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Overcoming Handicapped Lives

God gives us handicaps for our own betterment

I would like this morning to address the issue of handicapped lives. This subject takes us all in. There may be some young superman here this morning who has never known any limitations, but I suspect not. When you think about it, even Superman has his limitations. He has been dogged by Kryptonite for half a century; it has always been a problem to him. I have never known a person intimately who was not struggling with some sort of handicap. You and I realize that life is filled with all sorts of unsung heroes who jump the hurdles and finish the race of life victorious.

That is why we admire men like Louis Pasteur, upon whose titanic work so much of modern medicine rests. Especially when we realize that at the age of forty-six he had a terribly debilitating stroke and was a paralytic for the rest of his days on this earth. We know that Beethoven wrote music while deaf, and Milton composed poetry while blind, and Jackie Joyner Kersey in our age won gold medals, after having overcome polio in her childhood. We begin to see that much of the great work of this world has been done by handicapped people.

How do they do it? What are the inward techniques they use to handle things outwardly so well? Who among us doesn't need to learn about this?

I want to direct your attention this morning to 2 Corinthians 12, where Paul demonstrates how he overcame a debilitating thorn in his flesh, and the lessons he learned. Second Corinthians 12:2: "I'll go on to revelation and visions from the Lord. I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heavenwhether in the body or out of the body I don't know, but God knows."

He's talking here about himself in a tremendous vision he had. This was not his conversion. That took place about twenty years before he writes this. This was about six years after conversion, a powerful vision from God up to the third heaven. Now in Hebrew cosmology the word heaven and the word sky are the same thing. In their cosmology the first sky or the first heaven was where the birds and the clouds were. The second heaven is where the sun, the moon and the stars are. And way out there, they thought, was the third sky or heaven. That's where God lives.

Somehow Paul was caught up, he says, in that third heaven, which he describes here as paradise. "Whether in the body or out of the body, I don't know. I was caught up to paradise and heard inexpressible things that man is not permitted to tell."

In the moments of his greatest exaltation you and I find the moments of his greatest humiliation. That's verse 7. "To keep me from becoming conceited because of this surpassingly great revelation, there was given unto me a thorn in my flesh, the messenger of Satan to torment me."

The word thorn doesn't do it justice. When I think of a thorn I think of the stickers on mesquite trees. But really the word means more like a tent peg. Paul says, "I've got this wooden tent peg in my flesh, and it's twisting and causing me tremendous pain."

What in the world was the thorn? Wouldn't you like to know what it was? The fact is, nobody knows what it was, and I admire Paul for that. Why, if some of us had been had had this thorn and we had written thirteen letters for the Bible, we would have told everybody, "Here's my problem. Here's what I'm suffering. Here's my sickness." We love to talk about our sicknesses and problems and troubles, but not Paul. Nary a word. A lot of folks have tried to guess what the thorn was.

Some folks thought his thorn was the fact that Paul was just plain ugly. It could have been. In 2 Corinthians 10 he makes the comment, "When I came to you, you said, 'His letters are weighty but his bodily appearance is weak.' " What do you expect? He was beaten on three occasions, with thirty-nine stripes with a cat of nine tails, five beatings with Roman rods, a torture designed to break the back and crush the vertebrae. He probably walked bent over, with a hunched back, and was probably horribly deformed. He could have been ugly.

Others have said, no, his problem was epilepsy. Why would they think that? Well, in the New Testament world many folks thought epilepsy was caused by demonic spirits, and the way to ward off demonic spirits was to spit at those suspected of being demonically possessed. In the book of Galatians Paul makes a comment that I really appreciate: "When I came to you, you refrained from spitting at me." So maybe he suffered from epilepsy.

