My Grace is Sufficient for You
… but he (Jesus) said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.’ So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me.
When they heard him preach they were utterly astounded! The Apostle Mark was talking about the people of Nazareth when they heard their hometown boy Jesus—now all grown up—teaching at synagogue. So profound was his preaching that they marvelled at his learning—“where did this man get all this?,” they wondered. “What is this wisdom that he has been given? Evidence that a great prophet was among them was plain for all to see. “What deeds of power are being done by his hands!” No one could miss the marvels.
As marvellous as all that was, he did not have appropriate credentials. He was only a carpenter. And his parentage was always in question. He is “the son of Mary.” The questions surrounding Mary’s first pregnancy haven’t been forgotten. And his brothers and sisters don’t think him all that special “they are here with us.” Scholarly achievement doesn’t exactly run in this family either (Mark 6:1-3).
“And so they took offence at him.” So much so that Jesus pronounced indictment with the saying that, “Prophets are not without honour, except in their home town, and among their own kin, and in their own house.” Even Jesus, Mark tell us, “was amazed at their unbelief.” (Mark 6:6)
I wonder if, years later, after Jesus’ resurrection and ascension, as the good news of Jesus was being proclaimed in Israel if some of these same Nazareth inhabitants came to believe in Jesus and marvelled at their former blindness in not being able to see that a giant was in their midst.
1. There is a truth to Jesus’ comment about prophet’s honour—or lack thereof—that is evident in many spheres of life. Siblings don’t always cheer each other’s achievements. When a daughter or son starts to work in a company owned by a parent whatever skill they may legitimately bring to their work rarely impresses other employees.
At the same time it sometimes amazes me those to whom we will accord immediate honour. Celebrities who have made their name in the entertainment industry now are suddenly experts on whatever subject they wish make pronouncement. And so the person whose expertise is genuinely profound is overlooked because of a lack of prominence. Giants among us get missed.
The Apostles play a strategic role in what theologically is called the economy of God’s saving work in Jesus. Put another way, we would not know the story of Jesus without the Apostles and there would be no Apostles without Jesus. They are together in one story. It is the apostolic witness to Jesus preserved in written form (New Testament) that guides the church in worship and doctrine. The Nicene Creed articulates the importance of the Apostles when it says, “We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church.” In the articulation of the Apostles’ Creed it was understood to be “according to the whole,” meaning that all the Apostles would affirm each of its statements.
In the church at Corinth a sort of celebrity culture had developed. The culture of the church was of a people who sought to excel in the spiritual life. Paul had commented that they excelled “in faith, in speech, in knowledge.” (2 Corinthians 8:7) As commendable as this may be it rendered them susceptible to elitist attitudes and suggestions.
Certain teachers had come in among them who were undermining Paul’s apostolic witness. Paul calls them “super-apostles.” (2 Corinthians 11:5) They said that real apostles were skilled speakers (trained in rhetoric), unlike Paul who, as Paul himself admitted, did not come proclaiming “in lofty words or wisdom.” (1 Corinthians 2:1) They accused Paul of being disingenuous because he did not ask for financial remuneration as any real apostle worth their salt would (like them). (2 Corinthians 11:7) They also claimed to have special visions and revelations and said Paul had none of these.
Paul’s second letter to Corinth was sent to combat these accusations. So when Paul takes up the subject of his experience of “being caught up to Paradise” he does so only to answer the undermining of his witness to Jesus Christ. Paul’s detractors said he was a kindergarten Christian, a spiritual midget who didn’t have their superior spiritual experiences. When they kept it up, however, and used it as the pretext for dismissing what he had to say to them, he felt he couldn’t turn a deaf ear to it any longer
If his detractors in the Corinthian congregation had been half as smart as they thought they were they would have known they had a spiritual giant in their midst, someone as huge as Elijah with his experience of earthquake, wind, fire and still, small voice; someone as huge as Elisha with his “double portion” of Elijah’s spirit; someone as huge as Daniel with his prostrating vision of the awesome Son of Man.” The Christians in Corinth, however, weren’t even half as smart as they thought they were.
2. The Apostle Paul appears to have had uncommonly rich visions and revelations. His encounter with the risen Christ on the road to Damascus had certainly been one of them, foundational, in fact. Later he had been praying in Jerusalem when he had fallen into a trance and was mystically told to leave the city before he was beaten to death. Another day he had had a vision of a man from Macedonia crying out, “Come over here and help us.” Yet again he had had a “visitation” in which he had been told to speak boldly in a particular city in that God was going to bring many people to faith there through his proclamation.
If the Damascus road experience was foundational in the life of the apostle, his experience fourteen years before his first visit to the congregation in Corinth was the climax of all such experiences: “Caught up to the third heaven.” He means “Admitted to intimacy with God, an intimacy whose intensity defies description.” “Caught up to paradise”: he means “Given, amidst the savagery and sorrow and frustration of this earth, a vision of God’s final restoration of the creation, all of it enveloped in an ecstasy no language can capture.” This is the same Paradise that our Saviour promised the thief on the cross next to him.
We should not trivialize Paul’ experience. I am convinced that his experience fired his apostolic work for the rest of his life. Whenever he was ridiculed, slandered, beaten up; when he was afflicted with the worst affliction of all, simply being ignored because not taken seriously; in any and all of this all he had to do was recall the event of his immersion in the innermost depths of God and his zeal for the gospel was renewed again
It is instructive to note that Paul is no religious exhibitionist; it would appear that Paul only ever mentions this experience because his detractors goaded him into speaking. Having mentioned it once to make his point and establish his credibility, he wanted to get off the topic lest anyone think him to be posturing himself as other than, greater than, the fragile, frail creature that all of us are. He nowhere says that Christians ought to seek such experiences.
