(This week’s blog postings are adapted from the theme address, “Preaching Under Pressure,” presented at the EK Bailey International Conference on Expository Preaching in July.)
Paul knew what it was to preach under pressure. Paul has been outlining his struggles, then he speaks briefly (at the start of chapter 12) about the visions and glories he has experienced in Christ. But now he goes on to point out that the pressures of his ministry had a purpose. Pick up in 2 Corinthians 12:7-10:
So to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited. 8 Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave 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 of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. 10 For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong. (2 Cor. 12:7-10)
Paul tells us that one of the great burdens of his life was some physical impairment or limitation. The tradition in English translations has been to call it a “thorn in the flesh,” but the word could just as easily be translated a stake. We don’t know what it was – you get your choice of maladies that have been suggested by the commentators, from poor eyesight to epilepsy – but whatever it was, it was a constant, nagging reminder to Paul of his own weakness.
Even in the midst of spiritual victory, there was this thorn, this stake, reminding him that he was a fragile, earthen vessel. With the powerful spiritual experiences he has had, and the role he has played in spreading the gospel, it would be easy for him to begin to glory in himself – to let his ego become inflated. This thorn in the flesh reminded him of his own weakness and limitations, and kept his ego in check.
Have you ever thought that Sister Lulu could be your thorn in the flesh? That the struggles you face in ministry, the pressures you encounter in preaching, could be the stake that reminds you of who you are and whose you are? On good days in ministry, it is very easy to get an inflated view of oneself. When the folks line up at the door after Sunday service and tell you what a powerful message you preached, it’s not hard to start thinking, “Yeah, that was pretty good if I do say so myself.”
It is said that John Bunyan had preached a great message and was greeted by a layman who told him, “That was the most powerful sermon I have ever heard!” Bunyan replied, “You need not tell me that. The devil whispered it to me before I was well out of the pulpit.” Could it be that there are pressures in your ministry that are there precisely to remind you that you that Jesus didn’t just get into town when you showed up? To remind you that you are a poor earthen vessel that has the privilege of proclaiming the treasures of God’s Word.
And then Paul shares with us one of the most vital insights in all of the New Testament – and an insight into why God allows pressures to come our way. Paul says he has prayed and prayed, asking God to remove this physical limitation, but instead of doing so, God has assured him, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Did you get that? God said, “My power is made perfect in weakness.”
The world’s power is power in strength, in self-exaltation – but that is a fleeting power, here for a moment and then gone. Christ’s power is power-in-weakness – it is the power that comes when God reaches into a life that is faithful despite the trials, a life that perseveres despite the pressures, and God produces a glory that can only come from on high.