When we are in trouble, our first instinct is to pray. And that’s right. That’s as it should be. The only problem is that when we are in trouble, our first instinct is to pray for ourselves. And that’s where something goes wrong. That’s our mistake. Pray for someone else, and we will discover our own problems are being dealt with as well.
I am assuming today that all of us are people who pray. Some more than others, some in ways different from others. But I am assuming that as Christians and as church people, we do pray.
And I am also assuming that all of us are people with problems. All of us face issues of one kind or another. Some have severe, complex problems, with health or money or jobs, with bad habits or misbehaving family members, or with all of the above. Others of us have smaller problems, less difficult issues. But I am assuming that we all have problems. We’re human, after all.
Well, then, it stands to reason that if we are praying people and we have problems, then a good bit of the time we follow that first instinct: to pray for answers to our own problems. We believe that if we pray for what we need, it will come.
But I ask you this morning to consider this: that the more we choose to pray for others the more we will receive power to resolve our own personal problems. The more we choose to pray for others, and for their wholeness, the more we will receive the power to handle our own needs.
Paul was a man with a problem. In fact, I guess he would be classified as one of those whose problems are complex. The issues just wouldn’t go away. Not where his relationship to the church in Corinth was concerned. Many of you know the story: how the church in Corinth was torn by factions and destroyed by immorality, how there were people speaking in tongues and other people determined to put down those who spoke in tongues. Paul had tried his best to deal with all of that.
But somewhere along the way Paul himself had become part of the problem: not just an outsider trying to give advice, but an integral part of the conflict. Paul had been accused of any number of things. There were people in the church who had been saying that his preaching was poor; there were others who had been complaining because he didn’t come to see them when he promised to. Still others accused him of being inconsistent, and some even hinted that he had messed up the finances. That’s a lot of heat for one man to take. If Paul had been the pastor of a modern Baptist church, he would have been pumping out resumes all over the map, looking for a new place to preach!
But, to top it all off, some were saying that Paul was weak, that he just didn’t know how to get the job done, just didn’t deal with situations decisively. Paul’s image was at stake, his effectiveness was in question. They thought he was weak!
Do you agree that Paul had a problem? What was he to do about it?
In today’s Scripture, Paul takes on rather a threatening tone, and warns the Corinthians that if they don’t straighten up and fly right, he is going to deal harshly. Gonna be trouble, right here in River City!
But, if you read carefully, Paul has something more to say on this. He has a better answer on how to get power to deal with personal problems. His answer is prayer. Not prayer for himself, but prayer for the very folks who were at the root of his problem.
II Corinthians 13:1-10
Begin by recognizing one simple truth: that we live in an intricate web, where our personal lives and our interpersonal relationships affect one another. Let me put it this way: most of our personal problems are really interpersonal, and most of our interpersonal problems are compounded by our personal issues. Maybe I can make it simpler still: if I am having problems with me, that will cause me to have problems with you. And if I am having problems with you, that will make my problems with me all the worse.
Suppose one night you didn’t get a good sleep. The baby cried most of the night, or you saw a scary movie on TV, or you did what I’ve been known to do: consume too much of my favorite snack, salsa and chips. Whatever. You didn’t get much of a sleep, but off you went to work the next morning, dragging, drowsy, and distracted. When you got there, the boss, who is always at work early, always alert, always hard-charging, the boss wants to know when that job is going to be done and why you haven’t produced that report, and were you the person who left the door unlocked yesterday afternoon? What do you do? In the face of all of these accusations, most of which make you look weak, what do you do? Well, you can swallow it all, and resent the boss; or you can make excuses, and resent the boss; or you can lash out and accuse the boss of being unreasonable and unfair, and really resent the boss! Any way you slice it, you resent the boss, you wish he would drop into a hole somewhere and leave you alone.
