The Gospel Partnerships invited me to share some the ways in which God has been at work in and through City Church Birmingham since we began to meet in 1999. The Gospel Partnership site contains a growing set of resources on training, multiplying congregations and evangelism. Well worth returning to the site on a regular basis for input from a whole range of churches.
We’re preaching through a series at City Church entitled Perfected in weakness. Here’s an extract from the sermon I preached last Sunday entitled the weakness of inadequacy.
Madonna once said:
My drive in life comes from a fear of being mediocre. That is always pushing me. I push past one spell of it and discover myself as a special human being but then feel I am still mediocre and uninteresting unless I do something else. Because even though I have become somebody, I still have to prove that I am somebody. My struggle has never ended and I guess it never will.
Clinical psychologist Oliver James in his best-selling Affluenza puts his finger on just what is at work here:
Constantly comparing your lot with others leads to insecurity. You will have a nameless sense that there is always something you should be doing, a free-floating anxiety. You will be obsessively running yourself down because you do not do as well as others, moving the goal posts if you do succeed.
That sense of inadequacy is something we bring with us into church life. Maybe you look around your church and think ‘I’m not as good looking as that person, I’m not as trendy as that person, I’m not as godly, or gifted, or confident as the person sitting next to me.’ And you fear being ordinary at best and what you really fear is being irrelevant.
If ever there was a passage written to help us with the weakness of inadequacy, it is 1 Corinthians 12.
1) God’s design: unity in diversity
If you are a Christian you share with every other Christian the same identity; an identity that has nothing to do with your performance or popularity. We are children of God, united together with other Christians through being united with Christ. Through the same Spirit of Christ we know Jesus Christ – that’s the thrust of Paul’s introduction in v.3. But our unity is expressed in diversity. In verses 4-7 three times Paul talks of ‘same’and yet ‘different’. It’s surely impossible to miss Paul’s point: unity is not uniformity.
What works for a British Lions rugby team, made up as it is of 15 players of all shapes and sizes, and the very thing that makes the sound of an orchestra sublime, is true of the church. The God who loves us the same has given us different abilities and roles. Paul wants us to know that God is a God who loves us and loves diversity: that includes personalities, characters, abilities and gifting.
Paul says that God gives gifts to each one (11), he arranged them . . .just as he wanted them’ (18), God has combined the members (24), God appointed the gifts (28).
It has been said ‘when we freeze water, we make ice cubes – everyone the same. When God freezes water, he makes snowflakes – each one different.’ And David Prior notes that ‘we differ from one another because God wants those differences to be moulded into a special unity which is demonstrably his own doing.’
1. If the gifts we have are from God then we should use them
2. If the gifts we have are from God then we should be thankful for them
3. If the gifts are from God we should trust that he knows which gift to give us (even if we would rather he had given us a different gift)
4. If the gifts are from God then he intends them to be useful
5. If the gifts are from God then he intends them to be used for the building up of the church
David Prior says that every Christian is ‘unique, distinctive, irreplaceable, unrepeatable. . . this is the glory of the church as the body of Christ.’ Is this how we think of ourselves and each other?
The problem is that we, like the Corinthians, have a hard time accepting what Paul is saying.
Two tendencies that we’re going to look at in turn. The first is to say ‘but I don’t belong’ and the second is to say ‘but I don’t need you.’ You see, we can’t expect that the church will be healthy unless we have the right attitudes to ourselves and our place; we need to have the right attitudes towards one another. We need to know that we belong together and that God has made me to play an important part.
To help us understand this Paul uses a powerful analogy for our life together and the picture he uses is the human body. There it is in v.12 (NIV), ‘the body is a unit, though it is made up of many parts; and though all its parts are many, they form one body. So it is with Christ.’ And yet for some Christians the weakness of inadequacy is always at work. And we recognise it has a paralysing effect. So, v. 14, ‘because I am not a hand, I do not belong’ and again in v.16, ‘because I am not an eye, I do not belong’. The church is full of people who can see all that others have to offer, but very little sense of why they are needed.
Well, what is Paul’s response?
2) ‘I don’t belong’ – Accepting the way God has made me
If we were all the same, v.17, all an eye, or all an ear, we would be useless. God knows what he is doing when we remember, v.18, God has arranged the parts, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be. The reason Paul’s analogy works so well is that it’s pretty obvious to us that for a body to function the various parts must be different. The eye can’t do the job of an ear nor the ear the job of an eye. The whole point of a body is that it depends on diversity. It simply must have many different parts to function. And God knows what he needs and what he’s doing in putting you in this body.
