But God

Do you ever find yourself making excuses for not pursuing what truly matters to you? Don’t miss this Sunday’s sermon as we dive into the powerful phrase “But I…But God” and learn how to overcome our self-doubt and step into the extraordinary plans God has for our lives.

A lot of times I’ll have the sense that I ought to do something or a sense of what kind of person I want to become, but then I get stopped by a single two-word phrase, “But I…”

I know how to work out and get in shape, But I… feel kind of tired.
I know it would be great to get into a small group and form deep relationships, but I… am kind of introverted.
I would love to live relaxed and confident, but I… worry.
I would love to have my finances in terrific order and to be generous, but I… spend too much.
I know I should eat kale and quinoa and tofu, but I… love butter and sugar and bacon.

“But I…” is what might be called a defeater belief.

It’s not just that it keeps me from succeeding at doing what really matters, but it will stop me from even trying. Then, I’ll never even know if I could have done it.

“But I…” — I can’t do it.

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That little phrase actually occurs in the Bible a whole bunch of times as kind of a reason or an excuse for not doing what God calls someone to do.

God says, “Moses, I want you to go to Pharaoh and tell him to let my people go.”
Moses says, “But I am slow of speech and slow of tongue.”

God goes to Gideon and says, “I want you to deliver my people from the Midianites.”
Gideon says, “But I am the least in my family.”

God goes to Jeremiah and says, “I want you to prophesy and to speak my word to my people.”
Jeremiah says, “But I don’t know how to speak. I’m only a child and too young.”

“Esther, go to the king and save Israel.”
“But I have not been called by the king for 30 days.”

“Abraham, become the father of a great nation.”
“But I am too old.”

“Peter, cast your nets on the other side of the boat and I’ll do a miraculous thing for you.”
“But I tried all night.”

Over and over we see these words, “But I, but I — but I can’t, won’t, shouldn’t…”

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It’s very interesting. God pretty much never actually disagrees with any of those statements.

He doesn’t say, “Moses, you’re a pretty good speaker,” or “Abraham, you’re not that old.”

He never disputes their inadequacy.

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Humanly, we often do. We often engage in what might be called the denial of inadequacy.

“No, no, no. You can do this. You’re amazing.”

That was actually a bit of a technique in the ancient world where Paul was writing.

We’re studying this book of 1 Corinthians, this letter Paul wrote to the church at Corinth, and Corinth was real tough on people.

It was a very competitive, startup culture. There was a lot going on there economically.

We’ve seen there were sayings like, “Only the tough survive in Corinth,” and “Not for every man is the voyage to Corinth.”

Corinth is a place of pressure. It will eat you up and spit you out.

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As it turns out, apparently the people who were part of the church in Corinth were, for the most part, people who would have ranked pretty low on the adequacy scale.

They were not people who were impressive by Corinthian standards.

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There was actually ancient advice that said to speakers or writers, if they were trying to win a following or trying to commend themselves or gain credibility with an audience, that one of the techniques you should use was to throw in some praise for your audience.

Let them know that you recognize how intelligent they are, or how influential they are, or how well born they are, or how connected or powerful they are.

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With all that as backdrop now, try to imagine how the people in that little church of Corinth felt when Paul’s letter to them is being read out loud for all of them to hear, and this is Paul’s description of them at the beginning of this letter:

Brothers and sisters, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. (1 Corinthians 1:26)

That was an odd way to address a crowd in Corinth.

Paul doesn’t start by saying, “Hey, Corinth! You’ve got it! You’ve got high IQ and high EQ, and a lot of resources, and a lot of connections, and a lot of potential. God is so excited to have you on the team now.”

Instead, Paul actually invites them to reflect on what we might call the review of personal inadequacy.

Corinth, wise? Not so much.
Influential? Not so much.
Well born? Great gene pool? Not really.

Paul is incredibly candid about this. He leads on this. He invites them to reflect on this.

Then, the implications he draws from this are even more remarkable.

He doesn’t say, “You’re not all that Corinth, so kind of lower your expectations. Don’t dream big. Don’t expect to do anything marvelous for God or influential in this world.” He doesn’t go there.

He doesn’t say, “Thank God a few of you are rich and smart, and we’ll build stuff around you.”

No. He says, “You expect great things now because God is up to something that no one could have anticipated and that no one could have done but God.”

But God chose the foolish things

Literally, the text says just the foolish. It could be also the foolish ones or the foolish people.

But God chose the foolish things to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him.

It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God—that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption. Therefore, as it is written [He’s quoting here from Jeremiah.] “Let the one who boasts boast in the Lord.” (1 Corinthians 1:27-31)

Jeremiah had said a long time earlier, “Don’t boast in your riches. Don’t boast in your strength. Don’t boast in your wisdom. Let the one who boasts boast in the Lord.”

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Now, there are two words that are the turning point of this whole passage. They were what changed everything in Paul’s life.

And they can be the turning point of your life if you want them to be.

They’re the words, “But God…”

“But I… But I… But I…”

“But God…” Paul says.

“But God is now doing in Corinth with you what God already began on the cross with Jesus.”

