And lest I should be exalted above measure by the abundance of the revelations, a thorn in the flesh was given to me, a messenger of Satan to buffet me, lest I be exalted above measure. Concerning this thing I pleaded with the Lord three times that it might depart from me. And He said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore most gladly I will rather boast in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in needs, in persecutions, in distresses, for Christ’s sake. For when I am weak, then I am strong. (2 Corinthians 12:7-10)
This last Saturday, I had the opportunity to speak at a men’s event in Porterville known as Man Alive. It was a great gathering of men with several hundred in attendance, headlined by Jon Micah Sumrall, lead singer of the Christian rock group, Kutless. I did not go there to speak, but one of the organizers of the event who knew me asked if I would be willing to step in and speak at one of the breakout sessions. It was an honor to address the hundred-or-so men tightly packed into one of the church’s larger classrooms.
The theme I was given to speak on, along with two other pastors, was “What does it mean to be a man of God?” As I looked to the Lord for what He would have me share, He spoke to my heart almost immediately. In a conference – especially a men’s conference with a theme like that – it’s easy to envision answers that speak to our need to just “man up” and do the right thing, be the hero, resolve to be a good father, husband, church member, etc., etc., etc. The problem with this, as noble as the intention may be, is that Christianity is not about “trying harder.” If anything, it’s about knowing in Whom our strength lies – and that’s not us. If it were possible to just will ourselves into being a better man, what would we need God for?
The fact is, that room, like any other room filled with sincere believers who want to do the right thing and live a life pleasing to God, was filled with men who had indeed tried and found their own strength insufficient. I needn’t tell anyone who has been in that position that our failed efforts are met with a sense of shame and inadequacy. “What’s wrong with me?” or “Why can’t I just get past this habit?” or “Does God still love me even though I struggle?” are just some of the questions that plague believers who have found their own resolve inadequate to overcome the hour of test.
We’ve all had that experience of speaking bold words of commitment at the altar during a time of consecration only to find that our resolve to be a holy man or woman of God melted before we got home from the church service. We fought with our spouse, yelled at the kids, or otherwise blew it to our personal shame and disappointment. We pray, ask forgiveness, and say we’ll “do better” next time. The only thing I have to say about that is, “How’s that been working for you?” Certainly, we SHOULD want to do better. That “want to” is God’s nature in us beckoning us to a higher way. What’s misdirected is the assumption that next time our own personal resolve or spiritual resources will be enough to be a match for the moment.
Peter understood this. He has spoken great, swelling words of commitment to Jesus in the waning hours before Christ’s betrayal. The story is recorded in the gospels for us to read.
Then Jesus said to them, “All of you will be made to stumble because of Me this night, for it is written:
I will strike the Shepherd,
And the sheep of the flock will be scattered.’
But after I have been raised, I will go before you to Galilee.”
Peter answered and said to Him, “Even if all are made to stumble because of You, I will never be made to stumble. (Matthew 26:31-33)
It’s important to note that Peter was not lying. He was speaking from his heart. The problem was (as still is) that a good heart is not enough to overcome the weakness of the flesh, as Jesus himself told them later in the Garden of Gethsemane. “Watch and pray, lest you enter into temptation. The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak” (Matthew 26:41). Our good intentions will not save us from a sudden assault on depleted spiritual resources, as all the disciples proved. Jesus told them to pray, but instead, they slept. When the hour of test was upon them, they all failed. “Then all the disciples forsook Him and fled” (Matthew 26:56b). Their own resources were insufficient, as will be our own. We cannot do this in our own strength, and that is why we need the grace of God.
Grace has not been fully understood by many in the Church. It is not merely God’s kindly disposition toward us when we fail or the unmerited favor by which we are saved. It is also God supplying us with the ability to do what we don’t have the ability to do. It’s God’s ability rising up within us because, in our awareness of personal limitations, we wait upon Him until the requisite strength needed from heaven is imparted into our flagging spirits, making us more than a match for the moment. It becomes a display, not of our own commitment, so much as of His grace meeting our need by which He then is glorified.
Jesus, on that same night, departed three times to pray, God even sending an angel to strengthen Him in His hour of need. He resisted sin, even unto the shedding of blood in that garden (see Hebrews 12:4), and yet He did so by doing exactly what He had exhorted the disciples to do. He prayed and drew strength from the Father, committing Himself to God’s grace which strengthened Him from Gethsemane all the way through Calvary. We can write it off and say, “But that was Jesus!” and yet, He was “tempted in all points as we are” and is thus able to be a faithful High Priest who can sympathize with our weaknesses, since He faced moments a thousand times darker than our most severe test (see Hebrews 4:14-16). It is at that throne of grace that we can likewise receive grace to help in our time of need.
Paul struggled with what the Bible calls “a messenger (Greek: angelos or angel) of Satan” sent to “buffet him.” Contrary to what many have supposed, this messenger not given him by God, but by the enemy as an attempt to thwart him in his gospel work. When he besought the Lord for deliverance from this demonic attack, God did not say, “No,” as many have assumed. Rather, God told Paul that he would overcome, not by avoiding the challenge, but by relying on God’s strength to get him through. Paul was saying, in effect, “I may have great revelation from God, but I have challenges that keep me grounded – that keep me always aware of my dependency upon God’s grace.” It’s in those moments when we’re tested beyond our capacity, that we can look to Him whose grace is sufficient to enable us to face the challenge and become more than a match for the moment.
Dr. Randy Bunch is the pastor of West Kern Christian Center, located at 1000 6th Street in Taft, California, as well as a graduate advisor and adjunct professor at Summit Bible College in Bakersfield, California. He is the author of several books, including his new devotional, Immutable: Changeless Truth for a Changing World. For more information, or to purchase your copy, go to randylanebunch.org. For more information on the ministries of WKCC, you can go the ministry’s website at wkcconnect.org.