These are my notes from a sermon series I did. It has not been proofed for spelling or grammatical errors. I present it to you as-is.
Today we conclude our series on Biblical paradoxes. Today we are going to look at the paradox where Paul says, “For when I am weak, then I am strong.” What’s a paradox? A paradox is a statement that is seemingly contradictory or opposed to common sense yet is true. God uses paradoxes to get us to pause and think, to think longer and deeper about a truth. So let’s do that one more time with the paradox found in 2 Corinthians 12:5 which says, That experience is worth boasting about… Let’s stop right there for just a moment. “That experience” that Paul says is “worth boasting about” refers to a supernatural event in Paul’s life where God miraculously allowed Paul to see and experience heaven and received incredible insight into the things of God (vs. 1-4). Paul knew he did nothing to make it happen; it was something God soverengnly chose to grant, not a reflection on any merit on Paul’s part. He was just an ordinary man and would not boast about it as if he earned the right to that experience.
That experience is worth boasting about but I’m not going to do it. I will boast only about my weaknesses. 6 If I wanted to boast, I would be no fool in doing so, because I would be telling the truth. But I won’t do it, because I don’t want anyone to give me credit beyond what they can see in my life or hear in my message, 7 even though I have received such wonderful revelations from God. So to keep me from becoming proud, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger from Satan to torment me and keep me from becoming proud. 8 Three different times I begged the Lord to take it away. 9 Each time he said, “My grace is all you need. My power works best in weakness.” So now I am glad to boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ can work through me. 10 That’s why I take pleasure in my weaknesses, and in the insults, hardships, persecutions, and troubles that I suffer for Christ. For when I am weak, then I am strong (NLT).
He summarized what he learned from his experiences into this paradoxical statement, “For when I am weak, then I am strong.” To understand what that means you need to understand how God uses suffering in your life. So let me give you some observations about suffering from what Paul just said.
God uses suffering to reveal your spiritual condition (vs. 5-6)
Number one, God uses suffering to reveal your spiritual condition. Look closely at verses 5-6, “That experience is worth boasting about, but I’m not going to do it. I will boast only about my weaknesses. 6 If I wanted to boast, I would be no fool in doing so, because I would be telling the truth. But I won’t do it, because I don’t want anyone to give me credit beyond what they can see in my life or hear in my message…” (NLT).
Let’s talk about the word “weakness” (astheneia). Some things you need to know about your “weaknesses”.
- First, the word “weakness” refers to the lack of strength. On your outline there is a chart that will help you understand this. This lack of strength includes four areas of your life.
- Physically you are weak. This means your body gets tired, hungry, needs sleep, and gets thirsty. Physically weak means your body gets old, gets sick, breaks, and malfunctions. One of your weaknesses is your physical weakness. This is why we need doctors, medicine, and God’s healing power.
- Mentally you are weak. This is the lack of mental strength to understand God’s ways, to understand complex relationships, and to understand your own weakness. Mentally we forget things we should remember and remember things we should forget. We think the wrong thoughts and let our mind wander too much. This is why the Bible talks about renewing the mind. This is why we need wisdom, knowledge of God’s truth, and to gain understanding of God and others. This is why we need to renew our minds.
- Emotionally you are weak. This is the lack of strength to handle pressure and so you become stressed easily or to handle criticism and so you are easily offended. You worry too much and are filled with anxieties that may cripple your life. You become angry too often. This is why we need God’s truth, counselors to help us deal with these emotions, and the Holy Spirit to produce things like love, joy, peace, patience and self-control.
- Spiritually you are weak. You love Jesus, but you don’t talk to him enough. You love His Word, but you don’t study or no it well enough. You love going to church and know you need to be with other believers, but the pressures of this life keep you from fellowshipping with others for your own spiritual growth and personal ministry. We are in the midst of a spiritual war and most of the time we don’t even recognize it. This is why we need to pray for each other, this is why we need to receive good Bible teaching, and discuss God’s Word with others and why we need others to encourage us, build us up and lift us up before God. This is why we give in to sin too often. We are spiritually weak.
We all are weak in some way regarding all four of these areas. These weaknesses effect how we see ourselves, how we view God, how we treat others, and what we believe and what we do.
“Weakness” refers to the lack of strength
Body gets tired / needs rest, sleep, food, water, exercise / body breaks, bleeds, gets infections, and gets sick / this is why we need doctors, medicine, and God’s healing power
Don’t understand God’s ways / don’t understand relationships / misunderstand others or God / We forget, misinterpret, misread, misjudge, miss the point / this is why we need God’s truth, good Bible teaching, and others to help us understand
Easily stressed / easily offended / worry / anxieties / fears / anger / depression / loneliness / this is why we need God’s truth, counselors to help us manage these emotions, and the Holy Spirit to produce love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, and self-control.
