Golf’s Lesson on Christ’s Consistency

I want to end my series of posts on 2 Cor. 12:7-10 by telling you a funny story about me. Now I grew up around people who loved playing golf. My Dad gave me a set of clubs when I was a kid and I would often find myself in the front yard playing with them. When I married Holly, I married the daughter of a golf pro, and because of his grace, Holly and I can play whenever I ask. One time recently I was out there playing a round with some friends and I was having a great time. After the first six holes I was beating my friends with a score of 3 over par, and I was astonished at how good I was playing. But then, the next 12 holes came and I found myself getting an 8 on one hole, 9 on the next, and so on until the end when I finished with a 125!

My game went from awesome (in my rookie opinion) to rock bottom when I ended the 6th hole and began the 7th. What happened! I always want a trouble-free round of golf and I got a trouble-filled round that day. I was seriously frustrated at myself for playing so poorly when I know I can play so much better. It wasn’t until later in that round that God began to teach me a lesson through this golf outing.

He began to impress upon me that my spiritual life has a strange resemblance to my golf game in that they can both be summarized by the word “inconsistent.” My mind went immediately to Romans 7 where Paul speaks of his own personal struggles in holiness and godly living. In that chapter Paul describes what we all know is true of ourselves in 7:19, “For the good that I want, I do not do, but I practice the very evil that I do not want.” What do we do with such a life of inconsistency before God? I so often feel I am the man James 1:6 and Ephesians 4:14 describes being a wave of the sea, tossed to and fro. How can someone like me ever be confident before God? Well, I am confident that I’m not the only who feels like that either. I’m sure most of you feel this too. David Brainerd the Puritan missionary said it like this: “No poor creature stands in need of divine grace more than I, and none abuse it more than I have done, and still do.” Paul answers Romans 7:19 later in 7:24-25, “Wretched man that I am! Who will set me free from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” Why praise God for Jesus? Because He became what He was not (sin) so that we could become what we were not (rightoues). Because we who are inconsistent can be consistent before God because Jesus was consistent before God on our behalf. There’s no confidence more solid.

Friends, I really do want you to be confident people, but I want you to confident in a Biblical manner as oposed to an vague Western confidence rooted in self-esteem. Paul was made weak by God so God could be seen as strong through Paul’s life, and he rejoiced at this. My grace is sufficient for you, for My power is made perfect in weakness. When I am weak, then I am strong. He knew his own weakness, he knew his Savior’s strength. Do you?

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When I Am Weak, Then I Am Strong

God responds in 12:9 with a strong and gentle word for Paul that he surely would never forget. After pleading, and pleading, and pleading for the thorn to be taken away God says, “My grace is sufficient for you, for My power is made perfect in weakness.” A quick glance at God’s response tempts us to believe God is unloving and selfish. “You mean I’m going to keep suffering so You can be magnified?” Wouldn’t God take the thorn away rather than let His servant continue to suffer? Isn’t that how love works? Isn’t love removing pain from peoples lives and not allowing them to remain in it? Then the question turns personal: Wouldn’t God solve my marriage problems? Wouldn’t God finally heal my disease or cancer? Wouldn’t God keep my family fed or my children healthy? Well, sometimes tha answer is “no.” Friends, God loves us in ways we don’t always find to be the most comfortable, He does this because He knows one thing is best for us, Him. C.S. Lewis stated it clearly: “It would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.” God wisely, strongly, and lovingly kept the thorn in Paul’s life, but at the same time told him when suffering comes His grace is sufficient to keep him strong, to keep him standing, to keep him moving forward and not giving up. Paul wanted a change in his circumstances, but God wanted more, he wanted to change Paul. At this news, Paul rejoices!!

All of this is confirmed by Paul’s response to what God told him in the end of v9 and v10. After hearing that the thorn would not be taken away and that God would hold him up through it by His grace, Paul says, “Therefore (or, “because Christ is magnified in my weakness”) I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses that the power of Christ might rest on me.” Paul is happy to endure the thorn to experience the strong sustaining hand of our Father. We should not say at this point, “This is a strange man.” Instead we should say, “This is a strange gospel we have.” You mean the goal of the Christian life is not comfort and ease? I won’t have a pain free existence if I’m a child of the King? No. It’s about being so in love with Christ and so stunned by His glory that we become ok with suffering so that we would know the powerful sustaining grace of Christ more. To further impress this upon us, Paul confidently states that he is content with weaknesses, trouble, insults, pain. What’s his reason? “When I am weak, then I am strong.” In other words, God is intentionally and purposefully making Paul weak so He can be seen as strong in Paul’s life. Paul knows he can be confident in His hand to hold him through it. It won’t be easy, but how awesome will it be to feel, know, and behold, God in all His glory, sustaining him. Paul said it great when he said it a few chapters earlier in 2 Cor. 4:17, “This light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison.” And then again a few chapters earlier than this in 1:8-9, “…all this happened to us so that we would rely not on ourselves, but on God who raises the dead.”

