Looking at the preceding chapters, it’s apparent that the Corinthians think Paul is weak and unimpressive compared to some other teachers they’ve heard, and they’re tempted to abandon the gospel that Paul taught them in favour of what these more impressive teachers are offering.
In Ch10v10 we read that people were saying of Paul that “His letters are mighty and strong, but his bodily presence is weak, and his speech of no account.”
And then in Ch11v3, Paul says “I am afraid that… your thoughts will be led astray from a sincere and pure devotion to Christ”, because there are these people who are commending themselves as “super-apostles”, and they’re proclaiming a different gospel to what Paul taught them.
So what does Paul do about this? Does he try to outdo these fake super-apostles by boasting about how great he is, to show that he’s really more impressive than them?
Well, no, in Ch11v30 he says “If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness.”
Why does he do this? Doesn’t it make sense that the Corinthians would listen to the more impressive speakers? Surely for the sake of the gospel he should try to show them that’s he’s stronger than those who are opposing him?
And he talks about all these ways that he’s suffered. He tells the Corinthians about how he’s been beaten nearly to death more times than he could count, he’s been shipwrecked three times, he’s been stoned…
Why would he think it’s going to help the situation to tell the Corinthians about all this? I’m not sure I would hire Paul as a salesman; his customers are tempted to switch to one of his competitors, and this is the best he can come up with to try and convince them to stick with his product? Surely talking about how much he’s suffered is bound to put them off the gospel that he’s offering?
At times I’ve wondered why God allows me to suffer. I mean, my suffering has been nothing compared to what Paul experienced, but there have been times where I’ve felt hurt and miserable and thought “Surely it can’t be glorifying God for me to be in this state? What kind of message does it send to non-believers when, knowing that I’m a Christian, they see me looking unhappy like this?”
Aren’t we supposed to share the gospel (the “good news”) with people? If we don’t appear to be happy, why would people believe us that Christianity is really good news?
Well, this tells us something about the gospel that Paul is proclaiming…
I don’t know about you, but when I read about Paul suffering like this, there’s a part of me that’s a bit surprised. I think something like “Surely God would protect such a faithful Christian as the apostle Paul?”
We would all voice our strong opposition to the prosperity/health+wealth gospel, but I, for one, still have a tendency to slip into thinking “if I serve God better, he’ll keep me comfortable”. This passage totally destroys that kind of thinking.
Paul says himself in Ch11v23 “Are they servants of Christ? I am a better one…” and immediately goes on to list all these ways that he suffered, and he really suffered. He’s not whingeing “the atheists said nasty things about me”; Paul nearly died on multiple occasions.
So if we’re looking for a religion that tells us how we can escape suffering, this gospel that Paul proclaims is clearly not it. If we give people the impression that, if they obey the God of the Bible, he’ll keep them comfortable, and give them a nice cosy life, we’re lying to them.
And Matt Chandler thinks this a major reason why many people who’ve grown up in church give up on it later in life. I paraphrased this a bit for the people in my Bible Study because I’m pretty sure 90% of them wouldn’t have had a clue who Run-D.M.C. are, but if you’re reading this on my blog and you don’t know who they are, you can watch this to educate yourself…
Now, I spent my last two studies (1 & 2) in Luke 16 talking mostly about how we should lay up treasure in heaven, and there’s a risk that, if we don’t constantly remind ourselves of the gospel of grace, we’ll white-knuckle-discipline our way to thinking we’ve achieved some righteousness and therefore God owes us something good. And then, if we think God owes us something good, and what we actually get is a thorn in the flesh, what’s quite likely to happen is we’ll get angry at God. So in this study my hope is to make sure that doesn’t happen, by looking at how this passage on the thorn in the flesh clarifies some aspects of the gospel that Paul proclaimed.
