Perfect Mothers (In a Perfect World)
2 Corinthians 12: 7 – 10.
I have a confession to make…Mothers’ Day sermons are stressful for me.
Earlier this week I described my Mothers’ Day sermon as “Standing in front of the church, trying to be an expert on something I know nothing about.” I am not a mother. I have never been a mother. AND, I will never be a mother. But, I do have an appreciation for mothers…I honestly do not know how you do all you do.
One way I could resolve this stress is to preach a sermon about how to rear your children. I’m not sure that helps me very much. Before I had children, I had three theories on how to rear godly children. Now, I have three children and no theories.
Another thing about Mothers’ Day that stresses me out is to think about all the women who feel left out on Mothers’ Day. There are some women who intentionally stay away from church on Mothers’ Day, because it is simply too painful to come to church. Mothers’ Day is hard for some women, because they have a desire to become mothers and cannot. Divorce, singleness or even infertility makes motherhood impossible for some women. While I do want to be sensitive to these feelings, I also want to celebrate godly mothers as a part of worship on Mothers’ Day.
And, there is one more thing that is stressful about Mothers’ Day. Some women come to church and suffer in silence, because they do not think they measure up. For example, some preachers tend to preach from Proverbs 31 on Mothers’ Day. Have you ever read Proverbs 31? That is an impossible standard! She works outside the home and provides for her family’s financial needs. She runs an orderly household by cooking for her family and making all their clothes at home. She is recognized as wise and knowledgeable on all subjects. AND, her children hold her in high esteem.
When we hold this woman up as our standard, we make a lot of mothers feel guilty. They feel guilty, because they don’t think of themselves as “perfect mothers.” If you don’t think of yourself as a “perfect mother,” then I have some good news. First, I will not preach on Proverbs 31 today. Second, I believe there is only one place where “perfect mothers” exist…Perfect Mothers exist only in a perfect world. Since we don’t live in a perfect world, there is no such thing as a perfect mother.
Early this week I read an article by a woman who wrote about a favorite childhood memory. She used to love to play with her friend’s dollhouse. She arranged the furniture exactly the way she wanted it. She put the pots and pans on the stove exactly the way she wanted them. Then she arranged the family of dolls (mother, father, children and dog) exactly the way she wanted them. Everything would be perfect when she left her friend’s house. But, when she went back to play the next day, nothing was the way she left it. The furniture had been moved; the pots and pans were in the “wrong” places; and the family was no longer posed like the perfect family.
That makes me think of what mothers must experience every single day of their lives. You do everything in your power to create the “perfect home.” But, how long does it take for your “perfect family” to mess up your “perfect home?”
If you want a “perfect home,” you should get a dollhouse and a pose-able family. Real families do not live in “perfect homes.” Real families (and real mothers) have to learn how to deal with “messy homes” and “messy relationships.” As long as we live in an imperfect world, we have to deal with the mess.
So, how can we as both mothers and Christians live in a messy world? I think the answer comes from the Apostle Paul as he tells us about his weakness.
2 Corinthians 12: 7 – 10.
7 To keep me from becoming conceited because of these surpassingly great revelations, there was given me a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. 8 Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from 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 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.
These verses serve as a kind of conclusion to a larger section (2 Corinthians 10 – 12) where Paul feels the need to defend himself to the Christians at Corinth. Apparently, some “super-apostles” have come into the churches of Corinth and criticized Paul and his ministry. They build themselves up by tearing down Paul. They claim to be closer to God than Paul is, and they “prove” it by comparing all the good things in their lives to the difficulties in Paul’s life.
I really don’t think Paul wants to boast about his ministry or his relationship with God…but he feels forced to boast. And, Paul does have a ministry pedigree to boast about.
Paul had a thorough Jewish upbringing. He was an Israelite who could read the Old Testament in the original Hebrew language. He was a child of Abraham who advanced in the Jewish religious tradition (in other places he tells us he was a Pharisee). This Jewish background led him to believe that Jesus is God’s Promised Messiah. Of course, he did not come to this conclusion on his own, or through his knowledge of the Bible. Paul had a personal encounter with Jesus, while Paul was persecuting the Christian church in Damascus. There was even a time when Paul was “caught up” into Heaven and experienced a divine vision where he heard Heavenly things which could never be put into words.
Paul’s encounter with Jesus changed Paul’s life. He gave up all of his religious pursuits in order to become a “servant of Christ.” He went on numerous missionary journeys to preach the Gospel to the Gentiles and plant churches in Gentile cities. The churches of Corinth were a result of Paul’s ministry.
Corinth was one of Paul’s success stories. But not all of Paul’s ministry was successful. As a result of his preaching the Gospel, Paul had experienced sufferings of many different kinds. He worked hard for Christ but also spent time in prison. He preached faithfully but also was whipped, stoned and beaten by rods. He trusted God to meet all his needs but also found himself in shipwrecks and poverty.
There were times when Paul felt successful and strong. But, there were other times when Paul felt failures and weakness. In fact, he tells us that he had to live every day of his life with a constant reminder of his weakness.
Thorn in the Flesh
Paul does not define his “thorn in the flesh” for us. But, that has not stopped people from trying to determine what it was. Some people suggest that Paul struggled with some secret sin—like lust. Others suggest that Paul is referring to a specific person—either an unnamed woman who was believed to follow him around or Alexander the silver worker who caused Paul a great deal of harm. More commonly, the suggestion is made that Paul dealt with an ongoing physical problem—like malaria, epilepsy, eyesight problems, and on and on and on…
Notice that Paul uses two phrases in verse 7 to refer to this weakness. He calls it both “a thorn in my flesh” and a “messenger of Satan.” This leads me to believe three very important things about Paul’s weakness. First, it was a physical problem that affected his flesh—his body. Second, it was a physical problem which caused him spiritual anxiety. It was a “messenger of Satan,” and it was evil. Third, Paul did not believe that God had done this to him. It came from Satan, not God.
