Strength in weakness. 2 Corinthians 12:7-10

2 Corinthians 12:7-10 is a passage where Paul has some profound things to say about the theme of strength in weakness. And I want us to begin by reading this passage.

. . . to keep me from being too elated by the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from being too elated. Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. 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. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.

Perhaps it’s my age, but I’m becoming more aware of my weaknesses. But also, I think, a part of this is just becoming more mature. (At least I hope I’m getting more mature.) When you’re young you think you can be anything and do anything. When you grow older and wiser, you can better evaluate yourself. You become more aware of your limitations.

There are many preachers today who present a gospel of strength. God doesn’t want you to be weak. In fact, God will take away all your weaknesses, that is, if you have enough of or the right kind of “faith.”

But this doesn’t match the Scriptures, which teach us that God does allow us to be weak and God wants us to have his strength in the midst of our weaknesses.

First, let’s look at how –

God does often allow us to be weak

Weakness is a part of this fallen, broken world that we live in. And God hasn’t rescued us from it yet. That won’t happen until the resurrection when all things are made new. We long for this, but until then, we will continue to struggle with our weaknesses.

Here are three examples: 

God allowed Paul to be weak

  • Paul suffered much lowliness, going without, physical suffering, but also being shamed and publicly humiliated. In 1 Corinthians 4:10-13 he says, “We are weak . . . we [are held in] disrepute. To the present hour we hunger and thirst, we are poorly dressed and buffeted and homeless, and we labor, working with our own hands. When reviled, we bless; when persecuted, we endure; when slandered, we entreat. We have become, and are still, like the scum of the earth, the refuse of all things.”
  • Paul’s “thorn” was not taken away. This comes from our passage in 2 Corinthians 12:7-8 – “So to keep me from being too elated by the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from being too elated. Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me.”  There’s lots of speculation about what this thorn is. It was probably a permanent physical disfigurement from persecution. Perhaps damage to his eyes (Galatians 4:15; 6:11)? But in any case, a physical disability. God’s answer to Paul’s request was “No.” In this instance God wanted Paul to be weak.
  • His personal presence wasn’t impressive. We like to glorify Paul, but he didn’t make that big of an impression on many in his day. His opponents said in 2 Corinthians 10:10 – “his personal presence is unimpressive.” Paul agrees in 1 Corinthians 2:3 – “I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling.”
  • His public speaking wasn’t very good. His opponents said in 2 Corinthians 10:10 – “his speech is contemptible.” He could write well, but apparently not speak well, at least not by Greek standards. Paul agrees in 1 Corinthians 2:4, when he says that when he visited them, “my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom . . ..”

A second example, God allowed Timothy to be weak

  • He was apparently introverted. But God called him to a ministry that involved public speaking, and working with people. So Paul encourages him in 2 Timothy 1:6-7 not to give in to a spirit of fear, but to remember that God has given him a spirit of power, and love and self-control.
  • He had bodily weaknesses in terms of his health. In 1 Timothy 5:23 Paul speaks of stomach problems and also “frequent illnesses.”

Finally, lest any should doubt God allowed Jesus to be weak

  • Jesus became human and took on the weakness of the flesh; the weakness of human existence. And we see Jesus struggling with this weakness in Gethsemane facing his death in Mark 14:38. As he said, “the Spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.”
  • Jesus became a servant to others. Philippians 2:7 says that he “made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant.” This is a position of lowliness and weakness.
  • He was persecuted and shamefully killed. As 2 Corinthians 13:4 says, “Jesus was crucified in weakness.” Was there another way for Jesus? No. Weakness was God’s path for Jesus.

What we learn from these examples is that God allows us to be weak: to be persecuted, to have illnesses and bad health, to have physical disabilities, to have personality weaknesses, to be in lowly circumstances in life, to be poor, to be in difficult situations that we are not gifted to handle. God doesn’t rescue us from all weaknesses, but –

God wants us to rely on his strength in our weakness

Rather than always delivering us he calls us to depend on him. Let’s look at how this works:

1. Accept God’s grace to help you. “But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you . . ..” – 2 Corinthians 12:9.

It’s hard to rely on someone else when we’re weak, but this is what God calls us to do. We want to be independent; self-sufficient. Sometimes we have pride thinking that we can do all that we need, that we don’t need anyone else. But in times of weakness we have to accept help and especially from God.