Others have guessed that he had eye trouble. It could have been. You recall that tremendous conversion experience he had when he was struck blind and for three days he couldn't see, and then something like scales fell from his eyes. In Galatians 6:11, you realize that Paul apparently dictated all of his letters. He had a secretary who wrote down what he said; when he comes to the end of the book of Galatians, Paul says, "Now you notice with what large letters I'm writing to you in my own hand?" He couldn't see very well. In fact, in Galatians Paul says, "You love me so much. If you could have, why, you would have plucked out your eyeballs and given them to me." In Acts 23 when he's on trial before the high priest and the Sanhedrin, he makes a caustic statement to the high priest and one of the soldiers slaps him and says, "Don't you realize you shouldn't speak like that to the high priest?" Paul says in all innocence, "I couldn't tell it was the high priest." Well, he probably had such bad eyesight he couldn't tell.

Nobody knows for certain what the thorn was. Why wouldn't Paul tell us? I'm convinced he didn't tell us so that everyone could in one way or another identify with him. We know nothing about Paul's trouble except that behind the scenes, just like the rest of us, Paul had to handle a situation that he prayed to escape and could not evade. In one way or other he had to settle down and live with it. That's why it says in verse 8:

I tried to get rid of this. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, "My grace is sufficient for you. For my power is made perfect in your weakness." [And so Paul says] Therefore, I will rather boast about all my weaknesses, so that Christ's power may rest upon me. That's why for Christ's sake I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties; for when I am weak, then I am strong.

It is a crucial hour in one's life when he or she stands open-eyed before his handicap. Every garden, of course, has its weeds. Every life has its strife.

There is a young boy who was born with a crippling disease, and in the early years of his life he doesn't realize that he's any different from the other children. But there comes a point in his childhood when all of a sudden it dawns upon him, and the way he handles that moment will set the stage for the rest of his life.

A young woman dreams of great days ahead and great success in her life as do all young women. How old is she? Twenty-two? Twenty-five? Thirty? Thirty-four? Thirty-eight? All of a sudden it dawns upon her she's never going to be a great poet. She's never going to compose great music. She isn't going to get that great job she envisioned herself with. It's not within her.

How many of us step on the gas and are forced to admit again and again that the power just isn't within us? God didn't give us eight cylinders. In fact, God didn't even give us six cylinders. He only gave us four, and those aren't very good.

Maybe you wanted love and you missed it. Maybe your marriage has become a tragedy instead of a thing of beauty. Maybe in your household death has severed the tie that binds.

The great Scottish preacher Alexander Maclaren   said, "Please be kind to everyone you meet because everybody you meet is fighting a battle." You know, when I was twenty-five and I first read that quote, I thought it was nice. It didn't mean a lot to me. When I was thirty-five it didn't sink in a lot either. Now as I'm passing forty and looking back, he's right. Everybody has a battle to fight.

The only normal people I know are the folks I don't know very well. You can break an arm and there it is right there in the cast, and we watch you come to church on Sunday morning and we say, "Oh, look. You broke your arm. Hope it gets well." Of course we know it takes six weeks for broken bones to heal. In six weeks the cast will come off; and all will be well.

But how many of you this morning walked in here with a broken heart? It's an easy thing to see a cast on an arm, but it's really tough to read a broken heart. We all know it takes longer than six weeks for most broken hearts to heal. It takes years, even decades.

I know as a pastor I can walk up to some of you and look you straight in the eye, and all I have to do is say one name and tears will come to your eyes. All I have to do is mention one circumstance and you'll find that knot deep inside.

How do we handle these handicaps? How do we deal with these thorns in our lives? How can we access the power, the grace that Paul says God is ready to lavish upon us?

May I share five practical lessons about overcoming life's handicaps? Now, you realize there are many more than five. I've selected a few thoughts that jump out from the page here that you and I might find useful if we're to access the grace that is sufficient for every situation.

To overcome life's handicaps, trust that they are no accident.

Lesson number one: Trust that handicaps are no accident. God's plan is in place. Does God have a plan for Paul? Yes. It's right here in verse 7. "Paul, I want to give you all kinds of revelations and visions; but, Paul, if I do that, you might get trapped. I'm going to stick this thorn in there deep. It's going to keep you humble." Was that in God's plan for Paul? Yes. But Paul says, "I don't want the thorn." "It doesn't matter, Paul. My plan is for your humility because I can't trust you with all these visions." So in slides the thorn.

