[The following is an excerpt from a commencement address I was asked to give last week for Trinity Preparatory Academy in at Christ Community Church in Lindenwold, NJ. While there was only one graduating senior, they have a big vision and I was proud to be part of the ceremony. The young graduate, Miss Ana Hernandez, is a regular attender at Mercy Hill]
As you begin your life after high school, you need to recognize that while some things will change, many things will remain the same. You’re still going to have homework—in college, of course, there will be homework assignments. But more generally speaking “tests” and “tasks” and “trials” are not things that are limited to school.
In fact, in some ways, the homework assignments of high school are some of the easiest “tests” you’ll ever have. As of today, you’ll begin to discover the truth of this observation yourself. How can you prepare for the changing-yet-similar circumstances of your next chapter of life? How can you start this new chapter well?
God’s Word will help us here, because it is filled with instruction on how to manage life’s tests. It may not have the answers to your school assignments, but it definitely does have the answer to life’s “homework” assignments.
But the answers may surprise you.
The text which will form the basis for my speech this evening, is found in 2 Corinthians 12:9. In this passage, we have,
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.
In the context, St. Paul identifies a difficulty in his life which he calls a “thorn in the flesh.” He prays, we are told, “three times” to God, asking for his “homework assignment” to be completed, to be finished. He says, “Lord, enough is enough. Please remove this thorn from my flesh.”
God’s answer is“No.” God’s explanation is the text I’ve chosen for my remarks tonight: he says, “My grace is sufficient for thee.”
Let’s unpack this with three definitions. What is the definition of “weakness”? of “grace”? and of “sufficient”? Three definitions.
The first definition. Weakness.
What does weakness mean?
Let me illustrate with a story. When I was a kid, I read comic books. In the back of the comic books one of the ads that showed up over and over was a picture of a skinny kid getting beaten up by a strong man. The kid was known as a “98-pound weakling.”
The point is that because the skinny kid was weak, he was constantly being taken advantage of, being abused and beat up by the other stronger kids.
In St. Paul’s case, he too was a weakling—he was not being beaten up by strong bullies, however. He was being beaten up by something he was experiencing—earlier referred to by him as a “thorn in the flesh.”
Scholars are not clear on just exactly what Paul’s weakness was, what exactly it was that he was praying about. Some believe it may have been a physical ailment. I happen to think it may have been a spiritual temptation.
Whatever it was, what matters is that this thing called “weakness” pushed Paul to his uttermost. Paul felt that he couldn’t get past it, couldn’t get around it. It was beating Paul up, in some sense. God “had” to take care of it!
In terms of our earlier homework analogy, weakness was Paul’s assignment or “test” which was very difficult for him. But if the assignment hadn’t been so difficult, he wouldn’t have felt the need to cry out to God the way he did.
Weaknesses have this effect on people. If Paul wasn’t feeling this thing called “weakness” then he would have had no need to talk to God. To pray “three times” as the text says. Like difficult homework assignments, they cause us to go in early before school for extra help; to do extra practice problems at the end of the chapter; or even get a tutor. God’s answer to Paul’s request for help in his weakness leads us to the second definition we need to consider: that is the definition of grace.
Second definition: grace; what is grace?
Grace normally is considered to be that which fundamentally changes human beings relationship to God. Grace is what turns sinners into saints, enemies of God into God’s friends. Because of this, grace is sometimes used as a shorthand for the entire Christian faith—as when Paul refers to the “gospel of grace.”
But here, in Corinthians, grace means something different. Here grace is seen to be God’s strength or help or “power” given by the Holy Spirit to those who have already been transformed.
In other words, the grace we’re talking about here is not the blessing of God for salvation, but God’s power for Christian growth. And God says to Paul, and to you, Ana, in whatever your current troubles are, and to all of us: “in my son, Jesus Christ, God the Son, who died for your sins, and rose in power from the dead for your salvation—in Him you have all the power you need in this circumstance.”
But here’s the funny thing about grace: if you do not experience weakness, you cannot experience grace. Or you could look at it from another angle: if you are strong in and of yourself, you won’t need or want grace.
Third definition: what is sufficient?
This brings me to our third definition: sufficient. What does sufficient mean?
Let me use an illustration of when I was a teacher—using the homework analogy again–students would sometimes ask me for help explaining the question on an exam or an assignment. Sometimes I would clarify it for them, but many other times—most times, actually—I would say, “I can’t help you. What I have written is enough information.”
So while my students were tempted to blame me, as their teacher, for not explaining things enough, they would eventually learn that what was provided was in fact sufficient.
The point is, by using this word “sufficient,” the Lord is telling St. Paul “enough is enough.” God is telling Paul what should satisfy him.
If you become thirsty, sufficient is when your thirst is quenched. So when God tells Paul that grace is sufficient, he is saying that in this difficult circumstance, grace should satisfy him. That God’s help, the power which God provided, should be enough in that circumstance.
What had God provided? He gave His Son to die for Paul’s, and yours, and my sins. He sent His Holy Spirit to fill us with the power of the resurrection and as assurance of God’s love until He returns. That’s what God gave Paul when God gave Paul grace. If God never did anything else for Paul, and never answered another prayer—that would have been enough.
