The series The Gift of Limitation serves as the supplemental Bible study guide to the sermon of the same name available here as a podcast (February 28, 2016). This series aims to highlight how the power of God at work in your life entails honoring specific divine limits. If you respect these limits, God offers protection and will demonstrate His divine power. If you overstep these limits, you fall out of the domain of God’s protection and are left to your own devices.
The first gift of limitation: A gift of weakness equals a limit of strength.
What is weakness? Weakness does not refer to physical limitations. It does not refer to lack of ability, lack of strength, lack of talent, or lack of achievement. Weakness means that, ultimately, you put your trust in God and His abilities. In other words, you are not self-reliant but God-reliant. Because of your dependence on God, weakness also implies humility.
What is strength? Strength refers to self-reliance and trusting in your own abilities. Because of this lack of dependence on God, strength also implies pride.
Simply put, human weakness provides the perfect chance for God to display His divine power. Human strength provides the perfect chance for God to take a break.
In order to highlight this principle, we shall take a look at the church at Corinth during the time of Paul. Back then, Corinth was like the Las Vegas and Los Angeles of today. It was a very “hip,” progressive city where many different types of people came together as a communal body. And, like in modern times, the culture of the city was so strong that culture began to influence religion and ways of approaching God. Lines began to blur, and in many instances, it became difficult to tell if people were “doing church” or “acting like Christians” versus doing things the Corinthian way. Similarly, today, it may be difficult to distinguish a Christian worship service from a rock concert or a Sunday sermon from a motivational business seminar. Where culture ends and Christianity begins is very uncertain.
Subsequently, the Corinthian church was an institution that behaved badly, where “super-apostles” with signs and wonders came and dazzled the people. These men appeared much more impressive than Paul. They claimed a unique and special authority from God and resultantly drew people away from The Lord and to themselves. Embracing humbleness was not on their radar screen, but what did the apostle Paul have to say about that?
He wrote that a gift of weakness equals a limit of strength. He wrote, “If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness” (emphasis added; II Corinthians 11:30, NIV). He also wrote that he would not get conceited and that:
“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” (emphasis added; II Corinthians 12:7b-10, NIV).
Notably, the Greek word for sufficient (arkeō) has a meaning akin to raising a barrier or a limit. Paul is telling us that all we need is the grace of God. If we begin to look beyond God’s grace, this is a tacit affirmation that His favor is insufficient. That is a burden of limitation and the impetus for rebellion. Weakness (astheneia) can refer to physical weakness of the body, but it can also refer to weakness of the soul, as in the want for strength, the want to do things great and glorious, or to want for things that are corrupt. The point is that Paul is not saying that weakness nullifies the desire to do great things or the want to accomplish big, audacious goals. What he is saying is that weakness seeks the fulfillment of those desires in God, not in oneself. When David, for example, went up against Goliath, he had a big, audacious goal to take down a giant. He even planned to do so by bringing a slingshot to a swordfight. David, however, knew that it was never about him or the slingshot: It was about the Living God who stood behind him and who directed the stone that the slingshot fired. The power of David’s question is now clear: “For who is this [Goliath], that he should taunt the armies of the living God?” (emphasis added; I Samuel 17:26, NASB). David was strong only because he was weak.
Hence, the gift of weakness means leading from a place of brokenness and vulnerability—a point made very clear by Peter Scazzero in The Emotionally Healthy Church. The gift of weakness prevents self-glorification. Look at what Paul says of himself near the end of his life in I Timothy 1:15: “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the worst.”
The gift of weakness also redefines our perception of strength. Here is one example: Where does your idea of a successful church come from—God or culture?
If I asked you to list the top three traits of a strong church, what immediately comes to mind? Because if you happened to say that a strong church is characterized by a large, new, ornate building; thousands of members; multiple campuses; or a big, overflowing bank account, then you have the cultural idea that strength equals strength. This stands in direct contrast to the Biblical idea that weakness equals strength. Of course, there is nothing inherently wrong with any of the traits that I mentioned. There is nothing wrong with keeping score. The problem is that culture says that the score is all that matters.
Paul says that authentic leadership is weak and has a thorn in the side. That thorn makes him so weak that he has no choice but to rely on God. Scorekeeping gives us confidence in the score and perpetuates a sense of self-reliance. And, if you are self-reliant, then you play for Team Goliath, not Team David. And we all know who won that battle.
In fact, in Revelation chapters 2 and 3, Jesus speaks of seven types of churches in the end times. He had nothing good to say about most of them (five). There are two churches, however, that Jesus had generally favorably things to say about: those at Smyrna and Philadelphia. And what characterizes these churches? Their afflictions, their poverty, and their little strength. This is Biblical strength manifesting as natural weakness. Moreover, the church that was “strong” (at Laodicea) also happened to have lots of money. And what did Jesus say about them? “Because you are lukewarm—neither hot nor cold—I am about to spit you out of my mouth” (Revelation 3:16). It appears that Laodicea will be playing for Team Goliath.
The only legitimate way to keep score in a Spirit-led life is to quantify things that can’t be measured. That is, one cannot measure supernatural traits with natural scales. Galatians 5:22-23 tells us what truly matters in our personal lives: “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, [and] self-control.”
Furthermore, the church is not supposed to let the score be its ultimate end. Ephesians already told us what the church (the body of Christ) is supposed to do:
“And [Christ] gave some as apostles, and some as prophets, and some as evangelists, and some as pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints for the work of service, to the building up of the body of Christ; until we all attain to the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a mature man, to the measure of the stature which belongs to the fullness of Christ. As a result, we are no longer to be children, tossed here and there by waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, by craftiness in deceitful scheming; but speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in all aspects into Him who is the head, even Christ, from whom the whole body, being fitted and held together by what every joint supplies, according to the proper working of each individual part, causes the growth of the body for the building up of itself in love.” (emphasis added; Ephesians 4:11-16, NASB)
So, the church, as Paul writes in Ephesians, is supposed to equip people to serve and to build up others, and it’s supposed to teach believers sound doctrine so that they may grow and mature in Christ Jesus in love. That is a description of a Biblical church and sounds quite unlike the popularized version of church strength today. And the reason why is because a gift of weakness equals a limit of strength.
More to follow in Part II …