The Invincible Christian Life
4th and last in a series of messages expounding 2 Cor 12:9 “My power is made perfect in weakness” Sermon by Pastor Eric Chang, delivered at Hong Kong Church, Central Branch.
Let’s turn together to a very important passage of the Word of God at 2 Cor 12:7b-10.
“There was given me a thorn in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to buffet me - to keep me from exalting myself! Concerning this I entreated the Lord three times that it might depart from me. And He said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness.” Most gladly, therefore, I will rather boast about my weaknesses, that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Therefore I am well content with weaknesses, with insults, with distresses, with persecutions, with difficulties, for Christ’s sake; for when I am weak, then I am strong.”
Take note of every word. If you look carefully, you can see that without exaggeration this passage is of the greatest importance.
When have you ever felt that your weakness is something to boast about? When have you ever thought that problems, difficulties, hardship and persecutions are things to rejoice about?
What kind of Christianity?
We live in an era of Christianity which teaches that God is blessing you when there are no difficulties, when everything goes smoothly. But Paul spoke of difficulties, hardships and all kinds of shame poured upon him as something to rejoice and boast about. This kind of Christianity can be described as an invincible, undefeatable Christianity. This kind of Christianity is indeed hard to come by these days.
The kind of messages we hear today in North America and elsewhere is that if you have hardships and difficulties, that is not of God. If you are poor, that is not God’s will. If you have any sickness, that is also not God’s will. Every sickness has to be healed. Every poverty has to be taken away. If you are poor, it is because you do not have faith. If you have faith, you can ask for a Cadillac, or Mercedes. If you don’t get a Cadillac, you don’t have faith. This is the kind of Christianity that is preached around the world.
With this kind of Christianity, you wonder whether or not you are reading the same Bible as the Apostle Paul. If he was listening to all this, he would wonder if anybody had understood anything that he had written.
Are you living a victorious Christian life?
Today, I want to deal with something very important - the very essence and nature of Christianity. What is a victorious Christian life? Are you living it? What is the secret of power? Do you have spiritual power in your life? What is true spirituality? If I asked you to define it, do you know what spirituality is? Those are important questions. Without spiritual power, we cannot live the Christian life.
Whenever I am weak, then am I strong
I would like to draw your attention to 2 Cor 12:10, “when I am weak, then I am strong.” Notice every one of these words. Obviously there are two parts to the sentence. The last part is: “I am strong”. Are you strong? Do you feel strong? In this past week, do you find you have the power to cope with all the problems you had to face? When we look at the sentence, we really want to emphasise the second part, don’t we? “I am strong” -that is the part that appeals to us.
You can think of parallel passages that the Apostle Paul used, such as Phil 4:13, “I can do all things through Christ.” Ah, that is wonderful Christian life - “I can do anything”. Paul had the capacity to endure every hardship. You can throw anything at him and he can still remain strong. He is that kind of a Christian. What about you and me? We hit a little problem and we go down. The sorry part is that life is so full of problems. As a result, we find ourselves going down most of the time. When do we come up? Perhaps when we come to church. So for six days we go down, and on the seventh day, we manage to collect a little bit of strength to go up. But at this rate, we would go on an endless deficit. I fear that the next time when I come here to preach (I don’t know when that may be), I won’t see you any more, because the deficit has resulted in spiritual bankruptcy.
What were the things that Paul boasted about?
But Paul’s capacity to endure was amazing. Just read that long list in 2 Cor 11:22-30. Do you notice the things Paul saw as worth boasting about? This is indeed a mighty man. You take a look at that list. Which of these can you endure? He was shipwrecked three times and was dunked in the cold Mediterranean water. Would you like to try that? Maybe Paul was a good swimmer, so when the boat went down, it was no problem. But since you don’t know how to swim, perhaps the Lord would not test me in this way?
If you were a missionary serving the Lord, a full-time worker preaching the gospel, surely you would think the Lord would pave the way for you. But what did He do? He allowed your boat to go down. You may protest: “But Lord, excuse me, that is not the way to treat Your servant. The point is not whether I can swim or not, but to dunk Your servant in the water unceremonially is surely not the way to treat Your servant. Lord, if You do this once to me, I can still excuse You. But three times? This is unacceptable. I had enough trouble the first time, but three times I cannot take. Not only was my Bible wet and ruined, but all my preaching notes disappeared and I couldn’t remember what I was going to preach.”