My dad would put it this way, quoting a Christian song he loves: “All that you need, you already have.” In Psalm 23, David would say the same thing: “…my cup runneth over.”
The lesson for us at this point is clear: you must often endure and put up with troubles (what I’m calling homework assignments that life hands you) and even evil you experience for long periods of time—years even—only with the power God has given you through the Holy Spirit.
Now we can see how all three definitions (weakness, grace, and sufficient) come together. Its like this: even though your weakness may seem to be an obstacle to God’s making progress in any certain situation, it actually isn’t. In fact, God is telling Paul, and you, Ana, and each and every one of us, that: “it is only when our weakness becomes apparent, that God’s strength is perfected.” (Calvin)
So when Paul prays “give me the strength to endure this trial,” God says, in effect, “Paul, you have my grace in the gospel. You already have it. What I have given you in Jesus Christ is sufficient, it is enough.”
To illustrate this, I’d like to point to the life of a famous pastor, John Newton. He started his career as a notoriously wicked man, and a slave trader in the 18th century. But God got a hold of his life and he converted to Christianity and became an accomplished preacher and minister of the Gospel, as well as a fine poet and hymn writer. He would write one of the most famous hymns in the english language, Amazing Grace, which first line of that hymn teaches this point about weakness, grace, and sufficiency:
Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me. I once was lost but now I’m found; was blind but now I see.
- Newton didn’t see his former condition apart from God as unfortunate, as negative, as “unhealthy.” He was a wretch.
- He didn’t see himself as a little off track. He was lost.
- He didn’t see himself as needing glasses. He was completely blind.
In conclusion, in bringing all three of these words together–weakness, grace, and sufficient, what do we learn? Two simple lessons I’d like you to take from this evening’s address:
1. Work hard to cultivate your need for God; you’re not strong enough on your own.
This is because you are a creature and God is your creator. You have been made or designed to worship Him, love Him, and even to depend upon Him.
When you find yourself with insufficient or inadequate strength or resources, that’s God’s way of reminding you that He didn’t design you to be strong on your own, to be your own primary supply of strength. He made you to be strong in and through Him first. By His grace. Calvin makes this observation about our nature as sinful human beings:
people quickly lose sight of (the value of God’s grace), if they are not constantly exercised with a feeling of their own weakness.
Now I’m not saying human strength unnecessary. But your weakness reminds you that you need God; you’re not strong enough on your own. And because God loves you, God will actually bring things into your life to keep you depending upon Him.
That’s why you must work hard to grow your need for God. Even while you pursue your plans in life, and further studies, and accomplishments, and achievements—don’t forget that you’re a creature made to depend upon God.
How do you do this? As you prepare to move out on your own to college and other plans in life, make the following three things a priority:
- God’s Word
- Christian friends
- a God-honoring Christian church
2. When you are weak, remember that the point is not you, but God.
A big temptation when we suffer is to think that this is somehow personal, that someone is out to get us, or that somehow God has forgotten me. But, our text tells us that God’s purpose is for His power to be matured and perfected in us; the goal isn’t really about us, but about Him. It is His Grace, after all, not ours. It is His power, not yours. It is His story.
To use the homework analogy, how much is too much homework? Well if the goal is for God’s power to be made perfect, then it is that goal, not your comfort, which controls the length or difficulty of the assignment, right?
The depth of the trial, and its difficulty, is controlled by the fact that God is seeking to glorify and perfect and magnify His own reputation in your life and in the world.
Here’s how we might paraphrase this verse. God says in response to Paul’s asking the thorn in his flesh to be removed by saying,
“You may think that you’ve had enough of this thorn, but I’m not ready to remove it from your life. I am not necessarily going to explain what my reasons are, but I can say that while you think you won’t survive this trial, this test, the help I have given you so far is enough. The reason is that this trial is more about me than it is about you.
God is in control of the assignment. You must trust him. If you do, how will it make a difference in your life?
- I think you won’t feel the need to be too shy about your weaknesses. After all, they are an indication of where, and how, God is at work in your life. That’s why Paul “boasted all the more” in his weaknesses.
- I also think that you’ll be more likely, when you feel your human weakness, to praise God for those moments. Paul takes confidence in his human weakness because he is learning to recognize the relationship between weakness and grace—at least, he’s beginning to learn.
When you do this, the text tells you that the “power of Christ” rests upon you, dwells in you, and shines through you.
So while your school assignments may have ended—at least for a few months before college begins in the fall—this assignment continues: to glorify God in your life, not only when things are going well, but especially when you feel weak, powerless, and desperate.
In those moments of weakness, my prayer for you and for all who are listening to me this evening, is that you would find your sufficiency in God’s marvelous grace. And since we know those moments are coming, let us go before our great God and ask His help, beg him for His grace, that it may support and help us in our hour of need.
Let us pray.
**Photo Credit: “My Cup Runneth Over” by c-pi at Deviant Art: http://c-pi.deviantart.com/art/my-cup-runneth-over-76412681