WHEN I AM WEAK, THEN I AM STRONG
Whenever possible, I attend and often speak for the CMF-Globalscope annual Celebration. Campus ministers from several major universities around the world come together for a week of inspiration and encouragement. The 2016 conference was held in Cholula, Puebla, Mexico. July 24-28.
More than 90 of us attended (including a few babies—we’re growing!) Coming as it did at the beginning of our Next Phase, Joy and I decided to attend the Celebration and then stay another month in Mexico before moving on to England.
Phil Tatum, the Director of Globalscope, asked me to present the opening devotion at the first session “to set the tone for the week.” Here are my remarks, following the reading of 1 Corinthians 10:1-12.
12 I must go on boasting. Although there is nothing to be gained, I will go on to visions and revelations from the Lord. 2 I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven. Whether it was in the body or out of the body I do not know—God knows. 3 And I know that this man—whether in the body or apart from the body I do not know, but God knows— 4 was caught up to paradise and heard inexpressible things, things that no one is permitted to tell. 5 I will boast about a man like that, but I will not boast about myself, except about my weaknesses. 6 Even if I should choose to boast, I would not be a fool, because I would be speaking the truth. But I refrain, so no one will think more of me than is warranted by what I do or say, 7 or because of these surpassingly great revelations. Therefore, in order to keep me from becoming conceited, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. 8 Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. 9 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 about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. 10 That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.`
Strange, passionate, intimate passage. Paul under attack. Relations with the Corinthian church somewhat dicey. Couldn’t be otherwise, with his high moral standards and their Corinthian practices. In this letter he has had to deal with division in the church, party/political squabbling, intellectual and theological arguments, sexual and other practices proving that these new Christians may have put on Christ but inside they are pretty much their old pagan selves—pretty much like the rest of us. And, of course, they defended themselves by attacking Paul. In this section of the letter he offers his defense—and his defense sounds pretty boastful. He has had, after all, a unique experience that, as far as he’s concerned, credentials his ministry.
Not just a unique experience. Special revelations. He could boast of them—and he does—but the Lord has kept him balanced through “a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me.”
We don’t know what the thorn was.
Poor eyesight? He used amanuenses (stenographers) to write for him.
Jewish persecution (the context speaks of opponents) In the Hebrew Bible, Numbers 33:55 uses thorns as a metaphor for enemies.
Memories of his own past persecution of the church
Sexual temptation (he was, after all, a man)
The consequence of this thorn, whatever it was? A more effective ministry.
Why did this passage come to mind when I received Phil’s invitation to bring the opening devotion?
First, because of a recent conversation in which I was asked to reflect on my years in ministry. When I review these nearly six decades, one fact stands out: Almost the entire time I’ve been running scared. A few decades ago there was a pop psychology category called “the Imposter Syndrome.” It described people whose chronic psychological state was one of fear, the fear of being found out, of holding positions of responsibility for which they knew they weren’t qualified, where knowledge and abilities were expected of them that they knew they didn’t have and couldn’t deliver.
I read about it with great curiosity and a sense of relief, because it meant that I wasn’t the only one. Until then I thought I was. Let me tell you a little about this imposter.
I became a volunteer youth minister when I was 18, a paid one when I was 19. My responsibilities included running the middle school, high school, and college age youth groups for St. Johns Christian Church in Portland, Oregon. I drove up every weekend from Eugene, where I was in college. Many of the kids in my “youth group” were older than I was. It wasn’t age that scared me so much, though, as the fact that all the successful youth ministers I knew were athletes. Their charismatic personalities and physical prowess made them the idol of the kids in their churches.
My sport was chess. I was a puny asthmatic who couldn’t run around a baseball diamond without collapsing at home plate, gasping for breath. I couldn’t compete. But the youth groups grew, anyway. It was only in later years, with the advantage of some more education and maturation, that I figured it out. I could be a youth minister not because I was so strong, but because I was so weak. When I competed in their sports or other games with the young people, the truth was that everything I could do they could do better—whether it was tennis or badminton or high diving or ping pong or softball. In school I was always one of the last to be chosen for pick-up games. I was a loser. The result: the boys weren’t afraid of me, didn’t feel they had to compete with me; they weren’t overshadowed by my prowess because I didn’t have any. Instead, since I couldn’t compete, I could encourage. I became their cheerleader.