Our text shows us that God promises help to those who are weak when it says, “my grace is . . . for you.” And so we need to accept this help that God gives.

2. Know that God’s grace is sufficient for your need. “My grace is sufficient for you” – 2 Corinthians 12:9.

Here we emphasize the word sufficient. This is the promise of God to us  – God can take care of us no matter our weakness. Nothing is too difficult for God. If God’s grace was sufficient for Paul, God’s grace will be sufficient for you as well.

3. Know that when you are weak, you can be strong in the Lord. “My grace is sufficient for you for my power is made perfect in weakness” – 2 Corinthians 12:9.

Here we focus especially on the last phrase. When we’re weak and we’re relying on God’s strength, then we are truly strong, for it’s God’s strength working through us, not the strength of our own flesh.

As Paul says in v. 10, “For when I am weak, then I am strong.” When we accept our weakness, in that we know that God has chosen not to take it away, or at least not yet – then we can rely fully on the Lord; then we can be truly strong in the Lord.

4. Bring glory to God through your weakness. “My grace is sufficient for you” – 2 Corinthians 12:9.

If we ask, “sufficient for what?” The answer is, to bring glory to God. When we are weak and yet we remain faithful to him; when we are weak and yet God does great things through us – this brings much glory to his name, which is what we were created to do.

As Paul says in 2 Corinthians 4:7, “But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us.” We are indeed clay vessels, easily shattered and full of weaknesses. But within us is the Spirit, who works through us and does great things that are beyond our strength and so others know it’s not us – and give glory to God.

So this morning I am encouraging you to be strong in the Lord. In the words of Ephesians 6:10, “Be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might.” In your times of weakness, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might. Whatever your circumstances might be, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might.

Are you weary? Isaiah 40:28-31

We are looking at Isaiah 40:28-31 this morning, verses which are both powerful and encouraging.

Have you not known? Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He does not faint or grow weary; his understanding is unsearchable. He gives power to the faint, and to him who has no might he increases strength. Even youths shall faint and be weary, and young men shall fall exhausted. But they who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles; they shall run and not be weary; they shall walk and not faint.

We see in these verses that . . .

God’s people were weary

They were discouraged and overwhelmed because they had been defeated by another nation and taken from their homes and now were living as strangers and exiles in a foreign land – Babylon. Yet they also knew, they had heard, that God still had a purpose for them as a people. And that God had promised to bring them back to their home – Jerusalem.

But in their weariness and despair they wondered: Can God’s promise really be true? Is God really able to come through on it? They were enslaved by the most powerful empire of their day and they were at the mercy of its king. How in the world would they ever be able to leave and return home

Considering all this they were tempted give up, “to faint” as our text says. In the ordeal they were facing, as v. 30 says, “even youths shall faint and be weary and young men shall fall exhausted.” Even the strongest among them were overwhelmed.

And so the prophet speaks God’s word to them.

First of all, he tells them that God is able to come through for them. God is the everlasting God. God is the God who created all things. God is the God who doesn’t grow weary or faint. You know, God isn’t now all of a sudden tired and weak and thus unable to help Israel.

Yes, their situation seems impossible, but God is able to bring them back to the land at the appointed time. God is able to keep his promise to them.

Secondly, the prophet tells them that the Lord can strengthen themInstead of giving up in their difficult situation, to “faint” or to “fall exhausted,” they should “wait for the Lord” – v. 31. To “wait for the Lord” means to have an expectant and confident trust in God and his promises, knowing that God has heard us and knows our situation and will come through.

The prophet is saying, if they look to the Lord in their difficult situation, that is, if they wait on the Lord, God will strengthen them – v. 29. Even though it’s so bad that it overwhelms the strongest among them in their own strength, God gives of his strength to those who look to him. And because of this, their strength will be renewed – v. 31. And they will be able to walk, and to run, and to fly. That is, to keep going even in the midst of their troubles in exile, knowing that God can handle their problems and will deliver them.

And you know what? God did come through for them! God raised up another nation which took over and released the Israelites to go to their home. The promise was fulfilled, they were returned to their land, and God worked out his purpose for them.

Well, I share this with you today because . . .

We too can become weary

We all go through difficulties, whether health crises, financial crises, broken relationships with family or friends, personal failures and weaknesses or in general – experiences of deep pain and suffering.

