Big Idea: Beware the weakness of strength. Embrace the strength of weakness.
Have you ever heard a really impressive public speaker?
I have. I was a young teenager, and my youth group leader took me to hear a preacher just west of here. I think it was Burlington. His name was Al Martin. I still remember his passage:
You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks out of his own character, for he is a liar and the father of lies. (John 8:44)
I sat mesmerized. I had never heard preaching like that before. I think he spoke a long time, but it felt like a few minutes to me. It’s probably one of the most powerful sermons I’ve ever heard.
There’s nothing like a really great speaker. The right preacher can draw a crowd, hold that crowd spellbound, and even change lives. There’s nothing quite like a powerful speaker.
We Boast in Something
If you’ve been around here for long, we’ve been looking at 2 Corinthians, a letter that Paul wrote to a church that he’d started. We’ve been talking about a group of people called the super-apostles who really did not like Paul.
Who were these super-apostles? They were a group of leaders who had come into the church and claimed to be better than Paul. They claimed to be better speakers than Paul. They claimed to be better off financially than Paul.
The group of itinerate missionaries who came to Corinth in the 50’s CE attacked Paul’s credentials on many fronts; perhaps the most devastating charge was a personal attack on his ability to communicate the Gospel (Richard F. Ward, “Pauline Voice and Presence as Strategic Communication”)
This is a fairly common way to approach life. A few years ago I happened to be in New York, and heard Tim Keller give a sermon that explained the whole idea of boasting.
In ancient times, boasting was a ritual before you engaged in battle. Boasting was a ritual part of warfare in ancient times. Now think about this. How do you get a group of guys, soldiers, to charge with all their might and with all their passion into certain death? How do you get them excited about that? A ritual boast.
One of the things the king or the general would do is to do some sort of boasting before the soldiers. He would say something like, “By tonight their king’s head will be upon my banner stand.” Everybody would go, “Rawr!” There are crude forms of it. There are Anglo-Saxon, Mandarin, Greek versions of basically, “We’re going to wipe the floor with you.” That’s a boast. “We’re going to do this. We’re going to do that to them. They’re going to be this, and we’re going to be that. Rawr!”
It’s trash talk that makes us look good and others look bad.
The whole idea behind ritual boasts is, “We can do it. We can get it. We’re strong enough. We’re good enough.” What God says is the problem with every human heart is you look at your beauty, you look at your smarts, you look at your talent, you look at anything good about yourself, you look at your achievements, and you say, “I did that.” You take credit for it. You see it as your accomplishment. They’re gifts from God. You were born with the talent. You were born with the beauty. They’re gifts from God, but you take credit for it. That is the very nature of the human heart…
Here this is telling us every single soul makes its boast in something. It looks at something.
If you have money, you say, “Look at the money I have.” If you have might, athletic prowess, beauty, smarts … You say, “This is why I’m valuable. This is why I’m love-worthy. This is why I’m worthy of applause, of accolades, of cheering. This is why I am worthy of praise. This is my glory. This is who I am. This is my significance. This is my value. This thing. I have accomplished this. This is mine.”
That’s what was going on in the Corinthian church. Leaders were boasting about how great they were. Boasting is the natural tendency of the human heart.
And then Paul comes along.
If Paul wanted to boast, here’s what he could have said:
I have established more churches; I have preached the gospel in more lands and to more ethnic groups; I have traveled more miles; I have won more converts; I have written more books; I have raised more money; I have dominated more councils; I have walked with God more fervently and seen more visions; I have commanded the greatest crowds and performed the most spectacular miracles. (D.A. Carson)
That’s not at all what Paul said. What did he say instead?
Boasting is Stupid
Take note, because this applies to all of us!
I repeat, let no one think me foolish. But even if you do, accept me as a fool, so that I too may boast a little. What I am saying with this boastful confidence, I say not as the Lord would but as a fool. Since many boast according to the flesh, I too will boast… (2 Corinthians 11:16-18)
If you’re not picking up on the sarcasm here, you may want to go back and read it again!
What Paul is saying here is that boasting is foolish. Actually, he goes a bit farther than that. He’s about to establish his credibility by his own version of boasting, and he says that this should work out well for the Corinthians since they’re into that kind of stupidity. “What I’m about to do is really stupid, which is good because you’re into that kind of thing!”
But he’s making a point. He continues in verses 19-21:
For you gladly bear with fools, being wise yourselves! For you bear it if someone makes slaves of you, or devours you, or takes advantage of you, or puts on airs, or strikes you in the face. To my shame, I must say, we were too weak for that!