That is, overturning human expectations, reversing who matters and who doesn’t, elevating the lowly, changing death into life, turning guilt into innocence, taking what the world regards as abject failure and making it into glorious victory.

“But God…”

If you carry nothing else away from this message, I want you to carry those two words, “But God…”

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But God means this world does not get the last word on who you are, or what you’ll become, or what you might do.

This world may say your situation is never going to change.
This world may say that lack of education will always embarrass you.
That addiction will always enslave you.
That depression will always defeat you.
That failure will always define you.
That past will always haunt you.
That future will always frighten you.
That weakness will always suppress you.

But God says otherwise. But God begs to differ. But God…

That phrase gets used over and over and over in the Bible.

But I… But I… But I…

I know. But God… But God… But God…

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Joseph said it to his brothers who sold him into slavery for crying out loud.

Years later when he understood from a different perspective, he said to them, “You intended it to harm me, but God intended it for good.”

And it did great good.

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The psalmist said:

My flesh and my heart may fail [They will.] but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever. (Psalm 73:26)

Jesus said:

With human beings it is impossible, [Even salvation is impossible.] but with God all things are possible. (Matthew 19:26)

But God…

So stop excusing yourself, letting yourself off of the hook, whining about your own inadequacy that gets you out of God’s calling on your life. — “But I… But I… But I…” We all say it.

I know this sounds odd. I just don’t know how else to put it. —

God is bigger than your but… one T.

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Of course, you’re not smart enough.
Of course, you’re not strong enough.
Of course, you’re not good enough.

But God has chosen the foolish, the weak, the lowly, the meek, the timid, the too shy, the too loud, the not very polished, the not very accomplished, the not very connected.

So that whatever is going on in your heart, or in your job, or with your family, or with your money, or with your children, or with your health, and may look really bad, I know —

But God…

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I tell you — sin, death, pain, and hell are real, but they are not final, because the power of the cross and the resurrection has not yet finished remaking this sorry world.

But God…

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Now, Paul brings this to Corinth. But God…

The lowly, not very wise, not very influential… You think the Bay Area is tough? It has nothing on Corinth.

In Corinth it was so competitive even slaves would engage in competition with other slaves in the household to see who looked the most elite, who looked the most impressive, who looked the most accomplished or the most attractive.

But God says otherwise about every human being. There is no one too lowly.

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This goes way back to the Old Testament in the book of 1 Samuel when an unlikely character by the name of David is going to be anointed king.

God’s prophet Samuel says:

People look at the outward appearance

Corinth looks at the outward appearance. The Bay Area looks at the outward appearance.

What are your degrees?
How do you look?
How smart are you?
How attractive are you?

but God looks at the heart. (1 Samuel 16:7)

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What does God see?

What does God feel when he looks at a human being, even the most lowly, even the most uneducated, even the most inadequate?

What does God feel when he looks at any single human being on the planet? Whatever their age, whatever their color, whatever their background — what goes on in the heart of God?

Is it just the rich? Is it just the strong? Is it just the powerful?

How much does every life matter to God?

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Now, you might think, “Maybe the church at Corinth had a lot of lowly people who were pretty inadequate, but surely Paul had lots of confidence in his adequacy. He was a brilliant, educated man.”

This is where it gets even weirder in his writings.

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There were other wannabe leaders and self-proclaimed apostles who came to Corinth, and they tried to pull people away from Paul and particularly the message of the crucified Jesus and the cross — that at the center of everything is this great reversal, and self-sacrificing love, and humility, and servanthood is really greatness, turning everything upside down.

They weren’t so much into that, so they compared their ministry to Paul’s. That’s what these kind-of leaders would do.

They said they had greater vision.
They said they could work greater miracles.
They were perceived to be considerably more eloquent than Paul.
And they attracted these great financial backers — these sponsors who gave them all kinds of money.

Paul wouldn’t even go there.

So Paul is writing to the church at Corinth in part to try to win them back to this message of the lowly Jesus and the cross.

We would expect Paul, in order to persuade people to follow him and to listen to him, to list his ministry credentials and his achievements — number of souls saved, number of churches started, number of sermons preached, number of converts, number of letters written… because he’s writing the New Testament, for crying out loud.

He does none of that.

What he said to commend himself to them was the oddest thing in the history of human literature.

He said:

I have been in prison more frequently,

Who brags about that?

been flogged more severely,

Good for you, Paul! “

and been exposed to death again and again. (2 Corinthians 11:23)

Do you understand these were not sources of success or impressiveness in the ancient world? Not in Corinth.

He lists his failures, and his problems, and his rejections, and his humiliations, and his being let over the wall of a city in a basket.

Rome would honor soldiers when they were laying siege to a city. The first one to climb over the wall would get a medal.

No one is getting a medal for being humiliated and kicked out of the city and having to escape in a little basket.

It’s a celebration of personal weakness and inadequacy.

And it peaks in this.

In order to keep me from becoming conceited, I was given 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. (2 Corinthians 12:7)

But God does not.

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This is quite a remarkable statement.

Apparently, Paul has a problem with a tendency to get conceited.

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How many of you are conceited here?

No one! Virtually no one!

