Have you ever noticed that there is always something holding you back? Let me put it another way, have you noticed that there is always a fly in the ointment, always one or two things that prevent you from having everything you want, or having it your way?
- You have a great job, a great family but there is something wrong with your body (headaches, diabetes, sore back, etc.) that interferes with total enjoyment.
- You have just built the house you always wanted and discover that your neighbor has a constantly barking dog or a couple of noisy roosters.
- You have worked hard, saved up, gotten the children settled, you are ready to travel, but your father dies leaving you a sick mother to care for 24 hours a day.
- You are young and strong and smart but struggle with depression or a secret sin that only you know about.
I could go on but I think you get the picture. It seems that no matter what is right with our lives, there is always something that takes the shine off, something that spoils what could be an ideal situation. Of course we are not unique and this is not a new phenomenon in life. Even Paul, one of the most dynamic Apostles, experienced this type of disappointment and wrote about it.
Paul the Apostle was undoubtedly one of the most successful preachers, writers, missionaries and Apostles ever to serve the church. He performed miracles. God used him to write a good portion of the New Testament. He established most of the first congregations of the church in the Roman Empire. He was responsible for breeching the wall between Jew and Gentile. All of this success and all of these blessings upon his ministry were tempered with many disappointments. For example, he was often beaten and jailed, and many, in and out of the church, opposed him. If this were not enough, several of his close associates abandoned him and the work.
It seemed that no matter what heights he scaled in the service of the Lord, there was always a spoiler, always a competing negative force making sure that the situation was never completely satisfying. This pattern finally came to a head one day when Paul was given a special vision and revelation from the Lord which literally took him out of this dimension and somehow transported him into the heavenly or spiritual realm.
Paul describes the experience in II Corinthians 12. Speaking of himself in the third person (for humility's sake), Paul says of this experience:
1Boasting is necessary, though it is not profitable; but I will go on to visions and revelations of the Lord. 2I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago—whether in the body I do not know, or out of the body I do not know, God knows—such a man was caught up to the third heaven. 3And I know how such a man—whether in the body or apart from the body I do not know, God knows— 4was caught up into Paradise and heard inexpressible words, which a man is not permitted to speak.
- II Corinthians 12:1-4
Imagine the feeling and the absolute thrill of being brought into the heavenly realm while still in this earthly body. Imagine the joy, the sense of empowerment, the gratitude, the zeal and renewed faith this could give a person.
If Paul was a mighty preacher and teacher, if he was a zealous missionary before this experience, imagine what he could be after such a vision! What a spiritual boost - to consciously see and experience heaven before you die! Now, just as he is spiritually pumped, spiritually invincible because of this vision, look at what happens, see what he says comes along immediately after his mountaintop experience.
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!
- II Corinthians 12:7
No sooner than he was at the top, a thorn, a restriction, a spoiler, a downer was added to the mix. There is a lot of discussion about what exactly happened (vision problems, disease, etc.) but who cares what it was. The point that Paul makes is that for him it was a burden, a restriction, a spoiler, a thorn as he refers to it. Something that caused pain and diverted his attention from the sublime experience he had planned to enjoy to a discomforting annoyance always present.
This is where Christians part company with the rest of the world. For unbelievers, when there is a problem, the objective is to minimize and eliminate the thorns as quickly and painlessly as possible. For unbelievers the ultimate goal is personal happiness and freedom from "thorns." Christians, on the other hand, have a different approach, one articulated by Paul in his effort to deal with his particular thorn.
He mentions three possible responses for the "spoiler" elements and "thorns" that often come into our lives to threaten our peace, happiness and contentment.
Concerning this I implored the Lord three times that it might leave me.
- II Corinthians 12:8
Paul prayed a legitimate prayer that the thorn be removed. Notice also that he kept on praying until he had some kind of relief or response! Simply resigning ourselves to difficulties, obstacles and the "thorns" of life is not necessarily the Christian thing to do. It is okay to aggressively seek to remove the things that reduce our joy, our satisfaction of life, as well as our peace and happiness.
- If there is a cure, I want it.
- If there is a solution, I want it.
- If there is a way out, show me.
Having exhausted his natural resources in dealing with the problem Paul began to beat on the door of heaven through prayer for relief. Prayer is an effective tool in removing the many thorns of life that often spoil what could be a good life. Sometimes our prayers for relief are answered and we simply continue on in the way we were before our thorn began to cause us pain. Sometimes our prayers for relief are answered, but not in the way we had hoped, and sometimes God chooses to leave the thorn in place for an indefinite amount of time. In these cases we have another response which Paul describes in verse 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.
- II Corinthians 12:9
In this verse God speaks to Paul and Paul responds to the Lord. God's answer to his prayers is to remind Paul of the spiritual principle that the thorn has been sent to teach him: that God's power is more easily and clearly seen in a person who is weak and dependent on God than one who is strong and self-sufficient.