This leads me to believe that Paul is describing an eyesight problem. In Galatians 4: 12 – 15, Paul told the Galatian Christians that he was not actually planning to spend time preaching in their region. Instead, an illness caused him to stop in Galatia instead of traveling to another place. He gave us a clue about this illness by telling the Galatians that they would have “torn out their eyes and given them to Paul if they could (Galatians 4: 15).” Then, he closed the Book of Galatians by saying “see what large letters I use as I write to you with my own hand (Galatians 6: 11).” Perhaps this meant that his eyes were so bad that he had to dictate his letters to a secretary and then write a personal greeting in his own handwriting.
If I am right about Paul’s eyesight problem, then we can say that his illness kept Paul from doing everything he wanted to do. He was limited in his travels. He was forced to travel with his own physician. And, he couldn’t write as frequently as he would have liked. Paul’s eyesight problem might have kept Paul from doing everything Paul wanted to do, but it could not stop God from using Paul despite his limitations.
Paul’s weakness was living proof that God can take something evil and use it to accomplish good things in each of our lives.
Not the Answer He Was Looking For
Paul did not believe his physical problems were caused by God. However, he did have enough faith in God that God was capable of healing him and taking away his “thorn in the flesh.” So, Paul prayed…and he prayed…and he prayed.
Have you ever prayed for something and felt like God did not answer your prayer? Unanswered prayer is one of the biggest challenges to the Christian faith that we face. Sometimes we pray and do not get what we asked for. How do we explain that?
Paul found himself in the exact same position. He knew that he would be more effective as a missionary and church planter if he didn’t have to deal with his physical limitations. He was not praying selfishly. Paul wasn’t praying for more money or for a more comfortable life. He was praying that God would expand his ministry and that Paul could accomplish more for the sake of the Gospel.
But, Paul didn’t get the answer he was looking for…
You have heard other preachers say the same thing I am going to say about unanswered prayers. There is no such thing as an unanswered prayer. God always answers. But, God does not always answer the way we want him to. Sometimes God answers “Yes.” Sometimes God answers “No.” Sometimes God answers “Wait.”
When Jesus taught his disciples about prayer (Matthew 6: 5 - 8), he set up two different kinds of people who pray. Some people pray publically so they can be rewarded by the applause and compliments of other people. Some people pray privately so they can be rewarded by God. But, we will be rewarded when we pray.
Of course, it is obvious how God rewards us when God answers “Yes.” We get a new job, a healed body or a healed relationship.
When God answers our prayers with a “No” or a “Wait,” the reward is not so obvious. Yet, there is still a reward. The reward might not be what we had hoped for, but there is a reward. The reward in God’s “No” or God’s “Wait” is the reward of greater faith. Perseverance makes our faith grow stronger. Perseverance demonstrates that we do not have the strength to make it on our own and that our desires are not always the best thing for us. God knows what is best for us and shows us his ways are higher and better than our ways by answering “No” or “Wait” to some of our prayers.
The reward of faith can only come from a private prayer life. The reward of being applauded and congratulated by other people comes by praying for show. However, you can only have one of these rewards. You must choose which you prefer. If you pray for applause, that is the only reward you will receive. If you pray for increased faith, that’s the reward you will receive…But be prepared. You might not like the way God grants increased faith. Sometimes it comes through the answers “No” and “Wait.”
Grace Is Sufficient
Even though Paul didn’t get the answer he was looking for, God did answer Paul’s prayer. God answered with, “My Grace is sufficient.”
As a pastor, one of the things I do is to pray with people who are facing difficult situations—surgery, hospitalization, the dreaded cancer, and sometimes the certainty of death. Many times I have people tell me that they don’t know what they would do without prayer (even when God does not answer “Yes” to our prayers).
Prayer is important, because it is a reminder of God’s presence. God is not an absentee landlord or even a cosmic watchmaker who has set everything in motion and steps away. God is interested and involved in our lives. God demonstrates his presence by sometimes answering “Yes” to our prayers. Other times,, God demonstrates his presence by promising to be with us always, even as we “walk through the valley of the shadow of death.”
No matter what we face, God promises to be with us. God’s Grace is sufficient. God’s Grace will get us through the most difficult trials of life.
Paul has a lot he could boast about, but he prefers to boast about his weaknesses. That sounds so strange to our modern ears. When I am weak, then I am strong. We have a hard time imagining someone who boasts about weakness, because it never happens.
Have you ever heard a presidential candidate boast about his weaknesses? I have never heard anyone in a presidential debate say something like this, “I’m a pretty smart guy; I was born into a political family; and I have a lot of connections. But I really have no idea what I am doing. I’m probably the second best candidate in the race. Vote for me, and I will try my best.”
Have you ever known a business leader who brags about what a mess his or her business is? “Sales are lower now than when I first took over the company. People are quitting every day. Shareholders have lost all confidence in our company and in me as the leader. Things are going great!”
Ultimately, this is what Paul is saying about his ministry and is setting a personal example for us to follow. Paul has learned to depend on God and his Grace in the messiness of life, because Paul’s weakness drives him to depend on God’s strength.
If I were strong in every situation, then I would be tempted to brag about my strength. But, if life is messy and painful, then God gets the glory / credit…We cannot make it on our own strength. Weakness reminds us that we need to depend on God.
When I am weak…God remains strong!