Top Twelve Scripture Texts: Number 12B
2 Corinthians 12:7-10
Happy New Year! Wherever you are in the world, I truly wish each of you the best year of your life so far! Circumstances may or may not be your best ever, but the living God may be more real to you than ever before.
I often struggle, when I prepare these postings, whether to postpone writing them until I feel in a more positive frame of mind. Every one I write is hard work, not primarily because of the study involved, but because of the emotional toll the project exacts from me.
I want to be completely honest in my writing, but sometimes I hold back from saying all that I could because I don’t want to discourage you, the readers. No doubt there is also an element of human pride involved. If I admit how much I am struggling some readers might consider me to be not very spiritual, or—at the very least—to be psychologically unstable. You may not think of me as highly as I would like you to. You might think that the long battle with heart disease, which the doctors discovered 24 years ago, is finally throwing me off-kilter. You might also think of me as a complainer if I mention specific physical ailments.
It is a good thing for me to keep you—the readers—in mind concerning these matters as I write. I’m glad I never sent out some items I wrote, or considered writing. I want to be responsible, and not throw anything and everything out there for all the world to see. This blog should represent my best work—for this genre of writing—not my impulsive thoughts.
Most of all, I desire to write what God leads me to write. How do I know I am doing that? I pray according to the book of James, chapter 1, asking God for wisdom, and searching my heart for improper thoughts and attitudes, confess any sin to God, and then start writing. I can’t wait forever for some ideal frame of mind, because there is no such thing (at least not for me).
Lately my struggles have become more difficult, both physically and emotionally. Maybe this is just a phase. I hope it is. Whether it is or not, I want to write this posting because it accomplishes my goal for the year 2008—to present my top 12 favorite scripture texts of all time. I had serious doubts a year ago, when I started this project, that I would ever complete it. I had already lived longer than the six months the doctors gave me to live. Now, thanks to God, I am writing this piece.
Living with Sufferings
Last time I began the theme for the month: “When I am weak, then I am strong.” The famous scripture passage is 2 Corinthians 12:7-10. I considered some of the details in the last posting, so I’ll not repeat them here. But I do want to step back from looking at the trees to view the forest as a whole.
How should I live in view of this passage of scripture, and in view of my sufferings? I am reluctant to use the work “sufferings” for myself, because it is such a strong word, and I hesitate to think of my difficulties as severe in light of the sufferings of Jesus, the sufferings of the apostle Paul, the sufferings of persecuted Christians, and the sufferings of millions of hungry, diseased, abused, and hurting people around the world. But I believe it is an appropriate word, even though my troubles are small by comparison.
I am also reluctant to list my difficulties, but I think I should, since I mention them in general from time to time. My constant companions include nausea, dizziness, light-headedness, pain in my bones, abdominal pain, increasingly bad headaches, stress from conversation and noise (it is hard to speak for long, or listen for long), and a steady downward pull inside of me, hindering my standing, walking, sitting and even lying down. I also battle depression and anxiety, which are the worst of all. I rarely go to doctors, although I appreciate their kindness and knowledge. I’m glad that we stay in touch.
Where to Focus
I have been forced to look more closely at the scripture passage itself. I don’t think that God is pressing me to figure out what Paul’s “thorn in the flesh” was. And I really don’t need to know what Paul’s spectacular visions and revelations were. And I don’t believe that I should pray much for God to heal me of my cardiac transplant vasculopathy. (I greatly desire total healing, however, and welcome the prayers of all who seek God to that end.) I do pray, however, about specific symptoms throughout the day (my most common prayers are simply, “I trust you Lord” and “Help me Lord.”).
Where I need to focus is on the response of the apostle Paul—godly boasting and contentment. I don’t like the word boasting, but Paul uses it throughout 2 Corinthians 10-13 (NRSV, NIV) to speak of his glorying in, rejoicing in, feeling triumph in, his weaknesses and sufferings. It is important to emphasize here that the sufferings in themselves are not something I seek, not something I desire, and not something I glory in for their own sake. Also, sufferings do not save anyone or sanctify anyone. They have no merit in themselves, and Christians should avoid all ascetic theologies that urge us to seek suffering and self-deprivation so that God will be pleased with us. No. God is pleased with us because we are in his Son, not because we punish ourselves. Paul states boldly: “Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong” (v. 10). Paul’s thorn “was given” him (v. 7); he did not seek it.
