A Purpose and a Promise

A Purpose and a Promise

After last week’s message, I heard from many of you that you know the In-the-Meantime moments all too well and some of you are facing one right now. As I wrote the last two sermons, I have been remembering more and more times in my life when I was in an in-the-meantime moment. Sometimes in a job, sometimes with my kids, with my migraines, and more. And I’ve been thinking of people I’ve known in the past who have had defining in-the-meantime moments.

I remember at my job before I was a pastor, one of my co-workers who was an on the road salesman, his wife was diagnosed with a type of brain cancer that was not curable. She immediately started through the grueling process of treatments and lived for about a year after her diagnosis. The most beautiful piece about this story that has stuck with me ever since, was how every time the salesman would come to the office, he would tell me about his wife’s positive outlook through the entire process. He shared with me early on that because of her faith in God, she came to the conclusion that this trial was ultimately coming from her loving, Heavenly Father. And it was okay. She believed there was a purpose for it and that there was a promise that came along with it.

Being a pastor, I have run into some remarkable people who were facing extraordinary adversity just like this or with things like their families, their finances, their jobs. And through some set of circumstances, they came to the conclusion that instead of fighting it, resisting it, and trying to get God to decide with them against something, they were going to approach this adversity or this new permanent part of their life as if it was actually coming from the hands of God. Like they had to see the challenge as something that was coming ultimately through the hands and through the permission of our Heavenly Father.

Now I’m not going to ask you to do something you’re not ready for, and I’m not going to speak as an expert on this topic because I’m not. But I feel like I would be doing some of you a disservice not to introduce this idea early in this series because for some of you, that is the way forward. Now this whole series, it revolves around a simple question, yet a perplexing question. What do you do when there’s nothing you can do?

What do you do when you find yourself in a set of circumstances, and there’s really no way to fix it? There’s no way out, no way forward. This is the way it is, and this is the way it’s going to be. And as far as you can see, nothing is going to change, at least not anytime soon.

It could be relationally. You’re in a marriage and it’s just not going well. It’s not what you had hoped it would be. It could be something going on with one of your kids, and your dream for them is not coming true, or their dream for them is not coming true. It could be something financially, professionally, physically, like you have an illness or you have something that’s not going to kill you or at least not quickly, but it’s going to be an ongoing thing. It’s debilitating.

It could also academics. You’re not after all going to medical school or law school like you had hoped. It’s just not working out for you. Although it worked for your brothers and sisters and everybody else in your family, for some reason it’s just not working for you. Maybe it’s something you did, maybe it’s something that has nothing to do with you. But you look into the future and your future is different than what you envisioned your future being.

That’s what we are calling an In-the-Meantime moment. This is not something you can fix. It’s not something you can change. So what do you do in the meantime?

Our natural response is that we get angry, with ourselves, our family, even God. You may even feel like they set you up for this failure. And the temptation is to run. If you’re in a difficult marriage or if you’re in a difficult relationship that you know you should stay in. The temptation is to just cut and run, leave, I’ll start another family, it’ll be better, it’ll be different next time. We’re tempted to give up.

We’re also tempted to give in. Perhaps you’re tempted to just drink it all away or develop a habit just to ease the pain, and you know that’s not the healthy thing to do. In fact, you know that trying to solve this problem yourself is only going to create another problem, more tension in your relationships, more tension financially, more tension professionally.

And then, of course, we look around and we compare ourselves to everybody else. Everybody else seems to have the family we were supposed to have. Everybody else is having the relationship that we’re supposed to have. Therefore, we’re a bit resentful which just makes us even more angry.

Because of things like social media, we are well aware of how well everything seems to be working out for everyone else in the world. See we have this ability that previous generations didn’t have, to compare ourselves not just to the people we see, but to every other person in the world. Add that to our very positive American outlook on life when things don’t go well, when things aren’t wrinkle free, we immediately throw up our hands and throw up our eyes and say, “God, why are you leaving me out? What’s wrong with me?”

So the question is what do you do when there’s really nothing you can do? And what do you do to keep from doing things that are only going to make things worse?

We said last week that in the midst of an in-the-meantime moment, we just assume that we’ll never be happy again. We start telling ourselves nothing good can come from this, and therefore there’s no point in continuing.

We looked at two accounts from the life of Jesus, and we discovered that the presence of adversity does not equate to the absence of God. That just because you are facing adversity, and even though God may be silent, does not mean that God stopped loving you and being with you.

The way we said it last week was that in the meantime God is not absent, God is not apathetic, and God is not angry. And let’s be honest, when things aren’t going our way, or seem to work out, or when it looks like the future is just going to be the same bad stuff, there’s something in us that wonders, where are you, God? Why aren’t you doing something about this?

