Rapture into the Third Heaven and Paul’s Thorn in the Flesh (Part Seven)1
Feeling weak today? Good. Yes, that’s right, good!
I’m not talking about your weakness for chocolate or alcohol or your weakness for sexual lust or any such thing. The weakness I have in mind is not sin. It has nothing to do with your refusal to obey God or your propensity for jealous rage or greed or your disinclination to forgive someone who betrayed you. The apostle Paul would never boast in wickedness or gladly acquiesce to evil in any form (cf. 2 Cor. 12:9-10). Weakness should never be equated with laziness, mediocrity, or passivity. So what do I mean by weakness and how can I say it is good? I should let Paul answer those questions.
Weakness means being “so utterly burdened” beyond your strength that you despair of life itself (2 Cor. 1:8), and this for no other reason than that you chose to be faithful to the gospel of Christ. Weakness means embracing your identity as a “jar of clay” (2 Cor. 4:7) so that all power may be seen as belonging to God, not you. Weakness does not mean suffering the consequences for your dishonesty or deceit, but enduring affliction and persecution and perplexity in order that the life of Jesus might be manifest in your body (2 Cor. 4:8-11).
For Paul, weakness meant exposure to a litany of undeserved dangers (2 Cor. 11:26) and an embarrassing nocturnal escape (2 Cor. 11:32-33). Weakness was what he felt anytime the thorn launched another painful, debilitating, or humiliating assault against him. Weakness is suffering financial hardship (6:10; 1 Cor. 4:11) in the course of ministry. Weakness is feeling deep within one’s soul and body the frailty of creatureliness and one’s utter inadequacy to accomplish anything apart from the fresh and sustaining supply of power and grace.
Weakness means enduring insults without retaliation (2 Cor. 12:10) and suffering calamity without bitterness (2 Cor. 12:10). Weakness means any experience or event that requires incessant conscious dependence on the strength that God supplies. Weakness means any situation or circumstance, in the service of Christ, that is difficult to bear and is beyond your control and cannot be avoided without sinning.
That’s what I mean by weakness. But how can it be good?
Weakness is good because without it we never experience the fullness of divine power. Weakness is good because without it mercy remains a mystery. Weakness is good because it compels the soul to look beyond itself for answers and in doing so magnifies the sufficiency of divine grace. Paul put it this way:
“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).
There is nothing to suggest that Paul enjoyed the thorn or was happy about its presence. He was repelled by it and longed for deliverance. He is initially unaware of any spiritually profitable use or sanctifying power in the thorn. It was clearly something that he believed was too oppressive to bear, thus his repeated prayer for its removal.
Did God answer Paul’s prayer? Yes and No. I’m not trying to be cute with that response, but simply faithful in distinguishing between means and ends in prayer. D. A. Carson explains:
“The end that Paul wanted was relief from the thorn, and he simply assumed that the means would be the thorn’s removal. But God granted the ends by another means: he gave relief from the thorn, not by removing it, but by adding more grace, sufficient grace. The Lord promised Paul that in the distress caused by this messenger from Satan, he would always find that divine grace afforded him a sufficient supply to enable him to bear up as a Christian” (148).
When the Lord Jesus told Paul that his “power is made perfect in weakness” (v. 9) he did not mean that in its absence power was defective or deficient, but that in response to our conscious dependence upon him, when weakness welcomes God’s intervention, it is afforded a great opportunity to be seen as sufficient and sustaining. Divine power performs at its best and reaches its optimal expression in relation to our conscious confession of the inability to do anything of value apart from his gracious presence.
Also note that “grace” and “power” are here virtually synonymous. Grace is not some static principle or abstract standard that governs God’s actions. Grace is God himself energetically at work in the human heart, enabling us to do what would otherwise prove impossible.
What is more, both grace and power are “renewable endowments, not once-for-all acquisitions” (Harris, 863). This becomes evident when we take a closer look at the Greek tenses Paul employs. Barnett points out that,
“the Lord's reply is in the perfect tense: ‘He said to me – and what he said continues to hold good. . . .’ Moreover, the content of his words to Paul is in the present tense: his ‘grace’ ‘is sufficient’ (present tense) and his power ‘is being made perfect’ (present tense). The stake/thorn remains, and Paul continues to be buffeted. But the Lord’s reply stands: his grace is sufficient, his power is being made perfect in the unremoved ‘weakness’ of the stake/thorn” (573).
Thus, God’s supply is a never-ending flow, a self-replenishing river of spiritual resources to equip and uphold and sustain us in the midst of every weakness.
There are several important lessons Paul learned, and I hope we learn them as well.
First, he learned something about divine providence and how to respond to it. His reaction in v. 9, once the Lord had declined his request three times, was not one of passive resignation to an inexorable fate, but a joyful delight in the privilege of being an instrument for the manifestation of Christ's resurrection power.
Second, although Paul willingly embraced his thorn, it was only after he had passionately prayed that it be removed. “Paul is no Stoic, who sees the thorn as an opportunity for self-mastery and endurance. Nor is he a theological masochist, who glorifies suffering itself. When suffering hits, Paul prays for deliverance” (Hafemann, 464).
Clearly, he believed that physical affliction was something from which we are to pray to be delivered. At one level, the thorn was the work of Satan’s messenger and must therefore be resisted. At another level, it was used by God to sanctify the soul of Paul. Whereas pain is not inherently good (and only a perverse soul would think otherwise), it is instrumentally beneficial in the hands of a good God.
