Salvation and Weakness
2nd in a series of messages expounding 2 Cor 12:9 “My power is made perfect in weakness”. Sermon by Pastor Eric Chang, delivered on January 10, 1993, at Gereja Christian Disciples Kuala Lumpur (Malaysia)
Work out your salvation with fear and trembling
Today, the Lord willing, I am going to expound on a very important subject in the word of God. Phil 2:12 says, “So then, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your salvation with fear and trembling.”
Today we look at the words, “Work out your salvation with fear and trembling.” Through all my Christian life (which spans a long period), I have never heard a sermon on these words. But these are important words because they have to do with salvation. Our salvation has to be worked out, surprisingly, with “fear and trembling”. We tend to think that the Christian life is all about love, joy and peace, but have we ever realized that fear and trembling has everything to do with the Christian life or with salvation?
If you consult the various commentaries on Philippians, you would look in vain for a satisfactory explanation of these words. I have asked many people, “Please tell me what these words mean,” but nobody has been able to explain these words to me. We have apparently lost the key to understanding the Bible and understanding salvation. And if we lose the key to salvation, we will lose everything.
Even if we did a word study on this verse, we still would not find the answer. We must understand the broad base from which is derived the principle of these words. So today we ask the Lord to help us to understand these exceedingly important words.
Paul works out his salvation with fear and trembling
How to work out your salvation? The surprising answer is: with fear and trembling. Paul is the apostle of liberty; he is the apostle who talks about the freedom of the Spirit (e.g. Gal 5:1) and about love, joy and peace. But here he speaks about fear and trembling in the context of working out our salvation! That is not the kind of message that we enjoy listening to. Nowadays there is much talk about power evangelism, about power and strength, about glory and majesty. But “fear and trembling” is not something that we are used to hearing. How do we understand this?
If you consult a concordance, you would discover that Paul uses the words “fear” and “trembling” quite a few times in the very combination “fear and trembling.” This term has slightly different meanings in different contexts. Sometimes it means to be submissive or obedient in the sense that slaves are to be submissive to their masters. We may be surprised that Paul would make this kind of exhortation, but he also applies the term “fear and trembling” to himself. In 1 Cor 2:2-3, for example, he says, “For I determined to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and Him crucified. And I was with you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling.”
Here Paul is talking about Jesus Christ “crucified” - not Jesus Christ the King of glory, nor Jesus Christ the Lord of lords, nor Jesus Christ the King of kings. He is talking about Jesus Christ crucified, hanging on a cross in utter weakness and powerlessness. Paul says to the Corinthians: “I determined to know nothing else at this time, not even Christ’s lordship, but only Jesus Christ crucified!” For it is because of His death on the cross that He is confessed as Lord (Phil 2:8-11). He goes on to say, “I was with you in ...” In what? In exercising the power and authority of an apostle? No. He was with them “in weakness”. As though that were not enough, he goes on to say that he was “in fear and in much trembling” - the same term that he uses in the letter to the Philippians.
How do we understand this astonishing statement? Paul, the great apostle of power, is telling the Corinthians that he was with them in “weakness” and in “fear and trembling.” He was weak to the point of trembling.
Have you ever experienced this? At times I have been in such a state of physical weakness that when I lifted up my hand, it would shake. I would say to myself, “What’s happening to me? Look at my hand!” Many of you have probably experienced a fever that weakened you so much that you shook and trembled.
But the apostle Paul fears! Yes, he fears and trembles. Here is a picture of extreme weakness. Can you understand this? All along you thought that the Christian life is all about power. Nowadays we hear so much about power, even “power evangelism”. Everyone wants power. Someone by the name of A. Robbins puts “Power” on the cover of his books, and they sell like hotcakes. Want to sell a book? Just write about “HOW TO GET POWER” and your book will sell.
But who wants a book on weakness? If a book is titled “How to be Weak,” it would sit forever on the bookshelf, never to be sold. What fool is going to buy a book on becoming weak? It sounds so ridiculous. Well, that’s right; today I am preaching a ridiculous message on weakness.
