by Steven Gledhill for FREEdom from MEdom Project
In order to keep me from becoming conceited, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. 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. 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. 2 Corinthians 12:7-10 (NIV)
This is a hard teaching; not because it’s so hard to understand, but because it is difficult to accept. As you consider the hard truth here, ask yourself, “Why did Apostle Paul ask three times that his difficulty, promoted by his spiritual adversary, be taken away?” If broken down into a one-word ‘yes’or ‘no’ response, what was God’s response to Paul’s pleading the first two times? What about the third time? Who else do you know of in the Bible that pleaded that his difficulty be taken away?
It is interesting to me that Paul is still writing his letter to the church at Corinth that just a few pages earlier indicated that his weapons for battling the enemy (addiction, oppression, spiritual adversary) are not human but spiritual. He wrote that when his finite mind wants to cast doubt from seemingly reasonable arguments against the certainty of the hope he has in relationship with Christ, he focuses on who and what he is with unwavering faith, capturing every thought opposed to such spiritual reality in order to remain loyal and committed to obedience unto God.
We are human, but we don’t wage war as humans do. We use God’s mighty weapons, not worldly weapons, to knock down the strongholds of human reasoning and to destroy false arguments. We destroy every proud obstacle that keeps people from knowing God. We capture their rebellious thoughts and teach them to obey Christ. 2 Corinthians 10:3-5 (NLT)
That’s a great truth but then as Paul continued to write he may have become discouraged that God would not (so it seems) remove the problem that had gotten under his skin; a problem that seemed to have tormented him on some level. In his letter to the church in Rome, Paul wrote about his internal struggle that may have riddled him with pride or guilt and left him feeling miserable about himself. But as he turned over his will and life into God’s care, he experienced peace and believed he could accomplish anything God called him to do. This seems to have represented a paradox in Paul’s life. On the one hand, Paul experienced deep insight and great revelation into the character of Christ and life in relationship with Jesus that undoubtedly humbled him, but then on the other hand battled his pride as it related to the “inside track” sort of relationship Paul had with Jesus. A paradox indeed.
A Control Problem
I admit that I tend to need, at least to some degree, to be in control. I need to be able to manage. I need for my life to be in order and for things to remain reasonable. Yet, my recovery is built on turning over all control to God in my relationship with Christ since I know and believe that He can do for me in my life what I do not have the authority to do on my own. Yet, if I honestly and authentically believe this to be so, why do I often !PANIC! as soon as things important to me fall out of the reach of what I can “manage”? Might I suggest that “manage” is the polite word for control. If I do not want to present myself as a control person, I’ll say that I am an effective manager—sounds much better, if not impressive. I don’t have to control or fix stuff, just manage it more effectively—reasonably.
The Apostle Paul said in his letter to the Corinthians that he had an issue with pride. It looks to me that as spiritual and insightful as Paul obviously was, he had a tendency to enjoy the approval of people. He referred to himself as conceited; a bit puffed up that the Spirit of Jesus Christ spoke to his mind with deep and profound revelation.
1 And so it was with me, brothers and sisters. When I came to you, I did not come with eloquence or human wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God. 2 For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. 3 I came to you in weakness with great fear and trembling. 4 My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, 5 so that your faith might not rest on human wisdom, but on God’s power.
6 We do, however, speak a message of wisdom among the mature, but not the wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are coming to nothing. 7 No, we declare God’s wisdom, a mystery that has been hidden and that God destined for our glory before time began. 8 None of the rulers of this age understood it, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. 9 However, as it is written: “What no eye has seen, what no ear has heard, and what no human mind has conceived”—the things God has prepared for those who love him— 10 these are the things God has revealed to us by his Spirit.
The Spirit searches all things, even the deep things of God. 11 For who knows a person’s thoughts except their own spirit within them? In the same way no one knows the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God. 12 What we have received is not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, so that we may understand what God has freely given us. 13 This is what we speak, not in words taught us by human wisdom but in words taught by the Spirit, explaining spiritual realities with Spirit-taught words. 14 The person without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God but considers them foolishness, and cannot understand them because they are discerned only through the Spirit. 15 The person with the Spirit makes judgments about all things, but such a person is not subject to merely human judgments, 16 for, “Who has known the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him?” But we have the mind of Christ. 1 Corinthians 2 (NIV)
My work at an Illinois correctional facility provides me the opportunity to play a substantial role in reshaping the lives of adult men (adult being at least 18 years old). These are men who have made decisions under the influence of alcohol, drugs, with criminal thinking and behavior that offends innocent people.