“a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to buffet me”
What is the thorn in the flesh? Let’s get this out the way early on: basically, we don’t know. People have come up with lots of theories over the centuries, and I don’t expect to be the one to finally come up with the correct answer. If you want a debate about whether it was conjunctivitis or epilepsy, you can do that on your own time, but in this study I’m trying to avoid speculating about things that aren’t clear from the text. If Paul wanted us to know exactly what it was he was suffering from, he could easily have told us, but he chose not to, so let’s focus on what he did tell us, shall we?
Paul doesn’t tell us a lot about what it was that he suffered from, but whatever it was, it sounds painful. Whether that was physical, mental or emotional pain, I don’t know, but he describes it as a messenger of Satan, to – depending on which translation you’re using – “buffet me”, “harass me”, or “torment me”.
‘Buffet’ is not really a word we use very often, or not me anyway, so I looked up the definition and found that it means “A meal consisting of several dishes from which guests serve themselves” to “strike repeatedly and violently”.
I also found John Calvin helpful in understanding this. He says “to be buffeted is a severe kind of indignity… if anyone has had his face made black and blue, he does not, from a feeling of shame, venture to expose himself openly in the view of men.” So this buffeting was a humbling experience for Paul. In the same way that getting physically beaten up shows that you’ve come across someone stronger than you, Paul is saying whatever this messenger of Satan was, he wasn’t able to overcome it. It exposed his weakness.
That’s all I’ve got to say really about what the thorn in the flesh was, just that it was something that exposed Paul’s weakness. Now we’re going to move onto why Paul was given this thorn:
“to keep me from becoming conceited”
Paul says the reason he was given the thorn in the flesh was “to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations.”
This tells us a couple of things:
a) Firstly, Paul wasn’t immune to becoming conceited. He’s admitting that, if it hadn’t been for this thorn in the flesh, he might well have become proud because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations that he’d received. I notice that the word is “revelations”, rather than, say, “discoveries”, i.e. these were things that God revealed to Paul, rather than things that he worked to discover for himself. Paul had no right to be proud of what God revealed to him, but it was still a danger. And I wonder if we face a similar danger? I mean, we’re Calvinists; we believe we’re saved because God chose to save us, to reveal himself to us, not because of anything we’ve done, but to show the immeasurable riches of his grace, but are we sometimes proud of the fact that we’re Calvinists? God chose to bless us by giving us the right books to read, and putting us in the right church so we’d hear reformed preaching, teaching us that we’ve learned to love God only because He first loved us, not that we’ve earned anything from him, and do we respond by looking down on other people who don’t have their theology quite right? I’m not saying that right theology’s not important, but we should be careful not to think we’re better than other people because God has revealed things to us that he hasn’t revealed to them.
b) Secondly, it wasn’t that Paul had already become conceited, and therefore God was punishing him with this thorn in the flesh; it was actually a blessing to prevent him from sinning in that way. I kind of already made this point in my introduction really; basically that our level of comfort or suffering is not based on how well we’ve done at obeying God.
I was reminded of Job. The very first verse of the book of Job tells us that he “was blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil.”
And yet God allowed Satan to torment him, too. In fact, it was specifically because Job was blameless that he was singled out for torment. Satan came from walking to and fro on the earth, and God starts the conversation with him, saying “Have you considered my servant Job, that there is none like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man, who fears God and turns away from evil?” And most of you reading this will know where the story goes from there; if you don’t, you could find out here.
So clearly, putting on a good spiritual performance doesn’t mean God will keep us comfortable. If we’re going to be good servants of Christ, we shouldn’t be surprised if our “reward” in this life is anxiety, beatings, imprisonment…
“I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me”
I’ve already said that Paul didn’t tell us what the thorn in the flesh was, and I’m actually glad he didn’t. If he had said specifically: “I suffer with migraines. I prayed to God that he would stop them but instead he said his grace was sufficient for me,” then those of us who don’t suffer with migraines, but suffer in other ways, wouldn’t be able to relate. We might think “Sure, God’s grace was sufficient for Paul’s migraines, but my situation’s much worse, I doubt God’s grace will be sufficient for me.”
