Text: 2 Cor. 12:7-10
9 And He has said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness.” Most gladly, therefore, I will rather boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. 10 Therefore I am well content with weaknesses, with insults, with distresses, with persecutions, with difficulties, for Christ’s sake; for when I am weak, then I am strong.
A man woke up one morning to find a puddle of water in the middle of his king-size water bed. Immediately, he started searching for the leak, so he could fix it. If he could just find the hole, he would be able to patch it up, and everything would be as good as new. So he decided to roll the heavy mattress outside, and filled it with even more water, thinking this would make it easier to find the leak. What he discovered, however, is that an enormous bag of water is nearly impossible to control. He tried his best to hold on, but it slipped through his hands, and began tumbling downhill, all the way to the bushes at the edge of the yard, where sharp branches poked it full of holes. Water was shooting in all directions.
Frustrated, he threw out the water bed (the mattress, the frame, everything…). He replaced it with a standard box spring and mattress. He was so exhausted, by the ordeal, it didn’t take long to drift off to sleep that night. But the next morning, when he awoke, he was surprised to find a puddle of water in the middle of his new bed. It turns out the upstairs bathroom had a leaky drain. (Reader’s Digest, March, 1993, p. 123.)
Sometimes we feel like the man in the story. We just can’t seem to catch a break. As soon as you make it through one problem, there is another waiting around the corner. That’s because trials and tribulations are a part of life. It doesn’t matter who you are, no one is exempt. All of us face adversity at one time or another. All of us encounter a variety of troubles. All of us go through struggles that are too big for us to handle on our own. We might wish it wasn’t the case, but it is. I’m not trying to be pessimistic when I say this, but our experience shows us that it is true.
Maybe you’ve had the idea that once a person becomes a Christian, our lives should be easy from here on out… that the Lord will remove every affliction, and it will be smooth sailing for the rest of our journey. I’m sorry to say that it doesn’t work that way. You can read the entire Bible, from cover to cover, but you won’t find a single verse where the Lord promises to make our lives easy. BUT HE DOES PROMISE to walk beside us throughout the course of our lives, to be our support through every difficulty that we face. And when it feels like we can’t go on, he promises that his grace will be sufficient to carry us through.
We see that in our passage this morning. In 2 Corinthians 12:7-10, the apostle Paul opens up and shares a personal experience from his own life when he was going through a struggle so intense and painful he didn’t know how he was going to be able to keep going. The Lord used that experience to teach him a powerful lesson.
It’s interesting how these are the moments God uses (perhaps more than any other) to draw us closer in our walk with him. He doesn’t waste a thing; even the trials that we go through can be transformed in the hands of God. There are situations where we find ourselves wondering “how could anything good ever come from this?” Satan is trying to beat us up, and discourage us, but the Lord is using those moments to teach us something new about His grace.
First of all, trials teach us about humility. (v.7)
In verse 7, the apostle writes, “Because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, for this reason, to keep me from exalting myself, there was given me a thorn in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me – to keep me from exalting myself!”
Earlier in the chapter, Paul mentioned some of the extraordinary things the Lord had accomplished in his life. He wasn’t bragging, or trying to draw attention to himself, but there were some people who were questioning his authority as an apostle, and so he was basically saying, “Look, here is my resume.” Not only had he traveled the Roman Empire planting churches, and leading thousands of people to Christ, but the risen Lord had actually appeared to him in person. There are a number of passages in the NT where we are told Christ spoke to Paul through a vision (Acts 9:12; 16:9-10; 18:9-10; 22:17–21; 23:11; 27:23-24; 2 Cor. 12:1-5; Galatians 1:11–12 Galatians 2:2; Ephesians 3:3). He talks about being caught up into heaven, on one occasion, where he witnessed incredible things that words cannot describe. Only a handful of people, in the history of the world, had experienced anything like this. And the Lord revealed things to the apostle about his plans and purposes. Most pastors and missionaries go to seminary to receive their training. But there is a verse where Paul tells us that he learned the gospel not through other men, but directly from the Lord.