I wonder if your Christian faith is strong enough to handle this. I don’t think your faith will be able to, if your Christianity is the kind that God would never allow even one bad thing to happen to you. “Here I am His servant, ready to go out and preach the Word. Surely the Lord will pave the way for me, right?” And what happens? The elevator would not move, and you suffered the indignity of trying to get it to move for you and it would not. So you ran downstairs and found that you had missed the bus. Surely this is no way to treat the servant of the Lord.
You have a few problems and you say, “Lord, why do you treat me like this?” That’s why I said that you need to understand the essence of Christianity. You may have been brought up in the kind of Christianity that as long as you walk in the centre of His will, everything would be smooth. He may not pave your road with roses, but at least not with too many thorns.
When Paul wrote those things in 2 Cor 11, what was his purpose? Did he write to grumble against the Lord? He wrote these things to prove to the Corinthians that he was a true servant of God (v 23). That is the connection between the first part and the second part of the passage in 2 Cor 11. Paul was saying: “Are they servants of the Lord? I am more. What is the evidence? My boat sank.” Isn’t that amazing? Their boats didn’t sink and therefore they were not true servants of the Lord. Is that the reasoning? Am I joking? You read it and see if you can find another connection.
Learn to walk with the Lord
In walking with the Lord, I often experience amazing things. I do quite a lot of reading, almost every day without fail. Most of the books I read are of a theological nature. But even in what I read, it is amazing how the Lord leads me. I do not just grab a book and read it. I say, “Lord, what would you like me to read next?” These are not devotional books but theological books which deal with the exegesis of the Bible.
I have been reading a book for the last two weeks, and last night I was reaching the end of this book. When I turned over the page, I could hardly believe my eyes. The heading of that section was exactly what I am preaching today: the evidence of the qualifications of Paul’s apostleship. It referred to the same passage that I have here in my notes which was written more than five weeks ago. Isn’t this incredible? The author is saying exactly the same thing as I am saying now.
Evidence of Apostleship
Paul mentioned these hardships, the beatings and stonings as evidence of the genuineness of his apostleship. That is the amazing thing. In that passage, he did not refer to his vision on the Damascus road. Writing to the Corinthians, he laid his claim to be a true apostle, in contrast to those others who claimed themselves to be true apostles, by indicating that they should know that he was a true apostle precisely because of the stonings, the beatings, the shipwreck that he had endured for the gospel.
When Paul went out to preach, he didn’t expect God to so soothe the hearts of the people that they would not stone him nor beat him. Sometimes, it is remarkable that I hear people say or I read in magazines that the evidence of the Lord’s goodness to them is that they went there and the hearts of the people were all prepared. They had a wonderful reception. Even if there was some hostility in the beginning, the hearts of the hearers were changed as soon as they were there. Receptivity on the part of the hearers is certainly sometimes evidence of God’s work in man’s heart. But have we come to understand the fact that fierce opposition to a message is often the surest evidence that the Holy Spirit is working powerfully in the hearers’ hearts to convict them of sin and the need to turn to the Lord to be saved (e.g. in Acts 7)?
Poor Apostle Paul was stoned, while another time he was left for dead. He was stoned so badly that he was bleeding all over. He was knocked unconscious in one heap on the ground so that they thought he was dead. If you had looked at the face of the Apostle with all that he had endured, you would have seen scars all over his face. And these very scars Paul referred to as “the marks of the death of Jesus in my body” (2 Cor 4:10). No, Paul did not always get a warm reception.
And how many times was he beaten? Each time when Paul got beaten, it was with a whip, thirty-nine strokes on his back. Each time the whip came down, it would take a bit off the skin. When it came down, four or five slashes came down at the same time. He was given forty strokes minus one - as an act of mercy prescribed by the Jewish law. Can you endure one such beating, not to mention five? What did the Apostle’s back look like? Was this good reception?
But you may think that surely when the Holy Spirit worked through Paul, the power of his word would convict the hearers and they would just fall on the ground and repent. Well, when Stephen in Acts 7 preached the Word with power, he was stoned to death. Why didn’t God protect this precious servant of His, but instead let him be stoned to death?
