Serving from Weakness
I turned 25 the month I started as pastor in The Pas, Manitoba. I had the affirmation of my home church to be a pastor and I had a piece of paper from seminary that said I knew what I was doing, but I didn’t.
Today I still have affirmation from the church and I still have that piece of paper and I also have 33 years of experience, but often I still don’t know what I am doing.
Two weeks ago I challenged you to servanthood when I spoke about those things which motivate us to servanthood. I hope that you were motivated to servanthood but I suspect that perhaps you were also thinking, “What can I do when I just don’t have what it takes?” Paul was responding to criticism in the first letter to the Corinthians and was fully aware of all the things which made him less than adequate for the task. Many of us are aware of our weaknesses and we wonder, “How is it possible to serve a holy, perfect God when we are inadequate and even sinful?”
In spite of our imperfection and inability God does great things through us when we offer ourselves humbly to Him and trust Him. When that happens, the glory goes to God because it is evident that it is not our power which has accomplished these things. This morning I want to speak about serving from weakness in order to encourage all of us to offer ourselves to God with what we have and what we don’t have, and trust God to equip and use us in spite of our weaknesses. The goal of this message is to encourage each of us to give ourselves to God in service just as we are.
I. I Am Weak, But You Are Strong
The hymn “Just a Closer Walk” includes the phrase, “I am weak but thou art strong.” That is the place we will begin as we recognize the many ways in which we are weak, but as we also recognize that God is strong and that in fact offering ourselves to God even in our weakness is very important.
A. I Am Weak
Acts 13:22 identifies David as a man after God’s own heart. What puzzles us is that there were many ways in which David did not obey God. For example, we know that David committed adultery and then to cover up the adultery, because the woman with whom he committed adultery became pregnant, he conspired to murder her husband. How could he be a servant of God with that sin in his life?
One of the ways in which we are weak is that we sin. Even though we have had our sins forgiven, even though we desire to walk in holiness, we also know that we still sin. How can we faithfully and adequately serve God when we are imperfect? How can we represent Christ to a fallen world when we are sinners? How can our church be a light to Christ in the world when it is full of hypocrites? How can we adequately tell our children that they need to follow Jesus when they see that we don’t always follow Jesus? The Truth and Reconciliation Commission is seeking to give aboriginal people an opportunity to speak about the ways in which they have experienced abuse by the church and by the government and one of the things that it will reveal is that the church of Jesus Christ is imperfect. And it will not do to say that that is true of other churches, but we have it right, we are better than other churches. You know and I know that that is not true. Our church is also not perfect. We are weak because we are imperfect.
We are also weak because we don’t have the ability to do what we are required to do. When God called Moses at the burning bush, he identified a feeling we often have when he said, “I can’t do it; I am not a good speaker.” When God asked Jeremiah to prophecy to Israel, he tried the same excuse. How many of us have used the same excuse? Who is adequate to the task God has called us to do?
Charles Spurgeon is known as one of the greatest preachers of the 1800’s. He accomplished a great deal in his writing and preaching. I have books today that he wrote that I use in my study. But he was a man who had delicate health and suffered from depression and gout. Paul writes in Galatians 4:13, "As you know, it was because of an illness that I first preached the gospel to you." Another area of weakness which hinders us from accomplishing much is that we suffer from illness. Ultimately, we are all terminal. It puzzles me sometimes that young people have all the energy to accomplish great things, but lack experience; yet older people who have the wisdom of experience begin to diminish in their ability to do all they could in their youth. So all of us suffer in one way or another from the weakness of our physical bodies.
On top of that we sometimes lack the courage to do what we are called to do. In Galatians 2:12 we read of Peter’s lack of courage, ”Before certain men came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles. But when they arrived, he began to draw back and separate himself from the Gentiles because he was afraid of those who belonged to the circumcision group.”
If we read through much of Paul’s writing we see many examples of the weaknesses he suffered from and was aware of. He puts it eloquently in 2 Corinthians 4:7 when he says, “But we have this treasure in jars of clay…” The treasure of the gospel is great. We are not great. We are jars of clay. We are inadequate morally, inadequate in our ability, in our physical strength and in our courage.
Now we need to be careful that we do not use weakness as an excuse for failing to live holy lives or not taking care of our bodies or not developing our skills to the best of our ability. But we need to recognize that this is a reality. We are weak!
B. You Are Strong
But God is not limited by our weakness.
In Ephesians 3:7, 8 Paul says, "I became a servant of this gospel by the gift of God’s grace given me through the working of his power. Although I am less than the least of all God’s people, this grace was given me: to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ…” Why did Paul see himself as “less than the least of God’s people?” Probably one reason was that he had been a persecutor of the church. We read in 1 Corinthians 15:9 “For I am the least of the apostles and do not even deserve to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God.” Yet God was not limited by Paul’s sinful background. God chose Him in spite of this to be His servant and even an apostle.