The Church rejects the principle of weakness
Much of theology today deals with the Pauline writings. Who is the writer of the epistles that we so keenly study today? Paul, of course. What is his secret of power? His secret is none other than weakness, and now he is sharing this secret with us. “I was with you, and what did I do? Did I swagger up to you and raise my chin and pull myself up to a full height of 5 foot 1 inch - and subdue you with my overwhelming presence and charismatic power? Was it in awe that you all looked at me - this great charismatic apostle with a bright halo over his head?” That is what the world would expect of Paul. A strong presence is very important in the world. If you act like a mouse, you cannot be the General-Manager of a company. You need to walk with confidence, wave your stick around, make your presence felt, and look important.
But what does Paul say? In their presence he was in “weakness”. We find this statement so unacceptable that we might suspect someone of inserting these words into Paul’s letter. Sorry to say, these are Paul’s own words. And just how weak was Paul? To the point of fear and trembling. Imagine, the apostle Paul was standing there and trembling. Can you imagine Paul in this situation?
But weakness is a principle that pertains to salvation. Paul tells us to work out our salvation. How? With fear and trembling! These words express intense weakness.
Are you working out your salvation with fear and trembling? Do you sense any profound weakness in your life? That is the problem with many of us. Many Christians are weak inwardly, but they think it is improper and un-Christian to show any weakness. So even if you don’t feel like doing it, you must give a big smile or else the brothers and sisters might say to you, “What’s going on? You’ve got a headache or a stomachache? Your wife gave you a scolding?” So we try our best to put on a happy smile even when we feel terrible. We are trained to put on the Colgate smile. This technique is actually quite straightforward; you just stretch the muscles a bit, and then smile. And how do you feel? You feel like a complete fool and hypocrite, don’t you? You say “Good, good” when you don’t mean a word you say.
We dare not admit that we are weak or miserable. So we walk around in hypocrisy. Every Sunday evening you are exhausted from a long day of acting in the church. You acted so well that you should get yourself a job at Hollywood. Everyone thought you were wonderfully happy even though you were miserable. That sounds familiar, doesn’t it? We don’t have the courage to admit, “Today I am weak and tired and depressed. For the whole week I just couldn’t live the Christian life. I exhausted myself by putting on a show of strength. And the more I pretended, the more tired I got. Eventually I even lost the will to put on a show of strength. I don’t care what people think of me anymore.” If that is your situation, perhaps you have finally come to where you should have been in the first place.
I think the church would be a healthier place if we could just come together to the prayer meeting or the communion service and say frankly, “Brothers and sisters, I feel lousy today. Forgive me for not smiling. I would be grateful if you could remember me in your prayers. To be honest, I just couldn’t live victoriously for the whole week. I have done things I shouldn’t have done, and said things I shouldn’t have said. So forgive me for not smiling today. Just remember me in your prayers.” That would be far more genuine than the ridiculous pretense that too often characterizes the Christian life.
“Work out your salvation with fear and trembling” means, at the very least, to be genuine and to acknowledge our weakness. (It means much more than this, but at least this.) To be genuine is to acknowledge that we are not as great as we imagine ourselves to be, or as we want others to think us to be.
Paul chooses to be weak
The apostle Paul is not given to acting. Not only is he determined to refrain from acting, he even places himself in a position of weakness. That is hard to understand, isn’t it? As you study his way of doing things, you will go from one surprise to another.
Let me give you an example of this. In 2 Cor 10:10 Paul quotes what the Corinthians were saying about him: “His letters are weighty and strong, but his personal presence is unimpressive [literally ‘weak’], and his speech contemptible.” Paul doesn’t have a charismatic or impressive presence. Notice the word “weak”. He tells the Corinthians that in their midst he is “weak”. His physical presence is weak and unimpressive; his speech is contemptible, not eloquent.