You pray, but not enough / don’t know how to pray / don’t know how to read God’s Word or don’t read it enough / love Jesus but don’t fellowship with his people often enough / aren’t aware of how you are doing spiritually / not prepare for the spiritual battles ahead / this is why we need God’s truth, other believers in our life to encourage us, teach us, build us up and correct us when necessary.
“Weakness” is NOT a sin
- Now listen carefully, these “weaknesses” are not sins. Physically, it’s not a sin to be hungry, tired, need rest, or to get sick. Mentally, it’s not a sin to misunderstand, misinterpret, or to misread something. Emotionally, it’s not a sin to struggle with anger, loneliness, or anxieties. Spiritually, it’s not a sin to not know how to pray or to know how to read and receive from God’s Word or to know how to worship God. A weakness is a lack of strength, not a sin.
- Now watch this, your “weaknesses” are what make trials and temptations so difficult. When a trial or temptation bumps up against your weaknesses you find yourself struggling more, wrestling more, and it’s more difficult than normal to get through it. You find yourself sinking in this struggle, but that is when God can step in and pull you out, that’s when God opens the door, that’s when God delivers the wisdom, that’s when God provides the self-control, that’s when God gives you the patience, and that’s when God is able to keep you humble. For when you are weak, that’s when you are truly strong.
It’s during that temptation and that trial that you will discover where you are weak and you will find out your spiritual condition. Paul is saying, “God has done some great things in my life. He has allowed me to see things that no one else has seen. He has blessed me with insight into His will and ways that are beyond description, but I’m not going to boast about that. What I’m going to boast about is that in my times of weakness, when I couldn’t do it on my own and I couldn’t climb up out of my pit and when I didn’t know what to do or where to go, and thought about given up God showed up. It was in my weakness that I found God’s strength to get up and move on. When I’m weak that’s when I’m strong.”
Your trouble, your pain, and your problem is the best test of your spiritual character. When adversity strikes, the superficial veneer of peace and happiness is stripped away, revealing what is really in the heart. God used some intense suffering in Paul’s life to reveal his integrity for all to see and to establish his credibility and the reliability of his message about Jesus.
A simple example of this was when Paul would teach or preach about God’s will and God’s ways. But Paul had a reputation. According to 2 Corinthians 10 people would say things like this about his teaching, “He sounds big, but it’s all noise. When he gets here you will see that there is nothing great about him, and you have never heard a worse preacher!” (2 Cor. 10:10, TLB). Even though Paul was weak in verbally communicating God’s truth, God’s power revealed itself through Paul as people were being saved, growing spiritually, and churches were started. What his critics failed to understand was that, paradoxically, Paul was strongest when he was weakest. It’s in that weakness that God has an opportunity to demonstrate His strength. Where Paul was weak, God’s strength showed up.
God uses suffering to help you stay humble (v.7)
Number two, God uses suffering to help you stay humble. Look at what Paul goes on to say in verse 7, “…even though I have received such wonderful revelations from God. So to keep me from becoming proud, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger from Satan to torment me and keep me from becoming proud” (NLT). One of Paul’s struggles was with pride. Jesus had chosen to reveal Himself to Paul in a miraculous way. God had chosen Paul to be used to write most of the New Testament. God had given Paul some “wonderful revelations.” Because of these incredible and awesome revelations and insights from God, Paul had a tendency to become prideful and think that he was better than other people. How do we know that? Because he goes on to say that a thorn in the flesh was given to him to “keep [him] from becoming proud.” Paul needed something in his life to keep him humble. So God allowed a thorn in his life. Let’s talk about this thorn for a moment.
- The “thorn” is a personal matter
First, the “thorn” is a personal matter. To keep Paul from becoming prideful and thinking he is better than others, Paul says that God gave him a “thorn in my flesh.” No one knows for sure what this thorn in the flesh was. Some Bible scholars say it’s a troublesome individual in his life or persecution or an embarrassing physical appearance or physical illness of some type like malaria, epilepsy, eye disease, or near blindness. Whatever it was, we don’t know. We do know that it was personal to him and your “thorn” will be personal to you. It will be something that will keep you humble as God blesses you.
- The “thorn” is a significant matter
Number two, the “thorn” is a significant matter. Whatever it was, it must have been something significant because the word “thorn” does not mean splinter, it means “stake.” It was a large thorn that Paul described like someone driving a stake into his life. This is a big issue for Paul. Whatever your thorn is, it will not be a minor thing to you.
- The “thorn” is a stressful matter
Number three, the “thorn” is a stressful matter. Not only was it a big issue, but it was a painful issue. Paul describes it as a “torment.” The word “torment” refers to bone-crushing blows of the fist. So Paul considered his thorn in the flesh as a serious matter. This thorn created anguish, suffering, agony, and stress in his life. God is going to let this thorn remain there in order to keep Paul humble. It is more important to God and to you that you be humble rather than comfortable.