When Moses tried to excuse himself from the assignment God had for him by claiming inability, God responded in Exodus 4:11, 12, “Who gave man his mouth? Who makes him deaf or mute? Who gives him sight or makes him blind? Is it not I, the Lord? Now go; I will help you speak and will teach you what to say.” God can take our inability and empower it by His Spirit to accomplish His purposes. Paul says the same thing in 1 Corinthians 2:4, “My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power…”
God is also not limited by our physical weakness. One great example of that is Abraham of whom it says in Romans 4:19, “…his body was as good as dead since he was about a hundred years old—and that Sarah’s womb was also dead.” Yet God gave them the ability to conceive and so accomplish His purposes. Even Jesus was not limited by leaving heaven, by taking on human form and even by dying. God is not limited by our physical limitations!
God is also not limited by our fear. Jeremiah was encouraged by God in Jeremiah 1:8, 9, "Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you and will rescue you,” declares the Lord. Then the Lord reached out his hand and touched my mouth and said to me, ‘Now, I have put my words in your mouth.’”
And so we see that God overcomes our weakness. Paul says in II Corinthians 13:4, “For to be sure, he was crucified in weakness, yet he lives by God’s power. Likewise, we are weak in him, yet by God’s power we will live with him to serve you.”
C. The Necessity of Weakness
God’s power is greater than our weakness, but there is even more to it than that. When we study weakness and service in Scripture we find that serving in spite of our weakness is necessary and has some important reasons for it.
1. Teaches Us Dependence
Over and over again in Scripture we find that when people become confident of their own ability or when they are wealthy and powerful they depart from God and don’t follow Him. In II Chronicles 26:16 we read about one of the kings of Israel. It says, "But after Uzziah became powerful, his pride led to his downfall. He was unfaithful to the Lord his God…”
The same kind of attitude happened to Jacob. He began with a very strong self image and his early life is a story of a man who, although he was a servant of God, thought he could accomplish the work of God by his own conniving and strategy. It wasn’t until he met God at the river Jabbok and was weakened that he recognized that he could accomplish nothing apart from the blessing of God.
Paul also acknowledged that the “thorn in the flesh” was given to him to keep him from becoming conceited. We read about this in 2 Corinthians 12:5–10 where Paul reveals the powerful lesson he learned from this experience to the point that he hears God saying, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Paul learned the lesson for he goes on to say, “Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. 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.”
This is an extremely important and powerful lesson. I look at it from several points of view. First of all it is a warning to us not to become too impressed by our own abilities. When people affirm us or comment on how well we do it is tempting to think that we are really something. It is a short step from there to thinking that unless we are involved in a ministry or unless we are the one who is asked to serve the thing will not be done right. We begin to focus on what we contribute and we may even become arrogant enough to think that God is really lucky to have us on His team.
The other perspective from which we need to look at it is that when we feel that we have nothing to offer, when we know that we have not done our best or when we recognize that someone else could do this much better, it is important to know that God can overcome whatever weakness is hindering us from doing His work. It is an encouragement to trust God with the effectiveness and with the result. That is not to say that we should be sloppy or careless or not prepare or live in disobedience. Of course not, but it is to remind us that we need to depend on God for the results.
2. The Glory Goes to God
The other reason why this is important is that when we serve in weakness and God does something, the glory goes to God. This message is repeated so often in the Bible that we dare not miss it.
In 1 Corinthians 1:17 Paul says, "For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel—not with words of human wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power." What a powerful verse! It acknowledges that when Paul preached the gospel he did not do so with eloquence or wisdom that impresses human beings. In another place it says that Paul was not a particularly impressive speaker. What is impressive and what is powerful is the message of the cross. It is Jesus who has the power to change lives, not the preaching of Paul.
This is also the message of 2 Corinthians 4:7 where it says, “But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us.” The message of the gospel is incredibly impressive and the most wonderful thing in the world. It is the pearl of great price. It is the treasure worth giving up everything for. God has entrusted that incredible treasure to weak, broken people. Therefore if anything happens – if lives are changed, if people are encouraged, if people are taught to walk with God – it happens because God is in it. The result is that God’s power is demonstrated and He is glorified. Therefore, it is necessary for the gospel to be carried in weak, broken vessels so that God’s power can be lifted up and God can be glorified.
II. Serving from Weakness
Therefore, since we are weak, broken people and God overrules our weakness so that we can grow in dependence on Him and so that He is glorified, how do we live with that? How do we respond to that?
It means that we need to very carefully understand what the first question must be. We want the first question to be – “What am I good at?” “What would be fun?” “Where can I enjoy the relationships that will make service enjoyable?” “Where can I find meaning in my ministry that will make me happy?”
If we are utterly broken people who are useless to God’s purposes because of our weakness then those questions reveal arrogance and self centeredness that has not grasped the goodness of God or the greatness of our salvation.
If we are utterly broken people whose only hope is that we have been forgiven by the grace of God and if we have nothing to offer God because of our complete inadequacy then the first question which we must ask is, “Am I willing.” When we understand what God has done for us through Jesus and when we understand that we are nothing without His grace then the first thing we will want to do is say to Jesus, “Thank-you, how can I show my love to you?” “What is it you want me to do because more than anything else I want to be your servant?”
