09-29-2013 message by Pastor Rich Doebler
It’s a little known fact that I played baseball back in high school for the Mora Mustangs. In my senior year, to deal with the short season (I remember snow during play-offs), our team got an indoor pitching machine. With practice, I got pretty good at watching that mechanical arm and hitting the ball fairly well. Problem was, the mechanical arm was quite predictable. It delivered the ball the same way every time—not at all like the unpredictable arms of the real-life pitchers I faced when the season started.
Sometimes they threw overhand, other times side-armed. They could throw fast balls, change-ups, and curveballs. They kept me off-balance…so I went into a batting slump that I just couldn’t shake off. (And when your season is only about 15 games long, you don’t have much time to get out of a slump.)
So I was sitting on the bench on a cold day in May more than four decades ago, the Mustangs trailing by a run with one out in the bottom of the ninth. That’s when I heard Karl Deis (our substitute coach), call my name. “Doebler, get ready to pinch hit. You’re on deck.” I grabbed my bat and started loosening up.
Then, suddenly, I was at the plate with two outs in the bottom of the ninth.
Do you know…life often throws us a curve ball—something we didn’t expect, something that catches us off-guard.
In baseball, a curve can make the batter swing and miss. Which is what happened to me. The ball was hanging there right in front of my bat, fat and juicy. I swung for the fences—and got nothing but air. My last at-bat in my illustrious baseball career (not counting Legion ball that summer).
In life, a “curveball” can cause us to “miss” something too. We might miss a golden opportunity to do something really good for someone. Or we might miss the chance to overcome temptation. We might miss seeing God’s presence—his blessings in everyday life.
So today I want to talk about improving our “batting average” in life: How do we reduce the “misses” and increase the number of “hits”? How do we tap into God’s power to live above our disappointments and set-backs? How does God help us deal with the “curve balls of life”?
—Because life will throw you a fair number of curve balls—things you don’t expect.
Last week we began a new series of messages: Ordinary People, Extraordinary Lives. We are all made of the same stuff; we are all human…with flaws and weaknesses, with fears and doubts, with sins and short-comings.
So last week we talked about how we are all “common clay pots”—but we also looked at how even jars of clay can contain the “all-surpassing power of God,” that ordinary lives can become extraordinary.
So let’s take that truth a step further. Let’s take a look at how God works in our weakness—how he actually uses our weakness (our inability to hit life’s curveballs)—to accomplish something special, something extraordinary. Let’s look at how God uses our natural condition to release his supernatural ability within us and through us.
Again, we’re looking at what the apostle Paul wrote to the believers living in that immoral and decadent city of Corinth. He wrote to followers of Christ challenged (as we are) by the idea of living for God in a society that wants to live for itself and its own lust-driven pleasures. So Paul talked about struggles…
2 Cor 12:7-10. 7 …in order to keep me from becoming conceited, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. 8 Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. 9 But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. 10 That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.
Does this passage seem negative to you—or positive? Is it depressing or inspiring? It depends, I think, on what you focus on. If your focus is on the “thorn,” it will feel more negative. But if you focus on the “grace,” it will be positive. If you focus on “weakness,” you will feel differently than if you focus on “power.”
Let’s see the “thorn” for what it is—a means to get to the grace and the power. So a half dozen things immediately pop out of this passage:
- Paul was tempted with becoming conceited—feeling proud of his spiritual experiences.
- God cared enough about Paul to deal with his problem—by thwarting Satan’s intentions…
- And using a “thorn in the flesh” to address Paul’s spiritual problem.
- Paul’s prayers were not answered immediately—nor in the way he wanted.
- God showed Paul that his grace was enough.
- God said his supernatural power is “made perfect” (revealed more fully) in Paul’s weaknesses.
So let’s take what Paul discovered for himself and apply those lessons to our lives today.
1. Spiritual success can lead to problems.
Did you know spiritual victories can lead to temptations? Say you are working on a godly characteristic like humility—you learn to humble yourself before God. And you do so well at being humble, that the church gives you special recognition—an award, a medal for achieving humility. But then they have to take it away because you proudly wore your medal.
Spiritual victories can lead to temptations: looking down on others who seem less spiritual; criticizing people or churches who don’t believe the same; doubting the commitment or faith of those whose prayers aren’t answered; feeling smug about spiritual accomplishments; becoming complacent and coasting spiritually instead of “pressing on.”