But there’s no actual correlation between God’s seeming lack of cooperation, and God’s presence or God’s existence. If you are tempted to assume or conclude that God doesn’t exist because God won’t cooperate, then you should also be tempted to assume your parents didn’t exist because they didn’t always cooperate, right? I mean come on, if cooperation was evidence or proof that someone or something existed, that would be absurd.

And here’s the thing that helps me so much and hopefully will help you. When we read the New Testament, we discover that the men and women that bring us the story of Jesus, the men and women whose stories make up the foundation of our faith, were men and women who were well acquainted with adversity. They weren’t strangers to sufferings and in-the-meantime moments.

They faced all kinds of things and yet continued to believe. They faced all kinds of things and yet continued to tread forward with their faith and their confidence in God. They were not put off by adversity. They were not put off by the seeming absence of God. Instead, somehow that fueled them in such a way that they were even more adamant about making sure that the message of Jesus Christ made it out of their difficult centuries to our culture and world today.

Perhaps the best example of this from the first century is the Apostle Paul. The reason he’s perhaps the best example is because the Apostle Paul never met the pre-crucified Jesus. He wasn’t one of Jesus’ disciples who walked around with Jesus. Paul came to faith after the crucifixion, after the resurrection, and even after Jesus’ ascension to Heaven.

Paul became a Jesus follower after he had been a Jesus hater. In fact, if you don’t like Christians, you would really love the apostle Paul because however much you hate Christians, he hated them more. Paul arrested Christians, persecuted them. Get this, he gets permission from the government to arrest Christians and torture them into blaspheming Jesus’ name or telling him where the other Christians were hiding. That was his job. And he felt like he was doing God a favor.

Then one day Paul, the Christian hater, became a Jesus follower himself and became the greatest evangelist of his day and age. He went all around to major Greek cities planting churches. But just as he got his life right with God, just as he got in to the center of God’s will and began doing the things he ought to do, something really bad happened to the him. He was stricken with some kind of physical ailment. We don’t know exactly what it was but here’s what we do know. It wasn’t going away. It was a hindrance, and get this, it was a hindrance to what he believed God had called him to do.

Imagine that you have this Damascus road experience. A bright light shines and God speaks to you, you’re converted in that moment and give your life to following Jesus. Then after giving your life to following Jesus, you get this illness that keeps you from doing the very thing that you felt like God had called you to do.

And so Paul, in his turmoil and in his inner wrestling with God, learned a very, very valuable lesson, and thankfully he gives us an explanation of it. And in his explanation, we get an extremely important insight of what to do when we find ourselves in an in-the- meantime moment.

Here’s how he explains it in his letter to the Corinthians.

2 Corinthians 12:7
“Therefore, in order to keep me from becoming conceited, I was given…”

The Greek word for given here is an interesting word. It lets us know that there was a purpose behind this gift. It’s a word used when giving a positive gift, not a curse or a punishment kind of gift. It was a word used commonly to talk about God, a generous God, giving a good gift to one of His followers. So the Apostle Paul chooses his words carefully here and says, “In order” (meaning there’s a purpose behind this gift) “to keep me from becoming conceited, I was given… ” Well Paul, what were given? What was this special gift?

“I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me.”

The term ‘thorn’ simply means that this was a constant irritating problem, just like if you get a thorn in your hand or foot. The pain doesn’t leave until you take it out. Sounds a lot more like a curse or punishment doesn’t it? And the fact that he used this term ‘torment’, literally means to beat somebody up, to strike with a fist.

So what Paul is saying is, to keep me from becoming conceited, I was given the gift, thank you very much, of a thorn that just kept beating me up day after day. And he says it was a messenger of Satan, and translators for a long time have struggled with what that phrase means.

Some people think that literally Satan did it, and God used what Satan did. Other people think it’s a figure of speech, like how we say, “that hurt like the devil.” Meaning it hurt a lot. We really don’t know if this was a figure of speech or if this was a theological statement. But what we do know and what is absolutely clear from the text, is that the apostle Paul saw this thorn as a gift with a purpose, and it wasn’t going away.

Some people think it was epilepsy, that while he was traveling and teaching, he would have these fits, wake up, everyone wondered what was wrong with him as they didn’t understand epilepsy back then, and likely compared it to a demon possession or something strange.

Some people think it was depression, and I’ll be honest, if you read the Book of Acts, he had every reason to be depressed. If I went through a tenth of what he went through, I would be depressed.

Could it have been headaches. He had some eye trouble, so some people think it was a debilitating eye disease. Whatever it was, it kept him from writing and reading. Some people think because of the areas he traveled in, it could have been recurring Malaria.