The question has been raised: “To whom did Paul pray for healing from the thorn? God the Father or God the Son?” In view of the response he receives in v. 9, clearly it is God the Son. In v. 9, the “Lord” to whom he has prayed says, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” He then identifies this power as the “power of Christ” (v. 9b). The deity of Christ is thereby clearly affirmed. Thus we see here, as elsewhere (Acts 1:24; 7:59-60; 9:10-17, 21; 22:16, 19; 1 Cor. 1:2; 16:22; Rev. 22:20), people praying directly to the Lord Jesus Christ.
Third, in “gladly” (v. 9b) acquiescing to weakness Paul does not mean that we are to seek out suffering on our own. He is not encouraging morbid, self-imposed anguish or asceticism. His affliction was God-given, for Christ's sake. Paul's joy was not in pain but in his experiential realization of the complete adequacy of God's grace in Christ to meet his every need in spite of it and to transform his weakness into an opportunity for the glory of Christ to be displayed. Listen to Tasker:
“Only a morbid fanatic can take pleasure in the sufferings he inflicts upon himself; only an insensitive fool can take pleasure in the sufferings that are the consequences of his folly; and only a convinced Christian can take pleasure in sufferings endured 'for Christ's sake,' for he alone has been initiated into the divine secret, that it is only when he is 'weak,' having thrown himself unreservedly in penitence and humility upon the never-failing mercies of God, that he is 'strong,' with a strength not his own, but belonging to the Lord of all power and might” (179).
Fourth, Paul anticipated that the power of Christ might “rest upon” him (v. 9b). This is a rendering of the verb episkenose, found only here in all of biblical Greek. Related terms are often used of God “pitching his tent” among his people (see Ex. 40:34) and of the Incarnate Christ “dwelling” among us (John 1:14; cf. Rev. 7:14; 12:12; 13:6; 21:3). Christ’s abiding and sustaining presence is experienced not so much in ecstasy as in weakness, not in moments when we feel strong but when his power has its greatest opportunity to be seen. But there is more to this word than merely the idea of God’s presence, for “when the power of Christ pitched its tent over Paul, there was not only divine empowering for life and service but also divine protection, as a tent protects its inhabitants” (Harris, 866). That’s why weakness is good!
Fifth, Paul learned that his spiritual purity was more important to God than his immediate physical pleasure. Of greater value to God than Paul's comfort was Paul's holiness. “Physical weakness,” notes Packer, “guarded him against spiritual sickness” (“Poor Health May Be the Best Remedy,” in Christianity Today, May 21, 1982, 15). If, in the divine wisdom, it was necessary to give him pain in order to protect him from pride, Paul was willing to yield to the divine purpose. If, in the wisdom of God, the best way to make Paul humble was to make him hurt, so be it.
Sixth, when Paul says, “when I am weak, then I am strong” we should see “an allusion, not to Paul’s own ability to cope with adversity by harnessing all his personal resources, but to his experience of Christ’s power, sometimes in delivering him from adversity, sometimes in granting him strength to endure hardship, but always in equipping him for effective service” (Harris, 868).
So much of what passes for contemporary Christianity speaks often of strength and triumph and victory, but not in the sense in which Paul does. For them it means avoidance of hardship and deliverance from weakness. For him it means perseverance in hardship and unyielding faith in spite of weakness. In the case of the former, we are seen as strong and smart and worthy of praise. In the case of the latter, Christ alone is center stage.
The triumphalism present in first-century Corinth and so prevalent in our own day has redefined Christianity so that it promises to the unsuspecting soul freedom from affliction, freedom from suffering, and an ever available and always victorious deliverance into some nebulous higher and undoubtedly more prosperous and pain free life. Paul, on the other hand, was “content” (v. 10) with what they would consider a curse, namely, “weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities” (v. 10b). For only then, and by means of the incessant supply of grace, was Christ magnified.
Seventh, the ultimate aim of God in orchestrating our weakness, whether by means of a messenger of Satan, annoying circumstances, or long-held dreams that come to naught, is to glorify the sufficiency of the grace and power of his Son. Cannot God magnify Christ by providing escape from suffering and triumph over trials? Yes! And each time he does we must give him thanks and praise. But as John Piper remind us,
“The deepest need that you and I have in weakness and adversity is not quick relief, but the well-grounded confidence that what is happening to us is part of the greatest purpose in the universe – the glorification of the grace and power of his Son – the grace and power that bore him to the cross and kept him there until the work of love was done. That’s what God is building into our lives. That is the meaning of weakness, insults, hardships, persecution, [and] calamity” (“Christ’s Power is Made Perfect in Weakness,” July 14, 1991, www.desiringgod.org).
It’s an old hymn with a melody few find appealing, but its words are eternally true. With it I close:
“In every condition, in sickness, in health,
In poverty’s vale, or abounding in wealth,
At home and abroad, on the land, on the sea,
As thy days may demand, shall thy strength ever be.
Fear not, I am with thee, O be not dismayed,
For I am thy God and will still give thee aid.
I’ll strengthen thee, help thee, and cause thee to stand,
Upheld by My righteous, omnipotent hand.
When through the deep waters I call thee to go,
The rivers of woe shall not overflow.
For I will be with thee, thy troubles to bless,
And sanctify to thee they deepest distress.
When through fiery trials thy pathway shall lie,
My grace, all sufficient, shall be thy supply.
The flame shall not hurt thee; I only design,
Thy dross to consume, and thy gold to refine.”