I don't think that I need to tell any of you that life can be very difficult at times. We recently watched the disaster at Columbine High School on the news and felt the pain of those involved. We are presently involved in a war in the Balkans. China is not too happy with us right now for bombing their embassy. The world in which we live is full of uncertainties and problems.
As Christians we are not immune from the difficult circumstances of life. We struggle with sick and dying loved ones, unemployment, problems in the home, and financial struggles. We know how difficult life can be. At times it may even seem like we Christians have more problems than the non-Christians do. If you have ever felt that way, you are not alone, the psalmist was also disturbed by the prosperity of the wicked:
Psalms 73:12-14 (NKJV) Behold, these are the ungodly, Who are always at ease; They increase in riches. 13 Surely I have cleansed my heart in vain, And washed my hands in innocence. 14 For all day long I have been plagued, And chastened every morning.
Can you relate to that? The ungodly seem to have it made while you are struggling all the time. Well, I want you to understand that In the midst of our adversity, we have a promise from God that will give us great comfort if we will believe it. God said,
2 Corinthians 12:9 (NKJV) 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.
God gave this promise to the apostle Paul and all who will trust Him. If there was ever a man who understood the sufficiency of God's grace, it was Paul. He had experienced a few difficulties in his life.
2 Corinthians 11:23-28 (NKJV) Are they ministers of Christ?; I speak as a fool; I am more: in labors more abundant, in stripes above measure, in prisons more frequently, in deaths often. 24 From the Jews five times I received forty stripes minus one. 25 Three times I was beaten with rods; once I was stoned; three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I have been in the deep; 26 in journeys often, in perils of waters, in perils of robbers, in perils of my own countrymen, in perils of the Gentiles, in perils in the city, in perils in the wilderness, in perils in the sea, in perils among false brethren; 27 in weariness and toil, in sleeplessness often, in hunger and thirst, in fastings often, in cold and nakedness; 28 besides the other things, what comes upon me daily: my deep concern for all the churches.
Keep in mind that Paul was a real man and these things really happened to him. Besides all these hardships, Paul also has some kind of ongoing trial that caused him great pain. Paul had had a unique experience. He described it in the opening verses of 2 Corinthians 12, he had been caught up to the third heaven, or paradise, the dwelling place of God. In order to keep Paul from becoming proud about his experience, God gave him a "thorn in the flesh."
2 Corinthians 12:7-19 (NKJV) 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. 8 Concerning this thing I pleaded with the Lord three times that it might depart from me. 9 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. 10 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.
In our time this morning I want us to focus on God's words to Paul; "My grace is sufficient for you." In our study of grace thus far, we have defined grace as; "Free and unmerited favor shown to guilty sinners who deserve only judgement." Now, I want us to look at another aspect of grace that this and many other passages speak of. Grace is also used in the Bible to mean: "God's power that enables us to deal with life's circumstances."
John Calvin, in his commentary on 2 Corinthians 12:9, said, "Here the word grace does not mean as elsewhere God's favor but is used by metonymy for the help of the Holy Spirit which comes to us from God's undeserved favor."
Paul uses grace in the sense of "God's power that enables us to deal with life's circumstances." in:
1 Corinthians 15:10 (NKJV) But by the grace of God I am what I am, and His grace toward me was not in vain; but I labored more abundantly than they all, yet not I, but the grace of God which was with me.
We use the word grace in this sense in modern speech. Have you ever heard anyone say, "By God's grace I was able to remain calm"? When we use the word grace this way, we are referring to "God's power that enables us to deal with life's circumstances." In other words, apart form the enabling power of God, I would never have been able to do this or that.
We see this same idea in:
Philippians 4:12-13 (NKJV) I know how to be abased, and I know how to abound. Everywhere and in all things I have learned both to be full and to be hungry, both to abound and to suffer need. 13 I can do all things THROUGH CHRIST WHO STRENGTHENS ME.
What Paul is saying here is that whatever circumstance he finds himself in, he can handle it through God's enabling power. The words "by His grace" could be substituted for "through Christ who strengthens me." The idea is the same. Verse 13 could be read, "I can do all things by His grace." "By His grace" and "through Christ who strengthens me" express an identical thought.
