There were those who questioned my spirituality when my first wife died. Word came to me that there were those who were saying that if indeed I was a leader called and empowered by God, I would have been able to have prayed for my wife’s healing successfully. (She died of cancer.)
There are those who believe that if you were right with God you would be free from the pains of this life, or, if afflicted, you would be able to get out of them quickly. I suspect that some of Paul’s opponents in Corinth thought the same.
They had called Paul’s apostolic pedigree into question. These rivals had embraced the values of the world. They valued strength and power and looked down on human weakness.
A famous non-Christian orator of the day said, “the greatest defect in a person is to show his or her humanness, for then a person ceases to be held divine” (David A. de Silva, An Introduction to the New Testament, p.586). With his catalogue of sufferings (2 Corinthians 11:23-29) Paul’s humanity was only too evident.
In response to these rivals writes 2 Corinthians. He makes a number of points we need to hear again.
First he reminds the Corinthians that we live in a fallen world and that brokenness of various kinds are part and parcel of life this side of heaven. It is only in the eschaton that we will trade in this body with all its vulnerability for the perfect, free-of-pain body. (2 Corinthians 5:1-10) The pain of our fallen humanity is a given in this life.
In the meantime God redeems the pains of a fallen world by using them to teach us the deepest lessons. In our pain and helplessness we receive the empowering comfort of God (2 Corinthians 1:3-4). It is that same comfort that enables us to minister to others. Here is irony indeed. The very wounds that Paul’s opponents used as evidence to question his leadership were the very things that qualified him to minister.
And the toughest circumstances teach the most important lesson — we mustn’t depend on ourselves. We must depend on God alone. And someone like Paul who had experienced God in such profound ways, who had been used by God so effectively, needed to learn and relearn this lesson. (2 Corinthians 1:9; 12: 1-10)
Christianity is no masochistic faith. We look forward to that day when this earthly life will be swallowed up in glory and pain will be no more. When stricken by a ‘thorn in the flesh” Paul asks for it to be removed. We do not pursue pain as an end in itself.
But pain is a given in this fallen world. And a God of the Cross uses pain to enable us to receive His grace and to teach us His ways. He uses the pains of this life to enable us to receive His empowerment.
Therefore Paul does not play the game that his rivals at Corinth are playing. He does not get drawn into a game of spiritual one-upmanship. Instead he continues to show his humanity. He tells them of desperate times when he had give up hope (2 Corinthians 1:8-9). He recounts a thorn in the flesh that brought him considerable pain, a thorn that God
chose not to remove (2 Corinthians 12:1-10).
Indeed he boasts of his sufferings because he knows that they humble him and put him in a position where he is able to receive divine power. Here indeed is a faithful follower of a Lord who brings life out of death and power out of weakness.
Recently I watched the movie ‘Gladiator (2000)’ again and I was reminded of how much I had wanted Maximus to have connected with his army so that he could beat the stuffing out of Commodus. Yet the director Ridley Scott, in an echo of the Cross, lets Maximus win by “losing”, effecting change through his death rather then through worldly strength and power. I was reminded that my heart remained far from the way of the Cross.
It seems that the more gifted we are, the more we tend to trust in our gifts rather than in the Giver. If a church is big, the more the temptation to say “see how big we are, how rich we are, how much political clout we have. Now we can do great things for God.”
The more gifted we are the more we tend to hide our weaknesses and push our strengths. (Check out the websites of our more “successful” churches and organizations.) Yet it is the against he backdrop of our weaknesses that God’s grace shines brightest.
If we have been blessed personally or corporately we should be grateful, and be good stewards of our gifts. And be doubly vigilant to ensure that our trust remain firmly rooted in the Giver and not in His gifts.
The world has tried shock and awe. It didn’t work during the time of the Romans. It doesn’t work today. The life that the world needs comes from the “foolishness” of a Saviour who died and rose again. It comes through those willing to walk the path of the Cross, those willing to allow their weaknesses to be conduits of God’s life.
We are not divine. We are only too human. But when we embrace our humanity we allow the Divine to shine through.
“My grace is enough for you for my power is made perfect in weakness.” (2 Corinthians 12:9 NET)