It’s like the Pharisee in Jesus’ story (Luk 18:9-12) who trusted in his own righteousness and looked down on everybody else…
Before he came to Christ, Paul was a Pharisee. So maybe he was a perfectionist by nature, with a personality that was extreme. He was passionate, full-bore, over the top. He went all out for God. Before he met Christ, he considered himself a “Hebrew of Hebrews,” a Pharisee who followed the law to the letter, zealous and faultlessly righteous (Phil 3:5-6).
If he was persecuted for his faith or thrown into prison or chased out of town, Paul seemed to thrive on it all. He lived dangerously. He was flogged; he received 39 lashes five times; he was beaten with rods three times; he was shipwrecked more than once. (2 Cor 11:23-26). We know this because he tells us.
So God saw the potential for a spiritual pride problem in Paul, but God did something about it.
2. God cares enough to deal with our issues.
Paul was tempted to become conceited. God didn’t look the other way and ignore the problem. He didn’t say to Paul, “Well, it’s all good. Grace covers it. Your spiritual pride was nailed to the cross.”
No! Grace does not ignore our need to further develop spiritual character, to become more like Christ! In fact, the Bible tells us we are to “grow in grace” (2 Pet 3:18).
So often we start out on our spiritual journey with Christ, and we’re just so relieved that we finally have found an answer to our troubles and our sin. We bask in the sensation of being forgiven! The guilt and the shame is lifted. The slate is wiped clean. Our failures and dysfunctions are all in the past. We’ve been given a new life in Christ.
The danger is that we feel so good, that we’re satisfied just to stay there.
Of course, with many who are raised in the church, who grew up more or less “holy” without any major sin and rebellion, the danger of being content and spiritually satisfied is even worse.
In our class on the beatitudes, we studied: “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled” (Matt 5:6). In Luke’s Gospel, though, where he lists the “blessings” of the Beatitudes, he goes on to add several “woes”—where Jesus said, “Woe to you who are well fed now, for you will go hungry” (Luke 6:25).
There are “woes”—consequences for misusing the blessings we’ve been given. Those who are spiritually well fed and satisfied may stop hungering and thirsting for righteousness. Woe!
But why would God use a “messenger” of Satan to accomplish his purposes in our lives?
It’s ironic, but something intended for bad can be redeemed by God to accomplish good. Sometimes the very thing Satan intended to use to tear us down or destroy our spiritual life is what God uses to accomplish spiritual growth in us. It’s a supernatural exchange—a trade: ashes for beauty, mourning for joy…
“No weapon that is formed against you will prosper…” (Isa 54:17, NASB) and a day is coming when God will cause evil intentions to be transformed for good. “…They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. (Mal 4:3)
So this thorn, meant by Satan to inflict pain, is what God used to help Paul—just as he wants to help us—to grow in more grace, to develop stronger spiritual character, and to become more like Christ.
This lesson is seen in stories like Joni Eareckson Tada, who was paralyzed at age 17 in a diving accident and wanted to die. But out of that horrible experience came a world-wide ministry to encourage people handicapped with broken bodies.
Or the story of Nick Vujicic, who was born in Australia with no legs and no arms. A tragedy in most people’s minds, yet he learned to see God at work in great disappointment. He is now a motivational speaker who encourages people around the world.
Or Ray, a man I knew when I was a chaplain at a nursing home for young adults. His pictures on the wall told his story—a stand-out athlete in high school, he lived on the wild side and was injured for life in a drunken night of pleasure. But confined in a wheel chair, he found Christ. He told me (through his mechanical speaking device) that he was better off than me because his “light and momentary troubles” were much more severe than mine—so his “eternal weight of glory” would be much more significant than mine (2 Cor 4:17).
So what God did for Paul, he may do for us as well.
3. God can use physical problems to deal with spiritual problems.
God used a “thorn in the flesh” to “deflate” Paul’s feelings of spiritual superiority. There’s a lot of speculation about what the “thorn in the flesh” might have been.
Some think it was a physical problem—some sickness or handicap or disability. Others wonder if it could have been certain people who caused him grief—he did talk in another place about “wrestling (or struggling) with flesh and blood.”
It doesn’t really matter what this “thorn” was. The important thing to see is that it was uncomfortable— painful even. It irritated and bothered Paul enough that he wanted to be free from it. So he begged God to take it away.
We pray for people all the time who are facing some physical illness or some other kind of problem. When we face an uncomfortable or painful situation, it’s natural to ask God to remove the problem.