Despite his vast learning and superb intelligence (which everyone acknowledges), Paul speaks in a way that is contemptible and unimpressive. In fact he is so learned that someone of prominence once said to him, “Your great learning is driving you mad” (Acts 26:24). Paul is very learned, and learning is of course the basis of eloquence and a vast vocabulary. With a good education and a brilliant intellect, you can express yourself very eloquently and convincingly.
Why then is Paul’s speech so contemptible? There is only one explanation for that. Given his enormous intelligence which everyone acknowledges, there is only one way that his speech can be contemptible. It is of his own choice.
“I was with you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling” (1 Cor 2:3). Paul chooses to be weak rather than to impress people with his eloquence. Why? He explains in 1 Cor 2:5: “that your faith should not rest on the wisdom of men, but on the power of God.” That is why Paul puts aside all human wisdom. Now we begin to see the striking way in which Paul works, which is so different from the human way of doing things. Our seminary-trained preachers are taught to be eloquent and to display a presence at the pulpit, but Paul does just the opposite.
In 2 Cor 10:1 he says, “I, Paul, entreat you ...” Does he say “I, Paul, the boss and the apostle of the Corinthian churches, command you”? No, he says “Now I, Paul, myself entreat you by the meekness and the gentleness of Christ ...” Here he is evidently again referring to Christ crucified. Therefore he pleads in the meekness and the gentleness of the One who was crucified for our sins, saying, “I am meek when face to face with you, but bold in your absence” (that is, he was bold in his letters, at least according to the Corinthians in v.10). Here is Paul’s secret. He does not use human techniques; that is why God can use him.
The Church has conformed to the world
In North America I often visit bookstores, and I am always amazed by how the church today is using the methods of the world to preach the gospel. You can find books such as “Keys to Excellence” or “Strive for Excellence”. The excellence that they are seeking is the excellence that is derived from the techniques of the world, from the business administration of the world, from the leadership principles of the world. That is the kind of stuff that they want to apply in the church. And these books are best-sellers that you can find in Christian bookstores. Some of the writers are not even Christians; they are simply business experts in the world.
We have departed so far from the gospel that we no longer realize that these worldly principles cannot be applied in the church. These principles are the very opposite of the way the church is supposed to function.
But Paul chooses to be lowly. He chooses to speak in a way that puts aside human wisdom, and to refrain from impressing people with his vast learning and powerful intellect. Many people rate Paul as a genius. That is immediately apparent from his letters (e.g. Romans). But at the same time, it is also apparent from his letters that he does not try to impress his readers with his extraordinary intelligence.
Without this kind of attitude, you would not be able to live the Christian life, much less work out your salvation with fear and trembling. You wouldn’t even know what fear and trembling is. Fear and trembling is a matter of choice. Nobody is forcing it on you any more than anyone is forcing Paul to be gentle and meek. He simply chooses to be like that.
He does not use his authority, much less abuse it. He does not throw his weight around or boss people around. He says, “I plead with you in the meekness and gentleness of Christ.” There is no pulpit-banging. Anyone who bangs the pulpit must think that he has the right to bang the pulpit and to scold people. Have you ever listened to such preachers? They are unbelievably arrogant. They equate pulpit-banging with power and authority. How nonsensical.
The school of Christ
In my non-Christian days as a teenager, I used to read magazines of interest to young boys. Many of these magazines carry advertise-ments of body-building pro-grams. They would show a picture of a skinny skeleton-like figure, fit to be a specimen for medical studies. Then there is another picture of the same person after he enrolled in the body-building program. Wow, now he is a muscle man with muscles bulging in every direction - a true he-man! You take a look at yourself: “Hey, I’m more like this skeleton here. So I have to move on to the other photograph and become a he-man!”
What are the things that attract you? Do you want to be like the he-man bulging with muscles? What do people find so attractive and desirable about bulging muscles? It is power and strength. If anyone messes around with you, you can teach him a lesson or two.
But suppose the advertisement is reversed: “All you muscle men, come to our school and we will reduce you to a stick! Results guaranteed!” Will there be a long queue of people waiting to become sticks? Of course not. It sounds so ridiculous.