In 1 Tim 1v15-16 Paul sets an example with the intention that all of us reading it can apply the principle of God’s immeasurable grace to ourselves. He says: “The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost. But I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience as an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life.” He’s setting an example for all of us who are sinners, saying “If Christ could show mercy to me, the chief of sinners, he could certainly save you too”, and in 2 Corinthians 12, we get to see how God’s grace was sufficient for Paul in his suffering.
I should point out though, Paul doesn’t actually say in 2 Corinthians 12 that he’s setting an example for us to follow, so I’m not going to suggest that we can work out Paul’s magic formula for how to be content in suffering and it’ll make everything easy for us. God might not work in the same way with you and me as he did with Paul, but I think there are some things we can learn about God from the way he worked through Paul’s suffering, and I do think, although it’s not a magic formula to make everything ok, we can learn from the example that Paul sets.
I notice from the fact that Paul said “I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me,” that at this point he wasn’t content with his weakness. We’re all familiar with Philippians 4v11, where Paul said “I’ve learned in whatever state I am, to be content.” And by v10 of 2 Corinthians 12 he says he’s content, but in v8 he tells us that he wasn’t always content with his circumstances, he asked God to change them. So what’s going on here? Should Paul have been content in the first place? Was it sinful of him not to just accept the circumstances God had placed him in?
I think there are two things we can say.
Firstly, contentment is not always a good thing. It’s good to be content with knowing Christ even if we have nothing else, but there’s also a sense in which we should never be fully content in this life, because we’re still sinners, and we only see God as in a mirror dimly; we’re supposed to look forward to seeing him face to face. We’re supposed to set our minds on the things that are above, not on the things that are on the earth, and if we are longing for heaven, we won’t be content with our current lives on Earth. I find it interesting that Hebrews 11v1 says “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” And Romans 8:24 says “Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees?” So if we’re content with things as they are now, we’re not hoping for anything different in the future, and hence there’s nothing for us to have faith in. Having faith actually requires that we’re not content with things as they are.
And secondly, and this may be another point that just applies to me, but I think it’s quite likely some of you have thought like this too: we think strong Christians are completely content and at peace in the knowledge that God is working all things together for good (and he is, obviously, Romans 8:28), and we hear about the apostle Paul saying he’s learned to be content, even when he’s brought low, so we think that, if we’re not content with our lives just the way they are, if we’re struggling and finding things hard, we must not be good Christians, and we don’t want other people to think we’re spiritually weak, so we put on a smiley mask and act all stoical, as if everything’s fine and we’re totally content, when inwardly we’re not fine at all; it feels like our lives are falling apart.
Well, in 2 Corinthians 12v8, Paul admitted that he hadn’t arrived at contentment yet. God was still teaching him. I also think of Hebrews 12, where we’re reminded that “the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives.” And in v11, “For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.”
Paul was disciplined and he found it painful. And Hebrews 12 says “all discipline” is painful, so if we never feel pain, or if we deny that we’re feeling pain because we’re trying to act like the kind of Christian who’s arrived at that point where we’re content in all circumstances, then we deny that God is disciplining us, which would imply that we’re not really God’s children.
Sanctification is a life-long process. We should make progress, and most of you have decades more experience of the Christian life than I do, so maybe I shouldn’t be surprised that none of you appear to struggle as much as I feel I do, but I’m sure you must have some weaknesses, and I don’t think we’re supposed to act like we don’t have weaknesses, as if we’re already the finished product and beyond the need for painful discipline.
So if Paul could admit to the Corinthians that he found God’s discipline painful, that he wished it would go away, that he hadn’t yet reached the point where he was content to be brought low like this, can we admit to each other when we’re struggling? Can we be a church where we don’t feel like we need to wear a mask; where it’s ok to admit that we’re not ok, that we wish God would change things?
As I finished off arranging my notes for this second half of the study, I eventually found that these last 3 phrases that I planned to look at actually relate to 3 different points of view of the same subject. The subject is how God’s glory is displayed in our weakness, and the 3 angles that I found myself looking at it from are: from God’s point of view; from Paul’s point of view as the sufferer; and from other people’s point of view as they observe Paul going through suffering.
