Most people believe that the bigger the muscle, the stronger it is. Therefore, when we think of strong people in the Bible, we might think of Samson. He was able to do some amazing things because of his strength. However, after our trip to Israel a few years ago, I had a new appreciation for how strong Jesus’ legs must have been as a boy. Nazareth is filled with hills. As a carpenter, he likely had strong arms, but I bet his legs were very strong.
But humans are not the only creatures with muscles. And the size of a muscle is not purely indicative of strength because we can measure strength in different ways. Last week, I said that strength could be measured by how much force is used as well as by how long something can be done (endurance). Additionally, strength can be measured by brute force or in a more relative sense. For instance, elephants are likely the strongest land animal when it comes to sheer strength. Their structure and thus their muscles are large and powerful. But some of the smallest muscles in the world are the strongest proportionally. For instance, ants can carry many times their body weight. But the dung beetle is estimated to be the strongest creature in relative strength. A dung beetle can pull an object well over 1000 times their body weight. For comparison purposes, an average person would have to pull six double-decker buses full of people to match that feat. (1)
So, having large muscles may mean being strong. And having purposeful muscles may allow for incredible proportional strength. But recognizing our limitations is one of the greatest strengths a person can have. We all have limitations, whether physical, mental, emotional, or spiritual. But recognizing these limitations allows us to minimize their impact on us. Why? Because it forces us to choose another path, and that often means involving others. This idea is true in much of life, but it is a part of God’s particular design for the body of Christ. Some things I do well, and therefore, I should focus on them. Other things, I do not do as well. That does not mean I ignore them, but it might mean empowering someone else who does do that particular thing well. But before we can be effective like that, we must first recognize our strengths, we must acknowledge our weaknesses, and then we must let God provide the solution. And we an allow God to turn our weaknesses into a strength for Him because of one thing – faith.
The last two weeks we have looked at the other parts of the divine trilogy. We began with love two weeks ago, and then hope last week. But today, we will see that it is faith that truly provides our strength, but only if the object of our faith is worthy. So, let us look at what Paul says about the source of his strength because of his faith.
Faith Leads to Humility (2 Corinthians 12.1-6)
It is odd to say humility is a key characteristic of this text when the fifth word of the chapter speaks of Paul’s boasting. If we look back to Chapter 11, the chapter is about boasts that are made by others, and by Paul. But notice the topics of Paul’s boasting. He boasts about such things as being imprisoned, beaten, stoned, hungry, tired, etc. But he does so in an effort not to show how great he is, but to show how great God is. In fact, He boasts about such things to show that he, Paul, is an apostle chosen by God to serve, not like the so-called super-apostles (11.5) who use their self-proclaimed “authority” to manipulate the Corinthians for their own personal gain. (This issue is the heart of the latter part of letter. See for instance, 12.11-18, but all of chapters 10-12 relate to the claims of “superior” leaders.)
How does faith lead to humility? Humility is knowing that we are not the center of the universe. All of us are guilty of this phenomenon, some more than others. For instance, every time we think of ourselves over God, we are lacking humility. Or consider the last time you looked down on someone else or talked badly about someone else. Pride is talking about others; humility it talking with those same others.
But we must be careful not to think humility is something other than what it is. C.S. Lewis said, “Humility is not thinking less of yourself, it is thinking of yourself less.” Thinking less of yourself is a slap in the face of the Creator who made you. But thinking too highly of yourself is to ignore God or that God made others in His image. In fact, Lewis’ statement is particularly challenging because to maximize who were are in Christ is to become all that God intends for us to be. To accomplish that goal means that we must focus on ourselves to an extent so that we can improve our skills and abilities. However, the other side of the coin is that we cannot be all that we are meant to be unless we are with others. We are not made to live in isolation. Thus, we must often put the needs of others over our own. In fact, Paul makes that very appeal in Philippians 2.4.
So, how does the idea of humility relate to faith? It relates very well, but the determinant is the object of our faith. If someone’s focus is on me, myself, and I, then his/her faith will be in what s/he can do. But I will also be forever limited by what I cannot do or what I cannot learn to do on my own. If my focus is on others only, then I will neglect my needs which will ultimately negate me being able to care for myself, which will, in turn, prevent me from focusing on others.
Notice how Paul addresses this in the first verses on Chapter 12. He speaks of himself in the third person, which is a strategic tactic, but he clearly acknowledges that what happened to him is beyond his own understanding. He says, “God knows” but “I do not know.” This is a statement of humility. Paul is saying that he was in heaven, with God, hearing things which were not to be told. Paul was made to realize that the experience was not about Him – it was about Christ. It was about Him learning to place his faith himself and beyond what he could understand. That requires a great deal of humility, particularly in light of what he is describing.
Therefore, faith leads to humility. We must be humble to be the person God wants us to be, not who we want to be, or who others want us to be. But that same humility should help us realize who God is, and that He is so far beyond our comprehension, which should create a desire within us to become more like Him.
Faith Leads to Weakness (2 Corinthians 12.7-9)
Paul continues his thoughts without breaking stride. While I have divided these first verses into humility and weakness, Paul tied the two together because true faith will bring about both in some way. The truth is that Paul is about to share a thought which we have now coined as “No pain, no gain.” The problem is that we do not like pain, and therefore we rarely experience the kind of gains God has for us.
