The Spiritual Lift No One
Is Talking About
Leith Samuel is pastor of the Above Bar Church in Southampton, England, and he has been a regular speaker at Keswick since 1949. His choice article, reprinted here by the kind permission of CHRISTIANITY TODAY, is one of the best I have read in more recent years. It should be read and digested by all true believers everywhere.
What are you looking for in your Christian life? A remarkable experience of rescue that can be attributed to angelic or supernatural agency? A quick and final deliverance out of all your troubles? A miraculous healing? An amazing transformation by which you become a Christian with mighty power?
I remember vividly the first man who told me, “I must have power.” He went everywhere to have hands laid on him so that he might have power — English hands, Welsh hands, American hands. At last he was able to assure me that he had received power. I asked him what his wife thought about his new experience. He blushed. The relationship with her was not one tiny bit better.
What would you say to the following five propositions?
1. The Spirit-filled Christian often has remarkable deliverances from danger.
2. The Spirit-filled Christian can expect visions of God and of heaven and will often be in a state of ecstasy.
3. The Spirit-filled Christian is not often ill and if he is he can count on supernatural healing.
4. The Spirit-filled Christian, utterly yielded to Christ, is always a powerful personality, radiating health, energy, and vitality.
5. The Spirit-filled Christian never has a trace of fear or any visible signs of weakness.
Before you respond, let me ask another question: what are you going to be guided by? Your prejudices? Your preconceived ideas? Your wishful thinking? Images you have carved out from Sermons or recent exciting paperbacks? Or the Scriptures, God’s holy, infallible Word? Evangelical Christians must bring every claim, every idea, every bit of teaching, however exciting it may sound, however popular it has become, under the authority of Holy Scripture. So let us turn to the Bible to see what God has to say about these things.
First hear what Paul says in Second Corinthians (11:30, 12:10, NIV): “If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness. The God and Father of the Lord Jesus, who is to be praised forever, knows that I am not lying. 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.”
Then we come to Pauls’ vision and his thorn: “I must go on boasting. 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 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 that 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 surpassing 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.”
It is significant to note that the next sentence reads, “I have made a fool of myself but you drove me to it. I ought to have been commended by you, for I am not in the least inferior to the ‘super-apostles,’ even though I am nothing.” Instead of a supernatural deliverance story as in Acts 12, we read of a rather humiliating slither down the wall in a fish-basket that may have smelled bad. Paul paints himself as a comic rather than heroic figure here.
For a vision and a revelation of heaven he has to go back fourteen years to somewhere around A.D. 42 or 43. The exciting details of that vision he refuses to disclose. Just think of the popular paperback he could have made of it today!
The peril of the possibility of becoming a braggart he admits twice. Note also the sickness that handicapped him. Three times he asked to be healed of it, and three times his request was turned down.
What was the matter with him? Nothing. This is New Testament Christianity. This is the Spirit-filled living. This is the real image of the Spirit-filled man.
One of my friends, Richard Bell, was an IVCF staff worker in the West Indies for several years, greatly used by God. He got phlebitis and came home to England desperately needing rest. Then he was found to have cancer. Some of his friends prevailed on him to go to a certain place for the laying-on of hands. After twenty-four hours, he was assured in the group that he was healed. So he went to Cader Idris in West Wales and started to climb this favorite mountain of his. A hemorrhage quickly established that he was not healed. He went home to die, feeling himself an awful failure. If only he had enough faith, they had assured him, he would be healed. So he had two problems: his cancer and his guilty conscience.
After considering this passage in Second Corinthians, he ceased feeling guilty. The God who said no to Paul had said no to him. It was a case not of his lack of faith but of God’s sovereign wisdom: some he heals in answer to prayer, but to many others he gives patience so that they may endure their sickness to his glory. Many people were challenged through Richard’s Spirit-filled testimony from his death bed. And the testimony he recorded on tape in the face of death has been an enormous help to many people since his death.
