The Strangest Gift
The Strangest Gift
In her book Tramp for the Lord, Corrie ten Boom tells the story of an old woman she met in Russia in the time of the Communist persecution of Christians during the Cold War:
The old woman was lying on a small sofa propped up by pillows. Her body was bent and twisted almost beyond recognition by the dread disease of multiple sclerosis. Her aged husband spent all his time caring for her since she was unable to move off the sofa … [The only part of her body she could control was her right hand. And with the index finger of that hand she had for many years glorified God by typing on a vintage typewriter beside her.] All day and far into the night, she would type. [She translated Christian books into Russian.] Always using just that one finger—peck … peck … peck—she typed out the pages. Portions of the Bible, the books of Billy Graham … and Corrie ten Boom …
"Not only does she translate books," her husband said as he hovered close by during our conversation, "but she prays for these [people] every day while she types. Sometimes it takes a long time for her finger to hit the key, or for her to get the paper in the machine, but all the time she's praying for those whose books she's working on."
[Corrie ten Boom writes]: I looked at her wasted form on the sofa, her head pulled down and her feet curled under her body. "Oh Lord, why don't you heal her?" I cried inwardly.
Her husband, sensing my anguish of soul, gave the answer. "God has a purpose in her sickness. Every other Christian in the city is watched by the secret police. But because she has been sick so long, no one ever looks in on her. They leave us alone and she is the only person in all the city who can type quietly undetected by the police."
One day Corrie received a letter from that lady's husband that described the day she had gone home to be with the Lord. The husband explained that the woman had worked until midnight that very night of her death, typing with one finger to the glory of God.
Who would have thought that multiple sclerosis could be a gift from God? Has it ever occurred to you that the very thing you most want removed from your life might be the very thing God uses in the greatest way for his glory? That was certainly the case in the life of the apostle Paul. What he tells us in 2 Corinthians 12 is that every believer should glory in his weaknesses far more than in his strengths, because it is in our weaknesses that Christ is most clearly revealed. There are three primary reasons for this.
Glorying in our weaknesses distinguishes us from the world.
First, we should glory in our weaknesses to distinguish ourselves from the world. Have you ever noticed how unlike the world Christianity is? The world wants to get to the top. Jesus tells us we are to get to the bottom. The world wants to be ruler of all. Jesus says we're supposed to be servant of all. The world loves power, but God is shown in weakness. The world seeks after wisdom, but God has called us through the foolishness of preaching to proclaim the gospel.
Paul's opponents could put on a great show. They showed up in Corinth talking about their strengths and, at least implicitly, they attacked Paul. They said, "His presence is weak, and he's really not an impressive speaker." We don't have any recorded pictures of Paul, so we don't know exactly what he looked like. But I dare say he wasn't much to look at. As many times as he had been beaten, stoned, and shipwrecked, if he started out a good-looking man, by the end of his life he was scarred and bent and twisted. Not only that, but there was something about him that just did not stir passion in an audience.
But Paul answered his opponents. He knew the technique of the world is to glory in what they've done. The world still loves a show, doesn't it? The sad thing is that many preachers and churches are all too happy to give the world the show. We've become churches that glory in power and strength and displays. How unlike Christ that is! What distinguishes us from the world is that it is not our gifts, it is not our strength, it is not our power, it is not our intellect in which we glory. We can never argue the world into accepting Jesus Christ. We can never be so impressive that the world will accept Jesus. Rather, Paul says that Christ's strength is made perfect in our weakness. So if we are going to distinguish ourselves from the world, we had best embrace our weakness.
Glorying in our weaknesses distances us from our strengths.
It might be easy for someone who has no strengths to say we should glory in our weaknesses. But Paul was certainly not in that company. In fact, he can't resist a little boasting. We can forgive him when in 2 Corinthians 11 he says: Okay, you want to take on somebody? You want to talk about strengths? I'm your huckleberry. We can play that game.