Drug-using and drug-dealing, burglary, home invasion, robbery, aggravated battery, gang-banging, assault, stabbing people, shooting people, and so on, have defined the lives of the men I work with every day. These men are at our facility for the treatment of their history of alcohol and drug abuse and dependence. While it is a medium security prison populated by non-violent offenders, that only means that they are serving time this time for non-violent offenses; supposedly. Most of the inmates have been stabbed or shot. A significant number of them have shot or stabbed someone. Most of the men have carried firearms with the intent to use them when provoked. What percentage of them would you guess owned firearms legally?
My work counseling prisoners has been at least as rewarding as it has been challenging. These men signed up for change through recovery, though the degree to which they are desperate for change varies from man to man. They have families. While many have not considered marriage, most have children with more than one woman. They refer to these women as “baby mamas.” Sometimes they still love these women, but more often than not they hope to maintain enough of a relationship with their baby mamas to have relationships with the children they had with them. The men love their kids. They’d be the first to tell you that they have not been good dads; that they have not been role models to their kids. The problem is that love to them is so damaged and jaded that they are learning what it means to love for the first time in their life. Many of the men had children motivated by love—to offer love and receive love with some semblance of reciprocity for the very first time.
The stories of many of their childhoods can be so brutal it’s sickening. So many experienced ritualistic beatings and torture at the hands of their fathers and mothers, stepparents and foster parents; such that gangs, drugs, crime, and prison were inevitable.
I share this with you because I have a tendency to seek approval from these guys. For many of them it’s like I am their savior. I get to blow them away with profound insight and wisdom. What comes forth from my mouth is revelation to them, and salvation from a life dominated by terror and fear and guilt and shame; especially for the vast majority of the men who profess that Jesus Christ is their Savior—for real.The treatment curriculum of course is secular cognitive-behavioral therapy (cognitive: what and how one thinks, behavioral: what one does). Then I come along and attempt to draw transformative life-changing parallels between the cognitive-behavioral curriculum and cognitive-behavioral Scriptural truth, making so much sense of this 2000 year-old material.
I’ve got to tell you, it is awesome! So many of these guys are like sponges soaking it all in as relevant and applicable to their recovery one day at a time. In their cell, they live in what is essentially a small bathroom with another man. Rarely do they even have the privacy to use the toilet without making special provisions at only very specific times when privacy is possible. You’d think that the planets have to align for this to happen. Yet you ask the man who is at peace in his relationship with Christ how he is doing and he responds, “Great!” And he’s not kidding. The case usually, I have discovered, is that the man didn’t find God in prison. He returned to God in prison. And he can’t wait to thank me and sing my praises for the role I played in his enlightened new life. Sometimes he will tell all 100 men on the hall how he has the best counselor on the unit; sometimes he’ll say that I am the best counselor at the prison! Wow, am I something!
Now I absolutely believe the truth of First Corinthians Chapter 2. I believe that Jesus Christ dwells in my body and mind as the temple of His Spirit. There is profound insight and wisdom and revelation in this truth, and that I have been called to give it away to the men at the prison, to my family and friends, and to you if you’d like. The problem is that it can goes to my head. I say out loud that all of the credit and the glory goes to God but the truth is that I do enjoy the approval and recognition that comes my way. Some say that it is alright to feel good about doing good things, but it can go way beyond that in my head. Truth be told, I like feeling superior.
I believe this has much to do with what Paul writes when he writes about boasting and the need to be humbled by the circumstances that God permitted for him to experience because he apparently struggled to humble himself. When I go to that place of pride, I shouldn’t be surprised then when I am stuck in the flesh with a thorn. There are times when the thorn hurts real bad, and at times is unbearable. Trusting in myself avails nothing. It is then that am I humbled, in desperate need of my Savior’s grace.
Humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time. Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you. 1 Peter 5:6-7 (NIV)
Please note that God permitting or allowing circumstances to occur means that life happens under the umbrella of God’s sovereignty. I am not in control; God is. But that does not mean that He is orchestrating the events of my life. I live in an evil selfish world. Included in that is the selfishness in me that can prove to be evil. I reap what I sow in the way I live with the decisions that I make. And then there is the unpredictability of life in the world. Since God is sovereign and in authority, it is imperative that I put my trust in Him to be God in my life and in the world. I am under the authority of law and the enforcement of it. I am protected by firefighters and military, and have access to healthcare and repair people. I am supplied by utility companies and food and clothing vendors. However, these directors, protectors, supporters, and providers in my life are not following me around or intruding into my life and personal space until I either invite them into my circumstances or subject myself to the need for their intervention. They do not seek to control me and provoke my every thought and direct my every step, although should I call out to them or should a need arise for them to get involved, they could certainly do that.