Now I don’t know quite how my body works, I just know the various parts do their work and God puts it all together. In one sense it’s a relief to me that I don’t know or need to know. The one thing I do know is that I feel a whole lot better when every part of my body is working as it should. So with the church. Just as I don’t need to know how my body works, so, I don’t need to know quite how God will use every member to play his or her part to build up the body of Christ. I don’t need to know quite how we will make a difference in the body of Christ. We simply trust God to build the body as we each get on with playing our part.
You and I don’t have to try and measure your contribution – we simply have to trust that God wants to work through you. Sometimes we get an insight. Sometimes someone says a particular thank you for something we’ve done, but not often. So don’t require or expect uniformity. That’s not the way God made us. And if God has put us in the body, to play our part, there’s really no place for feeling inferior on account of difference.
But Paul goes further than simply saying we’re all different. He wants us to see that in the way God has designed the body, he turns the standards and expectations of the world on its head. Paul is quite sure that it is precisely those who think they have least to offer who often make the greatest contribution.
Our key verse for that idea is v.22 those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable. Do you see that in this verse Paul recognises that in a human body there are what he describes as weak organs? He has in mind the internal organs that need protecting; our liver, lungs, heart. You don’t see them, they are fragile, but they are indispensable.
I think v. 22 is a really encouraging verse. What it seems to say is that weakness is something from which we are all to learn. Maybe it is true that you are not as gifted as someone else, or have the same place of honour in the body but God says through this passage ‘be content to be who God made you to be, because God has a purpose for you.’ When it comes to the human body it is the weakest members who have the greatest impact. I can manage without an eye or an ear. If tragedy strikes I can learn to live without the use of my legs or arms. But the liver is essential and the heart is indispensable. In other words the weakest members of the body only seem weak. And so with the church. Those who appear to have little to offer often make the biggest impact, don’t they?
In our own congregation those going through sufferings or struggles of various kinds are often the greatest encouragement. A mother raising a disabled child, a member battling cancer, whatever it may be, there is much to learn from those who seem weak. Quite simply, because God works through weakness. Pablo Martinez writes: ‘God can use us in very different ways from those we might have expected or imagined, even in surprising ways . . . God wants to give meaning to every life, however limited or useless it may appear to human eyes.’
There were those in the church at Corinth who felt they had nothing to learn from weakness. And today there are those who cannot see that Christ is powerfully at work in someone battling same-sex attraction, depression, loneliness, and so they fail to learn, and they fail to be encouraged or inspired, and they fail to give glory to God.
3) ‘I don’t need you’? – Learning from those who are weak
As you go on in life and as you grow up in life so you realise that you have more to learn than just the theology of Wayne Grudem, and that God has given the church teachers in many forms. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, martyred by the Nazis in 1945 has written arguably the greatest book on Christian community, Life Together. In this he states ‘the exclusion of the weak and insignificant, the seemingly useless people, from a Christian community may actually mean the exclusion of Christ.’
If we only seek out the impressive, the connected, the intelligent, I wonder whether you would ever have sought out Christ? In Isaiah 53:2-3 (NIV) we read ‘He grew up before him like a tender shoot, and like a root out of dry ground. He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering. Like one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not.’
When we think of Christ’s origins, raised in a working-class town in the north of the country and when we think of his appearance dressed as he was in ordinary clothes and when we think of his ministry and reputation, rejected by the thinkers and leaders of his time, if we were looking for someone to impress us we might just have missed him.
It is so easy to overlook the presence and power of God in the church – it is found in weak people.
Paul rejoiced in weakness and therefore if we share his joy we too will look to learn from those who are conscious of weakness. Once you realise that one of the primary ways, if not THE primary way of growing up in the Lord is through your weaknesses, then your attitude to the weak begins to change.
The wise Christian seeks out the company of the weak – because he sees something he didn’t see before – Christ’s power at work. The wise Christian seeks out the company of the weak because he seeks to learn from them. The wise Christian seeks out the company of the weak because he longs to be blessed by them.
If we were in any doubt that the introduction of same-sex marriage would change the very nature of marriage for everyone then we are in no doubt any longer. If we were in any doubt that the introduction of same-sex marriage would weaken rather than strengthen the institution of marriage for everyone then the recent remarks of Baroness Stowell put that, too, beyond doubt. Baroness Stowell, who speaks for the Conservatives in the Lords on equalities issues, confirmed that faithfulness in marriage is not to be a requirement under the proposed legislation for same-sex relationships. Rather, issues of fidelity would be up to each couple to decide for themselves.
