February 16, 2020
“We’re Not in Heaven Yet”
2 Corinthians 12:9
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. (2 Corinthians 12:9)
The church here on earth is the church militant. The church in heaven is the church triumphant. St. Paul had a unique experience. While he was suffering here below in the church militant God lifted him up to heaven to experience the church triumphant. There he heard such wonderful things that he was not permitted even to express them. As he wrote elsewhere, “Eye has not seen, nor ear heard, nor have entered into the heart of man the things which God has prepared for those who love Him.” (1 Corinthians 2:9) But his eyes and ears were blessed to experience Paradise while still living here on earth.
Yet after St. Paul’s amazing experience (whether in the body or out of the body he did not know) he says something even more amazing. He’d rather boast in his suffering here below than glory in his experience of heaven. Doesn’t it make more sense to glory in the triumph of heaven than to boast about the suffering we must endure in this life? Is there something odd about this man, Paul? Does he enjoy suffering?
No, the Apostle Paul is like the rest of us Christians. He faced the same temptations and felt the same weaknesses as the rest of us. We can learn from him. We can learn of the benefit that a Christian derives from his own suffering. When we suffer patiently we gain from it. God does not let suffering come into our lives because he hates us. God uses what we suffer to help us.
We don’t know the precise nature of St. Paul’s thorn in the flesh. Some think it was a problem with his eyes. Perhaps it was another physical weakness. It doesn’t really matter. What matters is that God saw fit not to take the pain away. And God gave St. Paul – and through St. Paul gave us – a reason why he lets us suffer various kinds of things. God said, “My strength is made perfect in weakness.”
Last week we saw how the workers in the vineyard who were dismissed at the end of the day were those who made a deal with God and worked for pay. They complained about the injustice of working long and hard hours and being treated the same as those who worked only a little while. They despised God’s grace. They embraced the religion of works-righteousness. They did not want to humble themselves before God and admit their spiritual helplessness.
Pride is the deadliest sin of all. It keeps people from repenting of any sins. Pride is the sin of Satan who wanted what belonged to God alone and so he rebelled against God. Pride is the sin into which Satan led Adam and Eve when he promised them that they would be like God. Pride is the source of every false teaching. Pride flatters the flesh. Nothing is more humiliating than admitting our own sins and admitting that our troubles in life are mostly self-inflicted. Pride cannot tolerate the idea that we don’t deserve any better than what we get. Sometimes we’ll admit that we are our own worst enemy and deserve our troubles. But we usually find a way to blame our sufferings on others.
The Bible doesn’t teach that every time we suffer a pain or loss there must be a specific cause. You have a cold because you cheated on a test. You broke your leg because you lied to your boss. The Bible doesn’t teach this. The Bible does teach that we are sinners living in a sinful world and this is the way it’s going to be until we die or until Christ returns. As long as we are living in these dying bodies and as long as our own sinful flesh clings to us we won’t be able to escape the weaknesses of being sinners in the sinful world. This means that whenever a Christian begins to think he is too strong, too successful, or too important to fail, you can count on one thing. He’s headed for a fall.
Some preachers teach it is God’s will that we not suffer pain, loss, disease, and related troubles in life. In 3 John 2, John writes: “Beloved, I pray that you may prosper in all things and be in health, just as your soul prospers.” They twist these words to teach that God wants you to be healthy and wealthy and if you’re not it’s because you don’t trust God enough. They deny what St. Paul wrote in our text and teach that God does not will that his children suffer physical or material pain or want. They preach a health/wealth gospel that denies any benefit in suffering from weakness or want. They say that God wants his children to have every kind of victory over every kind of physical, financial, or social obstacle that might encumber them.
The Bible teaches the very opposite. St. Paul writes: “Therefore most gladly I will rather boast in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me.” The word that is translated as “infirmities” here refers to all physical weaknesses and sicknesses. The health/wealth gospel is a false gospel. The strength that God gives to his children is not a physical or financial or political strength. It is of a spiritual nature. It is given to those whose pride has been crushed. This is how suffering sickness and physical loss can bring blessing. God humbles us. He doesn’t humble us for the fun of it as if he takes delight in our suffering. God humbles us for the same reason a farmer ploughs the field. God humbles us so that he can plant into our hearts the seed of his holy word. God’s word is the source of our faith. There is no faith apart from God’s word. God’s word must be planted.
There’s no point in planting seed where it won’t take root and grow. The preacher cannot know the condition of the hearts of those who hear his preaching, but God knows. God knows the benefit of your suffering even if you don’t. You may think to yourself that God can’t possibly understand and care about what you’re going through because if he did he’d change things for you. Well, that’s what you think. But you’re not God. You don’t know what’s going on in your own life. That’s because you’re not in charge of your own life.
Proud people rebel at the idea of not being in charge of their own lives. When you’re healthy and wealthy and fat and sassy you think you’re strong. You’re impossible to help. God’s grace is for weak people. God’s grace is for people who have tried and failed. It is for sick people. It is for people who can’t make things right in their life no matter how hard and how long they try.
We’re not in heaven yet. The grace of God makes us fit for heaven. It also makes us fit to live Christian lives here on earth. It does so by bringing God’s forgiveness to us. God’s grace is his favor or goodwill. It is a love that we don’t deserve. This love is revealed in Christ who has borne our sins and suffered for them. God’s grace comes from Christ’s suffering because Christ suffered for us. He suffered instead of us. Jesus felt the penalty for our sins. He endured it. When we suffer, God is not punishing us. He punished Jesus in our place. Sickness does not shame us. Jesus bore our sins and sicknesses and removed from us our shame. When we suffer God makes us weak so that we won’t rely on ourselves. When we are made weak we can learn to rely on God’s grace in Christ.
Only sinners who know they are sinners and who know they are helpless to escape their sins can be Christians. Only in the weak can Christ’s strength meets its goal. It becomes perfect only in those who know their own sins and know their own weaknesses and have learned that they cannot help themselves. Jesus came into the world to save sinners. If you won’t acknowledge the reality of your own sin you cannot be saved from it.
This acknowledgement is not just giving mental assent to a doctrinal abstraction as if to say, “Yeah, sure, I’m a sinner and so is everyone else!” Listen to the psalmist show us how to confess. David writes:
David, who killed the Philistine giant Goliath, wrote this psalm. He confessed he was weak. Only spiritual weaklings can rely on Christ. When we see our weakness we will seek God’s forgiveness, not on account of our merits and worthiness, but solely on account of Christ. Jesus won forgiveness for us. In our poverty, sickness, and weakness we learn to trust in what Jesus has done for us instead of what we can do for ourselves. Then we are justified through faith alone. What does it mean for us that we are justified through faith? St. Paul writes in Romans 5:1-5.
It is no great blessing for a Christian to have a vision of heaven. What good would that do, except to remind us that we are not there yet? It is a far greater blessing to be made weak and helpless and ever mindful of what we need and who can give it. Then the word that God has planted deep into our hearts will bear the fruit of true faith and through faith in that word the power of God’s grace in Christ will make us strong. Then we will see how God’s grace in Christ is all we need in this life. Then God can exalt us by destroying our pride and replacing it with the love the Holy Spirit pours in our hearts. When we are weak, then we are strong.
Rolf D. Preus