Paul is pointing at the people the Corinthians liked. They were impressive leaders and good public speakers — and also abusive! It’s like their résumé said:
- skilled leader
- good track record
- award-winning public speaker
- robs followers of their freedom
- exploits followers and their resources
- takes advantage of people
- abusive tendencies and actions
And people were okay with it!
That’s the problem with boasting. It’s stupid.
When we boast, and when we’re impressed with the boasting of others, we’re being stupid. We’re not seeing the entire picture. It’s foolish. There’s a much better way.
Boasting is stupid. Here’s the other thing Paul says.
The Only Thing Worth Boasting About Is Our Weakness
Paul says, “Okay, if we’re going to boast, let me give you some things to boast about.”
Could Paul boast about his accomplishments? Oh yeah. Read verses 21 to 23:
But whatever anyone else dares to boast of—I am speaking as a fool—I also dare to boast of that. Are they Hebrews? So am I. Are they Israelites? So am I. Are they offspring of Abraham? So am I. Are they servants of Christ? I am a better one
Paul could boast about his accomplishments if he wanted to. He was a Pharisee. He had memorized the whole Bible! He had spent time with the risen Jesus. He had given his whole life to the mission of Jesus. He’d never asked for money from the Corinthians. If Paul wanted to play that game, he could have.
But instead he boasted about his weaknesses:
….greater labors, far more imprisonments, with countless beatings, and often near death … Who is weak, and I am not weak? Who is made to fall, and I am not indignant?
If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness. (2 Corinthians 11:23, 30)
Paul boasts, not about his strengths, but about his suffering. He boasts about weakness and suffering as the defining characteristic of his ministry. What does Paul boast about? His punishments, persecutions, sufferings, and the dangerous situations he’s faced, as well as the daily pressure he faces as he cares for the churches.
I want to pause here for a moment and focus on verse 29. I’ve never really noticed it before. “Who is weak, and I am not weak? Who is made to fall, and I am not indignant?” Paul says that he is weak when anyone in the churches experiences weakness.
When a person in one of the churches is in need, whether in terms of spiritual peril, material resources, illness, or some other limitation, their apostle is burdened. The needs in the churches affect him, and he is aware of and attentive to those needs. (George Guthrie)
And when anyone fails in the church, Paul feels the emotional weight of this failure. He’s burdened when someone falls into sin. “What wonderful affection in a pastor! Others’ falls, he is saying, accentuate my grief, others’ obstacles inflame the fire of my suffering.” (John Chrysostom)
What’s Paul saying? In ten words: Beware the weakness of strength. Embrace the strength of weakness.
The true Christian life is not about status or self-promotion. We follow Jesus. And what was Jesus like? Isaiah 53 tells us:
he had no form or majesty that we should look at him,
and no beauty that we should desire him.
He was despised and rejected by men,
a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief;
and as one from whom men hide their faces
he was despised, and we esteemed him not.
He had no home. He died an ignoble death. And yet his very exaltation came through his suffering. God’s very nature is to give himself sacrificially in service for others.
So who looks more like Jesus? Not those who embrace their strengths. It’s those who embrace their weakness; those who are willing to serve others. That looks a lot like Jesus.
When the Corinthians beat up on Paul for his humility and suffering, they’re beating up on the very qualities that made him a good leader. They’re beating up on the very qualities that he picked up from Jesus. It’s stupid to boast about our strengths when the very thing we should be boasting about — if we’re forced to — is about giving up our lives for God’s glory and the good of others.
Let me bring this home.
There’s a fundamental conflict between what God values and what we value. We value success, education, wealth, and accomplishments. God values humility and weakness. God’s love and power were made known through humility and weakness. It’s how we were saved.
Here’s when we know that we’ve understood the gospel: when we stop boasting about our strengths, and when we start embracing weakness, humility, and service; when we realize that the very thing that God may use most powerfully in our lives isn’t our strengths, but our suffering.
If you are a follower of Jesus Christ, this is what God is calling you to. Stop boasting in your strengths. Start to embrace your weaknesses and look for opportunities to give yourself away in service to him and others.
I was trying to figure out how to finish this sermon when I started cooking dinner, listening to a memoir written by Eugene Peterson. And as I listened, I realized I had found the perfect way to end:
You are at your pastoral best when you are not noticed. To keep this vocation healthy requires constant self-negation, getting out of the way … This was new territory for Sarah and Steve. The three of us discussed it for the next hour, how a clamoring ego needs to be purged from the pastor’s soul. From every Christian’s soul for that matter, but pastors are at special risk.
We are at our best when we get out of the way, when we’re not noticed, when we purge the clamoring ego from our soul, when we embrace our weakness, when we serve Jesus. So beware the weakness of strength. Embrace the strength of weakness.