Some people might have started patting themselves on the back. “I’m a pretty special guy! Look at all of the things I’ve done.” It doesn’t take much for our ego to inflate and we strut around like we are hot stuff, overcome with conceit. But Paul wasn’t like that. The Lord kept him humble. Adversity prevented him from becoming proud. He talks about a particularly difficult affliction that he calls “a thorn in the flesh.” Whatever it was, it caused him a great deal of agony. Throughout church history, commentators have speculated about what this thorn might have been.
It could have been a person who opposed his ministry, following him from town to town, hounding him wherever he went, someone blinded and controlled by the devil to interfere with the preaching of the gospel. Have you ever met someone who acts as if their life ambition is to make life as miserable as possible for you? There are people like that. They can be frustrating. Maybe this was Paul’s thorn in the flesh.
Or it could have been some kind of physical condition. Perhaps he suffered from eye trouble. He was blinded by a heavenly light, on the road to Damascus, and may have had ongoing problems that affected his vision. In his letter to the Galatians, he talks about their affection for him saying, they would have given him their own eyes if they could have (Gal. 4:15), and he mentions the large letters he used in writing the letter, which would have described the handwriting of someone going blind (Gal. 6:11). The thought of losing his sight would be difficult enough, but it would have been especially challenging for someone who devoted his life to traveling the world, studying the Scriptures, and preaching the gospel. I have a friend who suffered from tongue cancer a number of years ago. They had to remove part of his tongue, and before the surgery told him that he might never preach again. That was a heartbreaking thought, to be confronted with the possibility of never being able to tell others the gospel, or help others grow in their faith, at least not the same way he had spent his life doing. After they did the surgery, he healed well, the doctors told him he had been gifted with a large tongue, and he was able to continue in the ministry. But it may have been something like this, a chronic eye condition, might have been the thorn in the flesh that caused sorrow and pain to the apostle.
Others have suggested it could have been a recurring fever that afflicted him. One commentator talks about “…a certain virulent malarial fever [that] haunted the coasts of the eastern Mediterranean. The people of the country, when they wished to harm their enemies, prayed to their gods that the enemies should be ‘burnt up’ with this fever. One who has suffered from it describes the headache that accompanies it as being like ‘a red-hot bar thrust through the forehead.’” (Barclay, W. The Letters to the Corinthians 3rd ed., p. 306. 2002). Maybe you have experienced some kind of ongoing physical ailment that had a way of keeping you down. Something like this could have been Paul’s thorn in the flesh.
We could spend all day speculating on what his thorn might have been, but it really it doesn’t make any difference in how we understand these verses. He leaves it vague so that all of us can relate. As much as he had wished to be free of it, he came to recognize at least one positive result of having to suffer through. It taught him humility.
It is difficult to be conceited, when we are constantly reminded of own weakness. And that’s a good thing, because pride can be such a destructive force in our lives. It causes us to forget how lost we would be without the Lord, making us think we don’t need him. It keeps us from giving glory to God, deluding us into thinking that we deserve the glory. It hinders us from serving Christ, filling us with the desire only to serve ourselves.
Over and over again, Scripture warns us of the dangers of pride. The Proverbs tell us, “When pride comes, then comes dishonor, But with the humble is wisdom.” (Proverbs 11:2) Think about team rated number 1 in country, go through the first couple of games winning easily, sports column says they are clearly the favorite to win it all, headline reads “unstoppable,” there is a swagger in their step, we’re the best, they start to believe all the hype, they go into a game they should win, no one expects it to be a challenge, but they get beat because they didn’t take it seriously, thought too highly of themselves. In order for us to be useful instruments in the hands of God, we need to be humble. If adversity can keep us from exalting ourselves, then it can be a blessing in disguise. At least, that’s the way the apostle Paul came to view it.
The trials we face also teach us about prayer. (v.8)
In verse 8, the apostle continues: “Concerning this, I implored the Lord three times that it might leave me.” Paul responded to this affliction by pouring out his heart to the Lord in prayer. It wasn’t a casual request: “Lord, if you have time today, and wouldn’t mind, maybe you could do something in this situation…” No. This was an urgent plea for help. “Lord, I need you! You know the suffering that I’m going through. I know you are present, and you surround me. Please help!”
