Sermon by Pastor Tom Brown · Sep 13, 2020 · My Bible Year Series

This morning we are going to talk about the dangers of pride and the blessings of weakness. We’re going to be in 2 Corinthians chapter 12.

Maybe you are experiencing weakness or limitations in this season in your life. Maybe you feel inadequate for the challenges you are facing.

You’re not alone.

Paul was a man who knew what is felt like to be weak and he wasn’t ashamed to admit. In fact he delighted in his weaknesses. Does that sound strange?

Let’s take a closer look.

This chapter takes us through two extremes in the spiritual life. It begins with an unusual 3rd person account of what is likely Paul’s own heavenly visitation.

Caught up into heaven, inexpressible things, paradise. It must have been a truly extraordinary experience of pure bliss.

From that height, Paul takes us down into the dirt. A thorn in his side, a messenger of Satan, torment. Sounds fun doesn’t it?

Inexpressible highs and tormenting lows. Paul knew it all.

Which would you rather have? I know what I would choose.

Yet Paul seemed to consider his earthly torment just as valuable, if not more so, than the heavenly heights.

Why is that?

The answer is in verse 7 – in order to keep me from becoming conceited. The phrase is repeated in the original Greek, sandwiching the sentence.

The heavenly experience of Paul came with a liability.

What happens when extraordinary things happen to us? We tend to take credit. We tend to believe that we are extraordinary.

Have you heard of cat and dog theology?

A dog looks at its master and says – you pet me, you feed me, you love me – you must be God.

A cat looks at is masters and says – you pet me, you feed me, you love me – I must be God.

Paul understood the temptation of the cat. The word conceited means having or showing an excessively high opinion of oneself. Another word is proud.

The Bible tells us that God hates pride. (Proverbs 6:16) It tells us that pride is a harbinger of destruction. (Proverbs 16:18) And we are all in danger of that destruction.

Proud people don’t ask for help.
Proud people don’t seek advice.
Proud people don’t admit failure.
Proud people don’t acknowledge weakness.

Proud people don’t seek God.

How about you this morning? Are the signs of pride in your heart?

The good news is that God has ways of removing that.

Paul, in mortal danger of pride, was given a thorn in his side to keep him humble.  The word can also be translated as stake. It’s a piercing pain, a constant irritation. It’s likely that Paul experienced some form of physical limitation or suffering. The weakness brought about by that thorn was a blessed gift from God.

Does that sound a little sadistic to you? Does Paul seem a little imbalanced?

Notice Paul’s response to his thorn. He pleaded with God, he begged God to take it away. Three times. We don’t know if that 3 times took place in a 5 minute conversation, or in a 5 year period. I suspect the latter.

Paul did not want to experience pain. You will not find a call to suffer for sufferings sake anywhere in the New Testament.  Paul did what any reasonably person would do and sought an end to his pain.

You see that in Paul’s advice to his friends. In 1 Timothy 5:23, he counsels Timothy to

Stop drinking only water, and use a little wine because of your stomach and your frequent illnesses.

Paul was no masochist. But he learned from God the desirable end result of his undesirable pain and he learned to accept it from God. In time, that end result was so beneficial to Paul that he learned to rejoice in and boast in his weakness. When he was weak, he became strong.

Isn’t that good?

Isn’t it true that weaknesses and limitations in life tend to produce strength?

A study by the City College of London found that one third of successful entrepreneurs suffered from dyslexia. That’s a huge number. It turns out that the extreme challenges of working through school with dyslexia teaches those it afflicts to become acquainted with failure and defeat. It teaches them not to fear failure. The weakness of dyslexia can create the strength of courageous risk taking.

There’s a lot we can learn from that. But it’s not what Paul is teaching us.

Paul is not teaching us that weakness can force us to discover new strength within ourselves.

He is teaching us that weakness can force us to reach the end of our own strength and discover a new source of strength that is infinitely greater than our own.

1 Corinthians 1:25

For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.

He is teaching us that weakness can strip us of our proud self-reliance and prepare us to receive the immeasurable power of God.

We are all prone to pride.

The Corinthians were especially prone to pride.

Paul’s spiritual ascents were inexpressible, personal, rare and a liability.

Almost everyone agrees that this is Paul speaking of himself, using a literary device in order to deflect the attention from himself.

Inexpressible (verse 4): it was glorious, if someone asked him to describe what he saw he would just sit there silently – incapable of finding the words, it was personal – it was just for him.

Rare (Verse 2): 14 years ago. This seems to be a one time event.

Liability (Verse 7):  In order to keep me from becoming conceited – 2x in the Greek.

Why would an experience like that be a liability? What happens when something amazing happens to us? We’re prone to take credit for the amazing aren’t we?

You’ve heard of cat and dog theology?

A dog looks at its master and says – you pet me, you feed me, you love me – you must be God.

A cat looks at is masters and says – you pet me, you feed me, you love me – I must be God.

Paul understood this danger.

Conceited:  having or showing an excessively high opinion of oneself.

Another word is proud.

We are all prone to pride.

The Corinthians were especially prone to pride.

Corinth was an important Greek town which had been destroyed but recolonized by Julius Caesar in 146 B.C.

