Archive for the ‘ Grace ’ Category

Strength and Weakness

A theme I’ve often found significant for my relationship with God is strength in weakness; the two seem to go closely together in the Christian life. I’ve always been intrigued by the apostle Paul’s words, “When I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Cor 12:10).

A main goal of mine in 2019 has been to draw closer to God, and to learn more how Justo Mwale University and Zambia can be a place where that happens for me. One “action step” toward this goal was to attend a nine-day retreat called “Breathe” in July. The setting of the Breathe retreat was one of outdoor beauty, and the point was to give everyone space to get refreshed and take a deep breath of God’s presence through the times of worship, teaching, prayer, reflection, and conversation. Meanwhile my wife Sherri and I, and especially Sherri, were quite sick throughout the retreat. It felt ironic that we were attending a conference called Breathe, and she could hardly breathe, and we both felt miserable.

Something I didn’t realize ahead of time was that a main focus of the retreat would be how our weaknesses and wounds can be the very things that open our lives to God’s presence and grace. The speaker helped us see that our disappointments and failures help us to welcome God, so that our inadequacy becomes his route to get through to us. Sherri and I were encouraged, even as we felt physically weak. We were also able to look back on difficult times such as when we had to leave Egypt, and recognized signs of God’s presence.

Little did I know that the coming academic term would plunge me into the midst of circumstances that bring me face to face with the very lessons we reflected on at the “Breathe” retreat.

For the first time I’ve been able to teach Justo Mwale’s course on Paul’s letters, which can seem different to read here in Zambia versus reading them in America. As my students have looked closely at Paul’s thoughts, they have been struck by how he put himself into situations of vulnerability, and by how he taught his congregations to take paths of self-sacrifice for the church and the gospel. It looks like planned weakness and vulnerability, for the sake of knowing Christ and advancing the gospel. This has been quite a challenging picture for the students, and for me as their teacher, since perhaps most of them have known need and vulnerability much of their lives, and they know that such things are not glamorous but painful. It’s also startling to read Paul’s letters closely because a big emphasis of Christianity in this part of the world is on faith and ministry as a path toward material well-being and success. Just recently a student shared in class that most people in his home country believe that if you’re passing through suffering, you’re not a Christian. And yet Paul’s letters keep bearing witness to vulnerability (at least in this life) for the sake of God, others, and the gospel, and designate that path as marked by God’s power and presence.

Around September 15, I received news that my father was declining rapidly. I got a plane ticket to head back to Kentucky. I didn’t make it before he died, but I spent what felt like a blessed week with my extended family, reflecting on Dad’s life and sharing in his funeral. He had told my stepmother that he appreciated the passage in Ecclesiastes 3 that speaks of a time and season for everything, and of God making all things beautiful in their time. There’s a time to be born, and there’s a time to die. There’s a time to tear and a time to sew or mend. I thought of how our hearts sometimes need to be torn, so that they can ultimately be mended. I think that was happening to Dad in the past several years. He had had some hardness and unforgiveness, but it seems his aging and sickness helped to allow for his heart’s healing. My stepmother, Rita, said in those last few days she spent with him at the hospital, about forty staff members came and shared how much Dad came to mean to them in the seventeen months he was there with Alzheimer’s. How had he touched their lives without a functioning mind? I think God had been making Dad’s heart beautiful. It seems like a sign of Christ’s presence, and it gives me hope.

One of the tough things about life in Zambia since our arrival nine years ago has been how everything seems to come to a halt when anyone dies so that people can attend funerals of people they might not know very well. I’ve tended to see this as a weakness in the culture. But as soon as news got out that my father was dying, and before I left for the airport, our head of school met me teary-eyed and held both my hands for a long time. It was the first time I became able to feel the reality of what was happening; I hadn’t been ready to grieve. Then one of my students came to me with tears in his eyes because of my dad. I was deeply touched; I knew it must be okay for me to feel the weight of what was occurring. When I was in the USA for a week, I received many notes from Zambia and I felt myself buoyed by the Justo Mwale community’s prayers. Students kept referring to my dad as their “grandfather”, and some colleagues called him their “father”, though they had never met him. They felt a connection both to him and my grief. As I have found myself on the receiving end, I’ve been able to see that what I thought was a weakness is, from a different angle, a strength. I have drawn so much strength from African brothers and sisters as they have walked with me the past few weeks. I can now see that, for many Zambians, times of death and funerals are when they become very real before one another and before God. Such times must be a way they receive God’s strength to bear their own many losses. Now I’m partaking of this strength.

Thank you for allowing me to share bits of my recent journey. Gradually, Sherri and I are learning that God’s grace is sufficient, no matter the weakness we encounter around us or within us.

 

Not Applicable to Believers?: The Aims and Basis of Paul’s “I” in 2 Corinthians 10-13

In this article I argue that in 2 Corinthians 10-13, in addition to defending his ministry, Paul uses his personal example to teach the Corinthian congregation that power and weakness cohere in Christian life and leadership. Moreover, I contend that Paul bases his manner of holding together power and weakness not on a foundation unique to his apostleship but instead on the far broader foundation of believers’ participation in the crucified and risen Christ. Therefore, Paul’s words can speak beyond his own ministry, instructing the Corinthians for a life of genuine participation in Christ. Investigating the aims and basis of Paul’s self-references will clarify that his “I” targets the lives of the Corinthian believers.

Journal of Biblical Literature

Volume 131, Number 2, 2012

pp. 325-340

http://sbl-site.org/publications/journals_jbl_noLogin.aspx

The article is a thorough revision of a chapter from my Ph.D. dissertation at Duke University. It’s also based on a presentation I gave at the Society of Biblical Literature in New Orleans in November of 2009. I’m thankful to Richard Hays, Kavin Rowe, and Suzanne Henderson for their comments on earlier drafts, in addition to comments from the 2 Corinthians group of the SBL.

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.”

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.