Growing in Grace
by Pete Hatton
So to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited. Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave 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 of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me.
2 Corinthians 12:8-9
What is growth in the Christian life? Too many people equate Christianity with morality, and because they do, Christians are seen as good people who get better. Growth is seen as people getting stronger and stronger, sinning less and less. This understanding of spiritual growth puts the emphasis on behavior change rather than heart change; when our behavior is the emphasis, we begin to depend more and more on our performance and live our lives as if we need Jesus and His performance less and less.
Spiritual growth is not so much growing stronger as it is growing in God’s grace, where His grace is exalted in our weakness.
We have become experts at hiding our weaknesses. We work hard to display to ourselves, and to others, that we are not weak. But if “Christ’s strength is exalted in our weakness,” then why do so many Christians give the impression to others that we aren’t weak, that we don’t still struggle with sin? Why don’t we boast of our weaknesses?
Because we don’t talk about the fact that we are all weak and still struggle with sin, the Church has become a superficial, unsafe place for weak and sinful people. At church, we perform well for others, put on a mask, and speak more of our victories than we do of our weaknesses. And because we do, people who genuinely struggle with sin are made to feel like they are sub-par Christians, who are alone in their struggles.
But have you ever wondered why God did not just instantly make us perfect when we became Christians? Why does He leave indwelling sin for us to battle until the day we die? Because we aren’t instantly made perfect, our weakness and struggle with sin is meant to glorify God and benefit His people. I want us to consider three reasons why.
First, our weakness and struggle with sin humbles us and makes us more dependent on Jesus. The picture of the Christian life is Israel wandering in the wilderness for 40 years. God redeemed Israel from slavery to Egypt, but He did not immediately lead them into the Promised Land. In Deuteronomy 8:2, we find out why: “And you shall remember the whole way that the LORD your God has led you these forty years in the wilderness that He might humble you, testing you to know what was in your heart.”
God knew what was in Israel’s heart, but Israel didn’t. Israel needed to be humbled so that they could see how they need to depend on God every step of the way. When we think we are strong, we live as if we really don’t need God’s grace, and we live as if we are better than other people. We look down upon other people’s weaknesses, and when we look down on others for their weakness, we leave them crushed in the wake of our selfish pride.
We all need to be humbled. We all need to have our eyes open to the fact that “apart from Christ we can do nothing”(John15:5) and that we must depend on Him for everything. We cannot grow in the Christian life without a growing awareness of our sin and how much we need Jesus and His grace. Growth is not the absence of sin; it is our increased understanding of God and His grace amidst our sin. The more we understand God’s grace, the more we display God’s grace to others in their weakness and sin.
Second, by humbling us, we become more understanding, patient, and compassionate towards others in their weakness. When we see ourselves rightly—as a broken, weak, messed up sinner in constant need of God’s grace—it helps us to identify with others instead of elevating ourselves above them. We better understand other people’s struggles because we understand our own; we more easily forgive others for their failures, because we know how often we fail. And yet, God keeps forgiving us.
Third, when we see how weak and sinful we really are, who Jesus is and what He has done for us becomes more amazing and precious. And isn’t that the goal of the Christian life—to fall more in love with Jesus? When we see our weakness, we have eyes to see how strong Jesus is for us. In our key passage, Paul understood that his life’s story was never meant to exalt and glorify himself. His life was meant to exalt and glorify Jesus.
The sufficiency of God’s grace for us is that Jesus takes everything that is bad about us and gives everything that is good about Himself. And because His grace is sufficient, may we all boast more in our weaknesses in order to exalt His grace.