Feeling Inadequate (2 Corinthians)

I heard recently about a 5-year-old little boy by the name of Nick who came home after spending two weeks at Pre-K and proudly announced to his grandmother that he was the smartest kid in the class.  His grandmother, of course, was very proud of Nick and asked him if that was what his teacher said.  Nick said, “No ma’am. I had to tell her.”

            I suspect we’ve all known a few people like that who make sure they let you know that they are somebody special.  And so, we understand the need for Paul’s admonition in Romans 12:3 where he said, “For I say…to everyone who is among you, not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think.” 

            But I would have to say that, over the years, I’ve known very few Christians who thought too highly of themselves.  There have been a few, but not many.

            But I’ve known many Christians who thought too little of themselves.  People who are very much like Gideon in the Old Testament.  When God came to Gideon and called him to lead the Israelites into battle against their enemy, Gideon’s response was, “How can I save Israel? Behold, my clan is the weakest in Manasseh, and I am the least in my father’s house.” (Judges 6:15). 

            “Sorry, God, but you’ve got the wrong guy.  I’m a nobody.  I’ve always been a nobody.  And I can’t do it.  You need to find somebody more qualified.”

            And I think we can all relate to that because we’ve all had those moments in our lives when we wonder, “Am I good enough?”   And the answer we almost always come up with is, “No, I’m not good enough.”  We feel like nothing we ever do is “enough”.  We beat ourselves up over past mistakes.  We feel like we’re not as “good” as other people are.  We may even feel guilty because we don’t think we deserve all the good things that God has blessed us with.

            Madison Somnier has written, “On an almost daily basis, I meticulously look for evidence that I am a nobody, that I don’t deserve to be loved, or that I’m not living up to my full potential.”

            And it’s amazing to me how quickly we can feel incredibly inadequate.  Maybe you’re sitting in a work meeting and you feel insignificant and out of place as you listen to other people make seemingly smarter comments than you can think of. 

            Or maybe it’s comparing yourself with someone that’s financially successful, and you think, “What’s wrong with me?  Why do they have this and I don’t?” 

            Or maybe you’re a student and you study as hard as you can and make B’s and C’s, and your best friend doesn’t even crack a book and makes straight A’s.  And you think, “What’s wrong with me?  Why am I having so much trouble?”

            Or maybe you’ve even felt spiritually inadequate at times.  You’re a Christian, but there’s somebody else in the church who just seems to be a “super Christian.”  You know what I mean.  You’ll make a comment and they go, “Oh yeah, that reminds me of 2 Chronicles 12:14, and then they quote the verse.  And you’re thinking, “How do they do that?  I didn’t even know that was a book in the Bible.”

            Or they pray and their prayers are so good, you just know God’s up in heaven going, “Wow, that was a really good prayer.”  And then they ask you to pray and you’re embarrassed to admit, “I don’t even know how to pray.”  You just feel so inadequate as a Christian.

            And if you feel that way, I completely understand.  I don’t think I’ve ever felt more inadequate than when our first child, Charity, was born.  And here I am with this baby that I’m now responsible for.  And I’m thinking, “I can’t even keep the plants in the house alive, and now I’ve got to raise this child.”

            And then you add what I do for a living.  I don’t think you realize how inadequate I feel as a preacher.  There’s not a week that goes by that I don’t feel like I’m not good enough.  I fail in so many things that I need to be doing.  And I’m overwhelmed with these feelings of inadequacy.  Every week, I find myself praying, “God, I feel like I’ve let you down once again, but please take what I’ve got and use it in some way to accomplish your purpose.”

            So why is it that so many of us struggle with these feelings of inadequacy? 

            This morning, in our study through the New Testament, we come to the book of 2 Corinthians, and this is the perfect place for us to talk about our feelings of inadequacy.  Because, over and over in this letter, Paul talks about how inadequate he feels, how weak he feels, how incapable he feels.

            He says in chapter 11, “Who is weak, and I am not weak?…If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness.” (2 Corinthians 11:29-30)

            In chapter 12, he says, “I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me.  For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities.” (2 Corinthians 12:9-10)

            Let’s take a look at this overview of 2 Corinthians, and then I’ll be back to talk some more about our own feelings of inadequacy and find out how Paul was able to deal with that in his life.