The truth is, we don’t know exactly what it was, but here’s what we do know. It was painful like a thorn. It was humiliating, and it was debilitating. This is the guy that was called by God to spread the Gospel throughout the Gentile world. And after he became a Christian, he developed something that was painful, humiliating, and debilitating. That should make some of us feel at least a little better.

Then the Apostle Paul tells us what he did when he realized that this wasn’t going away. And the great news for you and for me is that he did exactly what we would do if we found ourselves with something that was painful, humiliating, and debilitating.

2 Corinthians 12:8
8 Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me.

This likely is an indication that there were three different seasons of his life where this thorn, whatever it was, was so unbearable that he fell to his knees and begged God to remove it saying I cannot continue doing what you’ve called me to do if you don’t remove this. I cannot go on anymore. I can’t stand up in front of people. I can’t write. I can’t go on unless you remove this from me. I’ve had enough, God. You’ve got to do something.

And here’s the interesting thing. Some of you have been told that the reason you’re not getting any better and that the reason your life isn’t changing is because you don’t have enough faith. I don’t believe that. And the reason I don’t believe that is because I believe the apostle Paul had more faith than all of us put together. And simply trying to faith God into something we want God to do is bad theology.

The apostle Paul, a man of extraordinary faith, pleaded with God to do something that would allow him to do God’s will in a more energetic and powerful way.

2 Corinthians 12:8-9
8 “Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. 9 But he said to me,

Now for some of you, it would be a major breakthrough if God would just say something, right? Even if it’s a ‘no.” Just so you know that He’s hearing your prayers and that He knows what’s going on with you.

The first time Paul asked God, he heard nothing. The second time, he heard nothing. Finally, during this third season of prayer where he’s begging God for some relief, God said this…

9 But he said to me, my grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”

What God communicated to Paul, which is what some of us need to hear today is simply this, “Paul, the answer is no. I am not going to remove this from you. But I am going to give you the strength, and I’m going to give you the power, and I’m going to give you the grace that you need to press on in spite of the fact that it’s not going away.”

Literally, what this phrase means is that God’s power reaches its full measure and is perfected in our weaknesses.  It’s as if God said to Paul, “Paul, I’m going to show off my power through your weakness. So the answer to your prayer is no. This is not going away.”

Well now Paul has a fourth thing to add to his list. It’s painful, humiliating, debilitating, and is permanent.

But it’s also as if God was saying “Oh, and by the way, Paul, I love you, and I’m going to use you, and people are going to name their children Paul and their dogs Nero.” In other words, “Paul, I haven’t forgotten about you. You are still right in the center of my will. But Paul, the answer to your question, of will you remove my adversity, is no. But that no comes with a promise. My grace will be sufficient for you.”

So, what do you do when you’re the apostle Paul and God, who you’re serving with all your heart and soul and risking your life almost on a daily basis says no, and now you have an issue that’s painful, humiliating, debilitating and permanent.

What the apostle Paul writes next, are the statements we should all go by. I’m telling you, nobody would make this up. This comes from a heart that was in tune with the will of God in the first century. So Paul what are you going to do in the meantime? Here’s what he says:

2 Corinthians 12:9
Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me.

So he’s saying therefore since this is not going to go away, since this is going to continue to get in my way, since this is going to be something people associate with me, since people are going to constantly say, “I wonder why God doesn’t….” Here’s what I’m going to do with this thing. Here’s how I’m going to respond to this adversity that I wouldn’t wish on anyone and yet God has given to me.

I’m not going to hide it. I’m not going to hide from it. I’m not going to lie about it, or make excuses for it. If God has chosen this for me, then I’m going to embrace it. I’m going to own it. “Therefore, I will boast all the more gladly about my weakness.”

So when people say, “Paul, I heard you got this thing.” He says, “Yeah, I got this thing. Let me tell you about it. It’s not a secret. I will boast all the more gladly about my weakness because there’s a purpose, and an outcome, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. I’m going to allow it to define me so that I can give glory back to my Heavenly Father.” Wow!

So embracing your inability is really a requirement to experiencing Christ ability. For us to experience Christ’s power, in order to experience the grace that God has promised through this circumstance, we have to embrace the circumstance. Embracing your inability is necessary in order to experience Christ’s ability.

Here’s why that’s important. Because for some of us at every stage of life when we bump up against this thing, this unchangeable circumstance, our tendency is to hide, to pretend it’s not there, to lie about it. And what the apostle Paul is saying is that when you get over all of that and embrace this adversity, see it as a gift, then you can experience Christ’s power in you.

2 Corinthians 12:10
10 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.

And let me say, Paul knew persecution. To which we say, “but that’s not the American way.” To which Paul would say, “And that’s why you are not experiencing the grace of God in the area in which you struggle the most.”