Paul apologizes for engaging in this bragging match, but he does so to show that he wasn't glorying in his weakness simply because he had no strengths. In chapter 11 he says: Many boast according to the flesh. I, too, will boast. Just bear with me for a bit. Whatever anyone else dares to boast of—I'm speaking as a fool—I also dare to boast of that. Are they Hebrews? So am I. Are they Israelites? So am I. Are they the offspring of Abraham? So am I. Are they servants of Christ? I'm a better one—I'm talking like a madman—with far greater labors, far more imprisonments, with countless beatings, often near death. Five times I received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one.
If any one of us had ever been beaten for the gospel like that just one time, that experience would become the sermon illustration for life! We'd appear at churches all over the country talking about "the time I got beaten for Christ." People would read our books. They would come to our seminars on how to endure a beating for Jesus. All of that would happen after just one beating. But Paul says:
Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea, I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, from bandits, from my own countrymen, from Gentiles; in the city, in the country, at sea, and in danger from false brothers. I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep. I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food. I have been cold and naked. Besides everything else, I face daily the pressure of my concern for all the churches. Who is weak, and I do not feel weak? Who is led into sin, and I do not inwardly burn?
In other words, Paul says: You want to boast about pedigree? I can keep up with you. You want to talk about persecution? I can outdo you. You want to speak of performance? I've done all right. You want to talk about pressure? I've stood up underneath it. But in 2 Corinthians 11:30 he says, "If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness."
Then he takes a hard right turn and invites his readers to go back in time 14 years. The fact that he has to go back 14 years tells us several things. First, this is not something that happened often to Paul. In fact, it probably happened only this one time. Furthermore, he doesn't say that such an experience is required for followers of Jesus Christ. Instead, he follows a Greco-Roman rhetorical convention and speaks about a personal experience in the third person. He says: I knew a man—I can't tell you all about it, because I don't fully understand it myself—who was caught up to the third heaven.
I don't think Paul was saying there are any degrees of heaven above [the one we know]. I think he was caught up to heaven itself, where he heard things that were impossible for him to utter. I don't know when this happened in Paul's life, but it probably occurred sometime between 40 and 44 A.D. It's possible it happened during the time he was stoned at Lystra and the people left him for dead. At any rate, he was genuinely caught up to heaven; this wasn't an apparition or a near death experience. This was an actual entrance into heaven.
Paul figured out something that a lot of Christians never understand: you will learn a whole lot more about God in the thorns of life than you will in the third heaven experience. Fourteen years ago he had this incredible experience, yet he doesn't claim any extra authority because he went to heaven. He's not giving seminars in how to get caught up to Paradise.
Sometime after that experience, something took place in his body that hampered him. It got in the way of his ministry and distanced him from his strengths. Three times he asked God: Lord, please get rid of this stake, this thorn, this thing that hampers me. It makes me far less effective. If only I could get rid of this I could travel more and preach better. People would listen to me better.
Even though Paul was a man of great faith and had absolute conviction of God's power and ability to take this thing away, God said, "No." Wouldn't you like to see one of these healers on TV put their hands on somebody and say, "Just a minute; God says you've got to stay sick"? That just doesn't happen. But here is arguably the greatest servant of the Lord Jesus who ever lived, and he's got some malady about which God says: I want you to keep it. I've given that to you.
I see a pattern in Paul's life that I think many of us follow. First of all, he had a clear revelation. An incredible event took place in his life. Then, perhaps, he responded with conceit. Wow, look what God has shown me. Look what I know. I have a degree. I understand a doctrine. Buddy, I have got the truth. So God intervened with a controlling reminder; he allows a little thorn, a stake in the flesh, that elicited a compliant response. Paul submitted to what God was doing. When that happens to us, we realize we're no longer too big for our britches, and that's when we finally have a close relationship with God—which is what he was after all along.
Your greatest enemy to service is self and pride. We often identify ourselves more with our abilities and gifts than with our role as the servant of God. We think of ourselves more in terms of what we can do than in terms of what God has called us to do. We think of our gifts more than our calling. Am I more of a professor in a seminary, or am I more of a bondslave of Jesus Christ? Am I more of an orator, or am I more of a messenger of the gospel? When we receive gifts and revelations, when we understand truth or get a degree, when we pastor a large church, God often has to interfere with our direction. He has to give us that controlling reminder that he wants us to move beyond mere relationship with him to true intimacy with him.