But that is the school of Christ. Believe it or not, He is going to reduce you to a stick. Is anyone keen to apply to the school of Christ? Years ago I entered that school, and look at what happened to me. Do you see this beautiful physique?
Strength in my youth
When brother Chris Wong fetched me at the airport by car, I was sharing with him about my youth. In my youth I was a sportsman who was not the least interested in boring subjects such as history, literature, and chemistry. Who has time for such nonsense when you could be playing in the sports field? So I spent all day at the sports field. After a few years of doing this, I was bulging all over with muscles. I didn’t have to envy that advertisement very much because I had quite a few muscles of my own. I used to admire myself in front of the mirror. I would flex this V-shaped muscle, and move my chest muscles up and down. How nice. (You can’t imagine me like that now, right?)
I would look in the mirror to see these stomach muscles - all six square plates down there. I did a bit of boxing, so it was important for me to have some stomach muscles in case I got punched. So that was no problem for me. I admired myself everyday. My father used to say, “What are you doing in the washroom?” I would say, “Brushing my teeth!” “What’s taking so long?” Actually the brushing took only half a minute; the rest of the time I was admiring myself. But you take a look at me now, and you are probably wondering how I could be like that. But that was really me in my youth.
All day long I was in the sports field playing softball, baseball, basketball, badminton - you name it. My favourite sports were swimming, baseball, softball, and the martial arts (to which I devoted quite a lot of time).
What about my studies? Well, in my spare time I managed to squeeze in a little bit of study. Studying was just a spare-time activity. I came up with a strategy that worked beautifully, and I used to wonder why people would spend so many hours studying. My strategy was quite simple. By excelling in two subjects, I was able to pass any entrance examination and enter any school, from junior middle school to senior middle school. (In China, school admission was determined by entrance examinations.) My father thought that this young fellow who spent all day in the sports field would never get into senior middle school. Well, I took my exams with the four best middle schools in Shanghai, and was accepted by all four. My father was quite mystified.
My secret was very simple. First I would excel in English (which was easy for me since I had been in an English primary school). I did a lot of reading in English, so my standard in China was considered very high. I would always get above 90% in any English examination without studying for it. That leaves me with only one subject to study: mathematics. I loved mathematics because I treated it as a game. You can play around with it and get good results. Playing with figures was fun, not hard work. Mathematics was another subject in which I would always get close to 100%. Some teachers did not give out perfect scores, so you had to settle for 99%. With these two subjects over 90%, you are guaranteed a place in any school so long as you pass the other boring subjects - like chemistry, for which I would get about 70%. That was the secret that allowed me to spend all day in the sports field and to build up an impressive physique.
God teaches us to become weak
But when the Lord took hold of me, He really worked on me. The school of Christ led me in the opposite direction: from a muscle man to a stick. Many of you know from my testimony that after I came to the Lord, I went through three years of near-starvation, after which I was reduced to skin and bones. I was a pitiful sight in the mirror. On one side you could play the guitar, on the other side you could play the banjo. What happened to all my muscles? They got absorbed into the body; everything was gone. God really works in the opposite direction, reducing me from strength to weakness (cf. Ps 102:23).
Anyone who has ever been strong would know what this could do to you emotionally. People go for body-building not only to look nice, but also for its psychological benefits. It makes you feel confident, a somebody. You are on top of the world with an athletic spring in your step. Nowadays I don’t fully remember how it felt. Now I am weak most of the time. And the more I progress in the school of Christ, the weaker I become. But God wants to give us power; therefore He teaches us to become weak.
This does not mean that the Word of God teaches us to take it upon ourselves to neglect our health, much less to deliberately damage it. There have been, for example, some zealous but misguided people who damaged their health through long periods of fasting. We must remember that “you are not your own, for you were bought at a price” (1 Cor 6:19-20). Our bodies belong to the Lord who bought us with His own blood, and we do not have the right to harm it. Only He has the right to deal with us as He, in His perfect wisdom, knows what is best for us and for His church. Only He knows how to deal with us in such a way that His power and His glory can be manifested through our weaknesses.
