We need to get to the end of ourselves to fully experience God’s power in and through us. Would you agree with this statement? Well, it seems to be one of the things Paul is saying in 1 Corinthians 12 where he defends his apostolic ministry. First he mentions that God caught him up to heaven where he ‘heard inexpressible things, things that man is not permitted to tell’. Then, he continues, God gave him a ‘thorn in his flesh’ to prevent him from becoming conceited. But Paul’s affliction also served another purpose; it kept him dependent on God.
When he asked the Lord to heal his progressive blindness, for that is what I think the ‘thorn’ was (see Galatians 4:13-16 and 6:11), God responded with, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness”. The first part of this could well mean something like, “Paul, don’t worry what others think of you because my favour and regard is all you need.” However, it is the second part of the statement that I want to zoom in on; “My power is made perfect in weakness”. A loose paraphrase of this could be, “My power only really manifests fully in you when you stop trying to do it all yourself. For me to be strong in you, you need to know that you are weak in yourself.” Now that is a rather strange thought for many of us. Certainly it contradicts the way the business and political world thinks; one of their mottos is ‘the only one you can rely on is yourself’, and there are several others that express the same sentiment. But does God mean that He wants us to do nothing so that He can do it all? I don’t think that is quite it.
In the Old Testament, there is the fascinating story of how Jacob wrestled with the angel of the Lord at a place he later called Peniel. Jacob was a tricky fellow who had thrived by using his wit and abilities to excel, largely at the expense of others. He had stolen the rights of a first born son from his brother Esau and now the time had come for him to face up to both himself and his brother. He sent his family and possession on ahead of him to impress and placate his brother in a final attempt to get ahead through guile and strategy. Then he stayed alone all night at a spot where the Jabbok and Jordan rivers meet. The Lord appeared to him in material form and wrestled with him until dawn. Finally, when all of Jacob’s strength and endurance were at an end, the Lord permanently impaired him by throwing his hip out of joint. God then changed the ’victorious’ man’s name to Israel.
I have three questions concerning this powerful interaction between God and Jacob. The first is, ‘Why did the Lord wrestle with Jacob the whole night when he could have beaten him in a nanosecond?’ I think that it was because He wanted Jacob to get to the very end of himself; of his strength, skill, and endurance. Secondly, ‘Why did the Lord give Jacob a permanent limp (a thorn in the flesh)?’ My belief is that this was to constantly remind him that God was stronger than him. Lastly, ‘Why did the Lord change Jacob’s name to Israel?’ Well, the name Jacob means ‘supplanter, trickster, con-man’. Israel, on the other hands means either ‘he strives with God’, or ‘Prince with God’, or even ‘Let God rule’. By the way, the reason one Hebrew word can be translated in different ways is primarily because the language has no vowels and so these are added when translating to make sense of the word within its specific context. By renaming Jacob I believe that God was, among other things, saying, “Jacob, in yourself you are just a con man, but in me you are a prince.” Jacob came to Peniel in his own strength but he left it to meet his brother in the Lord’s strength.
Paul expressed the principle of getting to the end of oneself as, ‘For when I am weak, then I am strong’ (2 Corinthians 12:10). However, it is clear from his attitude and actions that he didn’t stop trying his hardest to be and do what was honouring to God. For instance, in Philippians 3:13-14 he writes, ‘Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus’. The proper response to the realisation that Gods strength is manifest in our weakness is not to give up or to try less, but to come swiftly into line with God’s purpose and power. It is mostly a matter of attitude.
What usually happens with us, if we are honest with ourselves, is that we try to do everything we can in our own strength and then, like Jacob, we only come to God for help when we have tried everything but are still not succeeding. We seem to have to get to the end of ourselves before we rely on God’s grace and strength. What a pity! Wouldn’t it make so much more sense if we realised up front that we can’t do it on our own and asked the Lord Jesus to partner with us from the very beginning.
I think the words ‘partner with us’ are the key here. God is the senior partner and we are junior partners – but partners never the less. We need to do our very best, but in partnership with Almighty God. Our prayer needs to be, “Lord I can’t do this on my own so I want to do it with you, and your way, from the very beginning”.