Do you dare to go out to preach the Gospel? Don’t think that God is going to pave the way for you. He will not as a rule. Perhaps occasionally, but only rarely, will He pave the way, as you can see in Scripture.
Understand the Nature of Christian Life
Unless you understand the nature of the Christian life, you will not survive. But not only did Paul not complain about these things, he even boasted about it and rejoiced in his suffering. He was mighty. He must be a spiritual Superman to endure all this.
So you may say to me, “I get your point. Don’t rub it in. I get it now. To be a Christian we need the capacity to endure. But the Apostle Paul was Superman and I am no Superman. I can’t cope with this. So let the Superman go ahead and endure all this.”
Well, do you want to be Superman?
Was Paul Superman?
Was Paul Superman? We read that in Rom 8:37 that God always makes us to be more than conquerors. That is the “dream” picture of the Christian life - “more than conquerors”. But for many of us, we would be satisfied to be conquerors, never mind the “more”. We can’t experience what is the “more”. We have enough trouble experiencing victory.
In boxing, sometimes you have fights where the two boxers are bashing one another blue and black, while the judges are having a hard time deciding which one wins on points. But then there are fights when there is a clear knock-out winner, with the loser lying flat on the canvas. This knock-out winner is the example of “more than conquerors”.
So when Paul spoke of “more than conquerors”, he did not mean that you manage to win just by points, but win with a surplus of power still in hand. So Paul seemed to be speaking of some Superman Christianity, was he not? But most Christians find that that is not their experience.
What happens when you don’t experience that surplus of power? You become discouraged and you may even become frustrated. With that comes something very dangerous, a sense of guilt. You begin to ask questions like, “Am I regenerate? I read in the Bible that we are more than conquerors, but I am not. Why?” Is that your experience?
Then you look around at the other brothers and sisters. Am I the only one taking a beating? You soon discover that they too are no better off. They are also black and blue. Obviously, they are not Supermen either. So you look around, are there any Super-people around? What about your church pastors and leaders? But even they seem to have a small weakness here and there. Do Supermen make mistakes too? They may be a little better, but they surely are not Supermen.
Are We Fighting a Losing War?
Now you have a problem. You begin to become disillusioned. You begin to become cynical. When this gets worse, you begin to feel a sense of hopelessness. You may conclude that the Christian life cannot be lived. Not even those heroes you look up to, those leaders in the church, are that perfect. This sense of hopelessness begins to grab hold of you, making your Christian life go from weakness to weakness. You cannot win. No one else, not even the leaders, can win. We are fighting a losing war.
What is the way out? I see so many Christians becoming more and more negative. Everything they look at is not hopeful. They are on the edge of collapse. But when you read the letters of the Apostle Paul, did he think like that? The reason he didn’t think like that was because he did not think like you and me. Paul was truly invincible but he was not Superman.
Where does this Superman Idea come from?
I will later explain what I mean in this last statement. But first we must look at this idea of “Superman”, and understand the nature of true spirituality. We must try to understand where this erroneous idea of “Superman” comes from, because if you start with the idea of Superman, you are going to miss the point, and make a serious mistake.
This idea came from a German philosopher called Friedrich Nietzsche. This man was an anti-Christian philosopher. Although his father was a pastor, he turned against everything that was Christian. It is not uncommon for people who come from Christian homes to turn against Christianity because of the kind of Christianity they see at home. Nietzsche was a very clever man but he somehow was obsessed with the idea of fighting against God. Of the many books he wrote, one was called “Anti-Christ”, in which he claimed himself to be the Anti-Christ. He turned against God because God was presented to him in the wrong way. But having turned against God, he was left with nothing to live for. He had lost all meaning in life. To reject the Gospel is to reject any basis of hope. Nothing is eternal, everything is transient. Nietzsche became insane at the age of 45 and died 11 years later, in the year 1900.
Superman - Glorification of Man Himself
As a result, Nietzsche developed the idea of Superman. His idea was that man could develop into Superman, at least some men can. To him, hope was the development of man to the highest level of achievement. Man could save himself by his self-development. Some of us can develop into a super race. Of course, this was the idea of the super race that the Nazis took up.
Even though the end of the World War II saw the end of the Nazi dream of a super race, it was taken up by some cartoonist. Man still wants to learn to somehow trust in himself. But who can we trust?
