Sufficient Grace & Perfect Strength
Updated: Oct 4, 2019
"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. 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 Cor 12:7–10).
In 2 Cor 12:1–10, Paul shared with his readers a very personal story about his own spiritual journey and relationship with God. Paul started off mentioning the greatness of the divine revelations that he had received from Christ, even being taken into the "third heaven"—that is the heavenly kingdom of God—in vision.1 He rejoiced and boasted (in a healthy way) that God had blessed him with such wondrous visionary experiences. Certainly, being given such special and unique divine encounters could lead one to become egotistic or conceited, to feel superior to others. Perhaps, you or someone you know has been tempted to feel this way in your spiritual experience. To prevent this kind of unbecoming attitudes, Paul said that he was given "a thorn ... in the flesh, a messenger of Satan" that harassed him (2 Cor 12:7, ESV). Apparently, this trial was purposed to prevent his marked calling as a prophet and apostle from getting to his head. The suffering caused by the "thorn" was to produce in Paul a purified character that would manifest the qualities of humility, meekness, and dependence on Jesus in the place of pride and arrogance (Rom 5:3–4). Paul did not tell us what exactly was this "thorn" in his flesh. Bible scholars have tried to discern what it could be from comments made by Paul elsewhere about his struggles. Many different suggestions over the years have been given. The contributors of the ESV Study Bible note that the "most frequently proposed possibilities include: (1) Paul’s inner psychological struggles (such as grief over his earlier persecution of the church, or sorrow over Israel’s unbelief, or continuing temptations); (2) Paul’s opponents, who continued to persecute him (cf. Num 33:55 and Ezek 28:24, where thorns refer to Israel’s enemies); (3) some kind of physical affliction (possibly poor eyesight, malaria fever, or severe migraine headaches); or (4) some kind of demonic harassment ('a messenger of Satan')."2 However, "[m]ost commentators cautiously prefer some form of the third view."3 This is because the words "a thorn ... in the flesh" seem to be indicative of some sort of physical ailment. Based upon some comments Paul had made in other letters, this seems most likely to have been an impairment of eyesight.4 Yet, whether the "thorn" was failing sight or something else, it is vital to understand that it did not come from God. It was a "messenger of Satan" (2 Cor 12:7). Not unlike Paul's "thorn," the suffering that we experience in our lives does not come from God's hand but from the hand of the devil (recall the story of Job). As Jesus said, "'An enemy has done this'" (Matt 13:28, ESV). The archenemy of God and his people ushered this suffering into Paul's life, and he is the one fully culpable of plaguing us with suffering today. As Paul pointed out, the sadistic purpose of the devil in placing these "thorns" in our lives is to harass us (2 Cor 12:7). But God had other plans for Paul's "thorn," and wishes to turn around the suffering in our experience for good. Paul fervently prayed three times to God for the "thorn" to be removed (2 Cor 12:8), and it is certainly appropriate for us also to pray that God would banish our suffering from our lives. But God does not always answer such prayers in this way for whatever reason (whether it be because of the "rules of engagement" in the great controversy, his own mysterious plans and purposes, etc.). When God does not answer in the way we desire, it is easy to become disheartened and discouraged. But remember that God is love, he can see the beginning from the end and the end from the beginning, and his will is always good and perfect. Trust him. Something beautiful will emerge out of your suffering if you will put your faith in him. Notice God's response to Paul's earnest prayers: "'My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness'" (2 Cor 12:9, ESV). What comforting and encouraging words! These words from Christ gave Paul the courage to face his "thorn" and, radically, to be content with it and boast about it. He wrote, "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 Cor 12:9–10, ESV). Paul's "thorn" gave an opportunity for the grace and power of Christ to shine forth more fully in his life. In spite of the weakness that his suffering created, he was made strong in Christ. Paul invited Jesus to turn the devil's harassment into God's victory for him. This week, I hope that many of us can take comfort from Paul's experience. We each have our own "thorn" in the flesh (some of us may have multiple "thorns"). Maybe that's some type of physical ailment that is negatively affecting your health, or maybe you are in a relationship (dating, marriage, parent/child, familial, friendship, etc.) that is presenting you with many challenges. For others of us, finances, or the lack thereof, are crushing out our spirit. Still, others may be overwhelmed with stress and burn-out, anxiety, depression, or fear. Others of us may be wrestling spiritually with doubt, despair, lack of assurance, or unbelief. Some of us are grieving a major loss. Maybe, as did Paul, you have been praying intensely and earnestly for God to end this buffeting of Satan seemingly without any heavenly answer or divine intervention. Do not be discouraged, my friend. Rather boldly rejoice and boast in your sufferings! Your "thorn(s)" is/are not God's punishment or curse. Suffering is an opportunity for him to show himself strong on your behalf in your life for his glory. Just hold on to him, and do not let him go. Allow his grace to comfort your heart. Let his strength pick you up and carry you through the hardships you are facing. Remember, Jesus has already overcome the world, with its sin and suffering, for you (John 16:33)! When you are suffering, when you are feeling weak, when it seems you can do no more or go no farther, do not despair. Jesus is STRONG! He is much bigger than any difficulty, much stronger than any devilish messenger, including Satan himself! His grace is SUFFICIENT to see you through it all! This week, reach out to him in prayer and by faith. Take hold of his hands, and be empowered with his grace and his strength.
Notes 1 In Hebrew thinking, the space beyond the earth was understood in the categories of three different "heavens." The "first heaven" was known as the sky or expanse (sometimes called the "firmament") that circled the earth and contained the clouds. The "second heaven" was understood as that space which is beyond the earth's atmosphere and filled with the stars, other planets, comets, asteroids, meteoroids, and other space matter. The "third heaven" was viewed as being the furthest away of the three; it was the place where God and his angels dwelt, the location of God's throne from which he governed the universe. The "third heaven" is what we simply call "heaven" in modern parlance. 2 Crossway Bibles, The ESV Study Bible (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2008), 2238. 3 Ibid. 4 There are a handful of passages that suggest that Paul struggled with poor eyesight. First, it is interesting to notice that during his conversion experience on the road to Damascus, Paul (who was called "Saul" at that time) was blinded and later healed by Ananias (Acts 9:1–18). Perhaps that blinding had some permanent longterm effects on his eyesight. Second, when writing his New Testament letters, Paul most often used scribes (Rom 16:22)—presumably it was too difficult to write the letters himself—but he always signed them in his own handwriting (and sometimes wrote his own ending salutations) at the end (1 Cor 16:21; Gal 6:11; Col 4:18; Phlm 19; 2 Thess 3:17). For example, he wrote the conclusion to Galatians and pointed out that he did so with large letters (Gal 6:11). This might suggest that he could not write in smaller letters because he would not be able to read them. Third, earlier in the same epistle, Paul mentioned a "bodily ailment" of his that was a trial to them but praised them for their sacrificial spirit and willingness to gouge out their own eyes and give them to him (Gal 4:13–15). Fourth, at the council before which Paul appeared in Acts 23:1–5, Paul did not seem to be able to recognize that it was the high priest who commanded the guards to strike Paul's mouth. A final possible indication of Paul's troubled eyesight is the snake incident that happened on the island of Malta. Paul was gathering sticks to put on the fire and seems to have accidentally reached for a snake, thinking it was a stick (Acts 28:1–6).