This sermon is part of the sermon series "Unbreakable". See series.
It's the most dreaded question of the job interview, and when the time comes, you can't seem to push the words out of your mouth. "Tell me," the interviewer asks, "what's your greatest weakness?" How do you answer that question? If you don't come up with something, you sound arrogant, but if you come clean with your weakness, they might not hire you.
Monster.com, the job search website, describes a variety of strategies for answering that question. One approach is to disguise your weakness as strength. For example, you might say, "I'm such a perfectionist I sometimes expect too much of myself or others." Another strategy is to minimize your weakness by explaining how you've already overcome it: "I can be a very task-oriented person, but I've learned that working with people is the most effective way to accomplish a goal." A third strategy is to share a real weakness, but make sure it is completely irrelevant to the position. If you're applying for an accounting position, for example, you don't want to admit that you're not a detail person.
Maybe you heard about the manager being interviewed for a new position. "My department has turned a profit every quarter for the past five years," the candidate says. "I've never had a personnel problem, and I've always gotten superior performance reviews."
"Very impressive," the interviewer replied. "And what's your greatest weakness?"
"I tend to exaggerate."
Revealing our weaknesses is one of the last things in the world we want to do, whether we're looking for a job, pursuing a relationship, or just talking to friends. We don't like to admit our weaknesses to ourselves, let alone to other people. That's why we stack our résumés with degrees earned, awards received, and professional accomplishments. There's no heading for "Weaknesses and Liabilities" on most résumés. If you're placing an ad in the personals section of a newspaper, you're probably not going to lead with, "Neurotic, out-of-shape slacker looking for a relationship that will last longer than my previous three marriages."
But who are we kidding? We know we have weaknesses, and so does everyone else. After all, we're only jars of clay. We're not designer vases made of fine china to be admired from a distance. We're not stainless steel pots that never scratch, rust, or dent. We're ordinary, fragile, imperfect vessels that happen to be carrying within us a treasure called the life of Christ. As long as we have that life within us, we are unbreakable, even in the face of hardship, heartache, and need. Every clay pot comes with weaknesses, vulnerabilities, and imperfections. But we don't have to deny or disguise those weaknesses or dismiss them as insignificant. On the contrary, we can own our weaknesses and allow God to turn them into strengths. In 2 Corinthians 12:7-10, Paul tells us how.
Paul has a strange résumé.
Let's imagine that a pastoral search committee received a cover letter from a candidate that read like this:
I should like to apply for the pastoral vacancy you advertised. I have many qualifications that I think you would appreciate. I'm a good organizer, and I have been a leader most places I've gone. I have been able to preach with power, though people say I am not terribly eloquent. I've done some writing, but some people have found my letters hard to understand, and I'm the first to admit my handwriting is barely legible.
I'm over 50 years old. I have never preached in one place for more than three years at a time, and most of the churches I've served have been small. In some places, my ministry has led to riots and disturbances, and I've been jailed on several occasions—unjustly, of course. My health is not good, but I get quite a bit done and have a good work ethic. I generally work well with people, but I have been known to knock heads with colleagues and have found that there are some people I simply can't work with. I'm pretty good with names, but have been known to forget who I've baptized. I don't have a permanent address, but I will do my best to keep in touch.
This could be the cover letter for the restless, contentious, absent-minded, over-the-hill jailbird we know as the apostle Paul. He has a strange résumé! He wasn't applying for a position when he wrote this letter to the Corinthian church, but he was fighting for his job. Even though he had founded the church in Corinth, many people there were beginning to question his credentials as an apostle. He wasn't one of the original disciples. He wasn't as gifted a speaker as some others. He found himself in trouble just about everywhere he went. In short, he wasn't the kind of leader the Corinthians wanted to be associated with. So he finds himself in the awkward position of persuading his readers of his credentials for ministry. He goes about it in an unconventional way.
In 2 Corinthians 12:1-6, Paul describes a remarkable spiritual experience he had 14 years before, in which he was "caught up" into what he calls the third heaven and given insight into spiritual realities. The Corinthian church was an experientially oriented church; they craved visions and voices and ecstatic spiritual experiences. Many other teachers in Corinth claimed such experiences as their credentials for ministry. In response, Paul reminds the church that he was having ecstatic experiences when they were still in spiritual diapers. But instead of boasting in his experiences, Paul chooses to boast about his weaknesses and infirmities.