Why and How to be Glad
If I am to rejoice/boast/count it all joy when I suffer (1 Cor. 12:9; Rom. 5:3; Jas 1:2), then how do I do that, and why? Taking the second question first, I am to think and live with this attitude because it honors my Lord and Savior. It is “for the sake of Christ” (v.10). But, I must admit, this is not always enough of a motivating factor for me. It should be, but I look for more. The “more” comes to me in verse 9: “So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me.”
Here it is, then. In some supernatural way, if I respond well to my sufferings, the power of Christ—his glory, strength, wisdom and grace—lives in me and through me. This I take by faith, if not by sight and feel. I may not sense this divine flow in me and through me, but just as I rest on John 3:16 for my eternal salvation, so I rest on 2 Corinthians 12:9-10 for my deteriorating self (my “mortal body,” Rom. 8:11) to be demonstrating the strength and beauty of Christ in and through me. It’s not that I never feel the spiritual power operating in me and through me, for I do. But I need to admit that I experience times when I doubt that my life is making any impact for good. I know I need to concentrate on—and this is the “how,” the first question above—the glorying in my weaknesses, and being content with them. This response—especially the boasting and glorying—goes against everything in me, yet it is the one specific action I am persuaded to do in this mysterious but mighty text of scripture.
I find it very helpful to read, study, and pray over two other scripture passages whenever I come to the Corinthian text: Romans 5:3-5 and James 1:2-8. While each of us has to learn personally—through prayer and experience—the “how” of boasting in our sufferings, we will find much strength by meditating on these three scripture texts together. Many other Bible passages are life-giving as well. I am just beginning to learn these things, but I know it is the only route for me to take as I face each new day—and night. (Last night was a difficult one, and my help came from the remarkable words in Romans 8:18-39, especially the part that speaks of the Holy Spirit praying for us in our sufferings. I had no strength to boast in my weaknesses!)
Being a Benediction
I am very thankful for the opportunity to study the Corinthian passage for this blog, because in doing so I came to see something that had been right before my eyes all along, but that I had not “caught.” I have tried to do the boasting part—glorying in my sufferings—but only recently have I really got ahold of the reason just presented above: the power of Christ will live in me and through me. One of the biggest difficulties of living with my disease is the daily awareness of my inability to do little or nothing to spread the glory of the kingdom to others. With this new insight, as stated above, I have a new slant on this specific motivating factor in living daily.
By faith, not having received the promises of God in their fullness (Heb. 11:39), I look with hope for God to make me a benediction to others. Some days I feel that I am not radiating Christ’s glory very well (just a few days ago I had one of my worst episodes of anxiety for some time), and at those times I try simply to exist, focusing on the promises and exhortations of scripture. God has shown me that I honor him by just “being” when the battle is the hardest. However, last night, in the wee small hours, God showed me that I have been neglecting praise and thanksgiving, and since “being” involves thinking about something, I am finding comfort in following this divine reminder.
The Journey of Weakness
I know this is a longer than usual posting. I feel constrained especially to help those of you who are suffering—physically or otherwise—in some way. It is distasteful to me to speak so much of myself, but I find from my experience with people that such specifics are helpful in knowing how to pray, and as examples and encouragement to fellow sufferers. Even though I seldom pray for my overall healing (God has seemed to say to me, “three times is enough”), I do pray—and request prayer—for specific needs daily. Even as I write this my head is pounding, and my wife and granddaughter just came to me and prayed for relief. In the pagan culture of Paul’s day, “divine power was especially displayed in magical wonders; for Paul, it is God’s power enabling one weak in himself to endure” (Craig S. Keener, The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament).
Over forty years ago, as a young man in my early twenties, I was just a few months from graduating from Bible College. The yearbook editors (all of whom, including Judy, were seniors) asked fellow graduates to submit a scripture text that either had been, or would be, a “life verse” for us. Not knowing what the years held, we handed in our Bible texts, which were then placed under our photos. I submitted 2 Corinthians 12:9, partly because of how this passage had given me strength during past experiences of weaknesses, and partly because I knew that whatever I did, I would need to know how to receive God’s power in my weakness. Little did I know then just how prophetic this Bible text would prove to be, and how many hundreds of times I would lean heavily on its truth.
As we close the old year and begin 2009, may we all draw our strength from the grace of Christ. The days ahead may be difficult, but the power of God is mightier than any and all thorns sent from the evil one. “He said to me,” wrote Paul, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” May we all be “benediction projects” to the Lord himself, to all we know, and to some we do not yet know, for it is in so doing that we receive benediction beyond measure.