Well Shut My Mouth: 5 Bad Churchy Phrases
Part 3: “God will never give you more than you can bear.”
2 Cor. 12:1-10
We’re examining five common “churchy phrases” that church folk use with good intentions but convey things contrary to scripture. 1 First, we looked at the phrase, “It was a God thing” which implies that God is only behind those events we think are victories. In fact, we learned that EVERYTHING, even the stuff we don’t like, is “a God thing.”
Last week, we broke down the phrase “God showed up in the end.” We saw how that phrase implies that events dictate how God acts, rather than God dictating ALL things, all events and all human actions. God doesn’t simply show up in the end, he is all-powerful and present everywhere all the time. He’s not a comic-book-hero god who’s busy fighting evil somewhere else until we call out with our Lois Lane crisis cry. God is not tame; he’s not comfortable; he’s not safe and the only hiding place you have from God is in Christ Jesus.
On May 15, we’ll examine Jesus’ statement in Matthew 18, “For where two or three are gathered in my name, there I am among them.” That statement is NOT Jesus permission for anyone to start their own church; it’s not permission for parachurch ministries to perform sacraments; it’s not permission for families to have so-called “home church” because they can’t find a real church that suits their preferences.
This morning, we’re examining the well-meaning-but-utterly-wrong phrase, “God will never give you more than you can bear.” Have you ever had someone say that to you in an attempt to comfort you in a time of grief or trails? I’ve heard it. I’m sure many of you have heard it, perhaps even said it. It’s good to want to bring comfort to suffering people.
But let me give you a very helpful ministry tip: Don’t offer any churchy phrases to grieving people; just show up, hug them, tell them you love them, and then just listen.
The problem with trying to comfort someone with the promise, “God will never give you more than you can bear,” is that it’s entirely unbiblical. Nowhere does scripture make such a promise. The premise is wrong; it presupposes a spiritual life in which you act out of your own strength and your own personal life-management skills.
Author Paul Zahl likes to say God’s office is at the end of your rope. I’ll go one better: God’s office is PAST the end of your rope because he doesn’t want YOUR strength. Paul will show us in this very personal section of 2 Corinthians that God wants your weakness.
I must go on boasting. Though there is nothing to be gained by it, I will go on to visions and revelations of the Lord. 2 I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows. 3 And I know that this man was caught up into paradise—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows— 4 and he heard things that cannot be told, which man may not utter. 5 On behalf of this man I will boast, but on my own behalf I will not boast, except of my weaknesses— 6 though if I should wish to boast, I would not be a fool, for I would be speaking the truth; but I refrain from it, so that no one may think more of me than he sees in me or hears from me. 7 So to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited. 8 Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. 9 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 of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. 10 For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.
Corinth was a wealthy, busy, hip, happening kind of place. The congregation of Corinth, like all us today, was attracted to wealth and success and good marketing. They liked important-looking, attractive, and highly-entertaining speakers who gave them clear steps toward achieving a higher, better life. These were men who set themselves up as “super-apostles,” charging hefty fees for their conferences and seminars and books.
The super-apostles taught things Paul didn’t teach. Their gospel of successful living and achieving your best life through practical rule-keeping and self-affirmation sold very well in the church Paul labored to plant. But of course there were the few skeptics in the congregation who kept raising the problematic issue that the super-apostles’ messages were dramatically different from what Paul taught.
The super-apostles’ response was effective: Paul is a loser. He’s short and unattractive. He makes enemies everywhere he goes. He’s weak. He’s poor. He’s a bad preacher. If God was really blessing Paul, then Paul would be healthy and wealthy and universally loved by all. “What we teach must be true. Look how pretty and successful we are. Poor little Paul gives his letters away but our knowledge is worth money. And you get what you pay for.”
Paul’s “business competitors” advertised their strength as proof of their credentials. Paul advertised his weakness as the credential of true apostleship.
