Limitations: The Key to Usefulness
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Limitations: The Key to Usefulness

From Series: Lessons for Life, Volume 2

2 Corinthians 12:1-10  (ID: 2922)

Have you ever considered the possibility that your limitations and weaknesses are actually the key to your usefulness in service of the Lord Jesus Christ? In 2 Corinthians, Paul boasted of his weakness in order to testify about God’s strength. Alistair Begg reminds us that difficulties in the Christian life are inevitable but useful. When we realize our own insufficiency, we are left with the knowledge that we are dependent wholly on God, and that He alone is worthy of praise.


Sermon Transcript:

I’d like to invite you, first of all, to take your Bibles and turn to 2 Corinthians at chapter 12, if you would—2 Corinthians 12.

Today, as I was thinking directly about this evening, I couldn’t get one particular individual out of my mind. I won’t mention him by name, because he may be known to some— and he will be known for other reasons than this, because he finished his university career as a student leader, and as a strong member of the community, and as a committed Christian and a stalwart young fellow altogether. But on the particular evening that was the same evening as this, however many years ago, when the opening event had concluded and I was standing at the front, I was greeted by a number of young people, including this boy. And when he came to me, fortunately, I recognized him. He wasn’t a member of our church, but I knew his parents, and I’d met him in their home. And so I said to him, “How are you doing?”

It wasn’t the right question to ask, because immediately his bottom lip began to tremble, and he dissolved into tears, much to his embarrassment. And he said, “I’m not doing very well.” He said, “My parents brought me here, and they just left me here, and they went away.”

I said, “Son, that’s what they’re supposed to do. They’re not going to college. They’re supposed to go away.”

He said, “Well, I… I don’t think it’s good.” And he just stood, and he cried.

So I said, “Oh dear, we’re gonna have to do something with him.” So there were a crowd of young people going to some place off campus serving up vast quantities of ice cream. And so I took this young fellow there in the hope that he might meet, you know, somebody who would be an encouragement to him. But he just sat at the end of the table and cried into his big bowl of ice cream. And I’ve never, ever forgotten that. My heart went out to him so much. I could understand it. I knew what it was like to find myself leaning against the radiators, wondering if there was anyone that would talk to me at all—that strange experience, when you feel so vulnerable, when everybody that walks past you seems to have an air that suggests they actually know where they’re going, they know what they’re doing, and I’m the only person in this university that hasn’t a clue what’s going on, who feels like running away and just doesn’t have the courage to do it.

Keep that in mind, and let’s read 2 Corinthians 12:

“I must go on boasting.” Paul is speaking ironically here. “Although there is nothing to be gained, I will go on to visions and revelations from the Lord. I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven. Whether it was in the body or out of the body I do not know—God knows. And I know that this man—whether in the body or apart from the body I do not know, but God knows—was caught up to paradise. He heard inexpressible things, things that man is not permitted to tell. I will boast about a man like that, but I will not boast about myself, except about my weaknesses. Even if I should choose to boast, I would not be a fool, because I would be speaking the truth. But I refrain, so no one will think more of me than is warranted by what I do or say.

“To keep me from becoming conceited because of these surpassingly great revelations, 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.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.”

Now, I’d like for you to keep your Bibles open on your lap, if you will. I want to make reference to a number of sections in 10, 11, and 12, and it will aid me and help you if you’re able to cast your glance upon them.

Have you ever considered the possibility that your limitations and your handicaps may prove to be the key to your usefulness in your service of the Lord Jesus Christ?

Let me begin by asking you a question: Have you ever considered the possibility that your limitations and your handicaps may prove to be the key to your usefulness in your service of the Lord Jesus Christ? Have you ever considered the possibility that your limitations and your handicaps may prove to be the key to your usefulness in the service of the Lord Jesus? It’s not uncommon for us to say, or to hear others say, “If I wasn’t such a quiet person,” for example, “then perhaps God would make more use of me.” Or, “If I were just a little quieter and not so boisterous…” Or, “If my circumstances were only a little better, my background a little stronger, my health a bit more robust, my mind a little quicker… If I weren’t such an old clay pot!”

Now, for those of you who regard yourselves as being eminently strong, able to cope with everything, this is not gonna mean much to you. But for any of you that are prepared to acknowledge your weakness, to confront your limitations, to recognize that what you are in the silence of your own bedroom and in the privacy of your own heart before God is what you really are, then I hope and pray that this simple study will be foundational to you as you begin this great journey through this academic year.

