2 Corinthians 12:2-10
Most people and organizations, churches included struggle with what it means to be successful. On one hand, the world tells us success is about numbers. It is about productivity, salary, number of people at your party, number of clients or how much you are liked. In the church we talk about numbers of people in worship, bible study, people who have come to a relationship with Jesus, number of dollars in the plate, number of meals served, and volunteer hours given.
And of course, in all these scenarios the higher the number the more successful a person or organization is. We expect this in the world. It is part of living in a capitalistic society. We are expected to work hard, earn more and shut out the competition, making more stuff with fewer resources so that we can get the approval of those above us, get a bigger paycheck and make our company more money.
Even in the church, there seems to be some competition about whether someone is a successful Christian, even if we don’t use that term. Have they ever healed someone by laying hands on them? Do they pray eloquently or speak in tongues? Do they receive visions or a word from God? Maybe we think of the person who can quote scripture, is always doing something for others or always seem to be praising and never having a bad day.
We can always find some point of comparison. And honestly, it is often difficult to feel like we measure up.
And, if we aren’t hard enough on ourselves, worried about measuring up, others will point it out for us.
Why aren’t you more like So-n-so?
It happens in families: growing up a friend of mine repeatedly heard the phrase, why can’t you be more like your sister?
We hear it at work: We might have reached our sales goal if you hadn’t taken that vacation. So-n-so made sales calls from the hospital bed, couldn’t you have made a few from the beach? Everyone liked the person you replaced a lot. She used to bring doughnuts to the office on Fridays.
It is in these moments that our hard work, our likability, our numbers become a source of pride. We are so driven by these markers of success that we often neglect our own health, relationships, and spiritual lives.
This is where we find Paul as he nears the end of his letters to the Corinthian church.
Paul travels to and from Corinth several times in his ministry but in his absence, other ministers have come in and begun to build on the foundation Paul laid. In 1 Corinthians 3, we hear Paul responding positively to this type of ministry sharing when he says, “I planted, Apollos watered, God gave the growth”.
Now that more time has passed and those unassociated with the original apostles have begun to build on that foundation, pride and the world’s definition of success is setting in. Many commentaries believe that these new missionaries were trying to change some of what Paul had taught and had tried to discredit Paul’s authority.
They claimed divine visions, dreams, and miraculous signs and then said things like “can your precious Paul do that? You should follow us instead.” And because of their signs and wonders, some have begun to question and doubt Paul’s influence and authority in the church.
This isn’t an unusual scenario either. We see very charismatic leaders all the time who people hear their message of blessings, wealth, and dreams coming true and their congregations and followers soar and book sales climb!
Years ago, I was doing a project and I asked the church what kind of preacher they would like to have. Their response: Billy Graham. Of course- a preacher like that would be sure to quadruple their congregation. But even then, Billy Graham was in his 80’s and wasn’t the Billy Graham they wanted.
This is the type of personality Paul is up against. There is only one Billy Graham and very few people will ever mark his accomplishments.
In this environment, Paul is compelled to taunt his credentials, pull rank so to speak and reassert his authority. He essentially says- I could boast about those same things other ministers do too… I have seen visions, I have spoken in tongues, I have built the church from the ground up, they would be nothing if I hadn’t laid the foundation for their ministry. I am the man!
But instead, Paul decides to boast without boasting, giving credit to others for his own spiritual experiences; visions, revelations, and experiences of God which would have given him credibility before people but humility before God.
Instead, Paul chooses to brag about his weaknesses. He uses this opportunity to draw the church and us back to what really matters and redefines what it means to be successful.
Instead of making a list of all his accomplishments, he tells us just how human he is. He like all of us is tempted by this desire to be successful, to be liked, appreciated and admired. But he has been given a thorn in his life to keep him from getting too cocky.
Although there has been much speculation, we don’t know what the thorn in Paul’s side was. And maybe God keeps it vague on purpose because we all have our thorns. Even the most successful people, by the world’s standard, have shortcomings, challenges, imperfections and barriers that cause them pain. We, like Paul, all have this messenger of Satan, whether it is problems we bring on ourselves, challenges imposed on us by others, or some sort of physical ailment.
And we like Paul may cry out to God to remove this burden from us and we may lose faith when it seems to stubbornly stick around, despite our best efforts.
This, strangely enough, is when God’s power, grace, and blessings are most evident. We all have things in life we just can’t overcome on our own and this is when the Glory of God shines the brightest.
It is when we acknowledge our shortcomings. When we can admit we don’t have it all together. When we can accept our weaknesses then we can give credit where credit is due for those things that seem like a worldly success.
We see Bill Gates as the epitome of success but there is no way one dorky kid soldering electronics in his parents’ garage as a college drop out would ever become one of the wealthiest people in the world. God did and now the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is giving God the glory by giving their fortune away as they seek to address issues of global poverty and health care to improve the lives and increase the understanding that all people have equal value in the eyes of God. ()
Who would have ever thought a peanut farmer from Georgia would ever become president, much less kickstart global programs like Habitat for Humanity and the Jimmy Carter Center to “Waging Peace, Fighting Disease, Building Hope”, all while still teaching Sunday school at his church.
The same goes for churches as much as individuals. When a small church makes a big impact on the community. We know it isn’t because we have unlimited resources, or people knocking down our doors to help- it is because God is working through us to make God’s kingdom a reality in this place. This is the exact reason God gives us Big Audacious Goals. God calls us to dream bigger than we think is possible, bigger than we can handle, bigger than we can accomplish on our own so that others can see God working through us in our weakness.
The reality is we are a small church in a small community. Even if we were to double in size we would still be a small church in a small community. The world says this will never be a recipe for success. The world says we are too small to play with the big kids. (https://www.desiringgod.org/articles/the-secret-small-churches-know-best)
That is a bunch of rubbish! God says; “My Grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.”
God has big plans for you as individuals, for you as a church, even in our weakest moments, even when we cannot stand much less march. We may often feel like the kid in the corner saying, not look what I can do… but look what God can do!
This is the story of Jesus. It is in his weakest moment that the Glory of God shown brightest. It is in the humble circumstances of his birth and the humility of the cross where God said… Look what I can do! In this one life, in this one act, I can and will redeem the world.
Don’t allow Satan to convince you that your thorn is too big, your weakness too great. Instead allow God to work through your weakness, showing the Glory of God as central to our lives as people, as a church and as a community.
And when we do. Others will testify to the glory of God not because we brag about our strengths and minimize our weaknesses, but because of what God does in and through us.