I saw my own early ministry replayed many years later, when I became senior minister at Central Christian Church in Mesa, Arizona. I am going to brag, now, about one of our own. Steve Palich, whom some of you know because of his current work on the CMF staff, was the youth minister. He was one of the most effective I’ve seen. Steve didn’t fancy himself a charismatic speaker or leader. (In fact, like me he was asthmatic.) He didn’t take his place on stage, but offstage, where he could cheer on the young people. Our youth group grew dramatically under Steve’s baton. He raised our own three children in their teen years. He understood his job was to develop their gifts, not show off his own. To this day I’m in his debt.
A little more of my own story, and then I’ll get to you. I told you I’d always been in over my head. When I was 21 I was asked to plant a church in Portland, Oregon. 21—I didn’t even have a college degree. Then at 24 I became a high school English teacher. I was one night ahead of the students. At 27 I became a college teacher with a brand new master’s degree—and again I was one night ahead of the students. At 32 Milligan named me Vice-President, back in the days when the college only had one VP. I promise you, I didn’t know what I was doing. Then at 35 I became the senior pastor of a large church in Indianapolis. The church boasted 2500 members. I had left the church I started before it hit 200 members. What did I know? Again I was in over my head. Let me jump to 52, when I became president of Hope International University. Again, over my head.
What did I have to offer? Inexperience, insecurity (that why I pursued a second bachelor’s degree—so if I failed as a preacher maybe I could make it as a teacher), uncertain health, untested opinions. But I also could offer my curiosity and my sense of being called to ministry, without knowing exactly what that entailed, and the conviction that since I was doing my own fumbling best to serve God, I wasn’t alone in this work.
But what I felt, more than anything else, was inadequate. I was keenly aware of my own weakness, even though I sometimes camouflaged it beneath a certain bluster. I may have fooled them; I couldn’t fool myself. That’s why early in life I adopted 2 Corinthians 12:10 as my life’s verse: 10 That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong. Unlike the apostle Paul, I can’t say I’m delighted when I’m insulted or persecuted or in difficulties or hardships. I can’t even say I delight in my weaknesses. Mostly they embarrass me. But for sure the Lord has made it clear to me, “when I am weak, then I am strong.”
OK, I’ve spent a long time talking about me. I know I’ve been overusing the first personal pronoun. Here’s why I’ve done it. Phil asked me to speak an encouraging word, to set the tone for the week. Huge assignment. What I want to do more than anything else is assure you if I could do it you can do it. If you don’t feel up to your assignment, probably you are right. But we’d be more worried about you if you were sure you could do it.
My assignment in my work for CMF 50 years ago was helping to prepare missionary candidates get ready for the field. You know the ones who proved the greatest disappointments? Those who were pretty certain they were fit for the job. One young man even in his initial interview was giving advice on how CMF should improve its operation. He said this without any intimate knowledge of CMF or of the field he was to go to. He just knew he knew! All he offered was strength without weakness.
He never went to the field. The rest of his life has been marked by failure after failure–because he was too strong for his own good. He left no room for the Holy Spirit to work in his life, for the Word of God to direct his paths, for the example of Christ to be his model. He was too strong for all of that. But the truth is, when he was strong, then he was weak.
Some of you I know fairly well; others barely at all. Let me tell you what I’ve loved about Globalscopers from Day One. You’re a bunch of admitted weaklings. As year after year we’ve listened to your reports and heard your confessions, you’ve openly admitted how much you have had to learn, how many mistakes you’ve made, how often you’ve battled discouragement and even depression, how frequently you’ve been uncertain about the best course forward, and how many times you’ve wrestled like Jacob with the angel of God, seeking, hoping, desiring but not always receiving. Yet you’ve persevered. You’ve experimented. You’ve learned. You’ve poured yourselves into young people in other cultures. You’ve grown. And in country after country now you can point to men and women whose lives have been changed because you came to serve them. I’m talking about you, my fellow weaklings.
So during this week while you are in Mexico evaluating your ministries from a distance, and then when you return to your fields of labor, will you carry this verse with you? It has helped me. It will help you: “For when I am weak, then I am strong.”