As a Greek city, Corinth was famous for its love for the human body. The poet Aristophanes coined a verb -Corinthize – to describe excessive activity. The Corinthians had their own version of the Olympic games which gathered the fittest and most beautiful people in the world.

As a Roman city, Corinth was colonized by freedmen, as an important trading port it was a place of financial opportunity and upward mobility. It became wealthy almost immediately and drew immigrants from all over the world. It was a city without a historical aristocracy, and instead developed a financial one. The culture was materialistic, fiercely independent and obsessed with human strength, beauty and ability. It was a major stop for traveling orators, men whose physical stature, charisma and speaking ability drew huge crowds of fans and benefactors.

Paul had a unique problem on his hands when he brought the message of Jesus to the city. Paul’s method was to adapt the outward forms of the gospel to whatever culture he was in at the time. But he hit a wall in Corinth because the cultural forms of pride were in direct opposition to the message of the gospel?

So what did Paul do? He was probably tempted to borrow from the example of the Corinthian orators? He was probably tempted to visit a tailor for some new threads, get his hair done and maybe hire a make up artist. Instead he went the opposite direction. He wore his plainest clothes and used the plainest speech.

Principle: God allows weakening circumstances into our lives in order to save us from pride and prepare us to receive his power.

What are some examples?  Paul’s thorn in the flesh, physical affliction? Diabetes. Lyme disease. Food allergies. It may be a child with disabilities. A spirit prone to bouts of severe depression and anxiety. Poverty. Maybe a great example or two.

What if I’m not there?

You may hear Paul, you may understand the principle we are talking about. But you still don’t want your weakness.

Paul is a fellow traveler who has been there. He gets it. He doesn’t speak to us as a saint unaffected by frustration and impatience. He didn’t just naturally and cheerfully accept whatever came to him. He pleaded with the Lord 3 times.

Plead. Make an emotional appeal. Beg.

Side note:

There is another question that is addressed here. Is Christianity a form of masochism? Does the New Testament teach us to seek out suffering and poverty as a destination? You don’t find that here.

In Paul’s pleading we see him doing what any sane person would do in the face of suffering. He sought to relieve it. I don’t believe he would wish his suffering on anyone. I believe he took rational measures to relieve much of the pain he experience, like when he instructed Timothy to take wine to provide some relief from frequent stomach ailments.

After three seasons of pleading and receiving a clear no from God, Paul was able to look for God’s wisdom and goodness in the thorn which he had been unable to remove.

Jesus asked God 3 times to take the cup from him.

That’s okay. Paul went through 3 seasons of wrestling and rebelling against his thorn before he was able to accept God’s will in it.

Our Lord Jesus himself pleaded 3 times with the Father for a way out of his pain.

So you are saying my weaknesses will make me stronger?

Malcolm Gladwell in his book David and Goliath explains a principle he calls advantage through disadvantage. The premise is that people who experience disadvantages are often made stronger by the necessity of compensating for their disadvantages. For example, he discusses dyslexia. For a young person with dyslexia life can be exceedingly difficult. The reading required in school can be overwhelming and many struggle to graduate. Gladwell tells the story of Gary Cohn who made it out of high school by the skin of his teeth and became an aluminum siding salesman. After experiencing dissatisfaction with his job he took a day off and on a walk through his city noticed the luxury cars at a brokerage firm. He saw a man in an immaculate suit hailing a cab for the airport and hurried over to say, “I’m going to the airport too, can I share a ride?” On that drive Cohn was able to talk his way into an interview and get himself a job. “My upbringing allowed me to be comfortable with failure,” he said. “The one trait in a lot of dyslexic people I know is that by the time we got out of college, our ability to deal with failure was very highly developed.”

A recent study at the City University of London found that 1/3 of successful entrepreneurs were dyslexic. In their cases the weakness of dyslexia created the strength of courageous risk taking.

There’s a lot we can learn from and be inspired by in Gladwell’s point.

But it’s not Paul’s point, is it.

Paul is not saying that his weakness forced him to discover and develop new strengths within himself.

So God’s gracious and generous answer to Paul’s plea was no. And Paul thanked God for that no. Because when we find ourselves to be insufficient, we will turn to God in prayerful dependence and in the dependence find the all sufficient power of God.

Here’s how that looks in the original Greek:

A      sufficient

        B      for you

            C      my grace

            C′      my power

        B′      in weakness

    A′      perfected

Maybe you can grasp this concept with your intellect, but your heart rebels against it. Paul knew that rebellion.

And Paul was not the only one. There was another man in the New Testament who faced painful weakness and begged God to take it away.

Do you remember?

In that garden, on the eve of his sorrows, Jesus prayed that desperate human prayer: take this cup from me. Three times he prayed. He pleaded. He begged.

And when God answered no, Jesus surrendered himself to the coming stake in his side.

He suffered for our pride, for our rebellious hearts. He suffered so that we could exchange our prideful insistence on our own feeble merits for access to the limitless grace and power of God.

Tom Brown is the planting pastor of Vintage Faith Church in Wichita. Tom and his wife, Mandy, have worked together in ministry for 18 years and have four children. More about Pastor Tom Brown