Archive for January, 2012

Thorn-Incited Prayer (Based on 2 Corinthians 12:7-10)

“Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me” (12:8). Paul’s thorn drove him to prayer. No matter the identity of Paul’s thorn, and no matter what the shape of any thorn is which we may carry, it can drive us to speak to our Father, the one 2 Corinthians 1 calls the Father of mercies and the God of all comfort. And Paul shows the Corinthians (and us) that through prayer, as we speak to our Father, weaknesses and difficulties get transformed, so that they’re not just things that are negative. The wounds and difficulties of ministry act as signposts pointing us to prayer, prayer that takes us to Jesus himself, who gives grace to sustain us. And so the hard things we go through, and the wounds we receive, also open doors. They open gates to the grace and power of Christ. Thorn-incited prayer leads us to the grace of Christ which is sufficient for anything we can face.

Instead of taking the thorn away, Christ met Paul right where he was and gave him grace. And through the experience, Paul gained principles not just for his life but for the church as a whole.

One is the principle that weakness, vulnerability, and wounds drive us to God and open our lives to the grace and power of Christ.

And another principle is that God is more interested in filling our lives with grace than in getting us out of all our difficulties. Filling us with grace is more important than removing us from hardships.

God responded to Paul’s prayer, but in a way quite different than he expected. Sometimes God doesn’t meet our expectations. Sometimes God refuses one request but grants something different. Sometimes God wants to empower us with grace that makes us able to stay right where we are, in the face of the same challenging circumstances.

In a life of ministry, the experience of difficulty and weakness is unavoidable. We can’t do ministry without getting wounded. But this passage shows us that we can take this reality and make it work for us. We can allow the wounds of ministry to drive us to God in prayer. And through prayer we find contact with Christ who speaks to us and holds out his grace to us. He empowers us with grace, grace that’s sufficient for us, grace that can make us able to pass through anything that comes our way.

As we look toward the future, we don’t need to fear weakness or disappointments. They may be unavoidable, but we can choose now that we’re going to let these things drive us to God. And as we go to God in prayer, honest about our need, Christ will say to us: “My grace is sufficient for you.” So that we can say with Paul, “When I am weak, then I am strong.”

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Grace moves through us, but not without pain and vulnerability

Here’s another principle concerning how grace works: The extension of grace through us tends to involve us in vulnerability and difficulty, which then opens us up to receive empowering grace again.

That part about vulnerability and suffering needs some explanation. The paradigm here is Christ himself.

2 Cor 8:9 — “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich.”

There has never been a greater catalyst for grace than Christ’s incarnation and death. And these events meant suffering for Jesus and self-emptying so that others could be filled. He became poor and weak so that we might be enriched with grace.

That’s a paradigm. It was true for Christ, and it’s also true for us. Christ suffered so we could have life. But Scripture also teaches that, like Christ, people who minister suffer difficulty, and as a result, others can receive grace and new life.

Consider 2 Corinthians 1:6 –“If we are distressed, it is for your comfort and salvation; if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which produces in you patient endurance of the same sufferings we suffer.”

Paul saw that the difficulties he walked through turned into comfort and even salvation for others.

2 Cor 4:7-15 is important for this principle.

In 4:7 Paul says we who bring the treasure of Christ and the gospel to others have the experience of being clay. We’re like fragile clay jars.

He goes on to say he’s hard pressed on every side. He’s persecuted. He gets struck down. But look at what he says in verses 10-12. As he goes through these hardships, he sees these experiences as a carrying around in his own body the suffering of Jesus, and as a result, Christ’s life gets revealed to others. Paul’s pain is others’ gain. He goes through difficulty, but others see Christ in his life.

And then he says in verse 12, “So then, death is at work in us, but life is at work in you.”

We who do service and ministry sometimes feel like the ministry is going to do us in. Sometimes obedience and ministry feel like death. Paul says in 1 Cor 15:30, “I die every day.” But the result is life (and I would add grace) for others.

2 Corinthians 4:15All this is for your benefit, so that the grace that is reaching more and more people may cause thanksgiving to overflow to the glory of God.

This experience of difficulty and weakness also has a special result for the ones doing the ministry. This takes us back to the principle of 2 Cor 12:9 “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” Difficulties in ministry put us back in the position of readiness for the grace that’s sufficient for us. The weakness and difficulty become the thorn that pierces us but that also opens us up to the grace that’s sufficient for us.

Obedience to God in ministry involves us in weakness, difficulties, disappointments, and pain – but these are all are doorways, entries, to the grace and power of Christ. And then that grace which we receive empowers us again. It’s like a cycle, a grace cycle.

God’s empowering grace moves through us

When we minister to others, we participate in the movement of God’s empowering grace, grace that extends and abounds from one person to another.

