How many of you had experienced rejection? Any of us who applied for a job or had applied to be part of an organization and had not been accepted know how it is to be rejected. If you had been courting a lady and she refused to listen to you or if you had a crush on someone but had ignored you, you know how it is to be rejected. How many of you had been insulted? Any of us who had failed know how it is to be insulted when people keep on recalling our failures. And for those who have experienced rejections and insults, we know that it is a painful experience. You feel you are nobody.
I know of a student who killed herself. When her friends discovered her dead body, there was this letter saying that nobody cared for her anymore. She had been rejected several times applying to be a member of a sorority. To be rejected is an awful experience.
Hans Christian Andersen knew what it was to be tuned down. Generations of children have grown up on Anderson’s whimsical fairy tales. Andersen’s life, though, was much less whimsical than his stories. As he lay on his deathbed, suffering from cancer and bronchitis, he clutched a letter from a woman he had loved dearly. Forty-five years before, she had written this letter, breaking off her relationship with Andersen. Evidently, he had never let go of his feelings for her.
However, St. Paul thinks differently. In his letter to the Church in Corinth he wrote, “…I delight in weakness, in insults, in persecutions, in difficulties.” I know what some of you are thinking–what is he–some kind of masochist? Generally, nobody enjoys being insulted, or rejected, or persecuted unless one is mentally sick.
However, we know from his writings that St. Paul was not mentally sick. He knew that if he were faithful to Christ’s call to spread the Gospel to the Gentiles, he was going to experience insults, persecutions, and all manner of difficulties. What he did was he looked for God’s purpose in those negative experiences and he embraced them as God’s plan for his success.
For St. Paul then, adversities allowed him to understand others who too were hurting.
St. Paul had something in his life that he called as his “thorn in the flesh.” He writes, “To keep me from becoming conceited… there was given me a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’”
In every field of human endeavor today, we hear about the importance of revealing one’s vulnerability. It is certainly true in the pastoral ministry. It is important for you to know that pastors including myself are not perfect. If for some reason you do not know this yet, it is important for you to realize that pastors, make mistakes, forget so many things, cannot meet all the needs of the congregation, cannot be there for everybody, and cannot do all the things that people expect him or her to do. And that is true not only to pastors, but to every one of us.
If you as a layperson think that pastors never have problems, your immediate response will be, how could they ever understand what I am going through?
When I was one of the chaplains in the hospital, I was asked to lead a group of those who were grieving for the loss of a loved one. In this group, we realized that it is never easy to lose a loved one. And we also learned that you do not say to a grieving person, “I understand your feeling,” unless you too have a loved one who died. You cannot fully go into the depths of the feeling of a person who is grieving unless you too have gone through that experience.
If your life is perfect, if you are one of those people who breeze through life easily getting what you want, it will be hard for you to understand the failures of others. You can sometimes be quite intolerant of those who have not been so fortunate. That is not only true of people in physical pain. It is true in all areas of life. People who have had happy marriages are sometimes insensitive to people whose marriage has brought them nothing but heartache and pain. Some professors who are smart have little patience with students who struggle with their studies. My guess is that one reason Paul was so successful in his ministry was because his thorn in the flesh gave him genuine compassion for others. God uses people who are not perfect like you and me to reach out to those who are struggling with their lives.
Most of all, however, St. Paul’s adversities taught him that human weakness is the key to experiencing God’s strength. We probably have noticed that people who are always strong, always competent, always in control have no need for God.
George Reedy was President Lyndon Johnson’s press secretary. He convinced Johnson he should never have assistants who had not suffered any major disappointment in life. Without that maturity and without that disappointment, Reedy felt such people thrust into these positions of power would come to think of themselves as little tin gods. That is true. Too much early success in life makes us think of ourselves as clever. We begin to rely on ourselves rather than on God.
I was talking to a young man one day. He said, “Why do I need to change my life and follow Christ when I am contented with what I have and what I’m doing now.” For this young man, if one has a nice home, has a beautiful family, has the money to buy things, why in the world does one need God? And because that person does not need God, he does not experience God.
Roy Campanella was injured in an accident and lost the use of his arms and his legs. He wrote in the book, “Chicken Soup for the Soul,” “Down in the reception room of the Institute of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, there’s a bronze plaque that’s riveted to the wall. One day I pulled aside and read the words of that plaque that was written by an unknown confederate soldier. As I read it, I read it near to bursting–not in despair, but with an inner glow that had me straining to grip the arms of my wheelchair.”
It is called “A Creed For Those Who Have Suffered.”
I asked God for strength, that I might achieve.
I was made weak, that I might learn humbly to obey…
I asked for health, that I might do great things.
I was given infirmity that I might do better things…
I asked for riches, that I might be happy.
I was given poverty, that I might be wise…
I asked for power, that I might have the praise of men.
I was given weakness, that I might feel the need of God…
I asked for all things, that I might enjoy life.
I was given life, that I might enjoy all things…
I got nothing I asked for–but everything I had hoped for.
Almost despite myself, my unspoken prayers were answered.
I am, among men, most richly blessed!
There are some people who have never suffered from whom those words will be mere pious platitudes. But those of us who have experienced our own Calvary–those of us who have crosses to bear–those who know what it is to be weak, persecuted, insulted, rejected–we know they ring true. God’s power is made perfect in weakness. In weakness we discover vulnerability and compassion. In weakness, we discover God. Come to the table of our Lord and discover God who is our strength.