Power is perfected in weakness
Paul went through the same kind of experience. Paul says in 2 Cor 12:7: “And because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, for this reason, to keep me from exalting myself, there was given me a thorn in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to buffet me - to keep me from exalting myself.” Even the apostle Paul was susceptible to pride, so he had to be inflicted with physical illness. In verses 8 and 9 he says, “Concerning this I entreated the Lord three times that it might depart from me. And He has said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness.’”
Three times Paul prayed, and three times the Lord’s answer was “no”. How is power perfected? It is perfected in weakness. That is the principle behind Paul’s other statements that we have read. Paul learned the secret that God’s power is manifested only when we are weak.
Paul goes on to say, “Therefore I will rather boast about my weaknesses, that the power of Christ may dwell in me.” Paul not only accepts weaknesses, he even boasts in them. He joyfully accepts the thorn in the flesh.
Take a rose thorn and stick it into your flesh, and you will know what pain is. The word “thorn” implies pain. Paul has a physical ailment that causes him great pain. But he does not say with resignation, “I have eventually and finally come to accept the thorn.” On the contrary, he rejoices in his pain and weaknesses. Is he crazy? Not in the least, for he knows that when he is weak, Christ’s power will “dwell” in him (the Greek word means to “live in”).
In verse 10 he says, “Therefore, I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in needs, in persecutions, in distresses, for Christ’s sake. (NKJV)” Then he reiterates the secret of power: “For when I am weak, then I am strong.” Now we know why Paul chooses to be weak. That is when God’s power is made perfect. If you only knew this, you would not pretend to be strong or try to impress people with your strength.
Are you feeling miserable? If you are, then you are feeling weak. Now is the opportunity for God to manifest His strength in you. So why do you try to suppress feelings of weakness? Why not welcome the fact that God has finally brought you down to utter weakness, tiredness, and even depression? Depression is simply discouragement. What are the things that discourage people? Failure, for one thing. Is failure bad? It is in failure that God can finally work in your life for the first time! He has to bring you low. When Christ was nailed to the cross, His disciples thought that He had utterly failed. His death seemed to have brought His whole earthly ministry to a grand failure. Little did they know that that “failure” was precisely God’s triumph over sin and death.
Paul says in 1 Cor 1:25 that “the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God [at the cross] is stronger than men.” How wonderfully Paul has learned that secret.
Let us look at the five things that we have just read in 2 Cor 12:10: “infirmities, reproaches, necessities, persecutions, distresses.” I would like to briefly look at these five things that Paul takes pleasure in.
The word translated “infirmities” has one of two meanings, and both meanings apply perfectly to Paul. Infirmities can mean weaknesses, and it can also mean sicknesses. That is why hospitals are sometimes called “infirmaries”. People who are infirm (sick) go there for treatment.
Do you think it is terrible that God allows you to get sick? When I get a backache, do you feel sorry for me? Thank-you for your sympathy, but has it ever occurred to you that it is through this ailment that God is making me strong spiritually? If you had realized that, you would give thanks to God for every weakness and sickness. We consider these things unfortunate because we don’t understand the secret of God’s power. When we get a headache, we wonder why God is so inconsiderate. But it is only in our weakness that God manifests His power. That is why all the glory goes to Him.