In 2 Cor 1:15 Paul says he hoped to visit the Corinthians again, so that they “might have a second grace” or “have grace twice”. The translations tend to water that down and translate grace as benefit or favor. But Paul had no doubt that human beings are vessels and vehicles of grace. Grace moved with Paul; it came when he visited people. He wanted to visit the Corinthians so they might get a fresh measure of grace.

Maybe you know people like that. It reminds me of my grandfather. When he was around, grace also showed up. I could see it in his face. I could see it in how he talked with me and in how other people responded to him. When he was around, grace was contagious. The grace and joy in his life made me want to be a Christian.

Paul also believed a group of believers could extend grace together. In 2 Cor 2:7, when writing about a believer who had been disciplined by the church for his sin, he tells them, “So now you should show grace to him and comfort him”. This was so that the believer might not be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow. A group of believers can act together, in concert, to deliver grace. As Christ’s body, together we can embody grace for one another and for the outside world. Our actions can impart grace and leave people empowered to move forward.

Grace has a way of extending and increasing through people to others. One reason this happens is because it’s the nature of grace to be on the move. 2 Corinthians 4:15 says,All this is for your benefit, so that the grace that is reaching more and more people may cause thanksgiving to overflow to the glory of God.”

When we obey Christ in ministry, we participate in the movement of grace.

We find some good examples of this in 2 Corinthians 8 and 9.

8:1 “And now, brothers, we want you to know about the grace that God has given the Macedonian churches.” That’s a really interesting use of the word “grace” in verse 1. Paul labels the Macedonians’ opportunity to serve believers in Judea as grace which God gave to the Macedonians. It’s an opportunity to participate in the movement of grace, and it’s a gift to them to have this ability and opportunity.

The word “grace” in Greek fills 2 Corinthians 8 and 9, even though the English translations don’t mention it as often.

For example,  8:4 – “They urgently pleaded with us for the privilege (grace) of sharing in this service to the saints.” In the original language, the opportunity of service, the privilege of service, is grace.The Macedonians pleaded with Paul for the grace of sharing in this service to the saints. When we minister, when we serve someone else, we are a vessel of grace. And when grace moves through us to others, we’re also receivers. We get touched by grace. This is one reason Paul can call an opportunity to minister a “grace” for the ones doing the service.

Acts of ministry and obedience are entry points for receiving grace and extending it to others. And so Paul can say in 9:8, “And God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that in all things at all times, having all that you need, you will abound in every good work.”

This verse ties God’s empowering grace to us, and our abounding in good works, very close together. Grace gives us what we need to do good works. Good works and ministry place us right along God’s abundant supply chain of grace. And in the process, our lives are touched by grace as we minister to others. That gives us joy in ministry, and it changes us. That’s probably why my grandfather had so much joy.

Sometimes I think we really see this, and so ministry feels like a joy. We experience grace as we minister, and we see it transforming us and making us to be the people God has called us to become.

Other times, though, ministry and service are very hard. That may be because our attitude needs an adjustment. But there can also be something else going on, and that takes us to another principle of how grace works. The movement of grace tends to involve vulnerability and suffering on the part of the vessel (see next post).

Empowering Grace

Grace is a power that can help us become the productive, fruitful, and contributing people God created us to be.

1 Corinthians 15:10But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me has not been in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them– though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me.

We don’t want to live in vain, to live lives that are unproductive or void of significance. Paul believed he became what he was by grace. Grace had real effects in his life, and one was that it empowered the way he lived his life and what he did in his ministry.

Paul learned to let grace into his life. He learned to receive it, he learned to work with it, he learned to rely on it, and he learned to share it. We can learn these things, too.

Usually when we think of grace, we think of God’s free, unmerited favor, especially shown to us through Jesus on the cross. That’s a big part of what grace is. But it is also more than that. Paul says God’s grace to him was not in vain. It empowered productivity in the things of God. For Paul, God’s grace is the true subject, the real doer, of the work he did. Grace played such a big role in what he did that he could say, “It was not I, but the grace of God that is with me.”

His comment about working harder than all the other apostles is a little defensive and polemical. It seems Paul struggled with comparing himself to other Christian leaders. In 1-2 Corinthians he accuses other leaders of making comparisons and participating in rivalry, but he seems to have struggled with these things himself. He wanted to be the very best, and he probably was. But even if he had some mixed motives, and cared too much about being better than other leaders, we can learn from what he recognized about relying on grace for making progress in his life and ministry.

And no-one can doubt that Paul lived a productive life, starting churches and strengthening first-century churches all the way from Judea to Rome. He says in 1 Corinthians 3:10,According to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation.” Grace was the power that made possible his work and his influence. Grace made him the master builder that he was, laying the church’s foundation from city to city.

We can learn about how grace worked in his life as a route to learning the same strength for our own lives, so we can say with Paul, “By the grace of God I am what I am.” And, “It was not I, but the grace of God that is with me.”

It’s a principle: Grace is a power that can help us become the productive, fruitful, and contributing people God created us to be.