When the answer is “No”
So to keep me from becoming proud, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger from Satan to torment me and keep me from becoming proud. Three different times I begged the Lord to take it away. Each time he said, “My grace is all you need. My power works best in weakness.” So now I am glad to boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ can work through me. That’s why I take pleasure in my weaknesses, and in the insults, hardships, persecutions, and troubles that I suffer for Christ. For when I am weak, then I am strong. 2 Corinthians 12:7-10 (NLT)
What needs to be addressed is that our brother Paul is under attack from his spiritual enemy and it has invaded the circumstances of his life. What the matter was that Paul struggled with I don’t know. Some have said it was his failing eyesight. Perhaps, but I like to assume that when Jesus healed Paul’s blindness at the outset of his ministry that the healing was sustainable. I tend to consider Paul’s struggles in the context of his life to not be too unlike my struggles in the context of my life; that keep me grounded and might have influence in the growing of my character. It is possible, however, that Paul so lived in the Spirit reality of the new age of grace that it became difficult to absorb the persecutions of the former age that at times imprisoned him. (Read New Age Living… for the fuller meaning of this sentence.)
What we do know is that Paul sought God on at least three occasions pleading that He take away that which had gotten under his skin. Yes or no: did God take away Paul’s problem the first time he begged Him to take it away? Yes or no: did God remove the problem the second time he begged Him to remove it? Yes or no: did God remove the problem the third time Paul pleaded with Him to take it away? If you answered “no” to the first two times Paul asked you are correct. If you answered “no” to the third time Paul begged God to remove the problem, again you are correct. Instead Jesus Christ told Paul “My grave is sufficient” and “my strength is perfected in your weakness.” His grace is sufficient for what in this context? For Paul’s problem, that’s what. This is huge if I am going to trust compassionate sovereign God to be all that He is for and in me when I cannot seem to shake that thing that really seems to be putting my recovery at risk.
Paul did perceive the world and time he lived in much different than I have until recently. He understood the age of grace as an eternal time of glory and heavenly citizenship. He looked at people from this perspective as well as his relationship with God. Having fallen short of God’s glory in the flesh, that man (sinful man) had to die and died with Christ. The sinful man was crucified in the body and the sin condemned in the soul of Jesus. The new creation is man resurrected into the new age of grace and new citizenship. Even Paul’s relationship with Christ was no longer from a place and time of instant and temporary gratification but from a place of contented satisfaction from a far more glorious disposition and attitude.
If we are “out of our mind,” as some say, it is for God; if we are in our right mind, it is for you. For Christ’s love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died. And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again. So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view. Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here! 2 Corinthians 5:13-17 (NIV)
Paul was humbled by his difficulties. He perceived that his difficulties were perpetrated by the devil. Whether it was Satan or whether it was evil in his world that was perpetrated by demonic forces, Paul was under oppressive attack from his spiritual adversary. He likely heard or read that Jesus said, “My yoke is easy and My burden is light”, and thought, “Come on Lord, how much of this am I supposed to endure? It’s too hard!” Or, perhaps Paul was under intense conviction that he lost focus on who he was in the age and time of grace and glory, persuaded at times by his earthly and spiritual enemies that the task was too heavy a burden to endure.
Jesus: “Is there another way?” His Father: “No”
“The death of Jesus was qualitatively different from any other death. The physical pain was nothing compared to the spiritual experiences of cosmic abandonment… On the cross he went beyond even the worst human suffering and experienced cosmic rejection and pain that exceeds ours as infinitely as his knowledge and power excels ours. In his death, God suffers in love, identifying with the abandoned and godforsaken.” —Timothy Keller, The Reason for God
36 Then Jesus went with them to the olive grove called Gethsemane, and he said, “Sit here while I go over there to pray.” 37He took Peter and Zebedee’s two sons, James and John, and he became anguished and distressed. 38 He told them, “My soul is crushed with grief to the point of death. Stay here and keep watch with me.”