Some years ago I was preaching in London, Ontario (not London, England), and I was scheduled to speak at the Chinese Christian Fellowship at the University of Western Ontario on one of the evenings. But when I got up in the morning that day, my legs buckled under me and I fell back onto the bed. I simply could not stand up. I tried to get up once more and I collapsed again. I was wondering what was happening to me. I was totally weakened, probably due to the exhaustion from preaching day after day. I struggled a few more times, but I still could not get up. I was staying with some members of the fellowship, and I called them into the room. I said, “I’m sorry I can’t get up. My legs have no strength.” They got so worried that they said, “We advertised you as our preacher for tonight, and people are coming from all over to listen to your message. And you can’t preach? There’s no time to find another preacher. Even if we could find one, the people will be disappointed because he is not the advertised preacher.” I said, “I understand that this is a problem.” They asked me what to do. I said, “You just pray.” They wanted to call the doctor, but I said, “No, don’t call the doctor; he can’t do anything anyway. Just pray. The Lord willing, I will preach tonight.” They looked at me lying on the bed, and they were wondering how I could ever get to the meeting. But I said, “Let’s leave it in the Lord’s hands.”
As the day went on, I still could not get up. There was no strength whatsoever. It was an amazing experience that I had never encountered before. I had been transformed from a muscle man to a person who could not even get out of bed. Pitiful, isn’t it? But all this was happening so that God could manifest His power.
Half an hour before the meeting, the leaders were looking very worried. I said, “All right, by the Lord’s grace, I now get up by faith.” And I got up. “Wow! He got up! But can he walk to the door without collapsing?” I got to the door. “Not bad, but can he get into the car?” I got into the car. When we arrived at the university, I had to walk up a lot of stairs. I walked up the stairs. And that evening I preached with such power from the Lord (I knew it was not from myself) that it just lifted me up as on eagle’s wings. I was so carried up on wings and preached with such energy and power that I could see the leaders’ faces staring at me in amazement, thinking, “Is this really happening?”
That was a demonstration of God’s power in my weakness. That is the way Paul would have it. “Make me weak so that Your power may be manifested.” Many times I have had to preach in a state of complete weakness. Just recently in Singapore, I was sick and running a fever; sweat was pouring down. I was propping myself up against the pulpit. The Lord keeps me weak so that all the power may be from Him.
Another time I was preaching in Edmonton, Canada. I was running a high fever and again they said, “You are the advertised speaker and people are coming to hear you preach.” I asked another pastor if he would like to preach in my place. But he said, “They wouldn’t want to listen to me, they want to listen to you.” So I said, “But look at me. I am running a high fever and sweating away even though the room temperature is moderate.” But he said, “No, I can’t do it. The people will be so disappointed.” He himself was a well-known pastor, but he refused to take my place. So I had to go to the pulpit to preach with sweat pouring down. I preached in complete weakness.
Why does the Lord allow this to happen? He knows that you are going to preach, so why doesn’t He take the fever away? Instead He allows you to preach in weakness, even with a fever so high that you could hardly think straight. But that is the secret of the Christian life.
Weakness is not just physical weakness but also inner feelings of weakness. In 2 Cor 11:32-33 Paul recounted how in Damascus he was let down in a basket through a window. How humiliating and undignified! Can you imagine the great apostle going down the city wall in a filthy vegetable basket? There was not a trumpet or a red carpet prepared for the great apostle. No, he was let down in a vegetable basket; he was probably covered with vegetables so that the guards would not see him. Where is the dignity? This kind of weakness is an inner feeling of weakness.
When you feel weak, can you thank God for that? Paul says, “I take pleasure in my weaknesses, and even boast in them.” That is a whole new mentality, isn’t it?
Paul also takes pleasure in reproaches. The word “reproaches” means insults, shame, mistreatment, outrage. Can you rejoice when people insult you, ridicule you, mistreat you? Paul says, “I thank the Lord that I got insulted.”
I used to go from door to door to preach the gospel. I seldom do that now; in fact I no longer do that. One time in Wales, in the United Kingdom, I was doing door-to-door evangelism. Have you ever tried that? You knock on the door and say, “Hello madam, here is a gospel tract for you.” Bang! The door is slammed in your face. What are you going to do? Are you going to say, “Do you know who is that important man who just spoke to you? If you knew, you wouldn’t have slammed the door in my face!”