So, the word grace as used in the New Testament, expresses two related meanings. First, it is "Free and unmerited favor shown to guilty sinners who deserve only judgement." Second, it is "God's power that enables us to deal with life's circumstances." The second meaning is encompassed in the first because God's enabling power is part of His unmerited favor. So, part of God's unmerited favor is the enabling power He gives us. There is a distinction, but they are related.
Paul's thorn in the flesh, his ongoing trial what ever it was, was actually an aid to his receiving God's grace, His enabling power. Notice what he said in:
2 Corinthians 12:7 (NKJV) 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.
Twice in this verse Paul says, "Lest I be exalted above measure." The thorn in the flesh was to keep him humble. Paul was a humble man, he viewed himself as the chief of sinners:
1 Timothy 1:15 (NKJV) This is a faithful saying and worthy of all acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am chief.
But, Paul knew that he was susceptible to pride. We are all susceptible to pride, but some of us are so proud that we won't admit it. What we must understand is that pride stands in direct opposition to grace.
James 4:6 (NKJV) But He gives more grace. Therefore He says: "GOD RESISTS THE PROUD, BUT GIVES GRACE TO THE HUMBLE."
1 Peter 5:5 (NKJV) Likewise you younger people, submit yourselves to your elders. Yes, all of you be submissive to one another, and be clothed with humility, for "GOD RESISTS THE PROUD, BUT GIVES GRACE TO THE HUMBLE."
Please notice who it is that God gives grace to-- the humble. Pride is an attitude of self-sufficiency towards God and superiority towards others. As we grow in the Christian life, we are often tempted to become proud of our growth. We may look down on others who have not grown, feeling superior to them. Or we may see another Christian in sin and think, "I would never do that." That is pride! The attitude of the humble person is "There but the grace of God, go I." How do you see yourself? Are you a proud person? If so, God resists you. Are you a humble person? If so, God will give you grace.
Paul didn't like the ongoing trial that he had and he pleaded with God to remove it:
2 Corinthians 12:8 (NKJV) Concerning this thing I pleaded with the Lord three times that it might depart from me.
God never removed the thorn that we know of. When Paul wrote these words, it had been fourteen years since he had received the revelations that he spoke of in verse 2. God wanted Paul to learn to depend on His grace continually. And as Paul depended on God, he experienced the sufficiency of His grace. Remember, pride is an attitude of self-sufficiency towards God, and humility is dependance.
God designed His creation to have a dependency upon Him. Even in the ordinary decisions of a day we need to depend on God for wisdom and direction. The Fall itself was precipitated when man sought to live independently of God, and this human independence continues at the heart of sinful rebellion today.
God wants us, as His children, to always be aware of our need of Him in our lives. God often takes us through difficult situations in order that we might realize how much we need Him. We see an illustration of this in the desert wanderings of the children of Israel. After living forty years in the desert, Moses recounted their experiences.
Deuteronomy 8:2-3 (NKJV) "And you shall remember that the LORD your God led you all the way these forty years in the wilderness, to HUMBLE YOU and test you, to know what was in your heart, whether you would keep His commandments or not. 3 "SO HE HUMBLED YOU, allowed you to hunger, and fed you with manna which you did not know nor did your fathers know, that He might make you know that man shall not live by bread alone; but man lives by every word that proceeds from the mouth of the LORD.
God caused the people to hunger before He fed them. He deliberately brought them to the end of themselves.
Psalms 107:4-6 (NKJV) They wandered in the wilderness in a desolate way; They found no city to dwell in. 5 Hungry and thirsty, Their soul fainted in them. 6 Then they cried out to the LORD in their trouble, And He delivered them out of their distresses.
God wanted them to be aware of the fact that He was the one feeding them; they were dependent on His provision. When God said in Deuteronomy 8:3 "...man shall not live by bread alone; but man lives by every word that proceeds from the mouth of the LORD," He is talking about the commanding word of His providence as is seen in:
Psalms 33:9 (NKJV) For He spoke, and it was done; He commanded, and it stood fast.
J. A. Thompson's commentary on this passage in Deuteronomy is insightful, he writes:
Already during the forty years of wandering God had taught Israel utter dependence on Him for water and food. Hunger and thirst could not be satisfied by human aid but only by God. The need for such divine provision in the hour of their extremity could not but humiliate the people.....