And we will continue to do so throughout our lives. Our faith is not “escapist.” A false promise that things will be just fine, if you have enough faith. No. This life is full of trials and God doesn’t just step in and take them all away.

And as we go through these hardships we can become overwhelmed, discouraged and faint. And even though we know that God has a purpose for each one of us, and that God has given us “his precious and very great promises” as 2 Peter 1:4 says; promises to help us, to save us and to bring us into his eternal kingdom – we too still doubt at times. We become fearful and exhausted.

And in our despair we ask: Can God’s promises really be true? Is God really able to come through on them? And will God come through for me? We are tempted to give up, “to faint,” to give in to our weariness.

And so we too need to hear the message of the prophet, because there is a word in this for us, each one of us. We need to hear and know that God is able to come through for us. For you and for me!

We may be overwhelmed by our circumstances, but God is not. v. 28 says, “Have you not known? Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He does not faint or grow weary; his understanding is unsearchable.” God is able to help us. God is able to keep his promises to us, just as he did with the Israelites.

And we also need to hear and know that the Lord can strengthen us. We too are to “wait for the Lord” – v. 31, knowing that he hears us and knows our situation. And we are to put our hope and trust in God and rely on him. And when we do this God gives us of his strength. As 29 says, “He gives power to the faint, and to him who has no might he increases strength.”

We tap into the strength of the Everlasting God himself; we lean on him, the One who never grows weary or faints. In this way, despite our troubles, our strength is renewed. As 31 says, “the Lord shall renew their strength.” And through this strength we are empowered to move forward in our times of difficulty, because we hope in the Lord; because we know that he will fulfill his promises to us.

We can move forward, as v. 31 says, “They shall mount up with wings like eagles; they shall run and not be weary; they shall walk and not faint.” In the midst of our problems we will walk and not faint, we will run and not be weary, we will mount up with wings like eagles.

Are you weary this morning? Do you feel overwhelmed? God invites you to come to him and find hope and strength.

How long, O Lord. Psalm 13

The literary structure of  Psalm 13

Psalm 13 is really powerful; full of intense and honest struggle, but also faith. And I want to hold it up for you as a model for when you are being overwhelmed by difficult circumstances.

As we get started, a few words about –

Psalm 13

It is the shortest prayer for help in the book of Psalms. There are shorter Psalms, but these are not requests to God.

In terms of how it is put together, there are three obvious parts to this psalm.

  • In vs.  1-2 the Psalmist pours out his heart to God.
  • In vs. 3-4 he makes his request
  • And in vs. 5-6 he expresses his faith and hope in God

And each of these sections has the name of God or “Yahweh” in it, indicated in English by the capitalized “LORD.”

We don’t know the specifics of his situation, but it involves enemies and the threat of death. This is a Davidic Psalm (written by him or in honor of/about him) perhaps referring to his time in the wilderness hiding from King Saul, who was trying to kill him. Whatever the case may be he is facing a very serious situation and needs God’s help.

Let’s look at the first section, which is a cry of despair.

1How long, O LORD? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? 2How long must I take counsel in my soul and have sorrow in my heart all the day? How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?”

There is no indication in these verses that the Psalmist has sinned or has been unfaithful so that his difficulties are the result of this. He is simply in an overwhelming time of testing and trial.

Notice the phrase “How long?” This is used several times in scriptural prayers, but this is the only place where it is repeated four times, and in such a short space. There is an intensity in this prayer in asking this question of God. These questions also show us that it’s OK to ask God questions like this. God can take it. We don’t have to put on a smile, or fake it when we come into God’s presence. After all, he already knows what we are thinking and feeling. We only need be careful that we do this with proper respect for God.

You can feel the raw emotions and the brutal honesty of this prayer as you read these two verses.

  • In relation to God the Psalmist feels abandoned and ignored by God. God has hidden his face, that is it feels like God has turned away and is not looking out for him; he feels that God has forgotten him.
  • In relation to himself he feels greatly distressed within. “Taking counsel in his soul” perhaps has to do with trying to sort out what he should do, since God doesn’t seem to be acting for him; it has to do with anxious worrying. And he has sorrow in his heart.
  • In relation to his problem , his enemy, he feels defeated. His enemy has the upper hand and this means that his life is in danger.

Also notice the time indicators, the “how long?” questions, the word “forever” and the phrase “all the day.” The sense is that he is barely hanging on. He is worn down. He is at the breaking point. The test is so hard that he can’t take it anymore. So if God doesn’t act soon, it will overwhelm him and be too late.

Next we have his request to God.

3Consider and answer me, O LORD my God; light up my eyes, lest I sleep the sleep of death, 4lest my enemy say, ‘I have prevailed over him,’ lest my foes rejoice because I am shaken.”

In general, he wants God to consider him or take note of his situation to answer him. He’s saying, ‘God, don’t forget me or hide your face from me.’ He wants God to act to bring him help him in the midst of his difficulty.

Specifically, he wants God to “light up his eyes.” In Scripture to have dim eyes means that you are overwhelmed, weak and weary (Job 17:7; Deuteronomy 34:7). And to have eyes that are lit up has to do with being strong, full of life and vigor (Deuteronomy 34:7; Ezra 9:8; Proverbs 29:13). Even today we can tell how someone is doing by their eyes, right? We can tell whether they are full of energy and life or whether they are worn down and discouraged. You can see it.

So, being worn down by his trials, he is asking God to give him strength, new life, vigor, encouragement and hope.

And he doesn’t just make his request for help, he gives God three reasons to act:

  1. lest he die, because he is in danger of death.
  2. lest his enemy win
  3. lest they rejoice at his downfall

In this situation the Psalmist understands himself to be in the right; he is doing God’s will but is being persecuted by evildoers. And so, yes, he wants to be saved and vindicated, and have his enemies put down. But it is bigger than this. He is appealing to God in all this to act for your Name’s sake. Since he is representing God and the righteous, it’s not good that evildoers think that God doesn’t care about their evil, or about the well-being of his own. He needs to act for his Name’s sake and for the sake of righteousness.

In section one the writer is hanging by a thread. In section two he is asking God to give him strength. And then we have a tremendous change of tone in vs. 5-6 where the Psalmist speaks of his faith and hope.

5But I trust in your steadfast love; my heart shall rejoice in your salvation. 6I will sing to the LORD, because he has dealt bountifully with me.”

Two things are going on here:

1) He is given strength to trust in God. God has indeed begun to enlighten his eyes, even as he has been pouring out his heart and asking God for help. (It is healing to pour out our hearts to God.)

 Now, instead of seeing just his outward circumstances and choosing to give up, he sees God’s faithfulness; that is his “steadfast love” or “unfailing love.” This is God’s covenant love or commitment to him and his well-being. So he has his circumstances on the one hand and then God’s character and promises on the other and he chooses God. This  is called faith.

2) He now looks forward to God’s salvation; for deliverance from his trial and testing. We know he is not yet delivered because his salvation and rejoicing is spoken of as a future reality. But he can now move forward in faith and hope that God will save him, since his faith has been renewed.

  • Even though he may still have some “sorrow in (his) my heart,” – v. 2, now that his faith has been renewed he can look forward to when “(his) my heart shall rejoice” – v. 5.
  • Even though his enemies are exalted “over (him) me” – v. 2, now that his faith has been renewed he can look forward to when God will have dealt bountifully “with (him) me” – v. 6.
  • Even though his enemies are “exalted” – v. 2 over him and seek to “rejoice” – v. 4 at his demise, now that his faith has been renewed he can look forward to when he “shall rejoice – v. 6 in God’s salvation.

And this will not just be a minor thing. God will “bountifully” deliver and save him.

Finally, I want you to look at –

Psalm 13 as a model prayer

It is a model for when you find yourself in times of testing and are ready to give up. Follow the threefold pattern we find here:

1. Pour out your heart to God. Be honest with God. Express your emotions to God – about how distant he seems; about how you are in inner turmoil; about how your problem has the upper hand. And ask God questions, What’s going on? Why, God? Or as here, how long?God, I’m barely hanging on.

2. Ask God for strength. God, enlighten my eyes. Give me renewed life, vigor, vitality and encouragement. And tell him why; so you don’t give in and fail in time of trial and thus dishonor his Name; so that others will see and know that God is faithful to his own and upholds righteousness.

And then, 3. Receive renewed trust in God to make it through. Let God work a work in you as you pour out your heart and as you make your request known and as you think of his unfailing love for you and commitment to you.

Receive the strength to choose to trust in God and stand on his character and promises despite your difficult circumstances. And having been renewed, look forward to God’s salvation; deliverance from your trial when you will rejoice and sing praises to God.