2016-06-30
Excerpted from Paul: A Man of Grit and Grace with permission of W Publishing Group.

If we were to study a portrait of Paul painted by a realistic artist, we would first notice his scars and bruises. Depending on when the portrait was finished, some wounds would be red and swollen, a few still bleeding. Paul writes of those wounds at the end of his letter to the Galatians. In an unguarded moment he picks up the stylus and writes, "See with what large letters I am writing to you with my own hand" (Galatians 6:11.) Whoever read from the autographa, the original letter from Paul's own hand, would have noticed a change in handwriting toward the end of the letter. They could see the difference with their own eyes. It must have brought an emotional stirring to read that part of his original letter to the Galatians. The oversized writing may have been due to Paul's extremely poor eyesight, or a raging migraine may have blurred his vision. Perhaps he had permanent nerve damage to his arm. Whatever the reason, he wrote larger letters. He was determined to allow his emotions to bleed onto the page. My preference is to write out, by hand, my books or articles that I'm preparing for publication. Sometimes in the passion of writing I push the pen so hard it digs through the page. Paul may have done just that when he wrote by hand, "From now on let no one cause trouble for me, for I bear on my body the brand-marks of Jesus" (Galatians 6:17). I appreciate Paul's candid appeal. I'm convinced he had grown a bit impertinent by this point in his ministry. He's had it with troublesome folks. He says in effect, "Don't mess with me. Back off. I'm writing this letter bearing in my body the marks of one who has suffered greatly for you. I've paid for the right to instruct you. I carry around on my body the scars, the wounds, the marks, physical evidence of torture-these brands of Christ."
In the first century, slaves had the names of their owners burned onto their bodies. They were branded like cattle. Roman soldiers would often tattoo on their arms the names or numbers of the military units in which they served. In the same way, devotees of false gods tattooed the names or symbols of their gods across their flesh. But Paul's scars were different. His brands signified his sufferings for Christ. That's why he was stoned. That's why he was punched in the face. That's why he was beaten with rods. And every one of those scars was a permanent reminder that he belonged to his Master, Jesus. Crippled from the unjust blows of his enemies, he stood broken in body but never in spirit. In fact, rarely does he even call attention to his scars. On the few occasions he does, it's never about him, it's always about the Savior. That's greatness. It isn't about the actions that were done against him or even the accomplishments he achieved. His greatness is revealed in his responses to those hardships. .... If we're going to study the life of Paul and learn lessons from his life and ministry, a major lesson to be learned is how to respond to pressure. I use pressure and hardship interchangeably. The way he responded to hardship is the way I want to respond. Rarely do any of us face adversity with such determined resolve. We view hardship as an unpleasant interruption. It's an unfair circumstance brought upon us by difficult people or oppressive situations. Paul responded differently. His secret of endurance lay in his "divine perspective." Let's explore that idea. He Trusted God Alone Paul allowed the affliction to strengthen his trust in God alone. He writes, "Indeed, we had the sentence of death within ourselves in order that we should not trust in ourselves, but in God who raises the dead; who delivered us from so great a peril of death, and will deliver us, He on whom we have set our hope. And He will yet deliver us" (1:9-10). He has delivered us, He is delivering us, He will deliver us. Get the picture? He focused on God's ability to handle the circumstances from start to finish. That freed him to lean on and tap into God's power alone. I think the apostle reached the place where he realized he wasn't capable of altering anything. He wasn't competent enough to fix the problem or smart enough to solve the mystery. His confidence drained away to the point he despaired of life itself. At that critical juncture he found supernatural strength by looking up. He said, "Lord, right now I am unable to go on. I'm not capable. I'm not competent. I'm not confident in anything in myself to relieve this pressure. I trust You and You alone." That's what I call "divine perspective." Grit under pressure.

...

We don't have the power we need to face life's worst blasts. Left to ourselves we cave in. The kind of power we need comes from God only, regardless of our circumstances. To describe his life of ministry, he used words like afflicted, perplexed, persecuted, and struck down. That was Paul's life as an ambassador for Christ. More often than not, he was like a sheep ready for slaughter. Any takers? Again, it's not his affliction we admire, but how he handled it. That's the greatness we appreciate. "We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not despairing; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying about in our body the dying of Jesus, that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our body. For we who live are constantly being delivered over to death for Jesus' sake, that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh" (2 Corinthians 4:8-11). In my more-than-thirty-year study of Paul, I've discovered he never once blamed God for his affliction. He never shook his fist at the heavens in frustration. I find that absolutely incredible. He received it all as part of his commitment to Christ and trusted God to handle those moments when he came to the breaking point. He confidently relied on his Lord. What a wonderful response. But there was another dimension to Paul's perspective. His Focus Remained on Things Unseen Paul viewed whatever happened to him through the eyes of faith. That remarkable trait allows him to be numbered among giants of the faith like Moses, who according to Hebrews 11, "left Egypt, not fearing the wrath of the king; for he endured, as seeing Him who is unseen" (11:27). Like Moses, Paul endured the hard times by focusing on the eternal. He used his trials as reminders to focus on things not seen. When your heart is right you can do that. ... Focusing on the unseen helps us endure what would otherwise be unbearable. That's what Paul did, and it kept him strong in troubled times. And in all of that he learned the greatest lesson of all. He discovered for himself...