- The “thorn” is a spiritual matter
Number four, the “thorn” is a spiritual matter. This “thorn” was like a large stake driven into his life that was tormenting him consistently. And on top of that God was allowing “a messenger of Satan” to inflict this torment on him. Behind this “thorn” is a “messenger of Satan” to make sure that stake keeps driving itself into Paul’s life. This thorn is spiritual warfare for Paul. God was using this spiritual attack to keep Paul exactly where he needed to be.
This “thorn” is not a sinful habit in Paul’s life. This is not talking about a sin in your life that you can’t get rid of, it’s talking about an affliction in your life caused by a messenger of Satan. It’s something in your life that you have no real control over like an irritating person, persecution, physical ailment, or something else. It’s a thorn in your life.
- The “thorn” is a strengthening matter
Number five, the “thorn” is a strengthening matter. Even when a “messenger of Satan” is afflicting and tormenting you, God can use that affliction and torment to make you stronger and more useful in kingdom work. It’s like the wind that torments the tree by blowing it around, but in reality as that tree grows the blowing of the wind has made it stronger. Whether, Satan likes it or not, God uses him and his forces the same way to strengthen believers like you and me.
- The “thorn” is a humbling matter
Number six, the “thorn” is a humbling matter. The whole purpose of this “thorn” was to keep Paul humble. The whole purpose of the “thorn” in your life is to keep you humble. To keep you from “becoming proud.” In the midst of this thorn in your life, you will discover where you are weak and that’s going to keep you humble and that’s where God’s power comes in and that when you can say, “For when I am weak, then I’m strong.”
God uses suffering to draw you to Himself (v.8)
So, God uses suffering to reveal your spiritual condition and God uses suffering to help you stay humble. Number three, God uses suffering to draw you to Himself. Look carefully at verse 8 where Paul says, “Three different times I begged the Lord to take it away” (NLT).
- Notice Paul says, “Three different times” he prayed about this thorn. This is not three times in three minutes. This is three distinct and focused attempts to have God remove this thorn. My guess is, Paul set aside some time to pray and fast over this the removal of this thorn. When God didn’t respond the way Paul wanted Him to, Paul dedicated a second time to plead and beg God to remove this thorn. When God didn’t respond the second time the way Paul wanted God to, Paul dedicated a third time to plead and beg God to remove this thorn and messenger of Satan from his life. Through all this, Paul was spending significant time with God and drawing closer to God through it. Instead of the pain driving Paul away from God it was drawing Paul toward God. And that’s exactly what God wanted and exactly what Paul needed. God uses suffering to draw you to Himself.
Have you ever noticed how your prayer life seems to increase and deepen when things are painful in your life. That’s how God uses thorns, He uses them to draw you closer to Himself.
- I can’t leave this statement without saying one more thing. Paul says, “Three times I begged the Lord to take it away.” God didn’t take it away. God’s answer was no. In our weakness we may not ever understand why. I think some times the very thing we are begging God to remove is the very thing God is using to make us more like Christ, more complete, and more useful and more stronger and more deeper.
God uses suffering to display His grace in you (v.9)
Number four, God uses suffering to display His grace in you. Pay attention to what God says in verse 9, “Each time he said, ‘My grace is all you need. My power works best in weakness’”(NLT). God is saying, “Paul, the blessings I have given you, the insights I have given you, the strength I have given you is sufficient. Through this weakness caused by this thorn in your life you are being made stronger. Because I am allowing this thorn to continue you will be more humble, patient with others, kinder, have more empathy with others in pain, loving, and kind toward others. As a result you will glorify Me more. Through this weakness and this affliction you are made more mature. You pray more because of it. You are more humble because of it. You are more useable and affective for the kingdom with affliction. This pain, this suffering, this problem, this thorn is actually helping you to accomplish more. This is why you are able to say, ‘When I am weak, then I am strong.’”
God uses suffering to mature His power in you (vs. 9-10)
Number five, God uses suffering to mature His power in you. Paul concludes this section by making an observation when he says, “So now I am glad to boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ can work through me. 10 That’s why I take pleasure in my weaknesses, and in the insults, hardships, persecutions, and troubles that I suffer for Christ. For when I am weak, then I am strong” (NLT). You know how I say this, “I may not be the smartest Christian, but God still uses me. I may not be the best preacher you have ever heard, but God still speaks through me. I may not know everything there is about loving others, but God still loves some people through me. I may struggle with discouragement, but I still find joy in Him. I may fall from time to time, but God picks me up and moves me on. So I am glad to boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ can work through me… for when I am weak, then I am strong!”
Having a proper perspective on trouble, trials, and suffering is the cornerstone of Christian living. Focusing all one’s efforts on removing difficulties is not the answer. Believers need to embrace the trials God allows them to undergo, knowing that those trials reveal their character, humble them, draw them closer to God, and allow Him to display His grace and power in their lives.