2 Corinthians 12
Paul’s vision and his thorn
One of the tasks which parents have, is to enable their children to become more and more independent. Over time they grow in maturity, as they prepare to ‘fly the nest’. However, the life of discipleship is the opposite: as we grow in maturity as Christians our dependence on the Lord increases more and more. We ought to have an increasing awareness of our sin, of our weakness, and of that fact that apart from Christ, ‘we can do nothing’. (John 15:5)
In our culture, oftentimes we don’t like to admit our weaknesses. At schools, children are often told that they can be whatever they want to be if they just believe in themselves. The Christian message is different. We don’t look within for our resources but rather we look to Christ.
What are your weaknesses? They might be physical, mental, social or spiritual. There are areas of life in which we sometimes feel like failures. Perhaps we even feel we are so weak that God couldn’t possibly use us. Here is some good news. Here is a totally different way of thinking about our weaknesses: ‘… for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.’ (2 Corinthians 12:10)
Before we home in on the text, let’s just see how this theme of strength in weakness can be seen throughout the Bible.
Remember the story of Gideon in Judges chapter 7. Israel’s small army of just 32,000 men faced the Midianites’ large army: The Lord said to Gideon, ‘You have too many men. I cannot deliver Midian into their hands, or Israel would boast against me, ‘My own strength has saved me.’ (Judges 7:2) So, the Lord reduces the army first to 10,000 and then to just 300. When the Israelites win the battle, it was crystal clear it was God who brought the victory. He receives all the glory. They could only boast in him.
Or think of the widow of Zarephath in 1 Kings chapter 17. She’s got almost nothing – a picture of weakness. And the Lord (through the prophet Elijah) asks her to give up even that, so she has absolutely nothing, as she uses up the last of her flour and oil. But the Lord’s power is made perfect in weakness. She trusts in the word of God, and as a result she finds the day-by-day sustaining grace of God. How wonderful!
Throughout the Bible, we see that the Lord often orchestrates circumstances in our lives which weaken us, in order that we might trust in him. Surely, the ultimate example is the cross itself, where out of weakness the grace of God comes pouring out.
Is this the way we see our weaknesses, as opportunities to experience the power of God? Just as diamonds are often displayed on a black cloth in the jewellers, so in our lives, our weakness is like a black cloth, and it highlights the sustaining grace of God.
Paul is interacting with the so-called ‘super apostles’ who often claimed to experience powerful visions from God. They would boast about God’s revelations to them. These kind of teachers, unfortunately, were very popular amongst the Corinthians, some of whom found Paul and his straight Bible-teaching unimpressive.
So, Paul begins to outline to them a genuine experience he had had 14 years earlier, but does so referring to himself in the 3rd person. He thinks back to a time when he was caught up into the 3rd Heaven, in other words, into the very presence of God. Paul does not know if he was transported there physically for a time, or if he experiences it as some kind of vision, as the apostle John does in the book of Revelation. All we know is (v4) that he heard inexpressible things, things that no one is permitted to hear.
Paul then shocks the boastful Corinthians, who seem to emphasise that powerful Christian leaders ought to have mystical experiences; Paul refuses to boast about this amazing event, and instead boasts about his weakness! What a contrast to the ‘super-apostles’. Paul wants them (and us) to know that the true posture for Christian discipleship is weakness, not strength!
What was the thorn in the flesh exactly? Perhaps it was a physical affliction which would come and go. We don’t know. It’s probably best that we don’t know.
1. Who sends the thorn to Paul and why?
Well, on the one hand it comes from Satan. ‘I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me.’ (2 Corinthians 12:7) Satan’s designs are only evil, so Satan is probably trying to discourage Paul, and cause his work to stop.
Or perhaps Satan wants Paul to become angry with God, or to become bitter about his lot in life.
On the other hand, however, the thorn comes from God. ‘I was given a thorn…’ (divine passive)
Why did God give this to Paul? ‘Therefore, in order to keep me from becoming conceited, I was given a thorn in my flesh…’ (Verse 7)
And so, one reason God gives this difficulty is as a preventative measure – to stop Paul becoming proud about the amazing spiritual experiences he has had. Does this seem harsh? There’s certainly great mystery in our lives; often we don’t know why God sends us the things he does. But we are reminded that God in his love and wisdom can bring things into the arena of our lives which we find unpleasant and which might even torment us, but he does so with a loving purpose. He knows it is good for us. He knows it is best. And he can see the end from the beginning.
2. Paul’s prayer and ours
‘Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me.’ (2 Corinthians 12:8)
This is probably 3 separate occasions when Paul feels close to the limit – he longs to be free from his suffering. There was nothing wrong with him praying for its removal. However, the Lord does not give him what he wants. But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ (Verse 9)
Although Paul doesn’t get what he wants, his prayer is answered, in that he is given the sustaining power to carry on in spite of the problem. In other words, when we pray, and even when we pray earnestly, persistently and in faith, God will always provide for us, but not always in the way we would want.
I’ve heard people say many times, ‘I’ve prayed about this problem for years and nothing’s changed- what’s the point in praying?’ The point is that when we come humbly in prayer with our requests, we shall always receive God’s sustaining grace.
3. God’s power in our weaknesses
Another reason the Lord sends the thorn to Paul is so that he can experience the power of God! This might seem so counter-intuitive to us. For the child of God there is no such thing as pain without purpose. In other words, it’s the thorn which keeps Paul from becoming independent and self-reliant, and because he needs to come time and time again to God in prayer, he receives power, through the Holy Spirit, to carry out his ministry and responsibilities even in spite of his thorn.
It’s amazing – Paul starts to see the thorn as a privilege, not because he likes the torment it brings, but he can recognise the power of God at work in this situation. Can you relate to this? When have you been closest to the Lord in your life? Isn’t it often in extremely challenging circumstances?
He giveth more grace when the burdens grow greater,
He sendeth more strength when the labours increase;
To added afflictions He addeth His mercy,
To multiplied trials, His multiplied peace.
When we have exhausted our store of endurance,
When our strength has failed ere the day is half done,
When we reach the end of our hoarded resources
Our Father’s full giving is only begun.
Fear not that thy need shall exceed His provision,
Our God ever yearns His resources to share;
Lean hard on the arm everlasting, availing;
The Father both thee and thy load will upbear.
His love has no limits, His grace has no measure,
His power no boundary known unto men;
For out of His infinite riches in Jesus
He giveth, and giveth, and giveth again.
(Annie J Flint)
Will you learn to lean more on Jesus? What will you find? You will find that ‘he giveth and giveth and giveth again’.