            Show VIDEO (2 Corinthians)

            Let me start by asking a question – Those of us who feel inadequate, why do we feel that way?  And I think there are at least three reasons. 

A.        First of all, our feelings of inadequacy may be the result of some unfair criticism. 

            We think of the apostle Paul as sort of a super-apostle, so it’s hard for us to imagine that anybody would put him down and criticize him, but listen to what Paul said in chapter 10, “For they say, ‘His letters are weighty and strong, but his bodily presence is weak, and his speech of no account.’” (2 Corinthians 10:10). The NIV translates this verse, “In person he is unimpressive and his speaking amounts to nothing.”  Let’s be honest, that kind of criticism is enough to make anybody feel inadequate.

            But we’ve all experienced the same thing.  Somewhere along the line, someone may have said to you, “You’re no good.”  “You don’t have what it takes.”  “You’re pathetic.”  “You’ll never amount to anything.”  “I wish you were more like your brother, or more like your sister.” 

            And internally, those messages have been burned onto the hard drive of our self-identity.  And anytime we try to do something significant, we hear those old messages replaying and they tap into our inner self that says, “I’m not adequate.  I’m not capable of doing this.”

B.     A second reason we feel inadequate – and this may surprise you – it could be the result of some unrealistic compliments

            People may say to you, “You’re the best.”  “You’re amazing.”  “No one’s as good as you are.”  And inside you’re thinking, “You don’t know me.  I’m not that good.  I’m not that amazing.”  And I believe that we have done a real disservice to our younger generation by telling them “you’re good at everything.”

            You know, back in the day when I was growing up, you actually had to be good at something to win an award.  Anybody here remember those days?  You had to win to get a trophy.  Now, you just have to show up.  “Here’s your trophy, kid.  You were great.”

            And back in our day, we used to have to finish 12 grades before we could graduate.  Now kids graduate from kindergarten.  “Way to go, you got through kindergarten.”  And so, people tell us over and over, “You’re amazing, you’re the best.” 

            And now, as a result, we have a whole generation that’s paralyzed with the fear of failure.  We end up thinking, “I don’t even want to try because if I try, I may not succeed, and that will disappoint you because you think I’m way up here, but I’m not.  I can never measure up to what you think about me, and so I feel incredibly inadequate.”

C.     A third reason we feel inadequate, and I think this is the biggest problem of all – we compare ourselves to everybody else. 

            We look around at other people and say, “You know, I don’t measure up to any of those people.  I’m not as attractive as she is.”  Or “I’m not as intelligent as he is.”  Or, “I’m not as talented as they are.”

            Mass media has made things so much more difficult for us.  Because whenever you turn on your television set, or you read a magazine, you are introduced to the “important” people of the world — the super­stars, the celebrities. 

            Somehow all these people seem to be so much different from the rest of us.  They’re “special”.  And if we live by the standards of our culture that tells us who is special, we’re all going to be frustrated.  Because, by comparison, our normal routine seems so dull and uneventful.  And if we hang our self-worth on how we compare to the beauty or the talent or the wealth that we see on TV, we are doomed to a life of feeling inadequate. 

            And I believe social media is one of the greatest causes of our feelings of inadequacy.  Because, you get on Facebook and you upload your picture of your tuna casserole that you had for dinner, and then you look at your friend’s picture where he’s eating this beautiful lobster dinner while he’s sitting on the beach in Hawaii (or Puerto Rico).  And you’re thinking, “Man, I don’t have much of a life.  And, to make it worse, I’ve only got 172 friends on Facebook and he’s got 912 friends.”

            I think what Steven Furtick said is true.  He said, “We compare others’ highlight reels with our behind the scenes.”  In other words, we get on Facebook or Instagram and we get to see the highlight reels, the very best moments of everybody else’s life and then we compare that with what it’s like behind the scenes of our own life. 

            We see everybody else with their kids, and their kids look perfect.  And we know we just yelled at our kids, and their socks don’t even match.  We see others worshiping in church and they seem to have it all together, and inside we’ve got all these doubts.  Everyone else looks all beautiful and put together, and there are so many things we don’t like about our own appearance.  We feel very inadequate, because we’re comparing what we see behind the scenes in our own lives with everybody else’s highlight reels.  And that causes us to experience these feelings of inadequacy.

