Perplexed, yet not unto despair.
2 Corinthians 4:8
From the day I was converted, my sincere ambition was to be a true Christian. Of course I had my own conception of what a Christian should be, and I tried my utmost to be that kind of Christian. A true Christian, I reasoned, should smile from morning to night! If ever he shed a tear, he had ceased to be victorious. He must, too, be unfailingly courageous. The slightest sign of fear would mean he had failed seriously to trust His Lord. He had, in fact, fallen far short of my standard.
But the Christian life, I soon learned, is very different. It is a paradox of power in weakness, joy amid pain, faith triumphing in presence of doubt. When the Christian is strongest in the Lord he is often most conscious of inability; when he is most courageous he may be profoundly aware of fear within; and when he is most joyful a sense of distress readily breaks upon him again. It is only, ‘the exceeding greatness of power” that lifts him on high.
Frequently the writings of the Apostle Paul reflect the paradox of the Christian life. In Romans 6 he tells about the paradox of not doing what he should while doing what he should not. Prefacing those words, he writes:
What shall we say [to all this]? Should we continue in sin and practice sin as a habit so that [God’s gift of] grace may increase and overflow? Certainly not! How can we, the very ones who died to sin, continue to live in it any longer? (Romans 6: 1-2)
And then he shares the following dilemma:
For I do not understand my own actions [I am baffled and bewildered by them]. I do not practice what I want to do, but I am doing the very thing I hate [and yielding to my human nature, my worldliness—my sinful capacity]. For I joyfully delight in the law of God in my inner self [with my new nature], but I see a different law and rule of action in the members of my body [in its appetites and desires], waging war against the law of my mind and subduing me and making me a prisoner of the law of sin which is within my members. (Romans 7:15, 22-23)
Here’s the paradox: In one breath Paul tells us that we are not to continue in sin by pressing God’s grace to the max. In the next breath he says that as hard as he tries, he finds himself failing. His dilemma leads him to the place of great distress and here he cries out, “Oh wretched man that I am! Who shall save me from this body of death?” (Romans 6: 24) He then responds with the solution to his paradox:
Thanks be to God [for my deliverance] through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, on the one hand I myself with my mind serve the law of God, but on the other, with my flesh [my human nature, my worldliness, my sinful capacity—I serve] the law of sin. (Romans 7:25)
In his letter to the Corinthians, he tells of having received great revelations and accompanying them was the “thorn in the flesh.” Here is someone who has been caught up to heaven in the very presence of God and yet back on earth is plagued with trouble. He writes that he asked three times for the thorn to be removed and the reply God sent back was, “My grace is sufficient.”
“And I know that such a man—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, [only] God knows— was caught up into Paradise and heard inexpressible words which man is not permitted to speak [words too sacred to tell]. On behalf of such a man [and his experiences] I will boast; but in my own behalf I will not boast, except in regard to my weaknesses. If I wish to boast, I will not be foolish, because I will be speaking the truth. But I abstain [from it], so that no one will credit me with more than [is justified by what] he sees in me or hears from me. Because of the surpassing greatness and extraordinary nature of the revelations [which I received from God], for this reason, to keep me from thinking of myself as important, a thorn in the flesh was given to me, a messenger of Satan, to torment and harass me—to keep me from exalting myself! Concerning this I pleaded with the Lord three times that it might leave me; but He has said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you [My lovingkindness and My mercy are more than enough—always available—regardless of the situation]; for [My] power is being perfected [and is completed and shows itself most effectively] in [your] weakness.” Therefore, I will all the more gladly boast in my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ [may completely enfold me and] may dwell in me. So I am well pleased with weaknesses, with insults, with distresses, with persecutions, and with difficulties, for the sake of Christ; for when I am weak [in human strength], then I am strong [truly able, truly powerful, truly drawing from God’s strength].”
2 Corinthians 12:3-10
What Paul is teaching us is that life on earth as a Christian is one of paradox. God has said to him that through Paul’s (and ours) weaknesses, His strength shows itself most effectively. So Paul says, “Since that’s the case, I will boast in my weaknesses so that the power of Christ may dwell in me.” He concludes by saying, “When I am weak in human strength, then I am strong because I am drawing from God’s strength.”
In the fourth chapter of 2 Corinthians, Paul presents us with the paradoxes of Christianity:
“But we have this precious treasure [the good news about salvation] in [unworthy] earthen vessels [of human frailty], so that the grandeur and surpassing greatness of the power will be [shown to be] from God [His sufficiency] and not from ourselves. We are pressured in every way [hedged in], but not crushed; perplexed [unsure of finding a way out], but not driven to despair; hunted down and persecuted, but not deserted [to stand alone]; struck down, but never destroyed; always carrying around in the body the dying of Jesus, so that the [resurrection] life of Jesus also may be shown in our body. For we who live are constantly [experiencing the threat of] being handed over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the [resurrection] life of Jesus also may be evidenced in our mortal body [which is subject to death]. So physical death is [actively] at work in us, but [spiritual] life [is actively at work] in you.”
2 Corinthians 4:7-12
Today if what you believe and what you’re experiencing seem to be on opposite sides of the room, take heart. Faith isn’t the ability to always have joy or peace or to successfully repel every temptation. Faith is choosing to trust that Christ is all-sufficient and even when our thoughts and feelings press us to give up, we press on, holding our confidence in the power of Christ, whose we are.
Dr. John Thompson