As the law stands, for heterosexual couples adultery has always been a grounds for divorce. The proposed legislation for same-sex marriages will not include the same provision.
Quite simply there are only three options for the government:
1) In order to maintain a level-playing field an adultery clause has to be added to the proposed legislation but how do you define adultery in some homosexual relationships? Hence the governments decision not to include it.
2) Or to maintain a level-playing field adultery has to be removed as a grounds for divorce for heterosexual marriage
3) Or we accept different definitions for marriage depending on whether you are gay or straight.
David Burrowes MP in the Telegraph article said: “This goes against everything the PM has said about his desire to try and strengthen marriage by extending marriage to same sex couples.”
“If the legislation is not urgently amended, it signals the abolition of the law of adultery. It will create an adulterer’s charter across both types of marriage, which far from strengthening this great institution will do irreparable damage to it.”
(HT: Christian Institute)
Fascinating article in this week’s Spectator from Jonathan Sacks,the chief Rabbi on the failure of atheism to find an answer to the question ‘why be good?’
I have not yet found a secular ethic capable of sustaining in the long run a society of strong communities and families on the one hand, altruism, virtue, self-restraint, honour, obligation and trust on the other. A century after a civilisation loses its soul it loses its freedom also. That should concern all of us, believers and non-believers alike.
If Jesus’s highest priority was your immediate personal happiness wouldn’t he always answer your prayer of faith? That we know he doesn’t, suggests that it isn’t. In our series Perfected in weakness, we are learning that God has a purpose is saying ‘no’ to genuine prayers of faith. Sometimes God has a purpose in disappointing us. Paul says of the thorn in his flesh (2 Corinthians 12 v.7–8) ‘three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, ‘my grace is sufficient.’
That God may answer our prayers in ways we would never think of is seen in the story of the raising of Lazarus. For Mary and Martha must deal with their disappointment with Jesus. In John 11 we discover that Lazarus is sick, v.1, and so his sisters Mary and Martha send for the one who heals the sick, Jesus. They know what Jesus can do and they know Jesus loves Lazarus. Their message (prayer) to him in v.3 is ‘Lord, the one you love is sick.’
Jesus loved not only Lazarus but Mary and Martha too (v.5), and so we know what we expect to happen next; on hearing the news Jesus will hurry to the aid of Lazarus.
But what we read is not what we expect; yet, when he heard that Lazarus was sick, he stayed where he was two more days (John 11:6, NIV, 1984).
A deliberate purpose in delay?
The little Greek word ouv plays a crucial part in our understanding of what Jesus is doing. The word reveals why Jesus’s love leads him to a decision not to go to the aid of Lazarus. After all, if Jesus loves Lazarus, why is his response to their urgent cry for help, delay followed by disappointment?
Part of the problem is that the NIV 1984 translation does its best to obscure the relationship between v.5 and v.6. In fact Don Carson, in his commentary, maintains that it is ‘without linguistic defence’. When it translate ouv as ‘yet’ we find ourselves juxtaposing Jesus’s love with his delay. It reads like an unresolved tension; even a mystery.
Better translations are offered by ESV: ‘now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. So, when he heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.’ And by the new NIV: ‘now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. 6 So when he heard that Lazarus was sick, he stayed where he was two more days.’
What difference does it make?
Correct the ‘yet’ to a ‘so’ and a causal link is revealed. As Carson points out, ‘this means that the two-day delay was motivated by Jesus’ love for Martha, Mary and Lazarus. ’ It doesn’t so much mean Jesus heard that the one he loved was sick and yet he didn’t go, but rather Jesus heard the one that he loved was sick and so he didn’t go.
What’s the difference? Read it the first way and you start thinking Jesus loved them and yet it might remain a mystery as to why he didn’t go. Read it the correct way and you start to realise that Jesus can love someone by not answering their prayers in the way you would expect. Maybe that helps us to understand that God always answers our prayers according to his love for us, but often in unexpected ways.; ways that have in mind not our immediate happiness, but our salvation and what may work to achieve it.
Now, that is a massive difference to your theology of prayer. It means that sometimes Jesus says no to your desires because he loves you.
John Calvin and his wife had only one child and this precious son died not long after he was born. Calvin wrote a letter to a friend, and in it said the Lord has certainly inflicted a severe and bitter wound in the death of our infant son. But he is himself a Father, and knows best what is good for his children. Jesus loves Mary and Martha and knows what is best, so he does not answer their prayer in the way they would hope.
God’s goal is greater than our goal
Now that only makes sense, it can only make sense, if God has a greater good in mind than that you should have a happy life now. It only makes sense if he has a greater good that, in some sense, might even be threatened by giving you a happy life now.