            And I think that’s part of what’s going on here in 2 Corinthians.  It’s not so much that Paul is comparing himself with other preachers, but everyone else was comparing them.

            You see, there was this group of preachers who came to Corinth after Paul left.  These teachers began spreading rumors about Paul.  They said that he wasn’t a legitimate apostle because he wasn’t one of the original twelve, like Peter, James or John.  It even appears that they may have been accusing Paul of lying about his vision of Jesus on the road to Damascus.

            They were trying to convince the Corinthians that if someone was a true apostle, then they would look the part.  They would have fancy letters after their names, that showed they were graduates of the Jerusalem School of Preaching.  They would wow the crowds with brilliant sermons.  They would drive fancy cars, and have big church buildings, and the perfect family.  And Paul didn’t have any of that stuff.

            Imagine how Paul must have felt when he heard that the people he had invested so much time in were now turning on him. He was the one who planted the church in Corinth.  He was the one who first taught them about Jesus Christ, and now they’re questioning whether he’s even qualified to be a preacher.

            And so, throughout the letter of 2 Corinthians, Paul gets a bit defensive.  He basically says, “You know what?  You’re right, I am a loser.  I don’t have any fancy credentials from Jerusalem. In fact, they ran me out of Jerusalem.  I don’t have a fancy car, or a big church.  The truth is, most places I go, I get beaten, thrown in prison, or left for dead.”

            He says, “I am afflicted.  I am perplexed.  I am persecuted. I am struck down.  I’m not like all those other flashy, fancy preachers.”

            But here’s the thing…

            Paul says he’s afflicted…but not crushed.  He’s perplexed…but not driven to despair.  He’s persecuted…but not forsaken.  He’s struck down…but not destroyed.

            Because here’s the key.  2 Corinthians 4:7, “We have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us.”

            Paul doesn’t say, “Look at me. My life is perfect. I have it all together.  Look at what a great job I’m doing, you need to listen to me.”

            Rather, he says, “I am afflicted, I am perplexed, I am persecuted, I am struck down.  My relationship with God, and my calling into ministry has not kept me from pain and suffering.  But what it has done is it has given me the strength to not let these things define me or defeat me.”

            And he goes on to explain why.  In verse 10 he says, “We always carry around the death of Jesus in our bodies so that the life of Jesus is also shown in our bodies.” (2 Corinthians 4:10, GW).  You see, salvation doesn’t mean being delivered from all the pain and suffering in this world and enjoying a perfect and carefree life.

            Salvation means being given the power to walk through the pain and the suffering we experience with hope and with integrity.  Because that’s what Jesus did and it’s what Jesus modeled for us.

            And, when you stop to think about it, who is more likely to shine the light of Jesus to the world?  Is it the perfect people, with problem-free lives, walking around with a perpetual smile of trouble-free living? I don’t think so.

            I think the place where people can see the light of Jesus shining the brightest is when they see honest Christians, dealing with real-life problems, and not getting beaten down by them.

            The question Paul raises in 2 Corinthians 2:16 is this — “Who is sufficient for these things?” Or, as the New Living Translation puts it, “Who is adequate for such a task as this?”  Which of us is capable?  Who is good enough?

            And the only answer that Paul could give and the only answer that I can give is that none of us is.  No one is adequate.  No one is good enough.  You and I don’t have what it takes.  But the good news is, God does.  And his Spirit dwells in you and in me and in the hearts of every person who acknowledges his Son, Jesus Christ.  God is enough.  He is our adequacy.

            2 Corinthians chapter 4 begins and ends with the same phrase.  In verse 1, Paul begins by saying, “We do not lose heart”, and then he finishes in verse 16 by saying again, “So we do not lose heart”.

            I think it’s important for us to hear that, because we’re living in a time when it’s easy to lose heart, it’s easy to get discouraged.  There are so many people who are hurting right now.  Some who are hurting spiritually because for the past year this virus has kept them from connecting with other Christians like they used to.   There are others who are hurting because of the issues in society between race, police and politicians that are so inflammatory that it’s affecting their relationship with others.  There are others who are hurting emotionally because of issues with their family.  God sees all the hurt that we’re going through and he says to us, “don’t lose heart.”