The Power of Weakness

Paul pressed ahead through a mind-boggling series of intense hardships, which he lists later in the same letter (2 Corinthians 11:22-28):

Are they Hebrews? So am I.
Are they Israelites? So am I.
Are they descendants of Abraham? So am I.
Are they ministers of Christ? I have more claim to this title than they. This is a silly game but look at this list:
I have worked harder than any of them.
I have served more prison sentences!
I have been beaten times without number.
I have faced death again and again.
I have been beaten the regulation thirty-nine stripes by the Jews five times.
I have been beaten with rods three times.
I have been stoned once.


I have been shipwrecked three times.
I have been twenty-four hours in the open sea.

In my travels I have been in constant danger from rivers and floods, from bandits, from my own countrymen, and from pagans. I have faced danger in city streets, danger in the desert, danger on the high seas, danger among false Christians. I have known exhaustion, pain, long vigils, hunger and thirst, doing without meals, cold and lack of clothing.

Apart from all external trials I have the daily burden of responsibility for all the churches. On top of all that, the Lord gave [Paul] a thorn in the flesh. The Lord answered his desperate prayers to remove the thorn-whatever it may have been-in a most unexpected manner. The Lord simply answered, "My grace is sufficient for you, because power is perfected in weakness." Surprised? "You mean, I don't have to be super-strong and endure each trial relying my own resources?" It's not like that at all. In fact, the only way you qualify to receive His strength is when you admit your weakness, when you admit you're not capable and strong, when, like Paul, you're willing to boast in nothing but your weakness and God's power. We'd rather admire Paul for his strength in trials. We want to applaud his fierce determination against vicious persecution. If the man were alive today, he would not tolerate our congratulations. "No, no, no. You don't understand. I'm not strong. The One who pours his power into me is strong. My strength comes from my weakness." That's no false modesty. Paul would tell us, "Strength comes from embracing weakness and boasting in that." It is that kind of response that brings divine strength and allows it to spring into action.

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Let's pause long enough here to consider this principle in all seriousness. Your humiliations, your struggles, your battles, your weaknesses, your feelings of inadequacy, your helplessness, even your so-called "disqualifying" infirmities are precisely what make you effective. I would go further and say they represent the stuff of greatness. Once you are convinced of your own weakness and no longer trying to hide it, you embrace the power of Christ. Paul modeled that trait wonderfully, once he grasped the principle. His pride departed and in its place emerged a genuine humility that no amount of hardship could erase.

Reflecting on Your Responses So much for Paul. How about you? Fast forward to the twenty-first century. Are you afflicted and burdened excessively? Do you feel as if you're under such intense pressure these days that you, too, are close to despair? I have some surprising news: You're exactly where God wants you to be. It took all these years to get you this low, this needy. Now, look up! Are you feeling crushed and confused, misunderstood and beaten down? Resist the temptation to roll up your sleeves and muster a self-imposed recovery plan. This is your opportunity! Rather than fighting back, surrender. Embrace your weakness. Tell your heavenly Father that you are trusting in the strength of His power. If Paul could do it, so can you. So can I. At this moment I am facing a few impossible situations.

No doubt, so are you. To be honest, I'm too weak to handle any of them. So are you. I'm often near tears. I'm frequently discouraged. There's hardly a week that passes that I don't slump into a mild feeling of discouragement. Sound familiar? Admit it! Some nights I don't sleep well. There are times that I absolutely weep out of disappointment in some individual's failure . . . or my own. You, too? You and I need to face the fact that we will never be able to handle any of these pressures alone. When we acknowledge this, and not until, His strength will be released in us. .

Now that you and I are beginning to grasp what Paul modeled so well, strength in weakness, I suggest we truly embrace it. You and I have slugged our way through life long enough. What do you say we stop that habit? Let's both come before the Lord and say, "Lord, if You don't come through, I'm sunk. If you don't open that door, it isn't going to open. My situation is in Your hands. I'm tired of pushing and shoving and relying on myself. I surrender." When we do that, we hear Him say, "My grace is sufficient. My strength is perfected in your weakness."

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