Publication: Pastoral Letter, June 2015
Dear Friend in Christ:
An “upset” in sports is when the perceived weaker team or individual defeats the stronger. When the U.S. Olympic Hockey team defeated the Soviet team in 1980 at Lake Placid, New York, it was called the “Miracle on Ice.” The Soviets were stocked with stars and were thought to be unbeatable. The perceived weakness of the United States team became a great motivation that produced an upset.
No one expected Cassius Clay to defeat the world champion boxer, Sonny Liston, in 1964. Liston was referred to as the “most frightening man in the world.” He had won 29 fights in a row and he predicted that he would knock Clay out in the second, but he was defeated in seven. Clay was only 22 when he became champion of the world.
The Prophet Joel says, “Let the weak say I am strong.” The Apostle Paul elaborates on that theme in Second Corinthians 12:10, “For when I am weak then I am strong.” What did he mean by that statement and how does that apply to us? (See First Corinthians 1:26-31.)
The Apostle Paul had been strong in his pre-conversion state. He was proud of his heritage, education, and biblical knowledge. He was so bold that he persecuted those who followed Jesus. He participated in the stoning of Stephen and joined in with the effort to destroy the early disciples.
It was on the road to Damascus that his strength became his weakness as Jesus revealed Himself to Paul by knocking him to the ground and blinding him. Paul had to be led into Damascus and was ministered to by the very ones that he had intended to persecute.
The Lord was powerful in Paul as Paul understood his own weakness. He received great revelations, some he could not even talk about; others are in the letters that he wrote to various churches. Effective as Paul was, he was given a “thorn in the flesh” which he prayed three times to have removed. It was not removed. Instead, the Lord told him, “My grace is sufficient for you. My strength is made perfect in weakness.” Paul goes on to say, “Therefore, most gladly will I boast in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me” (see Second Corinthians 12:9-10).
It is the realization of our weakness and calling upon the Lord that gives us access to His grace and power. Therefore, it is vital that we see our weakness in humility if we are going to have the power of God. His grace begins where our strength ends. Allow me to illustrate ….
The book of Jonah is about that prophet who was given a mission to a people that he did not like in Nineveh, which was a pagan center of the worship of Astarte, “goddess of fertility.” It had been established by Nimrod, “A mighty hunter before the Lord.” (See Genesis 10:8-12.) The city grew in size; some estimate a population of nearly one million strong and 50 or 60 miles in diameter. The Lord told Jonah that there were 120,000 in that city who did not know their right hand from their left (see Jonah 4:11). If the Lord was referring to children, then the population was much higher.
Nineveh was not only Gentile and pagan but it was a threat to Israel. It was a very brutal city, but also very creative, inventing locks with keys, the 360 degree circle, aqueducts, plumbing, flushing toilets, and paved roads. Nineveh was strong and intimidating!
So, instead of going to Nineveh in obedience to God, Jonah headed west to Tarshish, far away in the opposite direction. He boarded a ship sailing the Mediterranean, but the ship ran into a terrible storm. The crew finally decided that Jonah was the problem and threw him overboard.
The Lord had prepared a great fish for Jonah which swallowed him, and after three days in the fish’s belly, he repented and went to Nineveh. His message was simple: “Repent or suffer the judgment of God in 40 days.” Amazingly, Nineveh repented, beginning with the king who humbled himself in sackcloth and ashes. Judgment was averted when Nineveh became weak before God.
Unfortunately, 50-75 years later, the city resumed its previous character. Once again it returned to its old ways, and in 722 BC, it conquered Samaria, capital of the Northern Ten Tribes of Israel. The king of Assyria (Nineveh), named Sennacherib, then decided to move south against Jerusalem with a very large army. His soldiers taunted the Jews in Jerusalem and mocked God.
Hezekiah was king in Jerusalem and weak before the armies of Assyria. Hezekiah humbled himself and sought God. The Lord responded and one angel, killed 185,000 of the Assyrian army in just one night. Sennacherib returned to Nineveh and was later murdered by his own people while worshipping his god Nisroch.
Nahum chapter 3 records the prophecy against Nineveh and it was destroyed by Babylon. It would be important to note that centuries later Assyria was one of the first nations to receive the Gospel. I currently have Assyrian friends who are ministers of Christ.