Some people think that we shouldn’t pray about specific things, because God already knows our needs. But it doesn’t bother the Lord at all when we lay our needs before Him. He invites us to bring our struggles, and our heartache, and our worries, and our fear, crying out for mercy before the throne of grace.
Imagine of a child is playing at the park, and trips and falls. She scratches up her knees pretty good, and is bleeding a little. So she goes running towards his father crying “Daddy, I fell, and it hurts!” Think about how that father will respond. He’s not going to fold his arms and say, “You don’t have to tell me, I already know. I was standing right here and saw the whole thing, I imagine it does hurt pretty bad, that’s what happens when we fall.” No, what kind of father would he be. He wants her to come to him when she is hurting, and encourages her to talk to him about whatever is troubling her. He’s going to hold her, and listen, and wrap his arms around her, and hear her cry, and whisper “it will be okay. I’m here.”
That’s what prayer is like. Our Father is listening to cry, holding us, whispering “It will be okay, I’m here for you.”
Paul was persistent in his prayer. He tells us that he beseeched the Lord three times to remove his affliction. He wasn’t setting some kind of limit, like you should only pray three times about something and then don’t bring it up anymore. There is no limit. He is telling us that kept praying, waiting on the Lord, until he received an answer. We need to be persistent in our prayers, as well. Don’t give up. Scripture tells us to “pray continually” (1 Thess. 5:17), and that we “should always pray and not lose heart” (Luke 18:1). If you’ve been praying about something, for a long time, you may start to wonder if your prayer is having any effect. The devil wants to sow doubts in our mind, getting us to believe a lie, that God doesn’t care, or that he’s too busy. But Scripture tells us that God always hears us, and he will respond according to His time.
I’ve heard people talk about prayer and say, “I’ve tried that, it didn’t work.” I wonder what they mean, “it didn’t work.” I guess if your expectation is that God will immediately answer by doing exactly what you want, then you will probably be disappointed. But prayer isn’t about trying to cajole God into doing our bidding. Prayer is about lifting the concerns of our heart before the Almighty and seeking His will. God doesn’t always answer our prayers the way we expect. He answers them according to his wisdom. He knows what is ultimately for our good, and what he wants to accomplish in our lives. From where we are standing, his plan doesn’t always make sense to us. But he sees the whole picture, the end from the beginning. Our will is usually for the Lord to take away the affliction, whatever it might be. “Lord, cure me of this disease.” “Lord, don’t let me be one who gets laid off at work.” “Lord, heal this relationship.” From our perspective, that would seem to be the best possible outcome. But God sees what he wants to accomplish in us. Maybe this painful ordeal is preparing us for ministry down the road, to encourage others, or to witness to the people around us as we continue to follow Him despite the adversity we’re going through. We have no idea how God wants to use our circumstances for His glory, so we have pray with the attitude that says “not my will, but your will be done.” The apostle Paul eager to see God’s will accomplished in his life, even if that meant the Lord answered his prayer differently than the way he asked. In the apostle’s case, the Lord verbally responded and making his will known. That probably won’t be the case in our lives. We probably won’t hear a voice from heaven, announcing his plan for us. But he reveals himself in other ways. We have the Holy Spirit guiding us. And we need to be patient, and wait upon the Lord.
Psalm 40:1–2 tells us “I waited patiently for the Lord; And He inclined to me and heard my cry. He brought me up out of the pit of destruction, out of the miry clay, And He set my feet upon a rock making my footsteps firm.”
Psalm 116:1–4 says “I love the Lord, for he heard my voice; he heard my cry for mercy. 2 Because he turned his ear to me, I will call on him as long as I live. 3 The cords of death entangled me, the anguish of the grave came upon me; I was overcome by trouble and sorrow. 4 Then I called on the name of the Lord: “O Lord, save me!”
The trials we face teach us about strength. (v.9-10)
Specifically, we learn to rely on the Lord so that we might find the strength we need to overcome. In verses 9-10 the apostle Paul tells us how the Lord responded to his prayer, and what he learned through that experience.
And He has said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness.” Most gladly, therefore, I will rather boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. 10 Therefore I am well content with weaknesses, with insults, with distresses, with persecutions, with difficulties, for Christ’s sake; for when I am weak, then I am strong.