39 He went on a little farther and bowed with his face to the ground, praying, “My Father! If it is possible, let this cup of suffering be taken away from me. Yet I want your will to be done, not mine.” 40 Then he returned to the disciples and found them asleep. He said to Peter, “Couldn’t you watch with me even one hour? 41Keep watch and pray, so that you will not give in to temptation. For the spirit is willing, but the body is weak!”
42 Then Jesus left them a second time and prayed, “My Father! If this cup cannot be taken away unless I drink it, your will be done.” 43 When he returned to them again, he found them sleeping, for they couldn’t keep their eyes open. 44 So he went to pray a third time, saying the same things again. Matthew 26: 36-44 (NLT)
41 He walked away, about a stone’s throw, and knelt down and prayed, 42 “Father, if you are willing, please take this cup of suffering away from me. Yet I want your will to be done, not mine.” 43 Then an angel from heaven appeared and strengthened him. 44 He prayed more fervently, and he was in such agony of spirit that his sweat fell to the ground like great drops of blood. Luke 22: 41-44 (NLT)
Jesus Christ, while fully human in the likeness of sinful flesh (Romans 8:3), prayed at least three times saying the same thing, asking God to remove the cup of his suffering and that which he was about to suffer. Three times God said no. Jesus had to know that it was the will of God that he suffer and die as the price for the sin of mankind. He was equally involved as God developing the plan from the beginning of it all. He understood his questioning of the perfect plan was of the devil when he said to Peter, “Get behind me Satan”, when Peter offered himself as a substitute for what Jesus had to suffer. Jesus told Peter that he had no idea what he was suggesting.
Yet still again as a man, imperfect in the flesh, Jesus appears to have sought emphatically to explore deviating from their perfect plan. Even when the angel appeared to comfort or perhaps rescue Jesus, he prayed with even greater intensity until his skin, so stressed under the weight of this psychological torture, broke open and began to bleed.
Jesus needed to know that God’s grace was sufficient and that God’s strength was perfected in his body and spirit as he carried the weight of our sin up to a hill, where he paid the ultimate price. God’s grace is sufficient for me because of what Jesus did. At some point as Jesus hung on that cross, my sin so permeated through the body, mind, heart, and soul of Jesus that he was separated from grace. Did I just say that? Jesus, Son of God, was separated from grace—fell from grace?
At about three o’clock, Jesus called out with a loud voice, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” which means “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” Matthew 27:46 (NLT)
Buried and ultimately condemned with my sin, Jesus walked away from fellowship with God, stepping outside of God’s grace, where the sin of the world and all mankind will remain for eternity. It is stunning to me that Jesus fell from grace but today sits at the throne of grace, offering it freely, available and accessible to you and to me. By the grace of God to you and to me, God gave up his Son. Had Jesus not been forsaken in my sin from grace, I would not experience redemption from disgrace into grace. Because of the sacrifice of Jesus, I can know as Paul did, the sufficiency of grace in relationship with God through Jesus Christ.
Seeing then that we have a great High Priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. 15 For we do not have a High Priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but was in all points tempted as we are, yet without sin. 16 Let us therefore come boldly to the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy and find grace to help in time of need. Hebrews 4:14-16 (NKJV)
Confessing Weakness and Need
My confession isn’t only my sin, but the confession of what I am feeling, haunted by, struggling with, and every obstacle challenging me on a daily basis. As I wrote earlier, I am challenged by my approval-seeking ego. You can read through the articles in FREEdom from MEdom and perhaps think of me as someone who has it together, pursuing God with all my heart as I come into insightful revelation of what God might be trying to communicate to you through my words, but I seek approval from a place of insecurity. From the insufficiency in my spirit and character I crave recognition. When I am criticized, especially harshly, I crumble inside.
I have lost control. I cannot adequately manage. I am weak. I need to humble myself. I need to know that I am better off with Jesus in the flimsy boat that is the goings on in my life, even when the wind and waves are crashing from all sides, and the thunder is loud, and my life is taking on water, than I am on the shore without Him. I need God’s grace to be sufficient for me.
4 Always be full of joy in the Lord. I say it again—rejoice! 5 Let everyone see that you are considerate in all you do. Remember, the Lord is coming soon.
6 Don’t worry about anything; instead, pray about everything. Tell God what you need, and thank him for all he has done. 7 Then you will experience God’s peace, which exceeds anything we can understand. His peace will guard your hearts and minds as you live in Christ Jesus.
8 And now, dear brothers and sisters, one final thing. Fix your thoughts on what is true, and honorable, and right, and pure, and lovely, and admirable. Think about things that are excellent and worthy of praise. 9 Keep putting into practice all you learned and received from me—everything you heard from me and saw me doing. Then the God of peace will be with you.