Now that brings me to us. And here’s what I want to say as we conclude. This an uncomfortable idea, so listen carefully. If you believe, which I believe most of you do, that God can change your circumstances, that He can heal your body, restore your marriage, whatever your adversity is, if you believe that somehow, through human circumstances or through supernatural circumstances, that God can change your circumstances, but has chosen not to, you have the option to receive whatever it is you’re dealing with as a gift with a purpose and a promise.

If you’ve prayed and prayed and prayed, but it looks like God is not going to act on your behalf the way that you want Him to, you have the option to change your attitude and your perspective about whatever it is you’re facing, and instead receive it as a gift with a purpose and a promise.

Now the purpose is yet to be made known. But the promise we know is, “God’s grace is sufficient for you.” The reason I say you have the option is because I think I would be overstepping my boundaries as a pastor to say, “You must view this as a gift.” I think this is something that people have to come to individually. I think that this is something that God leads us up to, like a revelation. It’s like our eyes have to get opened.

We have to get to that place were my co-workers’ wife did when she realized instead of struggling and fighting it, she was going to choose to view her adversity as a gift with a purpose and a promise. I remember him telling me often about when she went for treatments how she would make such a difference in the lives of everyone there.

So if you think choosing to see our adversity as a gift is odd, and if this butts up against the theology that you grew up with, which is if you have enough faith God will answer your prayer, which is not biblical by the way and does not reflect anything in any of the lives of the people that brought us the Gospel, but if you were brought up with that kind of thinking, this is difficult.

So I want to put this in context for you. Your Savior, my Savior, the Savior of the world faced a similar situation in his own life. The Gospels tell us that at the end of Jesus ministry, the night before He would be crucified, that He was wrestling with His Heavenly Father. Here’s what Luke tells us that sounded like.

Luke 22:41–42
41 He withdrew about a stone’s throw beyond them, (from his disciples who fell asleep while he was praying) knelt down and prayed, 42 “Father, if you are willing, (which means I know you are able) take this cup from me;”

Father, you have placed into my hands a gift that is anything other than a easy, and I realize that this gift has a purpose that will impact potentially every human being that’s ever born. And I know not only that it has a purpose, but it comes with a promise that somehow you’ll sustain me through this. But heavenly Father, if you would be so willing, would you please take this gift away from me? Would you please take this cup away from me? But if you choose to say no…

“yet not my will but yours be done.”

I think when you choose to see your adversity as a gift with a purpose and a promise, in a very powerful way you enter into the sufferings of your Savior, Jesus Christ. I think this is why it’s so transformational for the people who do this.

And this is why people on the other side say, “I would never choose it again, but I wouldn’t trade what I learned for anything. I would never choose it again, yet when I look back on the purpose that was revealed and the power of God that I felt during those dark days when I didn’t think I could go one more minute, I wouldn’t trade it for anything.

What I’ve experienced and what I’ve seen, I look back and I say, yes, it was a gift with a purpose and a promise. The good news is we have permission to ask that our cups be taken and our thorns removed. The not so great news is that sometimes God says, “No”.

And every single one of us who calls Jesus our Lord, is grateful that our Heavenly Father said “no” to His Son in the Garden of Gethsemane. And what we learn there, and what we learn from the Apostle Paul, and what we learn from some of our friends and neighbors, is that sustaining grace begins with not my will, but Thine will be done.

That sustaining grace, the grace that becomes the power that allows you to put one foot in front of another, one day after another, is the grace that begins with, if you’re not going to remove it, not my will, but Thine will be done.

So, if you are in an in-the-meantime season of life, I just want to offer this as an option. Would you be willing to consider receiving it as a gift with a purpose and a promise? The purpose may not yet have been revealed, but the promise is right now, “God’s grace is sufficient for you.” His power will be made perfect in your weakness. I believe it’s an invitation to receive what otherwise is seen as a bad thing, as a gift from your Heavenly Father with a purpose and a promise.

Let’s pray.

Heavenly Father, no person has the moral authority to stand up and preach a message like this unless they have been through those long, long dark seasons. And yet Father I know there are men and women listening who could stand up and tell their story and would take away all of our excuses, and they would say, “Yes, God’s grace is sufficient. His power is made perfect in our weaknesses.” So Father, wherever this lands and whoever this lands with, I pray that you would give them the courage to step through that door, and to receive what up until this time has been resisted, and that Father they would see the purpose and they would experience your power.

And Father, for the person who would say, “I’m not a Christian. I’m not even sure I believe any of this, but I’m in an in the meantime moment and I need something,” Father I pray that you would do what you have done so many times, that you would use their crisis and you would use their adversity to draw them into a relationship with you where they can call you Father. We pray all of this in the matchless name of Jesus Christ our Savior, who did the Father’s will on our behalf. Amen.