In the western world, we have largely been taught to avoid it. Parents and grandparents now go out of their way to make life easy for their children. This is a big mistake. I am not saying we should not help them, but people often learn best from their mistakes, and children are not allowed to make mistakes any more. Parents naturally want to protect their children, but that protection must be in place when they are outside the home as well. It is the difference between raising children or preparing future adults. I remember one of the strangest reactions I received as a father was at a parent-teacher conference when Nicole was in the 6th or 7th grade. She was taking a class in technology and had just brought a paper home with an F. Now Nicole is bright and graduated from college with high honors, but that assignment was a bust. Why? She didn’t do it right, obviously, but, partly because she didn’t care. The teacher was a woman whom I want to say was about Susan’s size and I was 80+ pounds heavier than I am now, so it was likely that my presence intimidated her – particularly when I said I wanted to talk about her giving Nicole an F. What she soon realized though was that I was thanking her for it. Nicole needed to learn the lesson. And she did. I am not saying that Nicole was a perfect student after that (she wasn’t), or that she didn’t procrastinate later (she did), but she learned a lesson, and made the most of it. Some pain, some gain.
Paul experiences a great deal of pain to receive this great opportunity. I believe Paul likely died in Lystra after he was stoned and was left for dead (Acts 14.19). It was early in 2 Corinthians that Paul said that being in the body is to be apart from the Lord (chapter 5), and he knows from experience. So, Paul had pain, and thus he had gain. But because he had gain, he also had pain. He was afflicted with some ailment for which he prayed for relief. (You can check the Weekly Nugget for my theory on what his affliction was.)
But the affliction was not punishment, it was preventative. Notice that Paul says in verse 7, “to keep me from becoming conceited…” Let’s face it, Paul had seen something grand. He knows it.
And between the Bible and Jewish history, we can know that Paul was special and was especially trained. Thus, he probably fought pride. And that goes back to humility. But a part of learning humility was to live in weakness. This affliction forced him to live with a focus on something or someone other than himself. Certainly, Paul engaged others in helping him with the ministry, but we can make a strong case that Paul needed help. He needed help because he was weak. And one purpose of that weakness was so Paul would realize the Someone he truly needed was God. It was only through the grace of God that Paul could find strength. He desired to be free from the affliction. But after God said to stop, Paul knew that he would be closer to God with the affliction than he would be without it.
Where do you seek your strength? Let me state that another way. Where does your loyalty lie? Or, for our purposes: In what do you place your faith? For some, it is politics – perhaps, loyalty to a particular party or focusing on a particular issue. Others place their faith in a team. Still others a person or their family. All of these may bring a sense of strength for a while, but none will bring the kind of strength we need to overcome the weaknesses we have. And that is why we must focus on the only pure object of faith, and the source of all strength – which is God.
True Strength Is Found in Christ (2 Corinthians 12.10)
The essence of 2 Corinthians is that Paul knows who He is. Others are making false claims about themselves and about Paul which has confused the people of Corinth. So, Paul writes this stern letter to correct their thinking. But he does so not with his own authority, but with the authority of Christ – because that is where Paul gets his authority and his strength. Paul writes in humility as we have seen. Paul writes from weakness which we have seen. But Paul writes in the full authority, and thus strength, of Jesus, for as he wrote, “when I am weak, then I am strong.”
The strength Paul has is not his own, it is the power of Christ within him. Remember, it was Paul who wrote the phrase we saw last week, Christ in you, the hope of glory (Colossians 1.27). It is that hope which gave Paul the strength to endure – not only his weaknesses, but the insults, the hardships, the persecutions, and the calamities. These words were not foreign to Paul and are not foreign to many of us. If we truly have our faith in Christ, we can endure like Paul did. We can overcome like Paul has. We can be victorious like Paul is. Why? Because in our humility and our weakness, we find true strength – a strength that is only possible through Christ.
Most of mankind has a fixation with strength. In fact, we often equate strength with health. While some truth may exist between strength and truth, without using the strength we have, our muscles are worthless. Furthermore, we often overlook relative strength (like the ant) or wrongly consider the source of strength. For instance, remember, that it was not Samson’s muscles that made him strong, it was his hair.
So, let us not get so focused on what we think should be the source of strength; let us focus on the source of real strength. And that source is Jesus, which…
…is why our JOURNEY letter for today is again: J – JESUS.
Remember, our strength comes as a result of our faith. And our faith will lead us to be humble and realize our overall weakness before God. When God sees us as humble and weak, He is able to best mold us into the individuals that He desires for us to be.
PRINCIPLE: True strength is the result of faith in Jesus.
QUESTION: Do you focus on who you are or who He is?
OPPORTUNITY: God wants more for you than you realize, but the only way to achieve His purpose is to be humble and weak so you can receive His strength.
LEARN: Write down five times this week you put your desires ahead of God’s (putting faith in yourself above faith in God).
LIVE: For each of the five items, specifically write down how God’s desires are different from yours. For one item, consider how you might respond differently in the future.
LOVE: Express your love and thanksgiving to God for His love and forgiveness.
LEAD: Reflect on the single item in the LIVE step. Construct a plan to lead yourself away from that temptation in the future.
What was Paul’s thorn in the flesh? Although it cannot be proved, I believe Paul’s thorn was related to his eyesight. First, remember that Paul was blinded by a flash of light when he met Jesus on the road to Damascus (Acts 9.3,8), and later “something like scales fell from his eyes” (Acts 9.18). Then, he was stoned at Lystra and left for dead (Acts 14.19), which likely involved rocks hitting him in the head, which could damage his eyes. Finally, as Paul closed his letter to the Galatians, he mentioned the “large letters” written with his own hand (Galatians 6.11), which could be an indication of him writing largely so he could see (and Galatians is one of the few letters that does not include Timothy’s name at the beginning as one writing with Paul).