You feel insulted and humiliated. But do you know what? I thanked the Lord for it. “Thank-you Lord that I got the door slammed in my face. Thank-you that I am allowed to suffer a little humiliation for Your sake.” For a person from my family background, having the door slammed in the face is not exactly easy to take. Formerly in China, if anyone slammed the door on those of us who lived in power and authority, that person stood a chance of being shot. So this insult was a wonderfully new experience for me.
The word translated “reproaches” can also mean disaster, damage, or hardship. Hardship means to be thrown out of your home for your faith in Christ; you end up sleeping on the park bench. Or you became a laughing stock to your friends and relatives. They call you a nut case for being a Christian. You sit there and everyone looks at you with a long face or with a pitiful smile, saying, “This guy belongs in a mental asylum.” This is enduring reproach for the sake of Christ.
One day you might have to say to your boss, “Sorry, I can’t help you falsify the figures.” “You can’t? You fool! Do you know what’s going to happen to you? You’re not going to get your raise. In fact I’m going to cut your salary!” So you get insulted. Your pay is slashed and other things start happening to you. How do you feel? Can you say with Paul, “I take pleasure in this”?
Let’s take something more common. You pray in public and people say to you, “Hey, we didn’t know you’re a holy Joe! Did you put on your halo this morning?” How do you like that? Nobody likes that. But can you rejoice? That takes transformation.
Necessity has to do with our needs. “Necessity” can mean quite a number of things in Greek. (When I am explaining the meanings of these words, I am giving you their Greek meanings.) The word “necessities” generally means pressures of any kind. We live in a stressful world. It is so hard to sleep at night because our nerves are in tatters, and we need alcohol or sedatives to calm ourselves. But here Paul says that he rejoices in stress and in pressures brought on by obligations.
Suppose you are going to lead a Bible study. You are leading a Bible study, and all the brothers and sisters have high expectations of you. There is pressure and stress. It becomes so unbearable that you resolve never to lead a Bible study again. Worse yet, they criticize your Bible study. You worked so hard, but they still say, “Why did you go wrong? Why did you cite the wrong verses and turn to the wrong pages?” And you say to yourself, “I did my best, and look at the criticism I get.” That is stress and pressure.
But Paul gives thanks. This is what he means by working out your salvation and joyfully accepting weakness, inadequacy, and humiliation. Do you understand Paul? He has a different mentality. Working out your salvation is not pretending to be strong or to be what you are not, but simply accepting every pressure - inward or outward - with joy. That is the Christian life.
Paul goes on to greater things that don’t even apply to us now. The Greek word translated “stress” or “necessities” can also mean persecution or even torture, according to Greek lexicons. Paul thanks God for pain and beatings and stonings, not just for rejection or ridicule (cf 2 Cor 11:24-27).
In 2 Tim 3:11 Paul talks about the persecutions that he suffered in Antioch, Iconium and Lystra, a reference to the events recorded in Acts 13 and 14. What kind of persecution is hard for us to endure? Since you don’t live in China, let’s not talk about persecution in China. What kind of persecution do you experience here? One of the worst is slander (when people say untrue things about you). There is no point justifying yourself because the more you try to justify yourself, the worse your case becomes. Paul experienced this in Antioch and Iconium. He was constantly slandered, and his teaching was distorted. Bad things were being said about him and his co-workers (cf e.g. Rom 3:8). In Lystra he was even stoned as a result of the slandering against him (Acts 14:8-20). Slander is the first step towards physical assault. To justify their attacks, they would say that you are a bad guy who deserves to be punished. So Paul was stoned and left for dead. Yet these are the things for which Paul gives thanks.
Think of the terrible stoning that he received at Lystra. He was knocked unconscious and bleeding profusely. He was left lying on the ground, presumed dead. The disciples also thought that he had died, but he got up by God’s power and continued with his ministry. The fact that he was presumed dead meant that the stones must have hit him very hard, probably leaving hideous scars on his head. He bore those terrible scars for the sake of Christ. How would you like to have a scarred face? Sisters are very sensitive about that, and I think brothers are equally sensitive. Would you find it humiliating to walk around with scars on your face as a result of stoning? But Paul glories in that. He is not ashamed of being physically disfigured. It is undoubtedly very humiliating to him, but he glories in it. At the end of Galatians (6:17) Paul says, “Let no one cause trouble for me, for I bear on my body the brand-marks of Jesus.”