Before I ever set foot on a seminary campus, I had taken 40 hours of classical Greek. When I went to seminary with this degree, I thought I was something big. I thought, I'm going to be pastoring a church in no time. I'm going to be at the top of the heap in seminary. Do you know what the Lord did? The Lord let me—the head of a family of four—go about five months without a job. Finally—mercifully—he gave me a job; I became the janitor of the Kirby Woods Baptist Church in Memphis, Tennessee. Little did I know that cleaning toilets would prepare me for the pastorate far more than any seminary class I ever took did.
God had to get me to die to abilities. He had to bring me to the place where I saw that he is the one who opens and closes doors. And here's a revelation: He didn't need my intellect. He didn't need my ability. He had me clean those commodes until I realized it's about him; it's not about me. Then I was ready to pastor a church, and he graciously gave me a little rural church on the Delta in Arkansas. That's when I saw his gracious hand begin to move.
God responded to Paul's plea by saying, "No, Paul, I'm not going to remove that from you, but my grace is sufficient."
I grew up in western Kentucky. At one time I lived at a place called Lickskillet on Watermelon Road right beside Whippoorwill Creek in Logan County. When they built a bridge over Whippoorwill Creek, they didn't build the Golden Gate Bridge. You don't need the Golden Gate Bridge to cross Whippoorwill Creek. You just need a little bridge. That's the way God's grace is. It is always sufficient for whatever you encounter, for whatever you face. He always deals with us in exactly the measure we need.
The Toyota plant in Georgetown, Kentucky, is an amazing place. They begin with these huge rolls of steel, and they stamp that steel into chasses and bodies. As the chassis moves down an assembly line, out of nowhere a red body will descend from the ceiling and be attached to the chassis by robots. Next a blue body will come on the next chassis. Then the next chassis rolls up and receives a white body. As they go down the assembly line, out of nowhere exactly the right part appears at exactly the right moment. Everything gets in right place at precisely the right time, and you end up with the right kind of car. That's the way God's grace is. It's always sufficient. It comes in the right measure. It comes at the right time. God says: Paul, I'm not going to take that thorn in the flesh from you, but my grace is sufficient for you. That thorn was given to you.
Did you notice that God tells Paul that the thorn was given to him, but Paul calls it a messenger of Satan? I've heard people spend a lot of time trying figure out where their illness comes from. It doesn't matter. Your response should be the same. The truth is that often the very same event is used by God to strengthen you, and by Satan to tempt you. I like what Luther said: "The Devil is, after all, God's Devil, and he cannot go beyond where God allows him to go." The very things the Devil uses to tempt you and to cause you to fall, God simultaneously uses to strengthen you to show himself as powerful in you.
Glorying in our weakness displays Christ in us.
Third, we glory in our weakness to display in ourselves the Lord Jesus Christ. When God explained to Paul that his strength is perfected in Paul's weakness, he changed Paul's attitude toward the thorn. Paul says, "Most gladly, therefore, will I rather glory in my infirmities that the power of Christ may rest upon me." He realized that the very thing that had so troubled him was the thing that God used to move him into intimacy with Christ. Somewhere along the line, we have to learn what Job learned when he cried out to God because of all the things God had allowed in his life. We must learn what Habakkuk learned when he looked over across the Euphrates and saw Babylon getting stronger and wondered why God was allowing that. We must learn what Paul learned when he looked at the thorn in his flesh and wondered why God would allow such a thing to hamper his ministry.
God's answer was pretty much the same to each one of them: I'm God and you're not. That's what he said to Job. He asked him, "Where were you when I threw the stars out in space?" God is saying: I'm God; you're not. He told Habakkuk that the Babylonians were gaining strength at God's will: I'm God and you're not. He told Paul: That thorn in the flesh you so desperately want to get rid of—I gave that to you. I am God and you're not. When we understand that, it changes everything.
