace? And why does Paul rejoice in this, saying that he would now 'boast in his weakness'!?

In today's world, we are taught to value Strength, Confidence, Independence, Self-esteem. We honour “self-made” people. We appreciate those who are able to cope with life, those who do not need any help, who can manage by themselves.

And so we all try to sort out our own problems, become increasingly independent of others and of God, and live life on our own terms. We'd like to get what we deserve. We don't need any favours.

And so the concept of Grace is foreign to us. “Grace”: Getting what we do not deserve, making up for our short-comings and weaknesses.

We think that Grace is for the weaklings, who need extra help.

We'd love to know we passed our exams because of our own hard work and intelligence.  It's not fair that somebody could goof off the whole year, fail the exam, and then be passed with Grace-marks.

It's not fair that somebody could miss all the deadlines that we have been so careful to observe, and then still be able to submit his application during a grace-period.

Grace: Undeserved, unfair favours.

And yet, this idea of Grace is so Central to the Bible. Grace is the way God works. Grace is the only way we can survive. The Bible is called the “Word of His Grace” (Acts 20:32), the Gospel is called the “Good news of God's Grace” (Acts 20:24) and God Himself is called 'The God of All Grace” (1 Pet 5:10) and the “Spirit of Grace” (Heb 10:29).

The God of the Bible seems to enjoy being known as a gracious God, lavishing goodness on us, treating us far better than we deserve.

For example, think of God's response to the problem of our sin. On the one hand, He is a Holy God who hates the sin we commit everyday. On the other hand, He loves us so much. We are His precious, beloved creation, and He longs to be related to us. However, we are hopeless sinners, who have sinned so much from the time we were born. We deserve to be destroyed for all that we have done, and there is absolutely nothing we can do to save ourselves. God's solution?


Who stepped into our world, lived a perfect, blameless, sinless life, and then took our punishment, dying as a sacrifice in our place. Now we can be saved, and restored to a wonderful relationship with a Holy God who loves us passionately. Not because of anything we have done, but as a free gift because of what God does for us. He has done for us what we could not do for ourselves.

Grace. Unmerited Favour. But bought at a great price by the death of Jesus on the cross.

For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast (Eph 2:10).

The Thief dying beside Jesus. Saved by Amazing Grace (via)
And, as an example, we read of the criminal being crucified next to Jesus. A rebellious murderer, he was getting what he deserved. He had not done a single thing that could qualify him for paradise. And then, a few minutes before he dies, he has the audacious temerity to ask, “Lord, remember me when you come into Your Kingdom.” And Poof, he is forgiven! Just like that! Without having done a single good deed. “Today, you shall be with me in Paradise”. The first man to enter paradise with the crucified Saviour? A convicted murderer!

What Amazing Grace!

But it is very humbling to accept such an offer of undeserved grace! We would like to think that we can do and should do something to deserve this. How can a criminal on the cross be forgiven like this? That's unfair.

Worse still, do you mean that all the good things I have done count for nothing? That God does not save me because of my past record. That He puts me on the same level as the murderers and prostitutes. Of course, I done a few wrong things from time to time, but, on the whole, my life has been reasonably good. Surely I deserve to be saved. I don't need any free gifts.

No wonder the elder son (in the parable of the Prodigal), and the Pharisees and scribes of Jesus' day and the religious people of our own times find this upsetting, while the tax collectors and prostitutes and drunkards flock towards this God who offers them the Good news of Grace. Undeserved Favour. This sounds scandalous (as Philip Yancey writes) but it's true!

My friends, if you have been trying hard to please God, to sort out the mess in your lives, to tidy up and make yourself a little more presentable to Him, let me tell you the good news. You don't need to. He loves you as you are. He has already paid the terrible price, and longs to lavish His grace on you.

He taught “Those who are well don't need a physician, but those who are sick do. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.” (Luke 5:31-32). In other words, just as it is crazy to expect our patients to sort out their medical problems before they come to our hospital, it is equally crazy to think God wants you to come to Him after cleaning up a little.

Come as you are, with all your unsorted-out mess. The Good news of Grace is that it is always sufficient. 

Philip Yancey, in his classic “What's so Amazing about Grace” tells the story of (I quote) a “British conference on comparative religions, where experts from around the world debated what, if any, belief was unique to the Christian faith. They began eliminating possibilities. Incarnation? Other religions had different versions of gods appearing in human form. Resurrection? Again, other religions had accounts of return from death. The debate went on for some time until C.S. Lewis wandered into the room.