Did God have a plan for us when he made us? Yes. Psalm 139 tells us God plans out every step for us for the rest of our lives. He's got a plan for us. Of course, you and I realize that few folks live out that plan perfectly, and all sorts of things happen in a fallen and cursed world. The thing to realize is nothing will happen that God didn't allow.

Don't you love that passage in the Book of Job in which God and Satan get to talking and Satan says, "I can make him curse you," and God says, "All right, give it a shot"? And Satan says to God, "I can't. How can I touch him? You've put a hedge around him, and I can't touch him. If you'll lower the hedge, I can get at him." And God says, "All right. I'll lower the hedge just a bit," and Satan goes after him.

Isn't that nice to know God has a hedge around us? In Isaiah, Ezekiel, Zechariah, and Job God raises a hedge of protection around us, and nothing can touch us without God choosing to lower it. He's got a plan.

Of course you realize the Bible gives us reasons why God allows these thorns. First of all, he needs to correct us. Hebrews 12 talks a lot about this. God spanks us if we get out of line because he loves us. Maybe you're going through a handicap or a thorn and you say, "Well, you know, I deserved it. God's spanking me." Maybe you say, "But I didn't do anything to deserve this." And you realize the second reason the Bible tells us God slips in thorns is to perfect us. First Peter, for example, talks about how God designs to try us like fire. Like gold, we come out like gold because he wants us to be pure and holy with a special plan, so he gets glory.

Illustration: One of my favorite heroes is Charles Haddon Spurgeon. I've always enjoyed reading his biographies. In fact, he's often called a prince of preachers. He had such a heart for Jesus Christ. When he was thirty-five years old he got a horrible case of gout. As much trouble as they have treating gout today, they had a lot more trouble back in the 1880s and 90s when he was alive and preaching. Then he got kidney disease, though they didn't know what it was. But judging from his symptoms many folks have guessed he struggled with a terrible kidney disease.

From the age of thirty-five until he died, his body was ravaged with pain. You say, "God, why would you do that to a man like Spurgeon?" You realize as you read his sermons that it was that physical hell that knitted his heart so closely to that of Jesus Christ.

Thorns are no accident. They indicate that God's plan is in place.

To overcome life's handicaps, say, "What an opportunity."

Lesson number two to overcome life's handicaps: Say, "What an opportunity" instead of, "Well, what if?" At the end of verse 10, Paul says, "I delight in my weaknesses. I delight in these circumstances, in these insults, in these persecutions." What he doesn't say is what I hear many of us saying: "Well, what if I hadn't gone through this persecution? What a wonderful life I could have had." "What if I hadn't gone through that insult?" "What if I hadn't had that thorn? Life would have been" "What a paradise I might have had if only this hadn't happened to me." We forget the fact nobody gets to live out life on their own terms. It doesn't happen. Nobody gets a perfect set of circumstances. Those who have the power are the folks who look at their circumstances and see a marvelous opportunity. "I rejoice in these circumstances," says Paul, "because I know God's going to pour in the power" instead of always saying, "what could have been what might have if only this hadn't"

Illustration: Ole Bull was a marvelous classical violinist of the preceding generation from us. He went all over the world giving concerts. In fact, probably the best concert he ever gave was one night in Paris, when in the middle of a song his A string broke. Instead of saying, "Hold it! Wait a minute while I restring this," Ole Bull transposed the notes and finished the entire concert using just three strings.

Now how many of us can relate to that? The most thrilling parts of life are when we can finish strongly on just three strings. I think if I could have only watched Ole Bull perform once I would have liked to have been there that night in Paris when he finished on just three strings.

I'm convinced Paul would have been tickled pink to get rid of that thorn but I suspect there are qualities of understanding inherent in Paul's letters that would never have been there, had he not been forced to finish life on just three strings.

To overcome life's handicaps, stop window-shopping and enjoy your own inventory.

Lesson number three to overcome life's handicaps: Stop window-shopping and be satisfied with your own inventory.