The provision of food, which Israel did not know previously, made plain the lesson that it is not mere food that gives life. Without the divine word the food itself may not be available.... Nothing was possible without Him, even to eat they had to await His pleasure. (J. A. Thompson, The Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries, Deuteronomy, page 134-135)
Folks, if Israel needed to be reminded of their absolute dependance upon God, how much more do we, twentieth century Americans? God has provided everything we need. Our refrigerators and cupboards are full, we have huge supermarkets just down the street from us. In the prosperous circumstances in which we live, it is very easy to forget our dependance on God. But the fact is, we are just as dependent on God for food and water as were the children of Israel in the desert.
God wanted the Israelites to realize and remember their utter dependence on Him, so He used an extremity of need and a miraculous provision to capture their attention and teach them a lesson that is difficult to learn. Still, they forgot. For forty years God met their every need and once they got in the land, they forgot. How much easier is it, then, for us to forget when God is supplying our needs through ordinary ways. My dependence may not be as obvious, but it is just as real and just as acute as if I had to wait daily for God to rain down manna from heaven.
Before we can learn the sufficiency of God's grace, we must learn the insufficiency of ourselves. Just as we appreciate God's grace (undeserved favor) more as we really understand our sinfulness, so we appreciate His enabling power (grace) the more we understand our own weakness.
God said to Paul, "My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness." The Greek word used here for "sufficient" is arkeo. It is used 8 times in the New Testament. It is translated once as: "enough" (Matt. 25:9), three times as: "sufficient" (John 6:7, 14:8; 2 Cor. 12:9) and four times as: "content" (Lk 3:14;1 Tim. 6:8; Heb. 13:5; 3 John 1:10).
Looking at all of its usages helps us understand what "sufficient" means. God's grace is "enough" to meet our needs and make us "content." From its usage in 1 Timothy, we can see that we are to be "content" with the basics:
1 Timothy 6:8 (NKJV) And having food and clothing, with these we shall be content.
So, God's grace always meets our basic needs, and quite often goes way beyond them.
John Blanchard said, "So he supplies perfectly measured grace to meet the needs of the godly. For daily needs there is daily grace; for sudden needs, sudden grace; for overwhelming need, overwhelming grace. God's grace is given wonderfully, but not wastefully; freely but not foolishly; bountifully but not blindly."
I think we can learn a lesson about grace in the way God distributed the manna to the Israelites in the desert.
Exodus 16:16-21 (NKJV) "This is the thing which the LORD has commanded: 'Let every man gather it ACCORDING TO EACH ONE'S NEED, one omer for each person, according to the number of persons; let every man take for those who are in his tent.'" 17 Then the children of Israel did so and gathered, some more, some less. 18 So when they measured it by omers, he who gathered much had nothing left over, and he who gathered little had no lack. Every man had gathered according to each one's need. 19 And Moses said, "Let no one leave any of it till morning." 20 Notwithstanding they did not heed Moses. But some of them left part of it until morning, and it bred worms and stank. And Moses was angry with them. 21 SO THEY GATHERED IT EVERY MORNING, EVERY MAN ACCORDING TO HIS NEED. And when the sun became hot, it melted.
Three times the text mentions that each person could gather "as much as he needed." God saw that no one had an overabundance, regardless of how much manna he gathered (v. 18). They were to gather the manna every day (except the Sabbath) and only what they needed.
The way God supplied manna for the children of Israel is a good illustration of the way He distributes grace. God doesn't permit us to store up grace. We must trust in Him each day to supply what we need for that day.
God continually brings circumstances into our lives that keep us aware of our dependance on Him. Knowing man's sinful tendency toward self-sufficiency, He gave the Israelites this warning:
Deuteronomy 8:17-18 (NKJV) "then you say in your heart, 'My power and the might of my hand have gained me this wealth.' 18 "And YOU SHALL REMEMBER THE LORD YOUR GOD, FOR IT IS HE WHO GIVES YOU POWER TO GET WEALTH, that He may establish His covenant which He swore to your fathers, as it is this day.