10 How I praise the Lord that you are concerned about me again. I know you have always been concerned for me, but you didn’t have the chance to help me. 11 Not that I was ever in need, for I have learned how to be content with whatever I have. 12 I know how to live on almost nothing or with everything. I have learned the secret of living in every situation, whether it is with a full stomach or empty, with plenty or little. 13 For I can do everything through Christ, who gives me strength. Philippians 4:4-13 (NLT)
I need to believe that I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me as I trust Him to protect me with a heart and mind, not of anxiety but of peace, celebrating my relationship with Him in recovery from my addiction to me. I need to think and meditate on this truth and not get bogged down in all of life’s things that stall my recovery and stunt my growth. I must be willing to go through the things in life that get under my skin as I live and breathe and move in a world and an age that is evil, certain of the hope of a new life in a new age as I forge ahead.
God is building character in me through the struggle that is my life. He continues to reform and reshape me as I give myself to Him, surrendering my will to Him from a disposition of meekness. While I don’t feel joy so much as I experience trouble in my life, I do know that my spirit is joyful understanding who God is, what Jesus did and continues to do in my life, and that He is in the boat with me, though occasionally He might take me out once in awhile for a walk on the water. My weakness and all that goes with it is an opportunity to be made perfect in His strength.
Dear brothers and sisters, when troubles come your way, consider it an opportunity for great joy. For you know that when your faith is tested, your endurance has a chance to grow. So let it grow, for when your endurance is fully developed, you will be perfect and complete, needing nothing. If you need wisdom, ask our generous God, and he will give it to you. He will not rebuke you for asking. James 1:2-5 (NLT)
Incarcerated men who can honestly say from their heart that they’ve been blessed experience God’s sufficient grace. They have committed crimes and are in recovery from addiction to drugs as well as their addiction to approval and acceptance. Many are learning to love for the first time in their lives, so to be loved by Jesus Christ and in turn love their fellow inmate with Christ-like love is a joyous experience making prison life, not only bearable but truly a blessing. They have an arduous journey ahead in their recovery, especially when they leave for the other side of the gate and into a world where most of everyone they know is not in recovery and primed to sabotage theirs. For me, as proud a man as I am, this is humbling. The fact that I get to have a part in challenging these guys to radically challenge their irrational thinking about how to solve problems via alcohol, drugs, and crime through recovery into the new life of sufficient grace is an awesome privilege.
These men have learned that they aren’t as strong and tough as they thought they were and that they are strong in their weakness as God’s perfect plan is revealed to them and perfected in them. Paul is saying that these guys can delight in their weakness, that they are powerless and that the obvious inability to manage their lives is an opportunity to experience joy as they put their faith in the certainty of God’s goodness, whatever they’re going through. I know of so many seeking wisdom and that God is granting them favor. Listening to the men articulate their faith in the midst of their circumstances is raw and real and refreshing. It hardly sounds or feels religious. The countenance on the faces of those living in right relationship with Christ is sincere, peaceful, and inviting. You wouldn’t know that they are in prison for heinous crimes. If you could see these guys in this light you would welcome them into your town; you would invite them into your church and embrace them, not out of pity, but out of respect and appreciation for the work they are doing for authentic recovery. Black, Caucasian, Hispanic, Asian, Arab… it wouldn’t matter. The men experiencing new life in Christ are special and it is transparent in how they carry themselves.
There are a lot of shows on television portraying men who are locked up in the corrections system as angry, violent, insane, and capable of anything. They are. The beauty of it is them who recognize that they are selfish and living according the irrational belief of entitlement; that they return to God through relationship with Jesus, and live each day according to the reality of belief that will revolutionize their life: that reality being the sufficiency of God’s mercy and grace. For many of these guys they will walk on water with Jesus, doing something extraordinary as they are empowered by God to live a blessed abundant life.
In the morning I will walk on the unit and ask the man who has embraced recovery in relationship with Jesus, “How are you doing today?” and he will respond, “Great” or “Grateful.” Some will say something like, “Happier then I’ve ever been” and “I finally got my life back;” free from the bondage of their addiction. These men will say this from prison and mean it with all of their heart. Please pray for them, as well as for those wrestling with the invitation to enter into the age of grace, that they may be persuading to come in and experience the love of family like never before.
God sent his Son into the world not to judge the world, but to save the world through Him. John 3:17