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In Whose Strength Do I Live, Move, and Have My Being?
Paul's life is a model of the perseverance, endurance, and sacrificial love that he so often instructs us to have as part of our own character. He knows what he is talking about through experiential knowledge. I think we sometimes forget what qualified him for the lofty status we've assigned to him. If anyone thinks that being a believer and follower of Christ is supposed to make life easier and simpler, they haven't been listening to Paul's description of his own life.
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Purpose empowers perseverance
Five times I received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches. Who is weak, and I am not weak? Who is made to fall, and I am not indignant? 2 Corinthians 11:24-29 (ESV)
Paul's life was a constant challenge. He often provided his own financial needs by working as he ministered, so that he would not burden those he was ministering to or give his naysayers reason to criticize. Times were always tough. His response? Pressing on with the duty at hand, despite its many difficulties, while finding joy in his relationship with Jesus.
Paul discovered and weaponized the principle of purpose, which subsumes all that is around it when activated, even the difficulties. This is how he was able to press on amid austerity, persecution, physical difficulty, and even disappointment.
Later (12:1-6), he describes himself in the third person as a way of avoiding boasting. "I know a man who fourteen years ago was caught up into the third heaven," and "I know this man was caught up into Paradise," and "On behalf of this man I will boast, but on my own behalf I will not boast, except of my weaknesses." This is Paul talking about himself without boasting. Then he speaks openly and truthfully about himself: "though if I should wish to boast, I would not be a fool, for I would be speaking the truth; but I refrain from it, so that no one may think more of me than he sees in me or hears from me."
Is this double speak? Not at all. Paul, the Apostle to nations, is practicing hiddenness and pragmatic wisdom. Hiddenness in that he does not seek to draw attention to himself because he is not the message he brings. His message, indeed his very life, is not about himself. Pragmatically, Paul does not put a focus on himself in order to present a contrast against false apostles and teachers who were clamoring for attention. Again, we see Paul's commitment to the purpose Christ placed in him on the Damascus road, a purpose he was unwilling to compromise.
Our strength is not our own
Paul brings home the point of his message to the Corinthians in verses 8-10, a message endorsed by his own life experiences and behavior. He was God's instrument of Good News to the peoples across a large part of the known world at that time. He received startling revelations and performed many miracles. In short, Paul was Jesus' ambassador to the nations. Yet, to keep him humble, he was given a "thorn in the flesh" (v7) which was such a torment that he asked Jesus to remove it three times (v8). Jesus' answer to his favored ambassador of faith?
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 of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong. 2 Corinthians 12:8-10 (ESV)
Life's list of troubles is endless, but it doesn't matter. Paul's message to us is this: whatever situation we may be dealing with, God is the answer. We can draw on His strength when we are weak because He is strong. Always. We cannot always predict outcomes, but we can always be certain of God's care. As Paul surrendered the thorn in his side, we can surrender the trials of life. God's strength is our never-ending supply, because of which we are able to endure and persevere through anything life throws at us. Like Paul, we can experience joy even in the midst of life's hard times, because of the relationship we have with the One who sustains us.
What is life throwing at you right now, and in whose strength are you trying to overcome? In your own? Wouldn't you rather give it to the Lord of all, the One in whom all power resides? And the amazing thing is that He has made it so easy.
"Lord, I surrender all."