But what’s that really all about? It’s about looking weak. It’s about how hard it is to feel ineffective. And when we feel weak, when we think we look small, we will lash out and defend ourselves. We get hostile, because we have a need to win, a need to look powerful. Not just a desire to win, but a need to win. Tell me that something I want to do is mistaken, and I will get stubborn, because I have a need to win. Tell me that something I have said is not correct, and I will get defensive, because I have a need to look powerful.
So it looks like Paul starts down that track. It looks as though Paul reacts out of his tummy, just like any of the rest of us. “I warned [them] and all the others, and I warn them now while absent, as I did when present on my second visit, that if I come again, I will not be lenient ...” Paul is reacting to the charge that he is weak, because, like most of us, he has a need to win. And his personal problems have become interpersonal ones, and his interpersonal problems have made his personal problems all that much worse.
But now this is where things take a different course. This is where Paul stops himself and takes a different tack. All of a sudden Paul stops screaming. He stops screaming at his critics and he does something else instead. What? He prays for them. He prays for them, and he prays for their completeness. Listen to his language carefully:
“We pray to God that you may not do anything wrong ... that you may do what is right ... this is what we pray for, that you may become perfect.” Paul’s prayer for his enemies, who have accused him and have made him look weak and ineffective, is that they should grow into completeness. His prayer is not about himself, it is not a prayer for his needs. It is not a prayer that his image be positive. It is not even a prayer that he be delivered from his critics. His prayer is that his critics grow up into maturity. His prayer is for the needs of the others in his web, especially those who are giving him fits.
And the wonderful thing about all of this is that the more we pray for others and their needs, the more our own needs are met. The more we lay before the Lord the woundedness of others, the more our own wounds are healed. The more we offer back to God the shortcomings of others and ask that He grow them, the more our own failures are dealt with. The more we ask the Lord to perfect those who are giving us a hard time, the more we discover about our own deficits and the more we are filled up ourselves. But it has to start with praying for the others who are part of the problem. Paul says, “This is what we pray for, that you may do what is right, that you may become perfect.”
Do you have somebody in your life who is giving you a fit? Is there somebody you just cannot deal with? Well, I have some folks like that in my life. I’ve got some folks I just cannot succeed with, and they make me look weak, and I don’t like it!
I think of one student, back at my first ministry at Berea College, more than thirty years ago. Michael was one of those holier-than-thou types, who sent out the message that he was the true Christian, he was the true believer, and all the rest were not quite good enough. And I, as the Baptist campus minister, was labeled by this student as not quite good enough. So he went to work to split our group. He got some students together to meet in secret, where they could “really” study the Bible, as he put it. I knew that half the time in those meetings was spent in talking about how Rev. Smith didn’t believe the Bible, didn’t really love the Lord. And I didn’t like it. I resented it. The whole thing made me look weak. I certainly did not want to look weak.
The straw that broke the camel’s back came one Saturday afternoon when I stopped by our Baptist Student Center, unexpectedly. There Michael was, with one of his buddies, and they had filled the chalkboard with all kinds of stuff. With sayings like, “I believe the Bible, the whole Bible.” “All Scripture (with the word ‘all’ in capital letters and underlined three times) .. All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof...” . I think he really liked that word, “reproof”. The whole chalkboard was covered with sayings like this, and it was clearly intended that I should walk in and find it and be stung with its message. The implication was that I was not teaching the Bible, and that I was spiritually weak.
Well, you have never seen a more embarrassed young man than Michael at that moment. He turned six shades of red, he stammered something; his friend sort of ducked behind the chalkboard, and both of them tried to ease the chalk back into its slot. They were in bad shape.
But, then, so was I. I was in bad shape, too, because I had been weak. I had been weak and I knew it. I had been weak because I had known how they felt, but I hadn’t spoken to them about it. I hadn’t reached out to them. I hadn’t tried to deal with the issue. And, most of all, I had not prayed for Michael or his friends. What had I done? I had resented them. I had been angered by them. I didn’t like it because they showed up my weakness.