Recently I heard on the news about a man in China who virtually worshipped Mao Tse-tung. He collected every kind of portrait of Mao Tse-tung: in little booklets, badges, or statues. His aim was to collect 25,000 of these. In his room there is a great big portrait of Mao Tse-tung. Everyday he burned incense in front of Mao’s portrait. Why did he do that? Mao Tse-tung was for him a Superman.
Since no living man fits the picture of Superman, the cartoonist could still imagine one: this handsome man with his wavy hair, V-shaped body with bulging muscles, the tight fitting blue gown draped around his back helping him to fly in the air. This is the kind of stuff we do only in our dreams. Have you flown in your dreams? Surely we have flown in our dreams. If you can’t be Superman in everyday life, at least in your dream you can.
Now you understand why we cannot use the idea of “Superman” in the Christian life. It is the glorification of man. It is the glorification of human power that completely leaves God out. In the cartoon, Superman can stop and turn around rockets. What does that mean? That means that man can solve his own problems and does not need God. All you need is for man to develop to a higher level and he can do anything. This idea is nothing new. We can see this in Genesis, where we see mighty beings called sons of God. We also read about man’s achievement as in the building of the tower of Babel. Man is going to build his way into heaven. He is going to take his seat on the throne of God.
Man’s achievement is very considerable. He can fire rockets, and he wants to reach out all the way to the heavens. But I was reading about a report of a new bigger telescope in Hawaii to enable man now to look even further into the universe. The more man knows about the universe, the more we know how humble and small man is. Our greatest achievement in rockets does not go very far in terms of the vastness of the universe.
Fallacy of Becoming Spiritual Supermen
So this whole notion of the glorification of human achievement is what Superman is all about. To apply the idea of Superman to the Christian life is to completely miss the point. Sadly, this kind of thinking still persists in the church. We still see this idea of self-improvement with the intention of achieving this spiritual Superman status. We have been indoctrinated by the present educational system to believe in the idea of continuing self-improvement.
Why do we study so hard? Self-improvement. You study so that we can go from one level of schooling to another, from one degree to another. We learn to improve our memory and our concentration. We can even get pills for “brain power”. With all this effort, we are going to improve ourselves.
When we come to church, don’t we do the same thing? Why do you study your Bible? You say, “I want to know the will of God.” Knowing the will of God is usually only some small part of reason. The real reason though is to improve your grasp of Scripture, is it not? Isn’t it wonderful that when somebody asks a question in the Bible study, you open the passage to them and you are able to open their eyes. People look at you, admiring your profound understanding of Scripture. Of course, you would not say that you do it to impress people. You would say you want to know the will of God. But since you know the will of God so well, why can’t you live victoriously?
What about prayer? Surely, that should be very spiritual. But it may not be that spiritual. We can pray in such a way like “transcendental meditation”. We can concentrate our thoughts and improve our minds. It can help us to focus our mental capacity. It is good to have ten minutes of quiet concentration for the mind as well as for the soul. We are sold on the idea of self-improvement. If you have some subtle reasons for self-improvement in studying the Bible and praying, you still miss the point and you will not progress spiritually in the Christian life.
Is Discipleship Training Program moving us to be Supermen?
You may say, what about discipleship training? Surely with all the different levels of discipleship training, you can progress spiritually and be able to live a victorious Christian life. When you have finished the basic level and you are still struggling to live victoriously, you would look forward to the next intermediate level of training as a solution. This program will really move you towards being Superman. True spirituality is now not that far away.
Does all this training really work though? Do you find you are living victoriously? Have you found that, after some training, suddenly you have some kind of Superman achievement in your life? The reality though is that you begin to realize that you are only half way to being Superman, and you need to be humble about it. Even so, once you are half way to becoming Superman, it is not so easy to be humble any more. But you still want to try. So we have a lot of good people in the church trying to understand how to be more humble. Their whole energy is expended in this struggle of being humble.
Yet you are frustrated. You may say: “After all these discipleship training sessions, when am I actually going to live victoriously? If the only way to succeed is to go on to the next level of training, I don’t know if I am ever going to get there. This Christian life is too difficult to live.”