You’re all better than Paul. Way to go!

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Well, Paul had that problem.

It’s so bad that he’s given some painful and shameful condition that he calls a thorn in the flesh.

There have been all kinds of guesses over the centuries about what it might have been based on the things we know about Paul’s life.

It might have been a vision problem.
Some people think it might possibly have been epilepsy.
Some people guess because he had been beaten and shipwrecked through horrible trauma that it might be some form of what we now call PTSD.
Maybe Paul was one who suffered from anxiety.
We know people said he was not eloquent or impressive in person. Maybe he had a speech defect. Maybe he stuttered badly.
Maybe he had a weight problem.

Whatever it is, it’s a source of ridicule and humiliation and shame for him.

And if that’s not bad enough — that he’s conceited and he has some shameful condition — he prays and asks God to remove it, and his prayers are a failure three times.

These other apostles coming to Corinth are strong, successful, eloquent, wealthy poster boys for God and God’s life.

Paul is a train wreck — a beaten, imprisoned, whipped, tent-making, conceit prone, thorn-carrying, prayer-failing, self-confessed weakling — and you’re going to lead with that? Those are your credentials?

Why on earth would anyone ever talk that way about themselves?

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One reason, two words: But God…

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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. (2 Corinthians 12:9-10)

Who talks like this? Who thinks this way? Who views life this way?

Paul, you can’t be serious!

But he is.

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What must your view of reality in God be like for you to have the capacity to delight in weakness?

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Because he’s convinced with Jesus everyone has a source of strength outside of themselves.

Everyone has a calling, even the most lowly.
And everyone has a thorn, even the most exalted.

So the question is — Are you going to say, “But I,” or “But God”?

“But I can’t,” or “But God can.”

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The answer you choose will determine the life you lead.

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I’ve told you about how at the first church I worked at, in the first year of working there I had an ear problem that prevented me from teaching.

It’s been a long time ago now. It was when I was going to graduate school in Chicago.

I would talk and it sounded like I had a bucket on my head. I could hear myself talk. I could hear myself breathing. The slightest noise was amplified in my eardrum.

I would start to teach and the pain in my ear would be so distracting that I couldn’t concentrate.

I thought I would never teach again.

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People had a lot of advice for me. Some people would say, “Just have more faith.” “Just trust God more.”

I went to a doctor. I was hoping there would be some kind of real simple physical explanation. There was nothing they could do. It was scary.

I had found this thing that I thought I was supposed to do (teach the Bible), and I didn’t know if I was going to be able to do it.

It was a very humbling thing for me. And I prayed for a long time, “God, make this go away, heal my ear.”

And he didn’t.

And I’ll tell you the passage of Scripture that just became mine during that time.

It’s what we just read from the apostle Paul.

“There was given to me a thorn in the flesh. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. Three times God said no.”

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But then God says to Paul:

“My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”

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That was 25 years ago. 25 years ago the elders of the church prayed for me and I was healed.

I had no trouble with my ear except for one time about 15 years ago. It came back and I asked a prayer team to pray for me and again I was healed.

It hasn’t happened since.

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But to this day there will be moments when I stand up here in this room and wonder when it’s going to come back.

But I… am afraid.
But I… am weak.
But I… feel stressed.
But I… think it’s going to happen again.

After 25 years there’s enough weakness in me that I don’t know if I’m going to be healed of it indefinitely or if it’s going to come back like it did 15 years ago.

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God did not take the weakness away.
God did not take the stress away.
God did not take the fear away.
God did not take the feeling away.
God did not give me a guarantee.

But God, as of this week, has kept my hearing in tact so I can teach this Sunday.

But God…

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If we had time we could probably all line up and tell our but God stories.

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But I’ve asked Lisa if she would come and share her story. Would you help me welcome Lisa to the stage.

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Lisa Herrington

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God chooses the foolish, the weak, the lowly, the meek, the timid, the too shy, the too loud, the not very polished, the not very accomplished.

And that includes me and you.

We know this because we’re told in the Bible, “Above all else, Jesus of Nazareth was put to death by nailing him to a cross. But God raised him from the dead, freeing him from the agony of death because it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him.”

And death cannot keep its hold on you either.

But God…

What if we just keep praying and serving and dreaming and asking? What if God could move in each one of us the way he did in Lisa?

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When you pray, when you serve, when you give, when you volunteer, when you befriend someone, when you invite someone, when you love someone, when your heart gets broken and your greatest dream dies and you ask God to redeem the suffering and you trust God to give you a new dream that you cannot even imagine, you become part of the unseen spiritual hinge on which the doors of human history turn.

But God… But God… But God… And another door opens.

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This week, those are your two words. But God…

Not, “But I.” — “But God.”

Don’t you give up. Don’t stop dreaming. Don’t stop praying. Don’t give in to sin.

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Whatever hurt or heartbreak you’re facing, when you feel inadequate (and you will), when you feel unspiritual (and you will), when you’re lonely or confused or frightened, when you know you’re not smart enough or strong enough or rich enough, when you feel like a loser nobody —

But God… But God… But God…

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Let me pray for you:

Blue Oaks Church
Pleasanton, CA

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