Well, that Saturday afternoon was showdown city, gunfight at the OK corral! There was no avoiding this! So I sat the two of them down and we talked. We talked about what they felt and what I felt. And I found out, do you see, that the problem had very little to do with how I taught the Bible, the problem had practically nothing to do with theology. The problem had to do with distance, with a gap that had built up, with resentment. And so he and I prayed that afternoon. We prayed for forgiveness, but we prayed for one another. We prayed for the Lord to perfect and complete one another.
Michael graduated from Berea about 1967 and went on to a seminary. He took a pastorate in Chicago, and I did not see him or hear from him again for a long time. About ten years ago, I ran into him at an American Baptist convention. He said, “I think I see what you were trying to do with me. I’ve been in the ministry for a while, and it’s not going well. In fact, I’ve just gone through a divorce. The Bible is against divorce, but it’s happened to me. I think I understand what you were trying to show me.”
Just a few months ago, I received a letter from Michael, still a pastor, now remarried, but it said, “I’ve been thinking about you and what I ought to say. I want to confess that I went through college an arrogant know-it-all; it was because I felt so weak. I felt weak and unheard. But you were patient with me and you prayed for me, and now I just want to thank you for all you did.”
He felt weak?! I thought he thought I was weak! He was arrogant?! I thought he thought I was arrogant! The truth is that both of us had our weaknesses, both of us operated out of arrogance (which is nothing but weakness behind a mask) and thus both of us had problems. We had problems in ourselves, and that made problems with our relationship. And the problems in our relationship could have made even worse the problems in ourselves. However ... God’s great however .. however, when each of us began to pray for the other it all got resolved. When each of us began to want, sincerely, the best for the other, completeness for the other, we each began to flourish ourselves. It took thirty years for it all to come out, but come out it did!
For you see, the more you pray for others and their needs, the more you find out about your own shortcomings. The more you pray for others and their woundedness, the more you learn about your own vulnerability. And the more you pray for others’ wholeness, the more you become whole yourself.
For what looks like weakness is actually strength. What looks like a problem is actually the source of great power. The cross; look at the cross. There you think you see weakness. There you think you see the finest of men done in by the worst. You see Jesus, on His cross, weak and wounded, sick and sore. At the cross, you think you see someone who is powerless, a hollow ruin. At the cross, you think you see a man with an absolutely insurmountable personal problem.
But hear the gospel, hear the good news this morning! Says Paul, “[Christ] was crucified in weakness, but lives by the power of God. For we are weak in him, but in dealing with you we will live with him by the power of God. For we rejoice when we are weak and you are strong.”
Do you see? At the cross we find weakness is caught up in the power of love, and transformed into strength. At the cross we find that limitations are captured in the purposes of Christ, and are made perfect. At the cross we discover that what has felt like death in us is not death, but is life. At the cross, self-giving becomes joy. At the cross, defeat becomes victory.
At the cross we rejoice when we are weak, because we will know the power of Christ. And because of the cross we will pray for and rejoice in the strength of others, even our enemies.
The great reformer Martin Luther spent much of the last nine years of his life in a deep depression. Despite all that he taught about grace, despite his passion for the reform of the church, despite all that he had accomplished, still there were so many things he could not do. So many minds he could not change, so many hearts he could not reach. Luther felt weak, and so he became depressed.
One day his wife Katherine spoke to Martin and said, “I am sorry to hear that Christ is dead.” To this Luther, ever ready for an argument, replied angrily, “Katie! Do not ever say such a thing. Christ is risen, Christ is alive!” But Katherine insisted, “Your long face, Martin! When I look at you I think that Christ is dead.”
Luther saw again the cross. “Christ is crucified in weakness, but lives by the power of God.” And Martin Luther, in the hour of his deepest depression, wrote the words we sang today, “A mighty fortress is our God, a bulwark never failing; our helper he, amid the flood of mortal ills prevailing. ... Let goods and kindred go, this mortal life also; the body they may kill; God’s truth abideth still, His kingdom is forever.”