A self-sufficient attitude is detrimental to our relationship with God. So, to keep us from self-sufficiency, He brings trials and problems that remind us how much we need Him.
Paul explains to us why he has such difficult trials:
2 Corinthians 1:8-9 (NKJV) For we do not want you to be ignorant, brethren, of our trouble which came to us in Asia: that we were burdened beyond measure, above strength, so that we despaired even of life. 9 Yes, we had the sentence of death in ourselves, THAT WE SHOULD NOT TRUST IN OURSELVES BUT IN GOD WHO RAISES THE DEAD,
Trials have the same purpose in our lives, they keep us from trusting in ourselves. They show us how weak we are and how much we need to be dependant upon God and the sufficiency of His grace.
John Calvin said, "For men have no taste for it (God's power) till they are convinced of their need of it and they immediately forget its value unless they are continually reminded by awareness of their own weakness."
Paul's attitude toward his weakness was quite different from what our usual response is to weakness. Paul said:
2 Corinthians 12:10 (NKJV) 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.
We hate our weaknesses, but Paul took pleasure in his. Why? Paul took pleasure in his weaknesses because they were opportunities for him to trust the all sufficiency of God's grace -- "God's power that enables us to deal with life's circumstances."
Philip Hughes said, "Every believer must learn that human weakness and divine grace go hand in hand together." Paul learned this, have you?
Think about your own life. When things are going well and you are having no problems in your life, how much are you dependant upon God? Let me put it this way, when do you pray more; when things are going well, or when you are in the midst of a difficult situation? If you are anything like me, it is the difficult times of life that cause you to depend upon the Lord, to trust in His strength, to lean on His grace. I haven't come to the place in my life where I can say, "I can do all thing by His grace." I want to get to that point in my life but I am still too self-sufficient in many areas. But I am growing in my dependance on God. I can tell you this, when at six thousand feet in the air the engine on our plane quit and we began to fall, God's grace was sufficient. God's power enabled me to deal with that circumstance. It was a time when I was weak, to put it mildly. There was nothing I could do but sit there and trust God. In my weakness, He gave me strength. It is actually harder for me to listen to the tower tape of the incident than it was to go through it. I know that the reason for that is because in the midst of the circumstance, I was experiencing the grace of God. But when I listen to the tape, it scares me because God is not giving me grace (enabling power) at that moment.
Sidebar: If the Y2K bug causes the problems that I think it might, we may be put in a position where we are forced to trust God each and every day to provide our very basic provisions. It could be a time when proud America is brought to her knees in humility before Almighty God. And it could be a time when we, as His children, truly learn that "His grace (His power that enables us to deal with life's circumstances) is sufficient."
Let me say to those of you who are making no preparations for Y2K that I think that is a foolish position. We all know the value of insurance, and physical preparation is nothing more than an insurance policy. And let me say this to those of you who are preparing, if you are preparing only in the physical area, you are being very foolish. If you really think there is a need to prepare, then you must realize that the greatest preparation is SPIRITUAL. We must understand that "God's grace is sufficient." If you really want to prepare-- grow in his grace.
How do we grow in His grace? Good question, I'm glad you asked it. We'll look at that next time. But, before we close, I want you to understand that we are to appropriate God's grace.
2 Timothy 2:1 (NKJV) You therefore, my son, be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus.
The verb "be strong" is in the imperative mood; that is, it expresses a command. Paul wanted Timothy to do something; he wanted Timothy to appropriate God's grace and be strong in it. Just as the Israelites had to gather day-by-day the manna God graciously provided, so we must appropriate day-to-day the grace that is always sufficient for every need.
What is your greatest need right now? Is it contentment in a bad situation? Paul says to you, "Be content in the grace that is in Christ Jesus." Is it peace in the midst of turmoil? Then have peace in the grace that is in Christ Jesus. Is it courage to face your opponents? Then have courage in the grace that is in Christ Jesus. Is it the ability to love your mate or child? Then love them in the grace that is in Christ Jesus. Whatever your need at this time, you can experience the reality of God's words to Paul: "My grace is sufficient for you, my power is made perfect in weakness."
Just remember this fundamental principle; God resists the proud and gives grace to the humble. We'll expand on this next time.
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