Let me say this to you. If we go into all this discipleship training with the intention of becoming spiritually advanced in the sense of being a Superman, you have mistaken the whole thing. Even worse, these training sessions will become harmful to you. They are actually dangerous if you go in with the wrong motive. I worry about this a lot. The training is valuable, yet every valuable thing can be misused. That is where the danger is.
The Essence of Spirituality
So then, how do we go on from here? As we conclude, we have to understand the essence of what Paul is telling us. Unless we grasp that, we can never live victoriously. You must go back and think carefully on 2 Cor 12:10, “When I am weak, then I am strong”. Paul never claimed to be Superman. In fact, he was never Superman. The astonishing thing is that he went on in 2 Cor 13:4 (“indeed He was crucified because of weakness”) to say that even Christ was not Superman. Another way to rephrase this is “Jesus was crucified as a weak person”. In the New Testament, Jesus was never presented as a Superman. Through the whole of John’s Gospel, Jesus never functioned in His own power. When you do not function in your own power, it means that you yourself are nothing and only God is something in your life.
Unless you understand this, you don’t understand the Christian life at all. Never imagine that one day you can reach the level where you can function in the power of a Superman. Because when you reach that level, you don’t need God any more. But as long as you utterly depend on God, it means that you are always weak.
Do you see the danger of the Superman idea? You must grasp it clearly. You must not imagine that you can reach the stage where you have so much power that you can spiritually function on your own. You must never think of your Christian life as a battery which is being charged up by training sessions, Bible study, and prayer. You bring the level of charge higher and higher, so that after your time of prayer and Bible study you can go out and run a long time on that battery charge. Then you come back to God for a recharge only when you feel that charge going down. It does not work like this at all. There is no time in our life when we do not need to be living in our weakness and drawing our strength from Him moment from moment.
Different Kind of Christianity - Boasting in Weakness
What Paul was saying is: “when I am weak, only then can I be strong”. That means in order to be strong at any time, you have to be weak. That is something vital for you to understand. The two parts of this sentence can never be separated. If you feel weak, that is the time to thank God. This is what Paul was boasting about.
Do you feel pain in your body as I do? Paul spoke of a thorn in his flesh. Try pushing a thorn into your body and feel what it is like. It is a picture of a very sharp pain in the flesh. A lot of the scholars have been trying to figure out what it was. Nobody can say for sure. If you keep complaining to God as to why you have this pain in your body, you don’t understand the secret of the Christian life. It is precisely in that weakness that God’s power is going to be manifested in you. In that very passage, Paul boasted about this very thing: the pain. This is a completely different kind of Christianity.
When you have need, that is God’s opportunity to display His power both to you, and through you to others. You all know the story of Joni, this attractive athletic girl. She broke her neck, paralysed from the neck down. She was quite young and her whole life was going to be spent in a wheelchair. Why did God allow such a thing to happen? Yet through her life, countless people have been blessed. Why? Precisely because God’s power is manifested in her weakness.
How do We Face our own Problems?
Yet when you have some health problems, you feel so terrible. I often feel the pain in my back to be very weakening. Notice the word “weakening”. Every illness and every pain has a weakening effect on us. God, in order to make Paul more powerful, had to weaken him first with the pain of the thorn pressed into the flesh. Do you understand this principle? Maybe we are not yet at the level where God can put a thorn in our flesh. We can hardly cope with the small problems we face everyday. The quality of our Christian life will be seen in how we face our problems.
Do you remember the “Queen of the Dark Chambers”, how her eyes were so sensitive to the light that she had to live in the dark? What a tragedy! She had to live in the dark day in and day out. She was virtually living in the night. It was again through her weakness that God’s power was manifested and millions were blessed through her life.
Our Weakness - God’s Opportunity
Your weakness is God’s opportunity to show how extraordinary His power is in your life. This is the glory of Christianity. It is not that you have no problems but precisely in every problem, there is the power to overcome even a broken neck or paralysis. Where else is God’s power going to be manifested in our lives? Do you think God’s glory is manifested in me because I can drive a Mercedes around? I don’t need to be a Christian to drive a Mercedes. But I need to be a Christian to glorify God, to let His power to be manifested in me with a thorn in the flesh. I don’t need God’s power to live in a great big beautiful house. But I do need God’s power when for the sake of the Gospel I have nowhere to live at all.