            Paul knew what it was like to be burdened with the weight of problems in his life.   Again, in verse 8, he says, ““I am afflicted.  I am perplexed.  I am persecuted. I am struck down.”  Was Paul going through a difficult time?   Absolutely.   But giving up wasn’t the option.   Running away from God wasn’t the answer.   Paul saw that even in the midst of his trials, God was still taking care of hm. 

            And even though sharing the message of the gospel would end up costing him his life, he felt it was worth it, just to have the privilege to carry God’s treasure.  “We have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us.”

            Paul was honest enough to recognize that the value of what he was doing as a preacher was in the message he shared with others, not in him.  He said, “I’m just a jar of clay.”  Clay jars were nothing special in the first century.  They were everyday common items that had virtually no value.

            It would be like us saying today that we have a treasure in a cardboard box.  Thanks to Amazon, Sueanne and I are able to send presents to family and friends around the country on special occasions.  And almost every single time we send a package, it arrives on their doorstep in a cardboard box.  But we have never gotten one single call from someone who said, “Your package arrived today and I just love the box it came in.  It’s beautiful!” 

            No!  The box gets discarded almost immediately because it has virtually no value.  The only value of that box is the fact that it contains a treasure inside.

            Paul says, “You and me, we’re nothing special.  We’re just the cardboard box that the gospel message comes in.”  We aren’t worth much of anything, but we hold a treasure – the message about Jesus Christ who came to this earth, lived, died and rose again, so that we might an opportunity to spend an eternity with God.

            I like how someone has put it — “I am nothing, but Jesus uses me anyway.” 

            Now, I realize that what I’m telling you this morning goes against just about all of the advice that you will get out there in the world.   And I know that’s true, because I looked at a lot of web sites this past week that give an answer to the question, “What do I do if I feel like I’m not good enough?”  And almost every single one of them gave the same answer.  In some form or another, they all basically said, “You need to wake up in the morning and tell yourself that you are good enough.” 

            But there’s only one problem with that, and that is that I can say those words all day long, but deep inside I know it’s not true.  I know me.  I know my shortcomings.  I know my faults.  I know them better than anyone else, and I know that I may be good enough if I compare myself to the right people, but when it comes to God, I’m not good enough, and I never will be, no matter how many times I tell myself that I am.

            But the beauty of the gospel is that God says, “You think you’re not good enough?  I agree.  You’re not.  But that’s OK.  You don’t have to be good enough.  I love you anyway.  I love you just the way you are.  And there’s nothing you could do that would make me love you more than I do right now.  And there’s nothing you could do that would make me love you less than I do right now.  You don’t have to earn my love, you don’t have to prove yourself worthy of my love.  I love you more than life itself.”

            And that kind of love and grace led the apostle Paul to take a different view of his weaknesses.  In 2 Corinthians chapter 12, Paul talks about what he calls a “thorn in the flesh”.  Over the centuries, there has been a lot of speculation about what that thorn in the flesh was.  Some people think he was referring to all of his hardship and persecutions.  Others think he was talking about some physical ailment.  I think we can rule one thing out.  Paul wasn’t married, so he wasn’t talking about his wife.

            But whatever this thorn in the flesh was, Paul prayed three times for God to remove it, and three times God said no.  But, then in verse 9, God said to Paul, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”  Which then led Paul to say, “Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me.  For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” (2 Corinthians 12:9-10).

            You see, for Paul, the key to dealing with his feelings of inadequacy wasn’t to tell himself that he was good enough, he was strong enough, he could handle any situation.  For Paul, the key was acknowledging the truth, that he wasn’t good enough, he wasn’t strong enough, and he couldn’t handle every situation.  But God is good enough, he is strong enough, and he can handle any situation we face.  And the good news of the gospel is that God has promised to be with us.

            But here’s the irony of this situation – We have to reach the point where we feel inadequate before God can show us that his grace is enough.  For when I am weak, then I am strong.”

            And I believe that the world is touched when they see flawed people who live in the confidence of God’s grace.  The world pays attention when they see people in pain who are leaning into and leaning upon a God they don’t see, but fully believe is walking with them.  And the world will respond when they see people who see themselves as humble jars of clay, but speak a message that is the greatest treasure anyone could ever have. 

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