So firstly, we’re told God’s point of view in verse 9. God says:
“My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness”
We sometimes talk about going through times of testing as Christians. And that’s Biblical, but what do we mean by it? In this passage the point of the suffering that Paul went through was not for him to pass the test and show how strong he was that he could cope with it. He couldn’t. The point was that God’s grace was sufficient to carry him through it.
This reminded me of something I mentioned the first time I ever did a book review. That was almost exactly 2 years ago, and I haven’t read the book again since, but I’m thinking of John Piper’s chapter on prayer in his book Desiring God.
He refers to Psalm 50 verse 15, which says: “call upon me in the day of trouble; I will deliver you, and you shall glorify me,” and quotes Spurgeon’s explanation of this verse. Spurgeon says:
“God and the praying man take shares… first here is your share: “Call upon me in the day of trouble.” Secondly, here is God’s share: “I will deliver thee.” Again, you take a share – for you shall be delivered. And then again it is the Lord’s turn – “Thou shalt glorify me.” Here is… a covenant that God enters into with you who pray to him, and whom he helps. He says, “You shall have the deliverance, but I must have the glory…” Here is a delightful partnership: we obtain that which we so greatly need, and all that God getteth is the glory which is due unto his name.”
God is not glorified by us showing how strong we are when we go through times of suffering, he’s glorified when we realise we’re weak and helpless and completely depend on him.
And of course, the ultimate proof of the lengths that God is willing to go to to deliver us is the cross. If we ever doubt that God’s grace is sufficient for us, we need to remind ourselves of Romans 8:32: “He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?”
Now for God to say “call upon me in the day of trouble; I will deliver you” doesn’t necessarily seem to match up with Paul’s experience with the thorn in his flesh, because we’d expect deliverance would’ve meant God removing the thorn, which he didn’t. So we need to be careful about assuming God’s definitions of “trouble” and “deliverance” are the same as ours, and I possibly could’ve found other texts that would’ve been more suitable to illustrate this, but hopefully you can see the point I’m getting at; from God’s point of view, when we suffer and call out to him, it gives him an opportunity to show aspects of his glory that we wouldn’t otherwise see.
So from God’s point of view, suffering is one of the ways he glorifies himself, by showing that his grace is sufficient for us as he delivers us when we call upon him. Next, we’ll look at things from Paul’s point of view as the one suffering. Paul learned to be glad to have his weakness exposed so that (at the end of verse 9…)
“the power of Christ may rest upon me”
I found myself asking two questions about this phrase “that the power of Christ may rest upon me”: what does Paul mean by “the power of Christ”? And what does he mean that it may “rest upon” him?
Apparently the word translated “rest upon me” here actually means “tabernacle over me”, or we might say something like “the power of Christ may cover me all over like a tent”, but that seems a bit of a strange thing to say. You’re not supposed to mix metaphors. I mean, if I’m struggling with a thorn in my flesh, how will being in a tent help me?
My understanding of it is that the tent represented a shelter and place of refuge, which may not have helped Paul remove the thorn from his flesh, but was still a good thing to have as a place to rest during his time of suffering, and I think the point is also that Paul got to experience the power of Christ personally (“the power of Christ may rest upon me.”) Paul didn’t just have some abstract knowledge that God’s grace was sufficient; he knew that he personally was completely covered by the power of Christ, and nothing could touch him unless Christ let it.
And to understand what is meant by “the power of Christ” I looked up other places where the word “power” is used in the New Testament. One of those texts is Romans 1:20 “his invisible attributes, namely his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made.” And I think that kind of covers everything really. Christ’s power is seen in the fact that he created the universe. And that’s the power that’s resting on Paul in his time of weakness. Do we really need to say any more? When we’re conscious of our weakness – perhaps we’re facing some opposition in our Christian lives – if we remember and really believe that we belong to the one whose eternal power is seen in the fact that he made the universe, that’s probably going to be enough to keep us going.