The Lord responded to his prayer, not by taking away his affliction, or removing him from the situation that was causing his pain, but by revealing his power. He told the apostle, “My grace is sufficient.” Essentially, he was telling the Paul “look to me, and I will carry you through. I will be your support. I will surround you with my presence. I will keep you from falling.”
Christ went on to tell him, “power is perfected in weakness.” That almost sounds like a contradiction. I don’t feel very powerful when I’m having a rough day, or when I’m exhausted, or when the world is beating me down, or when I’m heartbroken and overwhelmed. I feel drained, like I have nothing left, like I’m empty. But that’s the point. Before I can be filled with the power of Christ, I have to first be emptied of myself. I have to be emptied of my self-reliance, and self-sufficiency… my desire to do it on my own, in my own strength. Only when I’ve reached the end of myself can the Lord fill me with His strength.
Imagine that you have a larger pitcher in your kitchen, and you want to fill it with water. Maybe you’re going to make lemonade. But as you pull it out of the cupboard, you notice that its filled with all kinds of stuff. There is plastic silverware, a few plastic cups, and a package of straws someone stuffed in there. Before you are able to pour something useful into it, you have to empty of it of all that other stuff. Before we can be filled with the power of Christ, we have to be emptied of our own self-sufficiency.
From that moment on, the apostle Paul came to look at his struggles differently. Insults, persecutions, afflictions… those were opportunities for Christ to shine in his life. One commentator writes, “God answered that prayer as he answers so many prayers—he did not take the thing away but gave Paul strength to bear it. That is how God often works. He does not spare us things, but makes us able to conquer them.” (Barclay, W. The Letters to the Corinthians 3rd ed., p. 306-307. 2002)
If we think that we’re going to be able to overcome our trials by reaching deep within ourselves, finding some inner strength that’s locked away inside, we’re going to be disappointed. We’re not strong enough, at least, not on our own. It’s by depending on Christ, and his strength, moment by moment, that we find the power we need. No matter how difficult, or overwhelming our circumstances might be, God will always supplies what need to keep going.
In Philippians 4:13 (NASB95) we are reminded, “I can do all things through Him who strengthens me.” It doesn’t say some things… or most things… but all things though Christ who gives us strength. And so whatever it is that you might be facing this morning, don’t give up, look to the Lord, and allow Him to fill you with his power.
Imagine a man who feels like his world is falling apart. He has just received the worst possible news he can imagine. He has a life threatening disease, and the treatments ahead will not be easy.
At first, questions leap into his mind, and he wonders: “why is this happening?” “What purpose could the Lord possibly have in allowing me to go through these circumstances?” Then, he starts to consider that maybe, in the midst of this ordeal, the Lord is working. He feels the enemy trying to beat him down, and break his will. But he also feels Christ drawing him closer, and holding him close.
The affliction leaves him weak, and helpless in many ways. He has to rely on others, a lot more than he is used to. It teaches him humility. At first, he doesn’t like that feeling so much, but then he comes to terms with it, and realizes it’s okay. There is no shame in admitted our need for others, and our need for God. His humble spirit allows him to shine the spotlight on the Lord. When people ask how he can keep going, he gives his Savior all the glory.
He spends much time in prayer. Sometimes he sits in silence, and sometimes he cries out with passionate words, calling on the Lord. He time with the Lord is deeper than it has ever been. He feels like he can talk to the Lord about anything, and knows that the Lord is right there, listening. He doesn’t usually receive an immediate answer, but that’s okay. Prayer reminds him that he’s not alone, and helps him to yield to the Lord’s will in all things. He prays, “Father, I don’t what purpose you might have in this, but it’s okay, I trust you. Use me in whatever way you desire.
And in the moments when it feels like he can’t go on (and there are many) he discovers strength in the Lord. God is always there supplying what he needs, lifting his spirit, giving him peace, overcoming despair, filling him with hope. He learns to rely on the Lord in everything. The more his circumstances seem to empty him, the more the Lord fills him with true strength.
The Lord doesn’t take away his affliction, but his grace is sufficient to endure. The same is true in our lives. Look to the Lord. Trust in Him. Let him minister to you in whatever you’re going through. Don’t give up. Call out to Him, and he will answer.