How Blessed to be Weak
In my early Christian experience, I saw God’s power manifested in Brother Yang. He had the secret of the Apostle Paul in his Christian life. He accepted poverty because of preaching the Gospel. It was something he gloried in and rejoiced in. As I have shared before, we lived together for several months. What do you think I learned most from him? Not how to read the Bible, or how to pray for hours. But from the way he handled his problems and difficulties I learned what the glory of God was. Both of us had no money. Sometimes, we managed only one small fish between us. There was no money even to buy vegetables. We had enough money only to buy rice. I remembered his thanksgiving and praise to God for the tiny little fish. He was constantly being pursued by the police. This was in Shanghai. His joy in the Lord in the face of every problem was where I saw the glory of the Lord. Do you understand this secret?
Paul said that “I am crucified with Christ” (Gal 2:20). Not “I was”, but “I am”. To be crucified is to be regarded as a criminal. It also means suffering and death. Crucifixion is a symbol of absolute weakness. It was this that Paul saw as the centre of his life. It was precisely there that he was in fellowship with Christ. Do you have this kind of experience with Christ?
In the Beatitudes (Matt 5:3-12), we can see that every one of the blessings has to do with weaknesses. “Blessed are the poor”: the poor are weak. “Blessed are the meek”: the meek are the weak ones. “Blessed are the persecuted”: they are persecuted because they have no defence. That was how the Lord opened His teaching. He was trying to impress on our slow and meagre understanding that the whole secret of the Christian life is that God is the God of the weak. His power is only manifested through weakness.
David was called a man after God’s own heart (Acts 13:22). Was it because he was a Superman? Exactly the opposite. He was the one who deeply appreciated the fact that God loves and lives with the poor, the humble and the weak, and he wrote: “the Lord is near to the brokenhearted, and saves those who are crushed in spirit (contrite in spirit)” (Ps 34:18). In fact the beatitude “Blessed are the meek” is based on David’s words in Ps 37:11, “The meek shall inherit the land (or the earth)”.
You Are Sufficient so You do not Experience God
I have experienced in my own life the wonder of the Lord. You have seen that in my testimony. I have been experiencing so many expressions of God’s power in my life. But what worries me is that I seldom have the chance to hear others sharing similar experiences. I wonder why you don’t experience the wonder of God’s working. Is it because I am Superman and you are not? No, I am no Superman. I am nothing. That is exactly why God works in my life. It was because in my weakness and in my need God manifested Himself to me.
The problem is that you are much more “super” than I am. You don’t have the needs that I have and that is why you don’t experience God. That is why I am sorry for you. You are too well-to-do. I am not saying you are rich, but you have enough to live on, so you don’t have to experience God’s provision.
t was in Shanghai that I had nothing to eat. God created a wonder for me. He was not going to let me starve. If He was going to let me starve, I would accept that too. But He was not going to let me starve. I had that amazing miracle where He multiplied the food for me. I shared that in my testimony.
Is God Real to You?
That is why I say that you are unfortunate because you are too well-to-do. Also you are too healthy. You have passports and citizenships such that God does not have to help you out. Look at your life and ask yourself: where is my poverty and need? Blessed are the poor. They are weak and God will intervene. If your only need is psychological, all you need is some mental comfort. If that’s all you need, you can just glue your eyes to the TV and that will solve all your problems. If you have psychological problems, you look for psychological solutions. You simply do not know whether God is real or not. When I tell you what I have experienced, you may say that maybe I am a bit exceptional. You might even go so far to say that I have perhaps exaggerated. It is hard to believe these things if you have not experienced them yourself. If anything, I tend to underplay the story. When you are actually in it, it is much more exciting than telling the stories. Can you imagine the feeling when you look into the pot expecting the food to be gone only to find that the food is still there? Can you imagine the feeling when you take the food out of the pot and then find that the amount of food in it is still the same as before? It is amazing when you experience it yourself.
Do you want to experience Paul’s kind of invincible Christian life? Do you want to have his kind of spiritual power to live your Christian life? Is our God real to you?
Blessed are the poor and the weak because God will reveal Himself to them. Are you prepared to be poor and weak so as to experience Paul’s kind of invincibility?
(c) 2012 Christian Disciples Church