There is no question that the Evil One is very happy to champion those kind of thoughts. He’s happy to encourage us to doubt the integrity of God’s character, the integrity of God’s purposes. When we face peculiar difficulties, when we confront inevitable sadness, when we deal with severe discomfort, when we’re aware of our own sinfulness and our own declension, then he particularly comes alongside, seeking to encourage us to cast doubt upon the love of God.

Certainly, Paul understood this. When he writes to the Ephesians, he says, “We’re not wrestling against flesh and blood. We’re involved in a great cosmic and spiritual battle—spiritual wickedness in the heavenly places.”[1] He even refers to that which is his grave concern in physical limitations, here in 2 Corinthians 12, as a very “messenger of Satan” himself. And if you were listening carefully—and I think you were—you would realize that Paul is very prepared to acknowledge the challenges that have come his way. He defines them there in verse 10: “weaknesses … insults … hardships … persecutions … difficulties.”

Now, when we study the Bible, it’s always important that we exercise the control of Scripture on the passage we’re considering. Failure to do so may allow us to make legitimate conclusions from illegitimate premises. In other words, we may reach the right answer, but we shouldn’t really try and reach it from this particular passage. And so the way in which we safeguard against that is to stand back from the passage enough to see why it is that 2 Corinthians 12 falls as it does, and what it is that is going on in the context of Paul’s life and ministry that allows him to speak as he does. Because after all, it’s a fairly strange way to speak, isn’t it? “If I may boast,” and “I may boast about this,” and so on. You say, “Why is the apostle doing this?”

Well, if you just turn back for a moment to chapter 10, you’ll understand. I’m not going to go all the way through it, so you can relax. We’re not spending the evening here—just the early part of the evening. Each of us have places to go and people to see. But there were four particular accusations leveled against Paul and his companions. And you can find these for your homework, but first of all, they accused him of being a coward in verse 1. The way in which we understand what the accusations are, incidentally, is by the way in which he responds to these things. And so he says, “I appeal to you—I, Paul, who am ‘timid’ when face to face with you, but ‘bold’ when away!” He’s simply reiterating what people were saying. They were saying, “You know, Paul, he’s real strong when he’s writing his letters, but if you ever see him up close, he’s a pushover!” And so he says, “Here I am.”

They were accusing him also of being worldly and unspiritual. In verse 2: “some people who think that we live by the standards of this world…” In verse 7, they were being regarded, he and his colleagues, as suspect members of the body of Christ. And in verse 12, they were being accused of, frankly, being second-class citizens. Hence the irony of 10:12: “We do not dare to classify or compare ourselves with some who commend themselves. When they measure themselves by themselves and compare themselves with themselves, they are not wise.”[2] Of course they’re not! That’s like me suggesting that the standard of the speed of a tennis serve is to be judged by my tennis serve—which, frankly, is no serve at all. I mean, gauged against a twelve-year-old girl, it’s no serve at all. But of course, if I judge myself by myself, then I may convince myself that I really am quite an admirable tennis player, although I may be hard-pressed to do anything sensible with the ball at all. It’s not wise. These people were writing their own résumés, which was bad enough, but they were also providing their own references. They commended themselves.

And as a result of this, Paul, out of his concern for the gospel and for those who were under his pastoral care, he then has to inevitably enter into a defense of ministry—and in part, the defense of himself—respond to these accusations, respond to these insinuations, and in doing so, to establish one vital truth. And it’s there in 10:17: “Let him who boasts boast in the Lord.” And then verse 18, paraphrased: “[For] what you say about yourself means nothing in God’s work. It’s what God says about you that makes the difference.”[3]

You may safely leave it to God to vindicate, to bless, to exalt he or she who humbles themselves. Resist the temptation to let everybody know who you are.

Now, there is an inherent danger in coming to a school like this, especially if you’ve come from a little church somewhere or a little school somewhere, and you’ve been a bit of a big fish in a small pond, and here you are, in the middle of three thousand students, and you immediately feel that it’s imperative that you begin to, you know, put your cards on the table quickly. Don’t do it. None of your friends need to hear how brilliant you were or how spiritual you are. They don’t need to listen to your sanctimonious talk first thing in the morning when they’re trying to wake up and brush their teeth. It is not what you say about yourself in God’s work that matters; it’s what God says about you. You may safely leave it to God to vindicate, to bless, to exalt he or she who humbles themselves. Resist the temptation to let everybody know who you are.

Now, in chapter 11, Paul tackles this head-on. He takes them on at their own game. He says in verse [1]—I can’t go all the way through it; I’m sure you’ll read it, because you’re such wonderful students—but he says, “You know, I hope you’ll put up with a little of my foolishness; but you’re already doing that, of course,” he says. And if you take verse 1 and then go to verse 16—which is a great encouragement, ’cause it means you just jumped fifteen verses, and we’re moving towards chapter 12 now—“I repeat: Let no one take me for a fool. But if you do, then receive me just as you would a fool, so that I may do a little boasting. In this self-confident boasting I[’m] not talking as the Lord would, but as a fool.”

