Grace in the Time of Weakness

By Commissioner David Edwards – 

In his second letter to the Corinthians, the Apostle Paul makes reference to a thorn in the flesh that was given to him to keep him from becoming conceited. What this was, we are not quite sure. Various commentators have speculated about it but not with any degree of certainty. The way the Apostle describes it, we know that it was something physical; that it caused some degree of discomfort. It is possible, too, that it was a source of personal embarrassment for the Apostle which might account for his unwillingness to speak about it in specific terms.

But Paul leaves us in no doubt as to what he thought about this “thorn in the flesh.” Whatever it was, Paul considered it a nuisance. It bothered him. He regarded it as a “messenger from Satan.” He considered it a weakness. It placed limits on him. He regarded it as an unwanted gift from God. He prayed about it–in fact, he pleaded three times for God to take it away, but God would not. Instead, God said to him,“My grace is sufficient for you. For my power is made perfect in weakness”

From that experience, the Apostle learned to view what he and others regarded as his strengths and limitations from a different perspective. First of all, he determined that he would no longer boast about his strengths. That if, indeed, he had reason to boast, he would do so about his weaknesses. He stated that he would take delight in his weaknesses; he would gladly embrace the insults, the hardships, the persecutions, the difficulties.

Not an example to be admired–is it ?

In a time and day when “self-promotion” is the name of the game, you would be forgiven if you found it difficult to recommend the Apostle’s example as one worth considering. People are encouraged to package themselves in the best possible way, promoting their strengths and, in fact, regarding what were considered weaknesses at one time as simply limitations.

We are also inclined to be somewhat suspicious of people who seem to have a fear of “well-being.” People who have a problem with “good news.” They seem to have grown up thinking that “good news” only happens to other people. Any bit of good news which comes their way is sure not to last for long. But here is Paul saying that he took “delight in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties.”

Who likes being insulted–do you ?

I can honestly tell you I do not like being insulted. I enjoy my comforts. I try as best as possible to avoid persecution, and I wish that life were a bed of roses.

A quick reading of what Paul has to say in this passage is certainly open to misinterpretation and misrepresentation. But as the context suggests, Paul is no different from any of us insofar as his attitude to trouble and hardships is concerned. He did not take too kindly to the insults of the Judaizers. He pleaded with God to take away that which caused him discomfort and embarrassment. It would be true to conclude that, like any of us, his preference would be for an easy life; a life devoid of trouble and trial.

Grace enough and to spare

Paul, however, was a servant of God. He lived all of his life in obedience to the will of God. If in the midst of trouble God said, “My grace is sufficient …”, then God’s grace was sufficient. He was not going to go looking for trouble, but if it came his way then he knew that this was yet another opportunity to see God at his best. That was God’s promise to him: “My power is made perfect in weakness.”

At the February meeting of the Commissioners’ Conference, I was given the opportunity to conduct the devotion one morning and the above comments were those I shared with my colleagues. I have chosen to share these with you for the same reasons I shared then.

I rather suspect that for a number of you reading this paper, this issue of Chapter 12B of the administrative code of the city of San Francisco, often referred to as the domestic partners issue, has become something of a thorn in the flesh, especially for those familiar with it. I know that it has for my wife and me, as well as for the other members of the territorial cabinet.

No other matter has so threatened to dominate every waking thought of ours as has this issue of domestic partner benefits during these first six to seven months of our service here in the Western Territory. I have known of times when I have wished that the matter would simply disappear; times when I have prayed fervently for God to do something that would resolve the issue and give us some relief; times when I have wondered when and how it would all be resolved; times when I have simply asked God what it was that he was doing to us; times when I have wished for a clear signal from God that he had heard, but there was none to be seen.

I believe that this has been the experience for many others throughout this territory who have had to share in the burden of trying to bring about a satisfactory solution to the issue. They, too, I am sure, have prayed and hoped that the thing would go away completely, only to realize that God continues to say “not yet.”

Evidence of strength made perfect in weakness

But in looking back, I have become aware of many good things that have occurred in our lives and in the life of the territory which might not have happened had it not been for this issue.

For example, I do not think that there has been any other period in the recent history of this territory when we have had more prayer offered with such fervency for God to come to our assistance as has been evidenced within the past six months. As a people, we have been driven to our knees in utter reliance on God.

This issue has opened up meaningful debate among the rank and file in our organization on issues about which we ought to be talking. For example, this issue of how we treat people who might be “different” from us; this issue of “graceful” behavior of which the author Phillip Yancey writes in his book What’s so Amazing about Grace? A debate that I sincerely hope would continue whether or not this issue is resolved quickly.

This issue has provided us with the opportunity we needed to hold meaningful discussions with friends and supporters of The Salvation Army in the city of San Francisco to explain fully who we are and what we do as a people of God, giving them an opportunity to accept the challenge to really stand alongside us in this our time of great need.

Powerless and vulnerable

While this situation might have served to show us how vulnerable we are as a church, how powerless we are as a people. It forces us to rely completely on God. It is his grace, not our gifts or our limitations, that will prove sufficient. Let us delight in this revelation of our vulnerability, of our powerlessness. I believe with all my heart that, in time, we shall see God at his best.

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