Nineveh is the story of how strength can become weakness and weakness can become strength. History is filled with many such stories. The Lord helped the Apostle Paul to understand the danger of being exalted above measure (see Second Corinthians 12:7). Humility before God allowed God to give Paul strength and allowed Christ to be glorified. Sometimes God allows difficulty to remind us of that truth as He did for Paul. It is OK to ask God to remove those issues, but in God’s grace we are overcomers, more than conquerors through Him who loves us!
This past April, I celebrated 60 years in ministry. I think that I have been honored above measure for simply enduring and trying to obey. It has made me think back often on my parents. Mom was born in humble circumstances and grew up in a very rural and remote area along the bayous of south Louisiana. When she became my father’s wife, she was well-aware of her challenges in education and church culture. They had moved into south Alabama and Dad pastored a Southern Baptist church. Mom grew up Catholic and only had a seventh grade education. She got her high school certificate by correspondence.
Dad grew up in much better circumstance, eventually attending seminary and becoming a missionary along the bayous, then pastoring. Dad also ministered for more than 60 years.
Many things they taught have remained important in my life: the Word of God, the Holy Spirit, faith, and the essentiality of humility before God. I often refer to my father as my “humble stick.” Whenever I felt a little proud, he would remind me to consider God’s grace and not my own ability. Sometimes I forgot that lesson only to be later reminded by the Lord Himself.
We are the tallest when on our knees. We are the strongest in our weakness if our weakness turns us to God. Education, knowledge, success, and blessings can be good things to which we all should aspire. But if in those things only we rely, they become weakness and even destruction.
General George Patton was one of America’s greatest generals. His story was told again recently by Bill O’Reilly in the book, Killing Patton. Patton famously said the following: “For over a thousand years Roman conquerors returning from wars enjoyed the honor of triumph, a tumultuous parade. In the procession came trumpeters, musicians and strange animals from conquered territories, together with carts laden with treasure and captured armaments. The conquerors rode in a triumphal chariot, the dazed prisoners walking in chains before him. Sometimes his children robed in white stood with him in the chariot or rode trace horses. A slave stood behind the conqueror holding a golden crown and whispering in his ear a warning: that all glory is fleeting.”
James Baker was the Secretary of State in Washington D.C. He observed once as he passed through the White House gates a man walking on the sidewalk who had once been Secretary of State but now alone—no reporters, no security, no adoring public, no trappings of power, just one solitary man alone with his thoughts. That mental picture continually served to remind Baker of the impermanence of power and place.
What are we to make of the Apostle Paul, Nineveh, Israel, General Patton, James Baker, and so many others? What are our lessons? I take from these illustrations that humility or recognizing our weakness before God is the key to His grace and strength. When our strength or our victories are celebrated, it is time to remember God’s grace. When we see our weakness, we can access His power.
Many years ago, the church that I pastored was having a great Sunday. People had been converted to Christ and others had joined us. It was then that the Lord spoke, “Remember the tough times that got you here. And when once again it gets tough, remember today; it will encourage you.” I have not forgotten that.
Honor is a good thing when it is earned. We should aspire to being honorable. But as someone said, “It is like perfume; wear it but do not drink it.”
I pray that those lessons taught by our Lord and the apostles concerning humility will return to our nation’s consciousness and to us personally, and bring us once again to know the power of God. Will you join me in this prayer?
Also, let me thank you for your ongoing prayer and support for CSM and our outreach around the world. Would you please continue to remember us in your prayers and in your giving this month? God met us at our recent Gatlinburg Conference, and we have so many opportunities and challenges coming up. Please visit our brand new website at www.csmpublishing.org for more information, and you can also “like” our Charles Simpson Ministries Facebook page, which is updated daily. We are also on Twitter @CSMinPublishing.
Scripture Reference: 1 Corinthians 1:26-61; 2 Corinthians 12:10; 2 Corinthians 12:9-10; Genesis 10:8-12; Jonah 4:11; 2 Corinthians 12:17
Charles Simpson is an internationally-known author, Bible teacher, and pastor, serving in ministry since 1955. He is also Editor-in-Chief of One-to-One Magazine and ministers extensively throughout the United States and the nations.