We could also turn to texts like Luke 5:17, which says of Jesus that “the power of the Lord was with him to heal” a man who was paralysed, and in Luke 6 a great crowd of people came to Jesus to be healed, and in v19 we’re told that “power came out from him and healed them all.” Jesus may not heal us from our diseases, just like he didn’t remove Paul’s thorn. He may decide we’re better off remaining conscious of our weakness, but we can be sure he has the power to make us as healthy as we need to be to glorify him in whichever way he sees fit.
If we never suffered, if we could manage everything by ourselves, we would never experience the power of Christ, but as we suffer beyond what we can cope with, and recognise our own helplessness, we are forced to give up on saving ourselves and just fall into Jesus’ arms and trust him to catch us and hold onto us. And he will. And when that happens, we get the joyful personal experience of the power of Christ covering us, and at the same time he is glorified by it.
And I think this way of seeing suffering as an opportunity to experience the power of Christ personally is really the climax of this passage, because this is what we should be aiming for above all else in our Christian lives; we count all other things as loss for the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus (Phil 3:8).
“I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses”
We’ve got one more angle to look at this subject from, and I’m hoping to answer the question I raised during my introduction: why does God allow us to go through suffering? Surely it makes him look bad if he either allows or is apparently unable to prevent his followers from suffering? What message does that send to others, including non-believers?
Well, as I’ve already said, the purpose of us going through suffering is not for us to show how strong we are that we can cope with all kinds of difficulties, but to expose our weakness.
And Paul says he will boast of his weaknesses. In Chapter 11v30 he says “I will boast of the things that show my weakness.” In Chapter 12v5 he says “on my own behalf I will not boast, except of my weaknesses.” And in v10 he says “For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities.” So Paul apparently sees weakness as a positive thing for the sake of Christ, and is boasting to the Corinthians about it.
How can weakness be a positive thing to boast about for the sake of Christ?
One way to illustrate this comes from earlier in this letter to the Corinthians, in Chapter 4v7, where Paul says “we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us.” When the jar of clay is broken, people see the treasure that’s inside. Paul doesn’t mind being weak and breakable if it shows other people more of the value of Christ.
And for another illustration I’m returning to what stuck with me from John Piper’s chapter on prayer in Desiring God. Piper also referred to John 14 verse 13: “Whatever you ask in my name, this I will do, that the father may be glorified in the Son.”
And he uses an illustration to show how we should glorify God: Suppose you’re totally paralysed and can do nothing for yourself but talk. And suppose a very kind and reliable friend promised to live with you and do everything for you. When you have people come to visit you, how would you show them how amazingly generous and helpful your friend is? Would you try to get out of bed and start doing things for them? You can’t; you’re paralysed! Surely a better way for your visitors to really understand how deep your friend’s generosity and kindness is would be for them to see for themselves all the things that your friend does for you?
Louie Giglio describes suffering as a megaphone for broadcasting the hope that is within us, and I think it’s true that we’re all broadcasting a message to those around us all the time, showing what’s important to us in what we talk about, and what we spend our time and money on, but people particularly notice how we react to suffering.
People might see that we’re Christians and that God has given us a nice comfortable life with a nice house and a nice car and think “Wow, maybe I should give this Christianity thing a go,” but it’ll probably be because they want the comfortable life with the nice house and nice car, not because they want to know God himself.
But if they see us going through times of severe suffering that we can’t handle in our own strength, and see that we still praise Jesus and that we’re satisfied in him, they might say “Wow, I want to know their God,” and they might actually see something of the glory of God himself, and be attracted to the one who’s sustaining us, rather than just his gifts.
Bath University Christian Union summarise their purpose as: “to know Christ and to make him known”, and I think it’s because Paul had those same aims (obviously Paul had them before Bath CU did) – it’s because those things were more important to him than his comfort – that he learned to accept suffering, because having his weakness exposed by suffering helped him both to know Christ better, and to make him known. He experienced more of Christ for himself as he relied on Christ’s strength rather than his own, and other people who saw Paul’s weakness also got to see something of God’s work in his life.