Paul said, "God, please take away the thorn." "No, Paul." "God, how come Timothy doesn't have one? How come he gets a healthy body and I got to struggle with this? God, Silas doesn't have one of these." To this God said, "Stop window shopping and be happy with what you've got." In 2 Corinthians 10 Paul writes, "Stop comparing yourself with somebody else." "Those who compare themselves and their situation with somebody else are not wise," says Paul.

If we're born to be berry bushes, and we produce nice ripe berries, many of us forget our berries and looking around say, "Oh, I wish I was that apple tree. If I was an apple tree, look at the big fruit I could produce then." Born to be apple trees, how many of us look around and say, "Oh, look at that maple tree. If I could be like that big, beautiful maple, look at all the shade I could give." And born to be maple trees we look around and say, "Oh, look at that elm. If only I could have been graceful and stately like an elm."

God gives each of us a special plot to till and accept. If the soil is thin, the rocks more numerous and the prospects smaller, then so be it. That's how life is. We must stop looking over the fence and day dreaming about what we could do with somebody else's field. Stop window-shopping. The real test is not what you could do with somebody else's life or circumstances or health, but what do you do with what you've been given. In Jesus Christ we have each been given our own plot.

To overcome life's handicaps, recognize that thorns set the stage for spiritual service.

Lesson number four to overcome life's handicaps: Recognize that thorns set the stage for spiritual service.

Don't you love verse 10? Paul writes, "When I'm weak, then I'm strong." We live in the American age of excuses. "Oh, my headache." "Oh, my arthritis." "Oh, my dysfunctional family background." "Oh, my alcoholic spouse." "Oh, my" fill in the blank.

I'm convinced that Paul would never have been Paul without that thorn in his side. You take some shining specimen of manhood who has never had a handicap, with a sparkling personality, who's had fortunate circumstances and never known a sick day in his life and however energetic he may be in his service to others, there are things he could never do that Helen Keller could.

Most of us will never appreciate the logic or the argument of Paradise Lost or Paradise Regained. Most of us will never even read it. But one thing we do appreciate is old blind Milton sitting down to write it. That does something for us. Most of us will never appreciate Longfellow's translations of Dante. Then we hear that Mrs. Longfellow accidentally set her dress on fire and Mr. Longfellow tried to beat out the flames to save her life. He sat there by her bed a few days later as she died in terrible agony. Afterward, he sat down in that lifeless, motherless home and translated Dante to quiet his raging mind and did it marvelously well. Somehow that does something for us.

You see, these thorns set the stage for amazing accomplishments. When we're weak, we're made strong.

To overcome life's handicaps, find the strength in God's grace, which is energy enough when life gets tough.

Finally, lesson number five to overcome life's handicaps: Find the strength in God's grace, which is energy enough when life gets tough.

In verse 9 God says to Paul, "My grace is sufficient for you. My power is made perfect in weakness." His grace is enough when life gets tough. "I delight in weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and difficulties. When I'm weak then I'm strong."

"God, would you please heal me?" said Paul. "No, Paul." "God, please, heal me. I don't want to live with this thorn." "No, Paul." "God, I'm pleading with you. Take it away. I don't want to spend the rest of my life with this thorn." "No, Paul. You need it. It will keep you humble. I'll give you something better than what you ask for: I'll pour in my grace, Paul. Having my grace is a whole lot better than not having that thorn. I'll pour in my grace, and when you need it, in every circumstance it will be sufficient."

"Well," you say, "does God have enough grace, because I've got a lot of problems? You don't know about my problems and handicaps." Well, God's grace is infinite; he's God, and he "is sufficient for you."

A little boy on the seaside said to himself, "Boy, I'd better not take too much water out of this ocean with my pail. I might drain her dry." That would never happen. There's plenty of water in that ocean for all the water that boy could ever pail out.

Is God's grace sufficient? Yes. His grace is totally sufficient for all of our thorns and handicaps and problems and troubles. But realize that while his grace is sufficient, he doesn't just slop it out of the pail superfluously. He says when you're weak, when you need it, he'll give it to you. I think he does that to keep us coming back to him and keep us dependent on him. He doesn't just slop his grace all over. But if you need it, you'll get it; I promise.