It would be easy for Paul, the miracle worker, the prolific missionary and the insightful teacher to stumble into pride and conceit on account of all his incredible achievements. It would be easy for the church to exalt the man Paul for his abilities and success above other men. But this thorn reduced him to dependence on others to do his work; this thorn drove him to his knees in prayer for strength.
And so, despite his great success and prestige in the church, this thorn served to reveal the true source of his power in ministry; this thorn was a constant reminder that his was a fragile life held delicately in the hand of God. You see, Paul's submission was not necessarily a submission to the presence of the thorn (that's the best that unbelievers can do when they have a thorn that will not go away, simply accept its constant presence and carry on). That is stoicism!
No, Paul's submission was to the purpose that God had for allowing it to enter and remain in his life. This is what he says when he answers the Lord. He submits to the change in circumstances and the shift that his life has taken because of the thorn. He's gone from being a strong and independent man to a physically weak and dependent one and he submits to God's new demand of him.
The new demand is that he witness Christ through his weakness rather than through his former strength. Rather than be depressed, angry or refuse to accept the new reality, Paul sees the opportunity to reveal Christ in a way that he could not before: through his weakness. And so, as Christians we submit to the thorns of life by learning to glorify God and serve Christ as people with thorns. Do you see the difference? Some people simply learn to live with their thorns and make the best of it. Christians, like Paul, are called upon to glorify God despite the thorn.
3. Rise Above
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.
- II Corinthians 12:10
When I say, "rise above," I do not mean to ignore the problem; pretend it does not exist; try to be as much like a person without a thorn as I can be. Look at what Paul says:
- He is well content with weakness, the particular thorn he prayed about.
- He is also well content with all the other "thorns" he has had to suffer as well (insults, distress, persecution etc.).
- He acknowledges that he is a man with many thorns and yet he is content - wait a minute!
Is contentment not what we are looking for? Is contentment not what we think we will find when we remove all the thorns, all the restraints and all the spoilers? He goes on to acknowledge that to bear with the thorns for Christ's sake, to be made weak for Christ's sake, makes him strong.
So this man with many thorns finds contentment and strength, the same thing that people are searching for by trying to remove all the thorns of life. What is the point, what is the difference?
Enduring the thorns for Christ sake (with and for one's faith in Jesus) gives you the same thing (contentment and strength) that removing all the thorns is supposed to give you. The only difference is that you can never remove all the thorns; they are always there one way or another. And so, for a Christian, to submit to the thorns of life that God chooses to leave in your flesh, in your life is really the way to rise above the ordinary pursuit of happiness and power, and gain for oneself contentment and true strength through Christ Jesus.
So the weaker I become, the stronger Christ becomes in me. The less of me that I am, the more of Him becomes visible. The poorer I am in this world, the richer I become in Christ. The thornier my life becomes, the greater my dependence and consequently my contentment in Christ. They say, "Everybody wants to go to heaven but nobody wants to die." In the same way it seems, "Everyone wants more of Jesus in their lives but nobody wants the thorns that will bring Him to us."
We do not always realize it but God's answer to Paul's prayer is still very much the answer to our own daily prayers concerning the various "thorns" we struggle with. When we apply these words to ourselves we see that, God's grace is truly sufficient in every way now as it was then:
1. His grace is still sufficient to supply our needs.
Whether it is food, shelter or help with troubles and sickness, God still supplies according to His grace, which is boundless. There is no need to trust in worldly riches or the power of man, God's grace is able to supply our every need; we need only to ask, believing (Matthew 6:25-34).
2. His Grace is still sufficient to cover our sins.
Jesus died once for all people and all sins (I John 1:9-10). When coming to God for forgiveness realize that His grace covers every sin you have committed, there is no need to fear or worry.
3. His Grace is still sufficient to complete our final transformation.
What the Law could not accomplish, the grace of Christ completes in full (Romans 8:3-4). Our final resurrection to glory and exaltation to the right hand of God is powered by grace and there is sufficient grace to transform every believer into an eternal being. Paul the Apostle learned that what he needed was not relief or more strength but rather the realization that if he had God's grace, he had all he would ever need to achieve all he ever really desired.
Do you have God's grace working in your life? It begins to work in you when you submit to His command to believe in Jesus Christ, repent of your sins and be united with Him in the waters of baptism. It continues to work in you as you submit to God's plan for your life, whatever that is, however many thorns that may include. It completes its work when Jesus returns for you in death or glory for the final and eternal transformation.
- Discuss how your understanding of God's grace has changed from your previous understanding.
- Describe a time when everything seemed to be going well in your life but there was a hesitation or foreboding of something about to happen that would cause problems. What causes us to feel this way?
- What was the impact of Paul's "thorn in the flesh" as he states in in II Corinthians 12?
- Paul's prayer in II Corinthians 12:8 and his request for prayer in Ephesians 6:18-20 and what does it teach us?
- What was Paul's reaction to God's answer to his prayer for relief and what can we learn from this?
- Explain the paradox that the weaker we are the stronger Christ becomes, and how this relates to grace.
- How does this lesson help you and others come to a greater relationship with Jesus and to grow spiritually?