John 11 dares to ask us ‘can we trust God enough to allow him to disappoint us?’ To watch your brother die while you wait for Jesus to come must have been a terrible experience. Yet Jesus had his reasons. Some of us struggle to put ourselves in Mary & Martha’s shoes, but others can relate to their tragic circumstances. To be sure that Jesus loves you and the one for whom you are praying, to know he has power to heal because you have witnessed him healing people many times and then to wait for him to intervene, only to wait in vain, is a test of faith.
Lazarus has been dead for four days by the time Jesus arrives. Mary meets him and says (v.21) Lord if you had been here, my brother would not have died. It wasn’t because Mary didn’t believe that she spoke as she did, it is precisely because Mary did believe that she said what she did. This is not a statement of doubt in Jesus; but a cry of confusion.
Asking the right question
When we know the truth about God, when we are sure that he is good and that he is for me, and then he doesn’t seem to show it, wouldn’t we ask why? As a pastor I would be worried if you didn’t ask ‘why?’, not least because asking the question is a statement of faith and a desire to know God better. Who wouldn’t say to Jesus ‘where were you?’ Who has never cried out in confusion ‘God what are you doing?’
Within a year of starting City Church, a member of our congregation died of carbon monoxide poisoning. She was a woman in her early 30’s, who had given her life to serving Christ, she worked for a mission organisation in the city and therefore it made no sense to us that the Lord should allow such a tragedy. It made no more sense than the loss of his son did to John Calvin.
Can you think of unanswered prayer in your own life even now? Prayers that have been uttered in faith, prayers that you have seen God answer for others and yet God not answer for you. We need to learn that we can trust Jesus even in such circumstances. In our passage we learn that Jesus had a deliberate purpose in disappointing Mary and Martha. He allows their prayer to go unanswered for a time and three reasons stand-out:
1) This way will bring more glory to God (v.4). Only if Lazarus dies can the world begin to see that Jesus had the power of life and death in restoring him to life. God’s son was glorified through this tragedy.
2) This will strengthen the faith of Mary and Martha. Through this trial they grow closer to Jesus and just a few verses later (John 12:1-3) Mary adores and worships Jesus in an extravagant act of devotion as she pours perfume on his feet.
3) This will bring about the salvation of many, John 11:45.
Learning to trust God with our circumstances
Sometimes God says no and we see quite quickly what he is doing. Mary and Martha witnessed the power of Christ not only to heal the sick but raise the dead. They witnessed many coming to faith in Christ through his delay and they saw what glory it gave to God. Their confusion was real but relatively short-lived. At other times God says no and we don’t understand, but even then we begin to see that in our helplessness God strengthens our faith and he speaks to others through our experience. When God says no to our cries for help, our only option is to trust and obey. All we have is a choice to believe that he has a greater goal in mind than an immediate personal happiness, and all we can do is to look for God’s purpose to refine our character. We begin to learn that God’s purpose is to use this experience to shape our characters, cast out our sin, increase our hope, and to build our trust.
As we explore the theme at City Church of how true strength is found in weakness, I’m reading the story of Gerald L. Sittser who lost his mother, wife and young daughter in a tragic accident. His book is called A Grace Disguised and the inside cover reveals this is not a book about one man’s sorrow. Rather, it is a moving meditation on the losses we all suffer and the grace that can transform us. Here is a short extract that helps us to see what that looks like in one man’s experience.
Loss forces us to see the dominant role our environment plays in determining our happiness. Loss strips us of the props we rely on for our well-being. It knocks us off our feet and puts us on our backs. In the experience of loss, we come to the end of ourselves.
But in coming to the end of ourselves, we can also come to the beginning of a vital relationship with God. Our failures can lead us to grace and to a profound spiritual awakening. This process occurs frequently with those who suffer loss. It often begins when we face our own weaknesses and realize how much we take favourable circumstances for granted. When loss deprives us of those circumstances, our anger, depression, and ingratitude expose the true state of our souls, showing us how small we really are. We see that our identity is largely external, not internal.
Finally, we reach the point where we begin to search for a new life, one that depends less on circumstances and more on the depth of our souls. That, in turn, opens us to new ideas and perspectives, including spiritual ones. We feel the need for something beyond ourselves, and it begins to dawn on us that reality may be more than we once thought it to be. We begin to perceive hints of the divine, and our longing grows. To our shock and bewilderment, we discover that there is a Being in the universe who, despite our brokenness and sin, loves us fiercely. In coming to the end of ourselves, we have come to the beginning of our true and deepest selves. We have found the One whose love gives shape to our being.