Paul was a confident man, but his confidence wasn’t in himself, the thorn made him acutely aware of that, his confidence was in God.

The What & Why of Paul’s Thorn

Right away in 12:7 we see Paul being counter cultural by stating in the beginning of 12:7 and at the end of 12:7 that a thorn in the flesh (which he also referred to as a messenger of Satan) was given to him for one reason – to keep Paul from becoming conceited. Lets pause and ask two questions here: a) What was the thorn? And b) What purpose did it serve? So what was this thorn? Before we go any further I must say the idea of “thorns” is highly abused. You’ve heard this right? People label what ever the currently dislike as their thorn. My job, my spouse, my child, my in-laws, my car, my weight, my lack of weight, my height, my lack of height. These are not thorns. Let me get one things straight: a thorn is a thorn because it is something you ask God to change because you can’t change it yourself. Something so deep in the center of who you are that it haunts you to see it. Something that rids your bones of all confidence.

Now, I’m sure many of you have heard of Paul’s famous thorn in the flesh, and throughout the church history it has been a hot topic; many people have believed the thorn to be many different things. The good options range from inner emotional struggles from excessive sorrow and weight on his heart for the churches, to Paul’s enemies and false teachers who had a knack for following Paul and disrupting his work, to some kind of demon like harassment that ate pressed at him constantly, to a poor and rapidly decreasing eyesight that plagued his ability to read, write, and preach. Honestly it doesn’t matter which one is the correct option, there is evidence for all of these in Paul’s letters.

So lets ask our second question, what purpose did the thorn serve for Paul and what does it teach us today? It is crystal clear that Paul’s thorn was from God to keep him humble. The thorn was from God because it is God, not Satan, who wants to keep his people humble, and it served the purpose of keeping him humble because Paul had a huge reason to be prideful. Thousands of people were streaming into the Church because God was working and saving people through the preaching and ministry of Paul. And knowing how gigantically God used Paul for His work in spreading the gospel, can you see that out of all men he had a real need to kept humble. Who knows what would’ve taken place if God had not given him this thorn. Perhaps an example would help here. I’ve been in and around pastoral ministry for the past 10 years or so, and I’ve heard the praises. Everything from the casual “Thanks for the sermon Pastor”, to people coming up to me unable to say anything because they’re so thankful for what the pastor just said. You see, when that kind of praise is coming at you, it’s tempting to believe it. And it’s when you begin to believe the praise that you begin to believe you’re the one doing the work rather than God. Can you see why nothing good comes from pastors who think they’re big man on campus? When the glory of the message becomes focused on the glory of the messenger, the glory of God is mocked and defamed.

Whatever the thorn was it kept Paul humble, and apparently it did such a great job of keeping him humble that Paul begged God to take it away from him. When Paul says he pleaded with The Lord “3 times” he doesn’t mean he tried three times and stopped. The use of the “triple” in Hebrew culture was used to show the superior, sensational, and unsurpassed nature of an object. This is why in Isaiah 6 God is referred to as “Holy, Holy, Holy!” It’s meant to teach that out of all things there is none as Holy as God, and God’s supreme characteristic is His holiness. So when we see Paul say he pled “3 times” with God to remove this thorn, it means he really didn’t want it, and he constantly was asking God to remove it from his life.

Confident for the Right Reasons

“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. Three times I pleaded with The Lord about this, that it should leave me. 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. 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)

In order for us to see what’s going on in these verses, I have to go back and give you the context for us to rightly understand the power of our passage. You see, in the previous few chapters in 2 Corinthians we find out that the false teachers who had come into the city of Corinth were not only teaching but boasting of their abilities, of their power, and of their intellectual prowess to be able to know and teach such lofty truths. Paul then in response to these empty boasts of the false teachers, responds by boasting himself. But Paul’s boasting isn’t like the false teachers boasting. Paul lays it out clear in 2 Corinthians 11 that out of anyone who could have boasted Paul had a reason for boasting.