“What’s the rumpus about?” he asked, and heard in reply that his colleagues were discussing Christianity’s unique contribution among world religions. Lewis responded, “Oh, that’s easy. It’s grace.”
After some discussion, the conferees had to agree. The notion of God’s love coming to us free of charge, no strings attached, seems to go against every instinct of humanity. The Buddhist eight-fold path, the Hindu doctrine of karma, the Jewish covenant, and Muslim code of law—each of these offers a way to earn approval. Only Christianity dares to make God’s love unconditional.”
Isn't that amazing?
No wonder Jesus taught that very few would find the narrow gate that leads to life. The Gate is not narrow because it is too difficult. The gate is narrow because it is so easy to be saved that it seems almost too good to be true. Therefore this message of grace is rejected. We would like to be saved, instead, because of something good we have done! We would like to earn salvation, instead of receiving this as a gift! May God help us to find the humility to accept this free gift of grace and forgiveness that He wants to lavish on us.
And then, as Jesus taught, this narrow gate leads to a narrow way, that leads to Life. How often we think we can come to God when we are 'good' and everything is under control. When we have been able to have a regular quiet time with Him in the morning, or been able to go to church. However, when things are not going well, and when we have fallen into sin, we are afraid to return to God, who really is the only person who can help us. Why not, rather, walk on the narrow way of accepting grace as a gift everyday? This is the counter-cultural way of embracing our weakness, as Paul learnt, and living in dependence on God who continues to freely give us Grace that is sufficient, and power in the midst of our weakness. It is when we humbly accept our inability to meet God's high standards, and to live lives that are pleasing to Him, that He  enables us to find the strength and resources to live and work for Him.
It really is no coincidence that the words Grace and Humility, Power and weakness, are often found together, just as in our text. “My Power is perfected in weakness”.
For example, God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble 1 Pet 5:5
Jesus began His sermon on the Mount by teaching, Blessed are the poor in Spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of heaven. (Matt 5.3). In her song, the Magnificat, Mary the mother of Jesus sang, “He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent empty away.” (Luke 1:53).
In other words, God is looking to shower grace on us, and give us all the resources and power we need to live for Him. Unfortunately, so many of us are so rich, and full, and so confident of our own abilities, that we are unable to receive the many good things God has in store for us.
How sad! Why not rather, like Paul, glory in our weakness and inability, and receive in exchange the wonderful free gift of God's grace and power and enabling?
Even Jesus, the only One who ever lived a perfect life, seemed to continuously embrace His humanity, talking always of His refusal to be strong and independent and to do things in His own strength, and choosing instead to live in dependence on God. Just listen to what He spoke of Himself in the sermons which are recorded in John chapters 5 – 8.
Truly, truly, I say to you, the Son can do nothing of his own accord, but only what he sees the Father doing. For whatever the Father does, that the Son does likewise. John 5:19
I can do nothing on my own.John 5:30
I live because of the Father John 6:57
My teaching is not mine, but His who sent Me. John 7:16
You judge according to the flesh; I judge no one. Yet even if I do judge, my judgment is true, for it is not I alone who judge, but I and the Father who sent me John 8:15-16
I do nothing on my own authority, but speak just as the Father taught me. John 8:28
I always do the things that are pleasing to him. John 8:29
I do not seek my own glory John 8:50
and so on.
Just think. If even Jesus lived in such a humble everyday dependence on the Father while on earth, should we not also choose to go this way? Perhaps this is the daily dying of Jesus that is referred to in 2 Cor 4:10 “Always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies.” When we also live in similar weak dependence on the Father, we may also be able to display Jesus' character and life in our everyday situations. We too will be able to experience His Grace which is sufficient for us, and His power which is made perfect in our weakness.
The narrow way that leads to life is not the way of increasing expertise, and strength, and ability, but rather the way of increasing awareness of our need, and increasing dependence on the Father for grace and strength and enabling.
May God open our eyes to realise that we are actually incapable of living lives that please Him and bring Him glory! May our lives be characterised by deep poverty of spirit, a hunger for God to work His purposes in and through us, and a real daily dependence on Him. Rather than glorying in our own spiritual experiences, our past record, and even our reputation before people, may we, like Paul, embrace our weakness, and boast in God's power that has been able to do something with our lives in spite of who we are.
And as recipients of God's amazing grace, may we extend this same grace to the other imperfect people who live around us! May God's Grace and God's power characterise our lives.

Possibly related posts from the past:
2. The Power of the Gospel
3. Everything you are in the world is of no value.....