Now we begin to see the stature of the apostle Paul and why God uses him so mightily. Paul is a man who delights in every weakness, from sickness to disfigurement, from inner anguish to pain. He talks about pain, sleepless nights, and every kind of distress such as poverty and hunger.
The Greek word “stenochoría” literally means “narrowness” or to be “hemmed in a narrow place”; figuratively it means distress or difficulty. Paul endures every form of difficulty, including hunger. Do you enjoy being hungry? If you miss a meal, you already feel weak. But Paul lives with hunger. I too have known a lot of hunger, having lived with it for two and a half years. God took me through the school of hunger, and reduced me to skin and bones.
Can you rejoice in your weaknesses?
Let us conclude. We must clearly understand that God’s power is perfected in only one way: in our weakness. The first step is therefore to accept our weaknesses. Paul rejoices over his weaknesses. Since the church has so many weaknesses, we have much to rejoice over.
Does it trouble you that your educational level is not up to the standards of others? Does it give you an inferiority complex? My friend, if it does, then you don’t understand the principle of weakness. God does not care about your education. Man cares, you care, but God does not care. He is not concerned about the academic degrees that you have or don’t have. In the church of Christ, anyone who lives with an inferiority complex because of education still does not understand that we must work out our salvation in weakness and with fear and trembling. It is when you are weak that God’s power is manifested.
People worry about all kinds of trivial things. Some people are bothered if they are too short or too tall. A person may have an inferiority complex because he is 5’1” and the other guy is 5’2”. So he buys shoes with higher heels, as though being tall is all-important. I am still trying to figure out what is so important about it. One time I was in a department store in Kuala Lumpur, and I saw a man who was about 6 foot 5. I observed him for a while, and then realized that he was the store detective. He was so tall that he could look above the shelves to see if anyone was shoplifting. At least there is one advantage to being tall: you can be a walking TV monitor!
How people struggle over elementary things! They think it is humiliating to look up in order to speak to someone taller. A dear friend of mine, Clark Pinnock, professor of systematic theology at McMaster University (Hamilton, Canada), is 6 foot 6. I admit that it is somewhat hard to talk to him because my neck gets tired. But that is about the only inconvenience. Apart from that, what is the problem? Why are you unhappy about your height? Some people are acutely troubled by this, and it eats them up, especially when they are in the company of tall people. Does your height make any difference? Does God care about your height? Will He measure your height at the gates of the kingdom? “Sorry, you’re too short to get in.” Maybe it’s the other way around. Some people may be too tall to go through the gates of the kingdom!
I am mentioning these things because it is surprising how people are bothered by their educational level, or their height, or even the cars that they drive. The car I drive belongs in the museum! I bought it for $100. In North America, cars don’t last very long because the salt used during winter corrodes the body. So my 1977 car is a relic. It is 16 years old but it still runs beautifully. I thank God for it.
Our sense of values must be inverted. Can we learn to rejoice differently from the way the world rejoices? There is only one way to experience God’s power, and that is to rejoice in weakness, in being lowly, in being nothing. Paul understands God’s power, and I hope you too will understand it.
“Lord, I am so weak. I have no power of my own. I am nothing; I can do nothing; I know nothing. Please let Your power come into my life.” Brothers and sisters, you are not going to be saved merely by accepting His gift of salvation, but by letting His salvation work in you. That is the only way that salvation can be worked out.
Have you ever heard this properly expounded to you? I have not. I am also in the process of learning this lesson. I thank the Lord for teaching me how to be weak, and how to live in the weakness of Christ. By nature I am not weak, and neither is Paul. So weakness is something that we have to learn. We learn not only to accept it, but even to delight in it. Then people will say, “Now I see God's power and glory in your life!”
(c) 2012 Christian Disciples Church