Paul endures a "thorn in the flesh."
There has been much speculation about what Paul means by a "thorn in the flesh." The word we translate "thorn" could just as accurately be translated "stake" or "spear." The word was used to describe a sharp instrument that caused pain, lodged deeply, and was difficult to remove. So the "thorn in the flesh" was not a minor annoyance; it was not a "pain in the neck." Rather, it was a chronic source of pain and anguish so debilitating that it hindered his ability to serve Christ. Some people have suggested it was a spiritual weakness—some kind of besetting sin, nagging temptation, or spiritual darkness. That's doubtful, in light of the positive ways Paul speaks about it in the following verses. Others have suggested it was an emotional vulnerability such as depression or anxiety. The use of the word "flesh" seems to suggest that it was some kind of physical ailment or disability. It could have been epilepsy, poor eyesight, migraines, a speech impediment, or a stomach disorder. Some emotional or spiritual ailment may have attended the disability; but it seems the "thorn" was a physical weakness or malady of some sort.
What's your "thorn in the flesh?" What personal weakness or vulnerability causes you pain or hinders your ability to serve Christ freely and effectively? Maybe it's something obvious; maybe it's something no one would ever guess. It could be something you've lived with for a long time or something that's happened to you more recently. Some "thorns" are more painful and debilitating than others, but we all deal with something. We've all got disabilities.
But according to Paul, disabilities don't disqualify us. In fact, when we own our weaknesses, God can turn them into strengths. Weaknesses keep us dependent on Christ and allow him to shine through us in ways he couldn't if we were healthy and strong. Think about it: sometimes stories of strength in times of weakness are or more compelling than stories of healing and deliverance. It's perfectly natural for someone who's been healed of a disease to stand and give thanks, but it's amazing to hear someone give thanks in the midst of disease. How can we handle our weaknesses in ways that allow God to display his power in us and through us?
Ask God to take the thorn away.
The first way we can respond to a thorn in the flesh is to ask God to take it away. Paul is not suggesting that we simply give in to our weaknesses and vulnerabilities without a fight. Remember, God created us to live; there was no sickness or death before the Fall. When we encounter things that hinder us from fulfilling our God-given purpose, we ought to push back against those things.
That's what Paul did. In verse 8 he writes, "Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me." He fervently and repeatedly asked God to remove his thorn. He didn't enjoy being sick; he didn't seek out suffering. He asked God to take it away, so that he might serve Christ at full strength. We should do the same thing. When people are sick, we should pray for healing. When people have addictions, we should pray for their deliverance. When people have been wounded by life or circumstance, we should pray for their recovery. Certainly we pray in submission to God's will. But let's not mistake submission to God for surrender to sickness or suffering. If I land in the hospital and you come pray for me, don't start out by saying, "Lord, if it be Thy will, heal our brother. But if it be Thy will to let him suffer, or to take him home to Thee then we accept that as Thy will also." Pray for me to get well and to have my strength restored so I can serve God and the church. Sure, I want to learn what I need to in the experience, and I want Christ to be glorified in my sickness, but before you start ushering me into glory, give God a chance to heal me. When someone is sick or suffering, I pray passionately and boldly for his or her deliverance until God shows me otherwise.
Accept God's sovereign will.
Sometimes God takes the thorn away, but sometimes, in his wisdom, he does not. It doesn't matter how hard we pray or how much faith we muster up. Like Paul, we have to accept God's sovereign will. In verse 7, Paul indicates that God allowed the thorn for a purpose: "to keep me from becoming conceited because of these surpassingly great revelations." He also says it was a messenger of Satan who inflicted this thorn upon Paul. Satan is the thief who wants to rob us of health and strength. Satan is the destroyer who will afflict our bodies in order to ruin our souls. Yet at the same time that Satan delivered the thorn, God was superintending the process. God allowed Satan to inflict the thorn in order to accomplish a greater purpose. God allowed this thorn in order to protect Paul from pride and to bring greater glory to God's name.
Sometimes God allows sickness and suffering into our lives in order to accomplish some greater good—something we may never understand in this life. So sometimes when we ask him to take the pain away, he says, "Not yet." He will eventually heal and restore and deliver; if not in this life, then in the life to come.