Paul never urges people to pursue the ecstatic experience he had. He never tells them to try to work it up or put themselves in the mood for it. Instead he immediately tells the congregation in Corinth of another experience of his which he does want them to have for themselves; namely, that in the midst of chronic discomfort and chronic weakness he learned that God’s grace would ever be sufficient for him, just as he learned that God’s strength will ever be made perfect not in our strength, but made perfect precisely in our weakness. ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.’
I understand that we wish Paul had given us details of what he saw—even if language could only approximate. Like our curiosity in the stories of those who have had near death experience. In the New Testament, glimpses that are given of the coming glory are aimed at strengthening faith, not at satisfying curiosity. Paul subordinates everything, including his own revelation, to the one revelation of Jesus Christ. Some of us have had special spiritual experience of vision or ecstasy—receive them as a blessing that promotes faith in Jesus Christ.
In the Bible marriage is the most common metaphor for faith. To be married is to live in a relationship. The relationship is the reality of marriage. Within this relationship experiences come and go, a great variety of experiences. The truth of the matter is that 90% of the time being married is to be unaware of any particular experience at all. This “90% of the time” does not mean that nothing is going on at such moments; the relationship is going on; it’s always going on, and the relationship is everything.
So it is with that relationship with God which we call faith. In this relationship everything is going on, regardless of how we feel. Nonetheless I should never deny that we do feel. In the relationship of faith, where everything is going on at all times , there are in fact moments of heightened awareness, moments of greater intensity, and occasionally, moments of inexpressible ecstasy — as well as moments of piercing pain.
3. Notice that when Paul spoke of this powerful vision he spoke of himself in the third person: “I know a man.” It is from a distance that Paul is willing to speak of such an experience. However, when he speaks about his “thorn in the flesh” he now speaks in the first person. “Therefore, to keep me from being too elated, a thorn was given to me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me, to keep me from being too elated.”
What was Paul’s “thorn in the flesh”? The word translated “thorn” does not mean sliver; it refers to a stake and so the challenge wasn’t slight. Some people have guessed epilepsy; some have guessed recurring bouts of malarial fever accompanied by fierce headaches. In any case we don’t know. Neither is it important to know. In fact it is better that we don’t know or we would tend to dismiss it as having nothing to say to me if we did not suffer the same malady.
Three times Paul prayed that the Lord would remove it. This reminds us of our Lord who prayed three times for the cup to pass from him. Our Lord’s answer to Paul was “my grace is sufficient for you.” This is not “unanswered prayer”, rather that the kind of deliverance he sought would not be given. Note as well that it was a “messenger of Satan”; God was not the author of this misery. He is the one who works good for those who love him even in the face of such a burden.
It is also important to know what his pain-riddled weakness meant to Paul. It meant that regardless of how strong he might appear to some people all the time, or how strong he might appear to all people some of the time, in fact he was weak and would always be weak. Unlike so many others Paul owned his weakness. Unashamed of his weakness, he didn’t attempt to deny it or disguise it. He found that God’s power in his life was most evident precisely at the point of his weakness.
Now there is nothing wrong with putting our best foot forward; using our strength to its strategic best. At the same time the gospel shows us that we ought never to be ashamed of any such weakness. Such things a never an impediment to being useful to God in his service—it fact they are the very things through which our Saviour’s love shines brightest.
It’s important that you and I own our weakness. If we don’t own our weakness we shall always be thrusting people away from us; not deliberately, I admit, yet holding them off none the less. To pretend that we are always strong, everywhere strong, nothing but strong is to barricade others from us. Not to own our weakness is forever to be deceiving ourselves and forever to be repelling others.
But our weakness is never that last word about us. In the church we must admit that theology is the last word, the truth of God. Paul insists that it’s precisely at the point of our weakness that the power of Christ rests upon us. So certain is he of this truth, so consistent is the evidence supporting this truth, that he finds himself going one step farther: he glories in his weakness. He wears his weakness like a badge of honour.
Power is the capacity to achieve purpose; it is not the ability to blow things up an annihilate anything in your way. Power is the capacity to achieve purpose. What is God’s purpose? It’s a people who love him and obey him. How does God achieve this purpose? – through the cross. God exercises power (God achieves his purpose) when the Son of God die helpless at the city garbage dump, strung up between two criminals, pinned in disgrace to a piece of wood used in that era to execute the worst of criminals. In the economy of God, God achieves his purpose when he, in the person of his Son, is so helpless he can’t even wriggle.
I often reflect that it is our pains that make us sensitive to the struggles of others. Those who know what it is like to struggle with depression, for example, can have a ministry that others cannot. I have observed people this congregation coming alongside one another who know what it is to meet the challenge of heart disease, cancer, and other malady. Christ’s power is made perfect in weakness.
Charles Colson of Watergate fame has been used of God to found a worldwide ministry to prison inmates. Colson wrote: The great paradox [of my life] is that every time I walk into a prison and see the faces of men or women who have been transformed by the power of the living God, I realize that the thing God has chosen to use in my life … is none of the successes, achievements, degrees, awards, honors, or cases I won before the Supreme Court. … What God is using in my life to touch the lives of literally thousands of other people is the fact that I was a convict and went to prison. That was my great defeat, the only thing in my life I didn't succeed in.
My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness