Strength In Weakness
I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in needs, in persecutions, in distresses, for Christ’s sake. For when I am weak, then I am strong.
2 Corinthians 12:10
Many years ago, a man was arrested in the Soviet Union. After a sham trial, he was sentenced to twenty years of hard labor in the Siberian gulag. Seven days a week and fourteen hours a day, he worked in fierce cold in winter and swarms of ravenous insects in summer. Some men died from exhaustion, and most of the survivors became bitter and hardened. This man, though, found Christ, and his days of labor took on new meaning. He learned to thank God for the meager food ration the prisoners were given, and he learned to experience joy in that desolate place. A few Christian friends there were the light of his life, and he was able to find peace. On the day he was released, the man walked out the gates, turned, and to the astonishment of the guards, kissed the walls of the prison camp. “Here,” he explained, “I found God and He found me, and I am so thankful.
Suffering is a given for us. We naturally try to construct our lives to avoid it if at all possible, but sooner or later, suffering weasels it’s way into our experience. At that moment, we either embrace it as a tutor to teach us the deepest, richest lessons of life, or we despise suffering and our hearts grow hard and cold.
Weakness isn’t fun and isn’t pretty, but admitting our weakness to God is the first step in trusting Him and experiencing His great strength. Paul was so convinced that suffering produces good that he took pleasure in it! But suffering itself didn’t produce perception, wisdom, and strength in Paul’s life- suffering for Christ’s sake, trusting Him to turn it into something good, produced the fruit.
God is not looking for brilliant men, is not depending upon eloquent men, is not shut up to the use of talented men in sending His Gospel out into the world. God is looking for broken men, for men who have judged themselves in the light of the Cross of Christ. When He wants anything done, He takes up men who have come to the end of themselves, and whose trust and confidence is not in themselves but in God.
The Old Testament story of Jacob teaches the powerful truth of brokenness. From birth Jacob tried to get ahead, to become successful. He plotted to steal his brother’s birthright and one day he caught his brother in a weak moment and convinced him to trade his birthright for a bowl of beans. Later he tricked his father into actually giving him the birthright blessing. Fearing for his life, he left home and traveled to his uncle Laban’s home. As he worked for his uncle, he schemed and plotted to cheat him out of the lambs. Along the way he fell in love with Rachel and Uncle Laban agreed to give her in marriage if Jacob would work for seven years. However, after the seven years, Jacob woke up the day after the wedding to discover he was married instead to Leah. Another seven years labor would be required to marry Rachel. Finally Laban and Jacob could no longer stand each other so Jacob packs up and heads back to Canaan. On the journey, he hears that his brother is coming to meet him. Fearing for his life, Jacob acts like the Jacob he was. He sent his family and household servants ahead to meet with Esau, giving him room to escape if Esau was still angry and vengeful. That night Jacob was left alone and in that lonely place, he met God. Still the same old Jacob, he wrestled with God, attempting to gain God’s blessings without change. God touched Jacob’s thigh and for the rest of his life Jacob walked with a limp. But of far more importance than having to lean of a staff, God also broke Jacob’s will and self-sufficiency. Jacob that night not only learned to lean on a cane, he also learned that he had to lean on God. The transformation that occurred in Jacob that night was dramatic. Gone was the old nature of a deceiver and in its place was a man who was called “a prince with God”-Israel. I imagine every time Jacob or Israel got up to walk across the room, he was reminded of his need for the strength of God. Indeed until God broke Jacob and changed his character, he was of no use to God. But after God transformed the cheat into a Prince, that former cheat became the father of the twelve tribes of Israel. God’s chosen people came from the lions of a crippled but transformed man.
Paul, who wrote our text, was another self- sufficient man who was defining his own life’s mission. A zealous defender of the Hebrew faith, he saw this new branch called Christianity as a heretical, threat to the true faith. He was offended that this group had the audacity to believe that a crucified criminal was the anticipated Messiah. So he set out to eradicate it. God, however, had other plans for Saul/Paul and the first intervention was to remove Paul’s independence by making him blind. In his helpless estate, oddly enough it was one of the Christians who came to his rescue and through prayer in Jesus name, Paul received his sight and because of an encounter with Christ, his darkened soul also saw the true Light. For the remainder of his life, Paul, through his sufferings learned to grow more and more dependent on Christ. The more dependent he became, the more appreciative he became of his sufferings. It takes great seeking to come to the place of recognizing that we’re it not for the things that cause suffering, we more than likely wouldn’t ever have come to Christ nor would we grow in our faith. Only a broken person who has found their identity, hope and life in Christ, can give thanksgiving for their suffering.
The only way suffering makes sense is when it has a purpose. A football player, for example is willing to suffer sore muscles from a workout for he knows that when he’s in the game the strengthened muscles will lead to a successful game. Often as Christian’s we get so caught up in the pain of suffering that we totally miss it’s goal. In Romans, we read that “all things work together for our good” and that includes suffering. Everything that happens in our lives holds the potential to produce something good. Even the painful, hurtful, and misunderstood things that happen in our lives are under the watchful eye of God who will never let anything work toward destruction but toward our good.
Besides learning to become thankful for the spiritual growth and transformation, we can also rest assured that it won’t last forever. Like every class, once it has taught its lesson and brought about its purpose, it ends and it ends either here or at the door of eternity. It certainly won’t follow us into eternity with God.
When we experience tribulation, we can either embrace it, let it shape and mold us into what God has planned for us as it did with Jacob and Paul, or we can let it rob us of our joy, our faith and our relationship with God and others.
It’s impossible to avoid suffering but we can choose our response to it.
Dr. John Thompson