I have just begun an evening series at City Church entitled Perfected in Weakness. The goal of the series is to move us, as a church family, from a position where weakness is seen (or at least thought-of) as something to be ashamed or embarrassed about. In our church culture weaknesses are often things we hide from others as we give the pretence of being sorted Christians. As a church we need to arrive at a place where we can be open and real about our weaknesses because we recognise that it is precisely in our weaknesses that God is most glorified. As we do so we will be increasingly able to speak to one another in appropriate ways.
Has it ever been easier to claim to be able to live independent, self-sufficient lives? Here’s one example of what that claim looks like: a book by five-time Olympic Gold medallist, Steve Redgrave. It’s not aimed at high-achievers but at people like you and me. It’s called You can win at life! Unlock your potential and go for gold! As you flick through the chapter and section headings you get a sense of its message; identify your dreams, your boundaries can be limitless, and winners are people like you. Through-out the book are encouragements to recognise the huge potential for success within you. The blurb on the back cover of the book reads In you can win at life! Steve reveals the secret of his success and shows how we can ALL learn to achieve our goals, given the right balance of self-motivation, vision and hard graft.
The book is a summary of the message of the age – and all too often the message in our churches. The power is there within you. It’s like north sea oil the only real challenge is how to get it out. And that is what makes what God wants to teach us through the apostle Paul so radical. For he writes:
If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness (2 Cor. 11:30, NIV)) and I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. (2 Cor. 12:9, NIV)
For Paul the secret to life is that there are no strong people (to borrow from the title of Jeff Lucas’s new book). The reality is that the world is not divided between the strong and the weak but divided between those who know they are weak and those who don’t. It is only in learning that we are weak that we are ready to begin to look outside of ourselves and to the God of all grace for help.
Paul writes of the painful lesson that was so hard to learn; 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 (2Co 12:10, NIV). Steve Redgrave just might be able to motivate you to run a sub-4 hour marathon, he might just persuade you to start your own business but what he hides from you in his book is that most important lesson of all – there are no strong people. Despite the boastful words of every candidate on the apprentice it is our own mortality that serves as the reminder that whatever our strengths might be we are wearing out and our lives are running out. In the book of Common Prayer we read ‘In the midst of life we are in death’. I wonder whether that is something we are ready to accept?
We may have some strengths (our gifts and abilities given by God) but we are all weak people who have some strengths. So when God allows us to experience our weakness, whether that might come through physical, mental, or spiritual incapacity, it is a severe mercy. God is teaching you that you cannot make it alone. We all need to know that our lives are in his hands. That our future is found not in depending on our strength but on his strength at work in us.
The tension we experience in our Christian lives is that our weaknesses are the things we most want God to take away and yet our weaknesses are the things God finds most useful in growing us up in our faith. You and I want God to take away are the things he most wants to use. Paul did not enjoy his suffering but he learned that For Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses (2 Cor. 12:10, NIV).
It is a lesson we really need to learn because we think weakness is wrong and yet Jesus says weakness isn’t wrong – weakness is the way to eternal life. Weakness is the path that Jesus walked. He was crucified in weakness (2 Cor. 13:4, NIV). Weakness is where we learn that you and I need God – we don’t just need to know about God, we don’t just need to believe in God, we need to depend upon God – because only through Christ can he take us through death to eternal life.
Are we ready not just to serve Christ but depend on his strength because our own resources are not enough.
Paul Tripp writes in Broken-down House:
When you stand back and consider, you are confronted with how little is actually under your control. When you stop and look, you are faced with your smallness, your weakness, and your limits. But don’t get discouraged and don’t panic; reality is a healthy place to be. Think about it. Only when I humbly embrace my weakness, humbly admit my limits,and humbly recognise how small I actually am,can I begin to reach out for the help of the loving, powerful, and gracious Redeemer who is the true source of my strength, wisdom, and hope. Only then can I begin to function as an instrument in his powerful hands, rather than being in his way because, in forgetting who I am and who he is, I have been trying to do his job. He concludes, you do not have to fear your limits. They were designed by the God.
We were made to live not just God-honouring lives, but God-dependent lives. The problem is that even after God saves us, even then, we don’t naturally turn to him. As Christians we simply get on with our own life. So Paul boasts of weakness because they are they very place where we learn that the power for the Christian life comes from Christ and weakness is where that truth is most often discovered.
In our weakness we realise, maybe for the first time, that we need to depend on the God of all grace and depend on him as never before.
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