What’s not natural is to be open to the answer Paul received when he prayed.
4. God’s answers to prayer are often different than what we want.
Paul prayed three times. Your answer may not come the first time you pray.
Paul’s thorn was not removed—at least, apparently, at that time. Your answer may not come in the way you want.
Paul didn’t get what he asked for. He was an apostle, but he had problems with his prayers. He was human—like we are—with weaknesses, emotions, and human feelings.
He wanted a tangible, physical solution to his problem. Instead, God gave Paul more grace.
God was more interested in changing Paul’s character than in changing Paul’s circumstances! So he gave Paul grace: grace to understand what he was doing; grace to persevere through painful times; grace to endure instead of remove the thorn.
This is the mystery of prayer—learning to see things from God’s persective above our own perspective. Prayer is a means that should align our hearts to God’s heart. To see beyond the present. To see beyond the problem. To humble ourselves before God’s eternal purpose and spiritual mysteries.
What would we say to our 3-year-old if he asked, “Can I play in the street? The mud puddles are way better in the street.”
Some of our prayers fall in the same category as what a 3-year-old would ask for—they’re about what we want more than what we need. We might even be tempted to cry and scream and throw a spiritual tantrum in order to get what we want.
Somebody asks, “Do you know the difference between prayer at church and prayer at a casino?” At the casino they really mean it.
Well, I hope that’s not true for you, but it is for some. The joke highlights a real problem—some people pray desperately at the casino…or while picking numbers for a lottery ticket.
But those prayers don’t really line up with God’s agenda. Far too often we ask God for things that fall short of his greater values—his spiritual goals and aspirations for us. We pray for circumstances to change when God is looking at character that needs to grow in grace.
So if he didn’t remove Paul’s thorn in the flesh, what exactly did God do for him?
5. God gives more grace.
Here is a great irony—sometimes we find more grace when our prayers are not answered the way we want or in the time we prefer. Sometimes it takes thorns in our lives—unremoved thorns, unsolved problems—to experience new measures of God’s grace.
Paul discovered that God’s grace was enough, more than sufficient for his need. He discovered he didn’t need anything else as long as he had God’s grace. It was all he needed!
We need to learn, as Paul did, that grace not only covers our sins and failures; it also gives us what we need to face each day—when that unexpected bill lands in your mailbox, when your spouse walks out on you, when an ambulance takes your teen to ER, when a uniformed military person rings your doorbell…
The list of troubles and thorns goes on and on. Yet God’s grace covers all that—and way more. God’s grace is better than a “thorn-free” existence.
This is why we need God’s grace every day! I can’t live today on yesterday’s grace. I need God’s more-than-sufficient grace for now.
When life throws us a curveball, we need God’s grace in that moment. Yesterday’s grace won’t cut it.
6. God’s power is fulfilled in our weakness.
“Made perfect” is teléō, literally: “to bring to a close, to finish, to end…to complete, fulfill.” It’s the same word Jesus used on the cross when he said, “It is finished.”
Another way to put it: “my power comes to full strength…” (from the NET footnote). Other versions…
LB: “My power shows up best in weak people.” ERV: “Only when you are weak can everything be done completely by my power.” Puppet—totally weak, completely filled with and powered by the hand inside.
Because God’s grace (undeserved, unearned favor) does its work, human weakness becomes the pipeline for God’s power to be released.
People don’t confuse the pipeline from Canada with the oil from Canada. The energy comes from the oil inside the pipeline. An empty pipeline has no power. You can have the best, state-of-the-art pipeline, but there’s no power if there’s no oil flowing through. You’ve got nothing—just a big pipe.
If we try to succeed out of our own strength, we’ve got nothing. We have an empty pipeline. It’s only when we embrace our humanity—our weakness and flaws and need…the “thorns” in the flesh that plague us—only then can God’s power flow through the pipeline of our weakness and be released.
Once Paul realized that God was working through his “thorn,” he was able to “delight in [his] weaknesses…” (v 10).
As Eugene Peterson paraphrases v 10: “Once I heard that, I was glad to let it happen. I quit focusing on the handicap and began appreciating the gift. It was a case of Christ’s strength moving in on my weakness. Now I take limitations in stride, and with good cheer, these limitations that cut me down to size—abuse, accidents, opposition, bad breaks. I just let Christ take over! And so the weaker I get, the stronger I become” (MSG).