Paul began attack on the fake apostles’ self-promotion in chapter 11. Take a look at 11:23-29:
23 Are they servants of Christ? I am a better one—I am talking like a madman—with far greater labors, far more imprisonments, with countless beatings, and often near death. 24 Five times I received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. 25 Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I was adrift at sea; 26 on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers; 27 in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. 28 And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches. 29 Who is weak, and I am not weak? Who is made to fall, and I am not indignant?
Does that sound like a successful ministry? God isn’t “blessing” Paul’s ministry with lots of followers and lots of cash. I don’t know about you, but I haven’t met too many pastors who brag about small followings, low cash flow, and constant persecution.
But Paul goes one step further in chapter 11. He says in vv. 30-31, “30 If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness. 31 The God and Father of the Lord Jesus, he who is blessed forever, knows that I am not lying.”
Why does God give “more than you can bear”? Because it’s not about YOUR strength. Your Christian life is about your weakness.
Paul’s most “impressive” spiritual experience as a true apostle is something he will not talk about (vv. 1-6)
“2 I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows.”
Paul is speaking of his experience. We know that because he later says, “4 and he heard things that cannot be told, which man may not utter.” Only the one told not to talk about it would know it happened.
How different is Paul’s experience from our own day. People who have unusual experiences today write books about it. They go on the conference circuit and on television to boost book sales; then they sell the movie rights (Third Heaven: The Movie). Then come the calendars, annotated Bibles (The Third Heaven Study Bible), small-group study guides (Forty Days of Third Heaven), and apps (The Third Heaven Diet).
Paul is saying he knows things about God and heaven and the universe that no other human being in the world knows. And he’s not selling it and he’s not telling it.
He’s contrasting himself to the self-promoting super-apostles who boast of their health, wealth, status, and special knowledge of visions and revelations. Paul makes it clear he hates discussing his personal experiences.
Why? Because people who have truly met with God tend to be quiet about their personal experiences; they are more awed with God than with their own story.
Yet Paul’s experience gave him such profound knowledge that he could have held every other human being in contempt for their ignorance. Our Old Adam, our flesh, our sin nature loves to feel superior because it loves works righteousness.
Paul WAS given “more than he could bear” because grace, not strength, is the measure of the Jesus-trusting life (vv. 7-8).
“7 So to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited. 8 Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me.”
Isn’t that the opposite of how most humans operate? Most people want you to think better of them than they actually are. Most tout their credentials and fitness to be admired. That’s what the super-apostles were doing. That’s how they built their followings and sold tickets to their conferences.
Paul wants “no one may think more of me than he sees in me or hears from me” (6). Why does he want that? Why not go after the props like the super-apostles? Because God has given him a weakness he CANNOT BEAR.
“God never gives you more than you can bear.” Really? He gave Paul more than he could bear. And he gave the super-apostles over to fame and prosperity. But Paul found whatever his thornwas to be unbearable.
Paul doesn’t describe himself to the Corinthians as “great,” or “mighty,” or “important.” Paul describes himself as a chronic sufferer.2 His entire ministry was marked by a relentless barrage of persecutions, hardships, and suffering.
But now he writes that, on top of all his other hardships, a messenger of Satan sent to harass him. WHAT was this “thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me”?
Here’s the very best answer to that question upon which scholars have been speculating for thousands of years: WE DON’T KNOW! And if the Holy Spirit wanted us to know, Paul would have told us exactly what it was.
What we do know is that on top of all his many hardships he listed in chapter 11, Paul endured chronic suffering and he three times begged God to end that suffering.
We see that his chronic suffering was a deep reality in his life and he could not do anything to escape it. It harassed Paul – the word is used to describe Jesus’ beatings and mocking by Roman soldiers (Matt. 26:67; Mk. 14:65).
It’s perfectly understandable and allowable to ask God to heal your chronic condition or end the circumstances by which you suffer. But don’t expect you can manipulate God into granting your wishes.
You see, one of the marks that you really belong to Christ Jesus is your suffering. You will suffer. Peter wrote, “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. 13 But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed” (1 Pt. 4:12-13).
“God will never give you more than you can bear” is the theology of glory, NOT the true theology of the cross. God WILL give you more than you can bear because your life is NOT about you!
