Anglican Church of Canada
Proper 14 July 8, 2018
2 Corinthians 12:1-10
We live in a world where it is easy to feel inadequate. There is always someone out there who looks better than we do, and it can be hard not to compare ourselves. I think it has gotten worse in this day and age of TV shows and movies and fashion magazine. Everywhere we look we see people who are so much more glamorous than we are. So many teenagers hate their looks, because they don’t look like movie stars and rock stars. Young adults can easily feel like losers, because they are not as witty and cool and surrounded by friends as the people on the TV. Or we can resent the lifestyle of the wealthy, and feel like failures if we have not been as successful in our lives.
With so much inadequacy going around, it’s not surprising that it creeps into our spiritual lives as well. Indeed, I have observed that a sense of spiritual inadequacy is not at all uncommon. I have talked to many a well-adjusted adult, people who have come to terms with most of the inadequacies that society throws at us, content not to have the perfect body or luxury home or super-successful kids, happy to be simply who they are – and yet who still confess to a sense of spiritual inadequacy, of not being the model Christian they imagine they ought to be.
And maybe part of this is just a healthy humility. After all, we could all be more fervent in prayer, more generous in works of love – and part of the Christian life is to admit to that and keep working on it. But I think what I call spiritual inadequacy can go deeper than that, and can be very unhealthy. It’s the sense that maybe I’m not good enough, maybe I’m not a real Christian, maybe I’m not really worthy of God’s love. When we start thinking like that – and probably most of us do from time to time – we need to give ourselves a shake, and realize that this is neither true nor healthy.
Here again, it can be the influence of popular media that feeds our inadequacy. The airwaves are full of spiritual stars, as well as the other kind: gurus, miracle-workers, preachers who make it their business to build themselves up by running other people down. And maybe when we hear these messages once too often we can begin to believe them: a real Christian would never have doubts, a real Christian would always be full of joy, a real Christian will be successful at everything, because they are blessed by God. And we can begin to think to ourselves, “Gosh, maybe I’m not a real Christian.”
If it is any consolation, you are not alone in this sense of spiritual inadequacy. Even the apostle Paul himself was attacked for not being spiritual enough, not being brilliant or successful enough, not being a real apostle. As we have been reading through the letters to the church in Corinth over the past couple of months, I have referred more than once to the super-apostles, Paul’s opponents in Corinth. We don’t know much about them, because we only learn of them by reading between the lines of Paul’s letters. They are a group of evangelists who have arrived in Corinth after Paul had moved on, who have been building up their own ministry by running Paul down. They look suspiciously like the televangelists of the first century, preaching a gospel of the power of the spirit, promising success and overflowing spiritual gifts as the norm in the Christian life. Paul, they said, is clearly not a true apostle: he is weak in his preaching and appearance, he is lacking the fabulous mystical experiences they have, and his insistence on preaching the cross of Christ is just sad.
We don’t know if Paul ever felt inwardly threatened by these accusations, tempted to believe in his own spiritual inadequacy. Perhaps he’s not the type. Whether he did or not, he has worked through that feeling, and realized he has no reason to feel inadequate, at least in comparison to these charlatans – and he’s angry. He has been defending himself against these accusations throughout the two letters to the Corinthians; but now, as he nears the end, he is letting them have it with both barrels. His sarcasm here is quite impressive, really. “Your super-apostles say I am weak because I don’t boast the way they do; very well, let me play the fool and boast a bit, since you are so fond of listening to fools.”
And then he goes on, for just a few verses, to speak of his own mystical experiences. It is just a tantalizing glimpse, because he doesn’t say much about them, except that he clearly has had some intensive mystical experiences. Fourteen years ago – perhaps that was at the time of his fateful meeting with Jesus, and his conversion from being a persecutor of the church. We can only speculate. He doesn’t go into any details about what he saw and heard. He can’t even bring himself to say this directly – he talks about a certain person. As much as we would love to know more, he tells us almost nothing.
The reason he tells us nothing is that it doesn’t matter. Whatever he experienced is between him and God. They don’t make him a better Christian, or more worthy of God’s love, than any of the rest of us who have not had such experiences. They are not the basis of his authority as a teacher and apostle; they shouldn’t matter to anyone else, so he’s not willing to parade them out.
Instead, he very quickly switches to talking about something else, something he refers to as a thorn in his flesh. Again, we don’t know exactly what he means, because he doesn’t choose to tell us – people have speculated that it could be a physical ailment, or depression, or a psychological or sexual burden. He doesn’t tell us because it doesn’t matter what it is. The point is that he experiences it as a burden, as a weakness, as a failure even, because he can’t get rid of it.
And here’s the thing: that’s the point where he experiences the power of God most intensely at work. Not in the glorious mystical visions, but in his daily struggle with a burden that keeps him human, keeps him humble. That is where he discovered the gospel secret that the super-apostles don’t have a clue about: God’s power is made perfect in weakness.
Because the thing about the super-apostles, the thing about any of us when we are strong and confident and doing our thing, is that we aren’t really leaving any room for God. With their eloquent speech and slick production values and powerful testimony to their spiritual experiences, they are impressing people with their own abilities, not with God. It is where we feel weak and inadequate that we leave room for God to work. When we stammer out our truth and it touches someone, we can be sure that it is the truth that has convinced them, not our slick messaging. God’s power is made perfect in weakness.
So if you struggle from time to time with doubt, and don’t know all the answers in your faith – just maybe that doesn’t make you an inadequate Christian. Just maybe that equips you to talk about your faith with others who have doubts, maybe your voice will have the integrity and honesty that the other person just doesn’t find in Christians who are full of certainty. God’s power is made perfect in our weakness.
If your family life has not turned out to be the perfect happy Christian family you had always longed for and imagined, that doesn’t make you a failed Christian. Maybe it makes it easier for you to find the compassion and the understanding to help others living with broken relationships and the confusing pain of the human heart. God’s power is made perfect in your weakness.
Of if you struggle from time to time with the black dog of depression, and God knows what a terrible burden that can be, it certainly doesn’t mean there is anything wrong with your faith. On the contrary, maybe it can teach you to be more vulnerable and more caring with others in their struggles. God’s power is made perfect in your weakness.
I am reminded of a friend and mentor from earlier in my ministry, a priest of the diocese of Montreal, and my much loved predecessor in my first parish. Whenever there was talk of the gifts of the holy Spirit, Peter would say: “I have been given the charism of bumbling.” And to anyone who knew him, it was immediately clear what he meant, and how true it was. He was a great bumbling bear of a man who came across as a little bit clumsy, a little bit absent-minded, very self-depreciatory in his humour, but with a warm heart he wore on his sleeve. And I imagine everyone who encountered him felt immediately at ease, immediately accepted and cared for – what a charism that was for a priest. God’s power, made perfect in his weakness.
So if you cannot preach like Peter, if you cannot pray like Paul, as the old hymn says, that certainly doesn’t make you in any sense an inadequate Christian. On the contrary, you are exactly who God wants you to be, yourself, with all your gifts, and with your weaknesses and disappointments and failures. Because it is these that keep us from doing it all ourselves; it is these that leave room for others around us to see themselves understood in their own weaknesses and disappointments and failures. It is these that make it possible for God to work in us – because God’s power is made perfect in our weakness.