So it was for Paul. In verse 9, he uses the phrase "he said to me" to suggest that God had spoken the final word on the issue. That expression was used to describe the edict of a king—a declaration that was final and had continuing effect. There came a moment when Paul had to stop asking God to take the thorn away and accept it as the sovereign will of God for his life. There are echoes here of Jesus' prayer in Gethsemane. Jesus prayed three times for the Father to take away a far more horrific thorn than the one Paul had to contend with. But Jesus, too, accepted the sovereign will of his Father: "nevertheless, not my will, but Thine be done."
We will all experience moments when, after persistent and believing prayer, it becomes evident that God is doing something we can't understand and wouldn't choose. We should recognize that God has a greater purpose in mind. Then we will discover that God's grace is sufficient for the experience.
Joni Eareckson Tada, was an athletic young woman who broke her neck diving into the shallow waters of the Chesapeake Bay and was paralyzed from the neck down. In that moment, she lost nearly all her physical abilities. Even the simplest of chores became impossible for her. Along with physical disability came emotional despair and spiritual struggles. She was depressed and suicidal and railed at God for allowing such a thing to happen. But at her lowest point, when it seemed that absolutely everything had been taken away from her, she turned to Christ and discovered that his grace was enough for her. For a time she asked God to take it away. What a testimony it would be if she were healed! Think of all she could accomplish if she wasn't stuck in a wheelchair. But at a certain point, Joni accepted that God's will for her life included a wheelchair. She began to understand that God could accomplish more through her weakness than through her healing. For three decades now God has been doing just that. His power has been made perfect in her weakness. Through her 30 books, her artwork, her speaking, and her organization she has touched the lives of millions of people. Confined to a wheelchair, with virtually no physical strength whatsoever, she has changed the world. God's grace has been enough for Joni, but she's had to appropriate that grace every day.
Appropriate God's grace.
Once we accept our situation as God's will, we must appropriate God's grace. Grace here refers to all of God's resources—his strength, joy, and peace. Notice "appropriate" is an active word—aggressive, even. It means "to take possession of something or make use of something for oneself, even without permission." We, of course, have permission to take hold of God's grace; it becomes available to us when we invite Christ into our lives. But we still have to appropriate it. There's nothing passive about Paul's response to the thorn in the flesh. According to verses 9 and 10, he not only endures his weakness, he boasts in it. He knows that God can accomplish things through his weakness that could not have been accomplished through his strengths. We can't stop at acceptance. We have to appropriate God's grace; actively and aggressively take hold of it. We must claim his promises, obey his commands, ask for strength, and then seize the opportunities our weaknesses afford us.
Joni tells the story of being in a ladies' restroom during a Christian women's conference. A well meaning woman who was putting on lipstick in front of the mirror said to her, "Oh, Joni, you always look so together, so happy in your wheelchair. I wish I had your joy!" Several women around nodded, "Yes, how do you do it?" they asked.
Joni replied, "I don't do it. Let me tell you how it works. After my husband, Ken, leaves for work at 6:00am, I'm alone until I hear the front door open at 7:00am. That's when a friend arrives to get me up. While I listen to her make coffee, I pray, 'Oh, Lord, my friend will soon give me a bath, dress me, sit me up in a chair, brush my hair and teeth, and send me out the door. I don't have the strength to face this routine one more time. I have no resources. I don't even have a smile to take into the day. But you do, Lord. May I have yours? God, I need you desperately.
"So what happens, then, when you're friend comes through the bedroom door?" one of the women asked.
"I turn my head toward her and give her a smile sent straight from heaven. It's not mine. It's God's. And so," she said, gesturing to her paralyzed legs, "whatever joy you see today was hard won this morning."
God's grace has been enough for Joni, but she's had to appropriate it every day. And so do we. In the face of weakness, we turn to God and ask Him to fill us to overflowing with His grace.
Lord willing, not many of us will have to deal with wheelchairs in the days to come. But we all have weaknesses, vulnerabilities, and imperfections. We're just clay pots, after all—ordinary, fragile, imperfect vessels. But when we own those weaknesses, God can turn them into strengths, so that we become unbreakable.
Bryan Wilkerson is pastor of Grace Chapel in Lexington, Massachusetts.