“Am I not a Hebrew? Am I not an Israelite? Did any other other nations receive the promises of God as we did? Was I not the most learned Pharisee? More than that I have endured 39 lashes not once but five times, I’ve been stoned once, beaten with rods twice, and shipwrecked three times. I’ve been on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger from false brothers; in toil and hardship, many sleepless nights, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. Not only this but I’ve received the most amazing visions of heaven I can’t even repeat what was told to me and I’m not even sure if I was in my physcial body or not.” No one else could say such things, actually I don’t think anyone else would want to boast about things like these. But Paul had reason to boast, he had been tossed from the fire to the frying pan more times than most would remember. But he doesn’t boast in his mighty strength or in his mighty power or that his intellectual equipment is fully functional. What then was Paul’s boasting?

Lets walk through our 4 verses to see what God has for us.

Continuing tomorrow….

Confidence is A Funny Thing

Confidence is a funny thing, especially in our time. Everyone one around us seems to be confident. It’s almost as if we’re taught from birth that confidence is next to godliness. Don’t you think so? Even if you’ve got no idea how to do something you better look like you’ve got it all together. Rather than asking for help our motto seems to be, “Fake it till you make it!” The strange thing about this is that confidence is a good thing, but the wicked thing about this is that most people, most of us are very confident for all the wrong reasons. We’re confident because of our abilities, we’re confident because of our social status or reputation, we’re confident because of our level of physical fitness, we’re confident because of our looks, because of our bank account, because of where we came from, because we got out of where we came from, because of the car we drive, he home we live in, the job we work, and on and on and on. Some of you are even confident of how confident you are.

Confidence is a funny thing. What makes all this just seem ridiculous is that the Biblical picture of confidence is diametrically opposed to everything I’ve just said. You see, Biblically, confidence comes from an awareness of two things: knowledge of our own weakness and knowlegde of God’s strength. Do you see now why this seems absurd in our day? You don’t hear this often. “I am confident” because I am weak and God is strong. I am wicked but God is holy, I can’t do it but God can, I will fail but God won’t.

Throughout the Bible there are numerous pictures of this lesson for us to see, probably because we are so slow to learn this lesson. In fact it is not an overstatement to say that this is partially the theme of the Bible. All over the Bible we find God working and saving and putting His strength on display for all the world to see through what, strong powerful squeaky clean people who’ve got it all together? No, over and over and over and over we see God showing His strength through weak and foolish people. Of all the places that teaches this, the place I want to show you this reality from is in the Apostle Paul. Why? Because the one was referred to as the Pharisee of Pharisees, the missionary of missionaries, or the preacher of preachers, referred to himself as the least of all the Apostles, a wicked and wretched man, and even the chief of sinners.

Confident huh? Oh yeah!

X: Ex-Nihilo Matters for Holiness

I know “ex-nihilo” does not officially begin with an X, but I couldn’t think of a topic beginning with an X (if you can, let me know!), so I figured this was just as good.

So what does ex-nihilo mean? Ex-nihilo, or “out of nothing” refers to how God created the world in Genesis 1. Why does that matter? Because this shows us that God created something out of nothing. The world was formless and void, and God took what was void and made it into something useful, where people can live. This applies to Israel and to us in different ways. To Israel, this meant that what God did at creation (creating something out of nothing) He can do again now with them. You see Israel was a sinful, rebellious people, wandering through a “formless waste” called the wilderness (Deut. 32:10). They would have read Genesis 1 and been encouraged that God could bring them, who were wandering through a formless land, into a land flowing with milk and honey. God would take Israel from being nothing to something. Genesis 1 therefore prepared Israel to enter into the promise land.

To us, it means something similar but different. We are living in a world that is in a sense “formless and void” because we live among people who disregard God and His commands. We, like Israel, are looking forward to the day when we are brought into a land better and greater than the land we now inhabit. But there’s more. We are sinful, rebellious people like Israel. Because of this, we are formless and void in our souls. BUT, the moment we trust in Jesus God does in us what He did at creation – turned nothing into something. Paul draws on this in 2 Corinthians 4:6 when he says:

For God, who said, “Light shall shine out of darkness,” is the One who has shone in our hearts to give the Light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ.

You see how Paul brings Genesis 1 into our own salvation? God said “Let there be light” back at creation turning the empty void into a fruitful paradise. BUT MORE, God said, “Let there be light” in our hearts when we believed in Jesus giving us a taste for the glory of God in the face of Jesus. God, in us, has made nothing into something. Our hearts used to be barren, rocky, empty, and void, but now our hearts are an oasis of fruitful paradise. Where does holiness come into this? It is out of this new garden paradise in our hearts, that holy living flows.

God created holiness in us in an ex-nihilo manner.