David Miller is a very close friend of mine—a preacher of the gospel and an incredible man. He has muscular atrophy, and I've watched this degenerative disease slowly take his muscle control. His family has had to endure a great deal, but David has been faithful. Never once have I heard him gripe or complain about his illness, and he preaches as many meetings every year as any evangelist in the country. David and his wife, Glenda, have a son named Josh of whom they are very proud; he's their only child. One day Josh Miller was riding in a car with a friend, and they had an accident. He broke his spine at the C-5 level and was paralyzed. Just after the accident, I was standing by Josh's bedside, watching David—who has endured physical weakness for many, many years—encourage, love, and comfort his son with the love of the Lord Jesus Christ and speak to him of the graciousness of God. Josh looked at me and said, "If I never get any better, God's already been so good to me." That's what it means to display the power of Christ.
Years ago I read a pamphlet by G. D. Watson entitled "Others May, You Cannot," which I've adapted for my life and ministry. It goes like this:
If God has called you to be really like Jesus, he will draw you into a life of crucifixion and humility and put upon you such demands of obedience that you will not be able to follow other people. In many ways he will seem to let other people do things he will not let you do.
Others in the ministry who seem very devoted and successful may promote themselves, pull strings, and work schemes to carry out their plans, but you cannot do it. And if you try, you will reap such failure and rebuke from the Lord that it will make you ashamed and sorely penitent.
Others may boast of themselves, of their work, of their successes, of their writings, but the Holy Spirit will not allow you to do any such thing. If you begin to do so, he will lead you into some deep mortification that will make you despise yourself and all your good works.
Others may be allowed to have money, to possess luxuries, or to receive an inheritance, but it is likely God will keep you poor because he wants you to have something far better than gold—a helpless dependence upon him that he might have the privilege of supplying your needs day by day out of an unseen treasury.
The Lord may let others be recognized and honored for their accomplishments but keep you hidden in obscurity because he wants to produce some choice fragrant fruit that can only be produced in the shade. He may let others do a work for him and receive the credit, but he will make you work and labor without even knowing how much you are doing. And then to make your work still more precious he may let someone else get the credit for the work you have done, so your reward is ten times greater when Jesus comes.
The Holy Spirit will put a strict watch over you with a jealous love and rebuke you for little words or feelings or for wasting your time, which other Christians never seem to feel distressed over. So make up your mind that God is an infinite sovereign and that he has a right to deal with his own as he pleases. He may not explain to you a thousand things that puzzle your mind in his dealings with you, but if you give yourself completely over to him to be his servant, he will wrap you in a jealous love and bestow upon you many blessings which come only to those who are truly his intimates.
Settle it forever then. You are to deal directly with the Holy Spirit, and he is to have the privilege of tying your tongue or of chaining your hands or of closing your eyes in ways that he does not seem to do with others.
Now when you are so possessed with the living God that you are in your secret heart pleased and delighted over this peculiar, personal, private, jealous guardianship and management of the Holy Spirit over your life, then you will have received the strangest gift—the ministry of weakness.
[Used by permission of Good News Publishers; adapted from G. D. Watson's "Others May, You Cannot," a pamphlet printed in the 1800s]
For your reflection:
Personal growth: How has this sermon fed your own soul?
Skill growth: What did this sermon teach you about how to preach?
Exegesis and exposition: Highlight the paragraphs in this sermon that helped you better understand Scripture. How does the sermon model ways you could provide helpful biblical exposition for your hearers?
Theological Ideas: What biblical principles in this sermon would you like to develop in a sermon? How would you adapt these ideas to reflect your own understanding of Scripture, the Christian life, and the unique message that God is putting on your heart?
Outline: How would you improve on this outline by changing the wording, or by adding or subtracting points?
Application: What is the main application of this sermon? What is the main application of the message you sense God wants you to bring to your hearers?
Illustrations: Which illustrations in this sermon would relate well with your hearers? Which cannot be used with your hearers, but they suggest illustrations that could work with your hearers?
Credit: Do you plan to use the content of this sermon to a degree that obligates you to give credit? If so, when and how will you do it? (For help on what may require credit, see "Plagiarism, Schmagiarism")
Hershael York is pastor of Buck Run Baptist Church in Frankfort, Kentucky, as well as professor of Christian Preaching and dean of Southern Seminary's School of Theology in Louisville, Kentucky.