Now, you got this thing, and again I want to say to you that if your mother has been driving around with a minivan that has had a sticker on the back of it saying, “I have an honors student at such and such a high school,” big deal! I sure hope that you didn’t bring the sticker, and I hope your mother didn’t feel it necessary to reverse into the driveway when she was depositing you at the school. Now, I know that when I say this, people say, “His kids are obviously idiots. They never had those stickers at all. He’s got a bad attitude about it, and that’s why he says that.” Maybe, maybe.

But look what he says in 17 and 18. Let me paraphrase it for you: “I didn’t learn this kind of talk from [Jesus]. … It’s a bad habit I picked up from the three-ring preachers [who] are so popular these days.”[4] To talk this way is not Jesus talk. His detractors boasted about their Jewishness—11:22. They boasted about their service—verse 23. And so Paul goes down that road, and look at how he concludes in the thirtieth verse: “If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness.”

Look at verse 32: “In Damascus the governor under King Aretas had the city of the Damascenes guarded in order to arrest me. But I was lowered in a basket from a window in the wall and slipped through his hands.”

Can you imagine him coming to do an evangelistic campaign in your city? Say, “Well, where were you most recently, Paul?”

“Well, I was in the city of the Damascenes.”

“How did it go?”

“Well, it was quite good.”

“Did you leave with a great fanfare?”

“No. No, no, I wouldn’t say that. Actually, I crawled out through a hole in a window, and they let me down over the wall in a laundry basket, and I ran for my life.”

It’s an interesting humility, isn’t it? It’s a striking honesty, sadly missing in evangelical Christianity—not least of all in people like myself, who receive such wonderful accolades as to come and speak to a student body like this. I’d really like you to know how weak I am. If you knew how weak I really am, you would never actually come and listen to me talk. And if I knew how weak each of you are, I would realize how important it is for me to talk to you. Have you ever considered the possibility that your limitations, that your weaknesses, are actually the key to your usefulness in serving Jesus? What Paul is making clear here, and what he clarifies now in the verses that we read in chapter 12, is that for him, weakness is an asset.

And in the beginning of chapter 12, he tackles another area in which his detractors were challenging him. They were challenging him in the area of spiritual experience. And loved ones, young people, listen: of all the contexts in which boasting is inappropriate, it is never more so than in the realm of spiritual experience. Because any experience of God is his gift to us. It’s not an earned experience. It’s not a reward. It is a gift! So would we then go out and boast on the basis of this? Would we use this as a platform to elevate ourselves and do down someone who may be struggling in the early days, who may be faltering, who may have come limping into this institution, who may be tottering between faith and its demise, even tonight? And your very posture of having it all together simply drives them further away. For they want to know that there’s somebody—just at least one person—that recognizes, “I need help.”

Now, what Paul says is this: “If you ever wanted something to boast about in terms of spiritual experiences, I know a man who had such an amazing spiritual experience, caught up into the third heaven, had a sight of paradise…” He uses language that actually beggars description. Then he says, “I could boast about a man like that, but I certainly couldn’t boast about myself.” Now, what he’s doing is, he’s using the third person in order not to draw attention to himself. The details of this experience are not our focus this evening. The point is simply this: this experience was, in human terms, worth bragging about. But he determined that he would not do it. That’s what he’s saying there: “I refrain from doing this.” Why? “So no one will think more of me than is warranted by what I do or say.”

We come out of a culture that is preoccupied with self-esteem, self-aggrandizement, self-perpetuation. And we are not immune to it within the body of Christ. And it is, actually, an ugly thing. Think about it. There’s nothing worse than somebody at a party who constantly talks about himself: how many baskets he made, how fast he ran, how wide the tires are on his car, how many spokes he has on this lousy machine with the huge big speakers in the back that blow the windows out of Burger King as he drives past. People are not drawn to this. You don’t get girls like this, let me tell you. At least, you may, but you can keep them!

And it is worst of all when the pride is spiritual pride. Sanctimonious. Special kind of voice. “Spiritual voice coming out.” Say, “Where did that come from?” When I engage in spiritual pride, I can guarantee you these two things: that I have lost sight of the cross of the Lord Jesus, and I have lost sight of my dependence upon him. Whenever you find me shooting my mouth off, boasting about what I have or what I’ve done, then you can be sure that I’ve lost sight of Jesus and I’ve lost my sense of dependence upon him. You see, there is nothing good, even our experiences of God, that the devil doesn’t try to turn to evil. There’s nothing good, even my experience of God, that the devil doesn’t try to turn to evil.