A woman who was found to have a malignant melanoma in her leg ten years ago died quite recently at the age of forty-three. But she led her Jehovah’s Witness nurse to Christ in the last three months of her life. She suffered greatly but never faltered in her faith and never complained. This is the power of New Testament Christianity.
Another of my friends, knowing that he had not very long to live, said each morning, “This is another day, Lord. Take it and use it to your glory.” In his terminal illness, men and women were blessed through his prayers, through his witness, and through the courageous way in which he faced death. This is Spirit-filled living. “My grace is sufficient for you. My strength is made perfect in weakness.”
Bishop Taylor Smith, one of my heroes, when I was a student, was asked to preach at a jubilee celebration in Chicago. While he was crossing the Atlantic, he walked round on the promenade deck in the open air each day and lost his voice. He arrived in Chicago and preached in a whisper, with none of the modern electronic gadgets available for amplification. At the end of his address, someone came to him and said, “You have persuaded me that I must become a Christian.” The bishop asked, “What exactly was it that I said that brought you to this point?” The man answered, “I couldn’t hear a word you said —it was just looking at you.” To put it another way, God’s strength was made perfect in the bishop’s weakness.
Why did Paul speak about spiritual power in this way in this passage in Second Corinthians? Paul was up against four opposing viewpoints in Corinth.
1. The ritualists, who had come rushing from Jerusalem to confuse his converts, saying, “You must have this extra experience (circumcision) or you are not proper Christians.”
2. The antinomians, who said, “It doesn’t matter how you behave as long as you believe the right things.”
3. The super-supernaturalists, who claimed a hontline from heaven that put them ahead in teaching all that Paul had ever taught.
4. The wishful thinkers, who naturally preferred the exciting and extraordinary to the steady, ordinary daily discipline of Christian living.
In First Corinthians 1 and 2, Paul deals with Group 1. In First Corinthians 5 through 8, he deals with Group 2. In Second Corinthians 10 through 13, and especially the verses we have been looking at, he deals with Groups 3 and 4, the super-supernaturalists and the wishful thinkers. In each of us, there is a great yen to have this hotline from heaven and to be constantly seeing the exciting and extraordinary. But see what Paul says in First Corinthians 2:1-5. We don’t read, “I came to you with great excitement, in great power and tremendous confidence, radiating health with every step I took in Corinth.”
Holy Spirit power is not divine power that replaces the natural weakness of the human personality. Holy Spirit power was promised by the Risen Lord in Luke 24:49 and in Acts 1:8 for the specific purpose of bearing witness to the Risen Lord, not in order to give some Christians a “deeper experience’ than others. And the promise Luke records is of power to cover as “clothing” the men whom Christ had called to his service, not of a completely new personality under the old skin, a personality that knows no frailty in a body that knows no weakness.
The promise of spiritual power is circumscribed, i.e., limited to certain situations, occasions, and purposes. It is not power promised for power’s sake, or power for our sake. It is not influence promised for the sake of influence. It is not power to bolster up our image or our ego. It is not power so that we can dominate other people’s lives or manipulate and control their thinking, their emotions, or their wills. It is not our power in place of our weakness. It is God’s power manifest in our weakness. It is God’s power using our human weakness as a platform on which it can be seen to be God’s power; God’s power using our frail storm lamps as a holder from which to shine into the hearts of men; God’s power as a tent surrounding us, supporting the framework of the weakness of our human nature. The weakness remains — the power transcends it.
Why do we need the Holy Spirit’s power? We need it because God’s power flows along God’s pylons. The power flows in the direction of the fulfillment of his purposes. The power of Christ is spiritual power, enabling strength given for his moment to his servant for his task; strength to bear witness to him effectively, to draw attention to someone other than ourselves. “Witnesses to me” means exactly what it says. (See Second Corinthians 4:6, 7; First Corinthians 2:1-5.) We need that Spirit’s power —