“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?
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