Do you realize that God doesn't give martyrs' grace to secretaries? They don't need it. He gives secretaries secretaries' grace. But you let that secretary become a martyr and God will give her martyrs' grace. God doesn't give martyrs' grace to bankers. He gives them bankers' grace. But you let some banker be on trial to be martyred for Christ, God will give her martyrs' grace.

Illustration: Not many years ago, a television producer decided to do a docudrama on what it's like to be told you have cancer. So he arranged with a cancer specialist to place a hidden camera in his examining room, and then he got permission from a number of patients to be filmed the moment the doctor walked in with the results of their cancer test. They profiled three of those patients. Each one was told they had terminal cancer and only months to live. The camera caught it allthe shock, the disbelief, the anger, the fear, the horror, the terror. It was all there as the doctor said, "You've got terrible cancer. You've got months and only months to live."

They followed these three individuals for the next several months. All three of them died, and it was right there on the television screen. What stood out was the different ways that these individuals handled their terror.

Two apparently had little faith, and the audience walked through the anger and the bitterness that arose over those next several months and never really came to grips with it. They became estranged from their spouses and their families because the anger and the bitterness precluded their relationships. Even up to death, their marriages were struggling and their families were struggling. They didn't handle it very well.

That is what made the third individual so inspiring. He was a humble black pastor of a small inner-city church in his late sixties. When the doctor came in and relayed the news, "You've got terminal cancer, you have only months to live; it's very bad," there was no outcry, no great anger, no bitterness. Patiently the man and his wife asked the doctor exactly what this meant. The doctor described how he would try to treat it and the steps they'd go through, and they thanked the doctor and they left. As they were heading out to the car, the camera followed along to eavesdrop as this pastor and his wife sat down on the front seat. They quietly bowed their heads and recommitted their lives to Jesus Christ.

The cameras were there on his final Sunday, the last Sunday he ever preached. He was very open about his illness. I'll paraphrase what he said that last Sunday. He said, "A number of you have been asking me if I'm mad at God for this disease that's been ravishing my body. I want to tell you: I'm not mad at God. We live in a world that's been cursed and fallen in sin and sickness, and death is just a part of it. And I'm not mad at God. In fact, I love God more now than I've ever loved him in my life."

It was right there on the television screen. "And don't be sorry for me. I'm going to a better place where there's no tears, no death, no heartache, no sorrow." He continued, "Besides, our Lord Jesus Christ suffered and died for our sins. Why shouldn't I share in his suffering?" Right there on television he began to sing without accompaniment in a broken, old voice:

Must Jesus bear the cross alone and all the world go free? No, there's a cross for everyone, and there's a cross for me. How happy are the saints above, who once were sorrowing here, but now they taste unmingled love and joy without a fear. The consecrated cross I'll bear till death shall set me free, and then go home my crown to wear, for there's a crown for me.

He died that same week and was ushered into the presence of the Lord Jesus Christ he had served all of his life. I think that's what Paul had in mind. "My grace is sufficient for you, for when you're weak then you're strong. So delight in circumstances and hardships and persecutions and insults. For when I am weak, then I am strong."

Remember Jesus Christ? He's the one who gave Paul the thorn. But that's all right. He knew what it was like. He's the one that wore that crown of thorns on his own head. He knew what it was like to suffer. He had a cross, too. The Bible says he shed his own blood that whoever believes in Christ might have their sins forgiven, and have access to God and his grace every moment.

Roger Barrier pastors Casas Adobes Baptist Church in Tucson, Arizona. He is author of Listening to the Voice of God.

Roger Barrier

Preaching Today Tape # 179


A resource of Christianity Today International

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Sermon Outline:


Much of the great work in this world has been done by handicapped people: Pasteur, Beethoven, Milton, Joyner Kersey.

I. To overcome life's handicaps, trust that they are no accident.

II. To overcome life's handicaps, say, "What an opportunity" Instead of "What if?"

III. To overcome life's handicaps, stop window-shopping and enjoy your own inventory.

IV. To overcome life's handicaps, recognize that thorns set the stage for spiritual service.

V. To overcome life's handicaps, find the strength in God's grace, which is energy enough when life gets tough.