Paul was given more than he could bear because human weakness displays God’s power (vv. 9-10).
Notice God’s response to Paul’s very reasonable request for relief. “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”
By trust, we are so united into Christ that not only does his triumph (through joy and peace and all the fruit of the Spirit) flow into our lives, but also his sufferings (through tragedies, illnesses, and grief) flow into our lives.
Remember Paul’s conversion. God called Ananias of Damascus to go to Paul, saying to Ananias: “I will show him [Paul] how much he must suffer for my name’s sake” (Acts 9:16).
God will absolutely give you more than you can bear for the sake of HIS NAME. Often we approach our suffering hoping to find some silver lining that benefits ME – as a means of buffering our suffering.
“I may be suffering but I know I will draw closer to God.” That may be true. But it’s not the primary purpose you receive more than you can bear.
“I may be suffering but I know it’s bringing my family closer together.” Perhaps that will happen; but that is NOT God’s deeper reality.
God’s deeper reality in giving you more than you can bear is to display HIS POWER IN YOUR WEAKNESS.
It’s not about you. See step one: It’s all about Jesus.
The theology of the cross is that God worked his greatest glory and good through the most appalling suffering. God hung himself upon Calvary’s cross, subjected himself to the hatred of his creatures, shed his precious blood even unto death and glorified himself to the utmost by saving you and me by means of his weakness.
Paul was ultimately content to receive more than he could bear because what Paul could bear was NOT the issue; the power of Christ was the issue and sake of Christ was the purpose(9b-10).
Paul concluded, “Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. 10 For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.”
As Jesus followers we NEVER say to one who is suffering, “You’ll get over it,” because we recognize that all hell may be let loose to destroy Christian faith, in the same way it was let loose to destroy Christ.3
We never promise anyone she will see some good come out of her suffering. But we DO promise the resurrection power of Christ can and will overcome all your chronic suffering if you are trusting into him. NOTHING can hinder the power of the gospel – not the devil, not the world, not your sin, not your sufferings.
How much “good” did Paul see in his chronic suffering? Awaiting execution, he wrote to Timothy “all deserted me” (2 Tim. 4:10). Did he receive a vision that one day saints would be sitting in a congregation in San Antonio, Texas learning from his sufferings?
Paul didn’t even know there was such a wonderful land as Texas. It was far beyond his imagination to find such a silver lining in his sufferings. And yet, the fruit of Paul’s chronic suffering is right here in this room this morning.
God WILL give you more than you can bear because your Old Adam, your sin nature that seeks for its own silver linings and its own glory, doesn’t need to get better and better. It needs to die so that Jesus can be glorified in and through you.
Some of you have gone through chronic suffering for years. And you long for those sufferings to be taken away. Some of them cannot be taken away in this world. Some of them will be way more than you can bear.
So what do we do? We are to learn, Paul says, that God’s grace is sufficient for us and his strength is made perfect in our weakness. If YOUR strength is made perfect in your suffering, you will never be able to serve Christ. Because then people will be as attracted to you as the Corinthians were to the super-apostles. “Isn’t she marvelous,” they will say. “Isn’t he such a wonderful person, so strong? He’s my hero.” They will not say, “Isn’t the Lord Jesus Christ marvelous and wonderful?”
If your strength is perfected, the weakest ones among us will never be able to see that the strength of the Lord Jesus Christ tabernacles among the weakness of the weakest saints, not among the strong and self-sufficient.4
And when we discover that, then like Paul, we can learn a kind of contentment with our chronic weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and tragedies.
Because I know that in the midst of my aching soul, Jesus has promised sufficient grace and resurrection power for me and in me for HIS GLORY.
1 See: Jason Johnson, “Stop Yourself Before Saying These 5 Bad Phrases” accessed 4/19/16 at: http://www.churchleaders.com/pastors/pastor-articles/172462-jason-johnson-yourself-before-saying-these-5-phrases.html
2 Sinclair Ferguson, “The Grace that Suffices: 2 Corinthians 12.” Accessed 5/1/2016 at: http://resources.thegospelcoalition.org/library/grace-that-saves-suffices