II Corinthians 6:4 shows us this kind of an attitude when it says, "Rather, as servants of God we commend ourselves in every way: in great endurance; in troubles, hardships and distresses;"
Romans 15:17 gives a similar message when it says, "Therefore I glory in Christ Jesus in my service to God."
In an article with the title, “Draped in a Servant’s Towel Rather Than a Master’s Robes” Joseph V. Noveson writes, “Servanthood requires a level of humility and brokenness that is not conducive to self-promotion, self-protection, or self- presentation.”
Secondly it means that all the service and ministry we accomplish must be done not with a self promoting arrogance or a self presenting confidence, but with a complete trust in God. We offer the best that we have to God recognizing that unless His power is present we will not accomplish anything. I have seen it happen that the person with whom people are most impressed fails to deliver ministry that is undergirded by the power of God. On the other hand, we have all experienced times when a person who was weak and unimpressive was able to accomplish things that could only be attributed to the power of God.
Zephaniah 3:12 points powerfully in this direction when it says, "But I will leave within you the meek and humble, who trust in the name of the Lord."
II Corinthians 3:5 affirms, "Not that we are competent in ourselves to claim anything for ourselves, but our competence comes from God."
Philippians 4:13 also assures us, "I can do everything through him who gives me strength."
All of these verses point to the trust that we need in order to do the work of God. So we need to trust Him for the ability to do His work. But where will we get that competence?
Ability from God comes through prayer. Hebrews 4:16 reminds us, "Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need."
Ability from God comes to those who hope in Him. Isaiah 40:29-31encourages us, "He gives strength to the weary and increases the power of the weak. Even youths grow tired and weary, and young men stumble and fall; but those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint."
Ability from God comes through the Spirit as we read in Ephesians 3:16, "I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being,"
Ability from God comes through faith. Boasting is another word for trust when we read in Jeremiah 9:23, 24, "This is what the Lord says: “Let not the wise man boast of his wisdom or the strong man boast of his strength or the rich man boast of his riches, but let him who boasts boast about this: that he understands and knows me, that I am the Lord, who exercises kindness, justice and righteousness on earth, for in these I delight,” declares the Lord."
Colossians 1:29 reminds us of such dependence when it says, "To this end I labor, struggling with all his energy, which so powerfully works in me." This both directs us to live by trust in God and also assures that He is at work. That is the promise which encourages us to serve in our weakness.
C. Humility and Grace
The recognition of our weakness and the recognition of the power of God which overrules our weakness to accomplish God’s work also implies two attitudes.
It implies an attitude of grace towards the ministry of others. It is so easy to criticize the service that others bring. Sometimes that is necessary, but not in the way we often do it. We often criticize in a judgmental way. It is appropriate to encourage others, especially if we notice that they are not giving their best or if they are serving only out of their own strength. It is not appropriate to judge others because we are not impressed with them. Who are we to judge another? We don’t know how God is using them, how He is blessing someone else through their ministry. Have you not experienced it too? Someone ministered and I thought they had not done a very good job. Then I heard about someone who was encouraged or challenged by their ministry. Since all of us are weak and broken, we have no reason to judge or criticize the ministry of another person who is serving Jesus because they love Him.
The other implication is that we must take a stance of humility. Servanthood is not a posture of seeking position or honor or glory. Servanthood is about doing God’s work for the benefit of His kingdom. Instead of seeking the best places for service or seeking to be honored by our service, we need to ask God where He wants us to serve. I mentioned the article by Noveson earlier. I appreciated another thing he said in his article. “Our lack of servanthood has made us a kingdom of nomads who care little for people in pain and much for our own progress in ministry. This is a travesty and completely unlike the Savior who, as my friend P.T. Chandapilla put it, "always went to the back of the line and not to the front." He taught me that Americans tend to go to the front of the line and there is always a large crowd there. He suggested that I start at the back of the line, because usually the only people there would be those in need and Jesus. He is dead right!” As we recognize our weakness and the source of our strength, may we have such humility in our service.
Paul was very open about his weaknesses and so perhaps I can risk the same exposure because this message is one that hits me very personally. If you want to find things about which to criticize me, that is very easy. I have many faults. When I survey all the things that I am responsible for, I know that I am not adequate in many of the areas of ministry. But I am encouraged. All I am responsible for is to say to Jesus, “I want to be your servant.” Then I do my best and even though it will not be perfect, my hope and confidence is that somewhere along the line glory will go to Jesus as He takes my efforts and uses them to do great things in the lives of people. The promise is clear that He will do that. I just hope that I am truly humble enough to be able to say honestly that that is what I desire more than anything – His glory.
So, if you struggle with your weakness and if you wrestle to freely serve Him, I hope that these words have encouraged you to offer yourself, including your weakness and brokenness, to Jesus and let Him receive the glory for what He will do through you.