It was my final year at university and I was the secretary of the Christian Union. I served alongside a great committee but there was a point when it became too much for me. That was partly work pressure but also the personal issues I’ve alluded to in the past. Spiritually I felt confused, disorientated and plagued with doubt. I wrote my letter of resignation from the CU committee.
It never got sent. The reason it didn’t was that I went to church the day after writing it, whilst it was still sitting on my desk. On that Sunday morning I heard a sermon from 2 Corinthians 4:7-9 “We have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed.” It really was a life changing experience- I am fairly certain that I wouldn’t be doing my current job had I not heard that sermon that morning. God spoke to me through the text- the overwhelming sense of weakness that I was feeling at the time was not a disqualification for leadership and ministry so much as a vital component of it to keep me dependent on Him. And though I really did feel hard pressed (and have continued to do so across the years) He promised to ensure I was not crushed. The resignation letter was torn in two and my perspective was totally transformed.
I suppose that experience yielded a couple of convictions in me, with which regulars at Woody Road may be vaguely familiar:
1. When struggling, always put yourself in places where God may speak to you. I suspect routine took me to church that Sunday. I’m not sure I expected what took place but I am so glad I was there. Pastoral ministry has often brought me into contact with those who are discouraged and weary. Hopefully they have found me to be sympathetic and I’ve tried to listen well without giving twenty-five suggestions as to what they should do. But the one piece of advice I have always given is this- keep putting yourself in places where God may speak to you.
2. 2 Corinthians is a vital letter! Anybody who has met me because they were thinking of being involved in some form of ministry will probably have found themselves steered towards 2 Corinthians. I have taught it on a number of occasions at the South Central Ministry Training Course. When we had our team time prior to launching Grace Church Kidlington I made sure I preached at least one sermon from 2 Corinthians- church planting was an activity for the weak and dependent. Looking back I’m fairly sure that I have had more positive feedback whenever I have preached 2 Corinthians than pretty much anything else I have done. I suspect that is because most Christians do feel inherently weak but don’t know what to do with that. In a place like Oxford, an experience of weakness can somehow feel shameful. So to discover that it is actually part of God’s plan for our lives is gloriously liberating.
There is a necessary follow-up though. What got me thinking about this issue again was reading this verse in 1 John last week. “I write to you, young men, because you are strong, and the Word of God lives in you, and you have overcome the evil one.” Here the Christian is not described as weak but as strong; the Christian is one who has overcome the devil. Elsewhere it is put as a command to “Be strong in the Lord.” And, whilst I have taken those involved in the early stages of ministry to a picture of weakness in 2 Corinthians, it would have been equally legitimate to say to them, as Paul did to Timothy, “Be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus.”
How do put these realities together? Of course there is no inherent contradiction for the strength spoken of is not linked to personal ability but to the presence of the Word in our lives, our union with Christ and the grace that comes to us through Jesus. How does that work out? I’m acutely aware of my weakness. At times, though, I suspect I have misapplied that. I am weak- therefore I can’t do that task. A sense of despondency or defeatism creeps in. Whereas the approach of Paul is to say in effect: “Yes I am indeed weak. But Christ lives in me. His grace is for me. Satan has been defeated. So I am not going to dwell or focus simply on my weakness but the fact that He has made me strong.”
All of us will have something that makes us feel weak. Can I urge you? Don’t resent your weakness- it will keep you humble and usable by the Lord. But the new thought I want to add is this- Don’t just dwell on your weakness. For it is never you alone. It is always Christ plus you because He lives in you by His Spirit. That’s where we find the strength to be hard pressed but not to be crushed and to give ourselves wholeheartedly to the Lord.