So, I don’t know how many of you know this about me, or if any of you do, but I was a football player in high school and college. Don’t worry — you will get very used to my football stories; that’s just the way the math works out. I’m 25 years old; I played football for 8 years; that’s mostly what I’ve done with my life up to this point. Anyway, I played football and I was an offensive lineman. Now, in college, the offensive linemen were kind of their own thing. We didn't mingle with all the other rah-rah players. Most of us were miserable all the time because we did all the work and never got any of the recognition. However, the radical and independent nature of our group also affected how we were disciplined. Our coach had one rule: stay off lists. Every week the coaches got lists of players who missed class, weightlifting, therapy appointments — you name it, we had a list for it. And anytime an offensive lineman appeared on one of the lists — which was almost always freshmen — the entire group got punished. And our punishment was bear crawls.
In case you don’t know what a bear crawl is, it’s when you get down on your hands and feet and crawl. Now you may be thinking “ oh that doesn’t sound so bad; you could probably go pretty fast” — NO. It was terrible. And we had to crawl the entire football field like that. And every time someone else messed up and ended up on a list, they compounded. So we had some days were we were bear crawling 4 or 5 hundred yards after practice.
Whenever I reminisce about this, I always remember this one day that I referred to as “the low point.” I remember I had just driven back to my dorm from a morning meeting where I was told we again had several hundred yards of bear crawls after practice. And after I parked, I sat in my truck and just cried for like an hour. I was supposed to be this big tough football player and here I am weeping in my truck in a parking lot.
I remember this so vividly because, looking back, it was one of the many stops along the way to realizing that being a college football star couldn’t save me. No matter how strong I was; no matter how hard I worked; no matter how successful I was; it could never do for me what I wanted it to do for me. Which was a hard pill for me to swallow, right? Because I put all my eggs into this basket thinking it was going to make me happy and it was nothing but a huge disappointment. Yeah, it was great and I learned a lot and I’m a better man for having been through it but it couldn’t do anything to change the fact that my faith was in that instead of Jesus; that I boasted in that instead of boasting in Jesus.
There’s something parallel being warned against in our passage this morning. We’re told that no matter what wonderful, amazing things may come our way, no matter how powerful the event of faith is in our lives, the second we begin to boast about those things and not the God who gave them to us we’ve gone the wrong direction. The second we start to boast about how strong our faith is and what we’ve accomplished through the strength of our faith, we’ve completely missed the fact that faith is a gift that’s been given to us despite our weakness.
That’s what Paul is trying to say in these first 4 or 5 verses. He knows this guy who had an amazing spiritual experience and he himself has had amazing spiritual experiences and revelations, and he’s content to say that God alone knows the details. And I think this is an especially relevant lesson for us, because we often want to be explainers. We’ve been so conditioned by this post-enlightenment, western mindset that we want everything to be objectively explained, all the time. And that’s fine; there’s a time and place for that in our lives. But there are things that can’t operate in that kind of framework. The events of faith, like the ones Paul talks about in this passage, are some of them.
The experiences we have which order our lives and give us meaning are gifts from God. We can’t always explain them, and even when there is a rational explanation for them, we can’t explain why we find meaning in them; we just know that God is present and active in that moment, in that event. And it’s easy to feel this way about the positive experiences we have, like Paul’s revelations or the revelations of his buddy, but it’s not always as easy to feel this way about the negative ones.
Paul talks about a thorn given him in the flesh. Now, there has been a lot of ink spilled over the nature of the thorn and the nature of what it means that it’s “in the flesh.” More conservative interpreters have tried to read a specific kind of demonology into this passage because Paul claims the thorn is a messenger of satan, and other more liberal interpreters have claimed that he struggled from some physical ailment or injury that he ascribed to the work of satan and others have tried to read a double meaning into it as an allusion to the crucifixion of Christ and they all kind of miss the point, don’t they? There will be as many theories about Paul’s thorn as there are scholars to formulate them. Whatever this thorn was is insignificant in contrast to the fact that Paul was given eyes to see the presence and the working of the Lord within it.
Struggle and pain and hardship is a part of life; it’s part of what it means to be human to live in the fallen not-yet on this side of glory. And a lot of the time we can accept that fact relatively unflinchingly, even in the face of national and international crises. We can look at mass-shootings and natural disasters and racism and sexism and chalk it up to living in a sinful world, but we often don’t start shaking our fist at God until the struggle and the pain and the hardship comes for us. Why didn’t God prevent me from getting cancer? Why didn’t God help my marriage when it was falling apart? If God is so powerful, why didn’t he step in and do something when it actually mattered?
These are hard questions. And I want to affirm, right now, that if you’ve ever asked these questions or if you’re currently asking these questions, you’re not alone. Paul is the most influential person in the history of Christianity, besides Jesus himself, and he’s asking these questions too. He tells us that he pleaded to the Lord three times to take this thorn away, but instead of being relieved of his pain, Paul found God in it. That’s the greatest miracle. Humanity is a weak and fickle species. We’re easily affected by things; we’re easily bent out of shape. When things don’t happen in such a way that it obviously lends itself to our flourishing, our response is often anger or fear. If this God can’t conquer cancer; if this God can’t conquer a broken marriage; if this God can’t conquer emotional or spiritual or physical trauma, is this God even worth worshipping?
It’s a fair question. And we shouldn’t fault people for asking it. The problem of evil and suffering in the world is the number one thing which prevents people from committing themselves to the Christian faith, and I — as a Christian and as a pastor — don’t blame them. The world is a mess; there’s no two ways about it. But I would argue that maybe we need to change the way we understand the victory God has won over evil and suffering. The victory isn’t that evil and suffering has been eradicated from the world; alls one has to do is flip on the news to be convinced of that much. The victory is that evil and suffering can never snuff out the reality of love; that it doesn’t monopolize our thoughts to the extent that we’re paralyzed and prevented from trying to make the world a better place.
The thing that holds all this together is the acknowledgement that we couldn’t have won that victory on our own, even if we tried. That’s why Paul says he can be content with weaknesses and insults and hardships and persecutions and calamities — because they’ve been conquered. They can’t enslave him anymore. They have no power over him anymore because Jesus is the victor. And this victorious power is manifest in our moments of weakness; when we no longer fear death; when we no longer fear the consequences of love; when we’re moved to action rather than paralysis by the evil in the world. Thatis the perfection of divine power. Even though it doesn’t always feel like it, our weakness is a gift because it allows us to experience the gospel and be affected by it.
We often avoid staring into the abyss of evil and suffering because we don’t want to face whatever it is that will be staring back. But we can’t consider as nonexistent the suffering of which we spare ourselves the sight. Printed on the wall of the Parker building, right outside these doors, are the words of Jesus in Matthew 25: “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me in.” Sometimes when we stare into the abyss of evil and suffering the only one staring back into us is God himself. God comes to us in our moments of weakness, and also in the weakness of others: in the poor, the oppressed, the hungry, the innocent. He comes to us as those in the images we see on the news and social media which we really don’t like to look at. God’s strength is made perfect in them too.
My prayer is that we be given eyes to see and ears to hear the presence of God in our weakness and in the weakness of the world. The only thing sufficient for our weakness, for our salvation, for the salvation of the world, is God’s grace, and may we be be constantly reminded of its presence in our lives as the only thing capable of making us strong.
Let us pray.