And so, look at what he says in verse 7: in light of all of this—again, paraphrasing—“Because of the extravagance of [these] revelations, and so [that] I wouldn’t get a big head, I was given the gift of a handicap to keep me in … touch with my limitations.”[5] God said, “You know, I don’t want Paul to get a fat head.” And so “there was … a messenger of Satan, to torment me.” What is the “messenger of Satan”? Ask your New Testament professor early on in the year, and send the answer to me when you get it, okay? My best shot at it is simply this: that it was a messenger of Satan in that it became the occasion of Satan’s insinuations. So that here was some experience, whatever it was—it was physical, it annoyed him regularly, it annoyed him intensely—and it became to him a messenger of Satan, because Satan would come to his mind and say, “Why do you have this, Paul? Without this, Paul, don’t you think you would be a lot more useful to God? Why should God allow this in your life, Paul?”

Now, if we’re honest, all of us have things like this. Our view of ourself is such that we wish we were six inches taller, you know, or three inches broader, or whatever else it is. But God fashioned us, intricately wrought us together in our mother’s womb, established our DNA, made us purposefully.

But the messenger came, the pain was real. And he did what we would expect him to do. He prayed about it, verse 8. In fact, he did so in a very intense and organized way. That’s why I think he’s able to say, “Three times I pleaded with the Lord.” It’s interesting that he says, “Three times I pleaded with the Lord.” Don’t you think that if you had a thorn in your flesh that bothered you every single morning that you awakened, every single morning you would plead with the Lord? But he says, “Three times I did it.” Presumably, there were three express occasions when he took it before the Lord. It has a hint, doesn’t it, of Jesus in Gethsemane? He prays, he returns to his disciples. He goes, he prays, he returns to his disciples. He goes, he prays. Three times he said to the Father, “Are you sure? If you’re willing, let this cup pass from me.”[6] Paul goes, “Father, if it’s possible for me to live my life and ministry without this, I’m asking you.” And the answer came back, “My grace is sufficient for you, Paul, for my power is made perfect in your weakness. My grace is enough. It’s all you need.” I love that song. It was wonderful, wasn’t it? All the songs were wonderful. All the music was wonderful. What a tremendous panorama of giftedness. “My strength comes into its own,” he says, “in your weakness.”

Now, the principle and the reality of this didn’t alter his pain, but it did change his perspective. And so he says, “Therefore, in light of this… This is exactly as it happened. I had this amazing experience. I have this thorn in the flesh. Three occasions, I asked for its removal. The answer came back, ‘My grace is enough. It’s all that you need.’” And so, says Paul, “Once I heard that, I was glad to let it happen. I quit focusing on the [hardship] and [I] began appreciating the gift. It was a case of Christ’s strength moving in on my weakness. Now,” says Paul, “I take [my] limitations in stride, and with good cheer, [for] these limitations … cut me down to size …. I just let Christ take over! And so the weaker I get, the stronger I become.”[7]

It’s the complete reverse of what society says, isn’t it? You see? And so, if we allow the prevailing culture to dictate to us in the way in which we seek to live our lives, we stumble and falter.

I wonder, are you helped by this at all? I wonder, is anyone as helped by it as I am? That God makes even Satan’s insinuations work out for our good, when they cause us to turn afresh to the Lord Jesus in childlike, prayerful dependence upon his promises. When we come to a situation like this evening—the start of a new year, the start of a whole university career—we’re humbled by our difficulties. But we’re strengthened by our Savior’s all-sufficient grace.

Difficulties and disappointments in the Christian life are inevitable, and they’re also purposeful.

Therefore, how rewarding is the thorn that brings us into the discovery of verse 9? Difficulties and disappointments in the Christian life are inevitable, and they’re also purposeful. The Christian life is just full of goodbyes. The goodbye that you said to your mom and dad, and they said to you, especially if you’re the first one going off, is a little taste of what death will be. You say, “That’s weird that you would say that.” Well, that may be weird. But that’s no surprise, ’cause I’m weird. But when I bid my youngest child goodbye at the airport and sent her back off to Biola University on the West Coast, and as she walked away from me down the hallway, there’s pain in that. There’s finality in that. When your dog dies, the companion of your teenage years, the one—the only—member of your family that would listen to you half the time, with that black hanging face of his. God is using that.

