This article is part of the Open Letters series.
I hope this letter finds you prospering in the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, my brothers.
I write this letter in part to expose some subtle notions that have sprung up of late in churches virtually everywhere the name of Christ is proclaimed. Essentially, some teachers buffet the church with a doctrine that asserts the more gifted, the more educated, the more media-savvy, the more skilled at communication, the more important people you know, the more books you publish, the more conference speaking engagements dot your calendar, the more power you wield on behalf of God as a leader of the church. Now, brothers, it is certainly not a sin to speak at conferences, write books, harness new media for the sake of the gospel, seek education in the things of God, or possess divinely bestowed gifts as a speaker.
But if you come to believe these things make you an effective minister, then you have bought into a subtle, devilish deception. It is a matter of the heart and some minister this way with great humility, realizing that all fruit that grows through ministry is given by God. Remember, our Lord Jesus told us, “Apart from me, you can do nothing.”
Fishing with the world’s bait means you will merely catch the world.
Our Lord showed Paul the truthfulness of Jesus’s words in a most vivid manner. He was taken into the presence of the living God in what many think was a vision. It was so sensory-defying, Paul wasn’t certain whether he was in the body or out of it. But he met Jesus face to face and then came back to earth. At first, Paul surely looked for somebody to tell. Surely, he wanted to boast in this incredible experience. Surely, there was at least one small moment where Paul thought this vision was a certain sign that he was the greatest apostle of them all.
The world says your greatest weapon is human strength, but Jesus says your greatest weapon is weakness.
In speaking engagements and non-inspired writing opportunities, Paul must have been tempted to use it as an anecdote to display his spiritual maturity, his value in God’s eyes, but the Lord did something even greater to show Paul that to boast about the vision would be to turn the gospel on its head. The Lord allowed him to suffer—big time. He gave Satan permission to place a thorn in Paul’s flesh. (That fact should not throw you; Satan is, after all, a created being who only does what God allows him to do, as in the story of Job.) And it made him miserable physically, spiritually, and mentally. In his prayers, Paul pled three times for the Lord to take away the affliction, but he did not. So much for name-it claim-it theology. God gave Paul something far better: his preserving grace.
The Lord told Paul something he wants every servant of the Lord Jesus to hear, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my strength is made perfect in your weakness.”
Through the thorn and Paul’s pleading with him to remove it, the Lord reiterated a truth I have learned in my years in ministry, a truth that is overwhelmingly offensive to the world: When I am weak, then I am strong. This means, of course, the opposite is true as well: when I am strong, then I am weak. How does this make sense? As Paul reminded Christians at Corinth, a minister of the gospel is nothing but a clay pot, a cheap, disposable piece of cardboard crockery. Yes, he is simultaneously an important instrument in proclaiming God’s kingdom, but God’s under-shepherd is merely an instrument—a weak instrument.
This is the way the Lord, in his love and mercy, deals with us. God shows us that we are weak, and he often does it through affliction. But it is a certain sign of his love. That’s what Jesus meant when he told Paul, “My grace is sufficient for you.” It’s kind of like King David, who defeated the awful Philistine Goliath. The behemoth warrior thought he was strong, but he was really weak. David was weak, too, but the difference was this: David knew he was weak. He knew the battle belonged to the Lord, and that’s how he toppled that giant. The battle always belongs to the Lord. He, not us, is the hero in redemption, in building the church. Think of Israel. God could have chosen Egypt as his old covenant people, but instead, he chose their slaves. Think of our father Abraham and his wife, Sarah. They were decades beyond their child-bearing season when God called them. Think of the cross. Jesus was crucified in weakness but lives by the power of God. Our great Lord has chosen the foolish and the weak things to shame the wise and the strong.
Your flesh is going to tempt you to reckon strength the way the world does. God and the world weigh things on different scales. You are going to be told that you need to build a personal legacy in the ministry. They’ll say that’s strong. But Jesus said, “I will build my church.” You are only a tool, pastor. You are not a kingdom builder. Our brother who wrote the sermonic letter we call Hebrews correctly said we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken. Don’t miss that verb, “receiving.” Jesus also said that it is our Father’s good pleasure to give us the kingdom. You will be tempted to grow your church with the world’s latest fads and fancies, because that’s strong. But he will give us the kingdom. We only have to be faithful and scatter the seed. That may seem weak in the world’s eyes, but God calls it strong.
Remember Paul’s words to the Corinthians: “We have this treasure in jars of clay.” The treasure is the gospel ministry, not the minister. At the base of a faithful ministry is self-knowledge that we are weak. Our little children sometimes sing a song that includes the line, “They are weak, but he is strong.” That’s good theology. Here’s a great truth to preach to yourself daily: “I will boast only of the things that demonstrate my weakness, for when I am weak, then I am strong.”
The world says your greatest weapon is human strength, but Jesus says your greatest weapon is weakness. It is your greatest weapon because in it, his power is manifest. Worldly wise men tell you to be ambitious, and by that I think they mean you should expect great things from yourself because of your education and obvious gifting. But none of that really matters in God’s economy. Allow me to restate that comment this way: ambition is usually self-centered because it assumes human strength. You should attempt great things for God and expect great things from God because he is strong. You are not.
That is all for now. I hope to write to you again soon. I will pray for you that God’s power will be manifest in your weakness.