You see, the hymn writer puts it perfectly when he says,

I thank you, God, that all my joy
Is touched with pain,
That shadows fall on brightest hours
And thorns remain;
So that earth’s bliss may be my guide,
But not my chain.[8]

Paul says, “Listen to me. You feel weak? He gives strength to the weak.” “He deliberately chose weak things,” he tells the Corinthians in his first letter. “He chose the weak in order to show the strong how powerful the weak can be.”[9] Earlier in his second letter here, he describes himself and others like him as old clay pots, so that the transcendent power might be seen to belong to God and not to us.[10] Listen, young people: even the Christians we most admire for their godliness and for their gifts are just as much jars of clay as we are.

“A Christian never falls asleep in the fire or in the water, but grows drowsy in the sunshine.”[11] “Never falls asleep in the fire or in the water, but grows drowsy in the sunshine.” Have you ever considered the possibility that what you regard as your most significant limitation… And I’m not talking about sinfulness tolerated with. I’m sure you understand that. I’m talking about the nature of your personality, your size, your diffidence, the fact of your youthfulness, the fact that you’re now twenty-two years old, and everyone is asking you if you’re graduating from high school anytime soon. I had already been married for some years and had my first child, and people would still come to the door, I would answer it, and they would say, “Is your mother home?” When I conducted my first funerals as a young pastor, the people, as sad as they were, had the hardest time not to burst out laughing. They saw this kid come walking in. “Who’s he? Where did he come from? What is that cream-faced loon about to do?”

One story and I’m through. The servant girl in the East End of London applies to the missionary organization. The missionary organization turns her down. “You’re far too small,” they say. “You’re far too uneducated. You’re really not what we’re looking for.” She returns to her bedroom in a garret of an East London home, bemoaning the fact that her hair is so black, so straight. Why couldn’t it be blond like some of those other girls? And why couldn’t she at least have been a reasonable size? Why did she have to be so tiny?

Turning her back on the advice of the missionary organization, trusting God, she takes her belongings, her bits and pieces, and she heads on her way out and across the China Sea and arrives in one of those great Chinese ports. And when she comes up on deck and she looks out at the crowds that have gathered on the quayside, a shiver went up her back, because what did she gaze upon? All these tiny little ladies with jet-black hair. God made her tiny, gave her jet-black hair, so that she would be known for posterity: “Gladys Aylward, the little woman.” She thought that her smallness and the straightness of her hair would be a detriment to usefulness. God had fashioned her exactly in that way so that he could use her for his express purpose.

You don’t have to tell anybody how good you are at anything. Let others praise you. You don’t have to apologize for anything. God, he don’t make junk.

Have you ever considered the possibility that your sense of limitation and weakness may actually prove to be the key to your usefulness in the service of Christ?

Let us pray together.

Let’s just take a moment in silence and acknowledge before God in our hearts where we are, and maybe that this is a word particularly for some who, despite a brave face and a purposeful stride, in their heart of hearts are just wondering if they’re going to be able to make it. The Bible says that we should “cast all of our cares upon him because he cares for us.”[12] So just do that. Here, you’ll never have this night again. You’ll never have the chance to start in this way again. This is the best night. No reason to wait till tomorrow. Tomorrow morning will bring a new day, fresh opportunities. Remember, as our sister sang for us, “Everything I’ll ever need, [and] everything I long to be, the very air I breathe, is found in your love.”[13]

And so, Father, we give our lives to you afresh—all that we are and all that we hope to be. Cleanse us, fill us; use even our limitations and our weaknesses to show how mighty your strength is and how wonderful Jesus is. For it’s in his name we pray. Amen.


[1] Ephesians 6:12 (paraphrased).

[2] 2 Corinthians 10:12 (NIV 1984). Emphasis added.

[3] 2 Corinthians 10:18 (MSG).

[4] 2 Corinthians 11:17–18 (MSG).

[5] 2 Corinthians 12:7 (MSG).

[6] See Matthew 26:36–45; Mark 14:32–41; Luke 22:40–46.

[7] 2 Corinthians 12:9–10 (MSG).

[8] Adelaide A. Procter, “My God, I Thank Thee, Who Has Made” (1858). Lyrics lightly altered.

[9] 1 Corinthians 1:27 (paraphrased).

[10] 2 Corinthians 4:7 (paraphrased).

[11] John Berridge to Samuel Wilks, Everton, August 16, 1774, in The Works of the Rev. John Berridge, ed. Richard Whittingham (London: Simpkin, Marshall, and Co., 1838), 396.

[12] 1 Peter 5:7 (paraphrased).

[13] Sierra, “Your Love” (2001).

Copyright © 2020, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

Alistair Begg
Alistair Begg is Senior Pastor at Parkside Church in Cleveland, Ohio, and the Bible teacher on Truth For Life, which is heard on the radio and online around the world.