Finding Strength

             I.      Introduction

We continue this week in our study of Paul’s letters to the church at Corinth, and this week we will focus on 2 Corinthians 12:7b-10 –

Therefore, in order to keep me from becoming conceited, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me.  Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from 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 about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me.  That is why, 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.

The first word is “therefore,” and I’ve heard it said that when you see “therefore,” you must ask yourself what it’s there for.  Paul is referring to his amazing experiences, both before and after Christ.

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I think we can all agree that Paul was such an influential Christian.  The letters he wrote contained amazing insights, Paul met Jesus personally on the road to Damascus.  He performed signs, wonders and miracles, and we know that because in verse 12, Paul says he demonstrated signs, wonders and miracles.  And if Paul is speaking about himself in verses 2 onward, Paul visited heaven itself and was witness to a great many more things he cannot express to us.

In fact, here’s a picture of Paul.  See that halo around his head?  You don’t get those by being a pretty good person.  Those were only given out as prizes at the Best Christian competitions in the Middle Ages.

 

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But seriously, Paul says in our first verse today that he received a thorn in the flesh to keep him from becoming conceited.  What was this thorn?

          II.      The Thorn in the Flesh

There are many theories about this thorn.  Medieval theologians believed it represented Paul’s earthly lusts.  Still others have theorized that Paul had a speech impediment.  One theory I find plausible is a pain in the eye, an eye inflammation.  Paul was literally blinded on the road to Damascus.  You can find support for this position in Paul’s letter to the Galatians; in Galatians 4:13-15 Paul writes

As you know, it was because of an illness that I first preached the gospel to you, and even though my illness was a trial to you, you did not treat me with contempt or scorn.

And signs the letter in Galatians 6:11,

See what large letters I use as I write to you with my own hand!

Did Paul have difficulty in his vision?  It’s possible.  It’s also possible, though not likely, it was an actual thorn.  I know a bible study teacher in Sugar Land that was hospitalized about two months ago with sporotrichosis, it’s an infection in the skin caused by a puncture by a rose thorn.  This infection can spread to joints, the lungs, the lymph nodes, even the brain.  The teacher I know was hospitalized 3 days because of a thorn.

Still others hypothesize Paul’s metaphorical thorn in his side was certain people causing him grief.  There is good rationale for this hypothesis.  Did you know that “thorn in your side” has biblical origins?  In Numbers 33:55 and Judges 2:3 (King James version) the Lord says,

Wherefore I also said, I will not drive them out from before you; but they shall be as thorns in your sides, and their gods shall be a snare unto you.

This phrase is used to describe adversaries but never used to describe illness or pain.  Paul had issues with people causing him troubles, especially Alexander the coppersmith, who Paul says in 2 Timothy 4:14 caused Paul “a great deal of harm.”  Paul may have been referring to Paul’s opponents who confused the message and opposed Paul’s efforts to spread the good news.

So what was this thorn?  We will never know this side of heaven.  Whatever this thorn was, Paul goes on to describe this thorn as a “messenger of Satan.”  Whether physical, emotional, social, spiritual, it’s clear that Paul’s thorn is from the devil with evil intent, and despite Paul praying to the Lord three times to remove it, the Lord allows it to remain in Paul’s life.

       III.      Purpose of the Thorn

The Lord answers prayers, does He not?  If we’re doing good things for the Lord or for the church like Paul was doing, that’s the definition of being in God’s will and so the Lord should always answer prayers, shouldn’t He?  Shouldn’t the Lord do what we tell Him to do?

There’s a whole lot of pride in a statement like that.  God doesn’t bend to our will, oh no.  God is sovereign and perfect and He is executing His plan, not ours.

Paul had a great many reasons to be full of pride.  Before Paul became a Christian, he was an amazing Jew both by birth and by works.  He lists many of them in Philippians 3:4b-6,

If anyone else has a mind to put confidence in the flesh, I far more:  circumcised the eighth day, of the nation of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the Law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to the righteousness which is in the Law, found blameless.

And then Paul had one of the most amazing testimonies a Christian could have, beginning with meeting Christ Himself on the road to Damascus, Acts 9:3-5,

As he was traveling, it happened that he was approaching Damascus, and suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him; and he fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?”  And he said, “Who are You, Lord?” And He said, “I am Jesus whom you are persecuting.

 

Paul had a direct word from God at least 6 more time mentioned in scripture, in Jerusalem (twice, Acts 22:17-21, Acts 23:11), At Troas (Acts 16:8-10), in Corinth (Acts 18:9-11), and on his journey to Rome (Acts 27:22-25), and Paul’s vision of Paradise here in our book today, 2 Corinthians 12 verses 1-6.Slide9

Paul had a lot of reasons to feel like he was an important person, an important Christian.  And the early, church, too, had every reason to look at Paul as an awesome person.  He was awesome, and everybody should know it.  Right?

But Paul received a “messenger from Satan,” this thorn in the flesh.  This messenger, this thorn, “buffeted” Paul, it beat him up.  No doubt this thorn from Satan was intended to hurt Paul and derail his mission, to keep people from hearing the good news. 

Why did Paul receive this messenger from Satan?  To bring him humility.  It says in 2 Corinthians 12:7,

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!

Paul says that without the thorn, he’d exalt himself.  He’d praise himself.  Look at me, look at what great work I’m doing for the Lord.  But the thorn kept him grounded in the Lord’s will.  Paul isn’t awesome after all.  He can’t remove a simple thorn.

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Pride exalts us.  Pride tells us that we don’t need God, we can do anything under our own power.  And when we do things under our own power, we pat ourselves on the back and say, “job well done.”  The glory that belongs to the Lord, well, we decided we’re going to keep it for ourselves.  We deserve it.

But God won’t use people full of pride.  God wants people that will humble themselves unto the Lord.  Paul’s thorn reminded Paul that Paul wasn’t God.  Paul was just… Paul.  With a thorn.

          IV.      Paul’s Reaction to the Thorn

Our scripture says in 2 Corinthians 12:8,

Concerning this I implored the Lord three times that it might leave me.

Raise your hand if God has answered every prayer you’ve had with a “yes.”

God doesn’t always answer prayers the way we want.  In fact, in many cases, I know why God doesn’t answer me, it’s because I’m praying for God to change somebody else.  I’m fine, they’re the problem.

Some problems in our life are our own doing, but many times these problems in our life are often mischief or evil from the devil.  1 Peter 5:8 says,

Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour.

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The devil is not omnipotent, he is not all-powerful, he cannot win any battle with God.  But God allows Satan to mess with us, to interfere with us, to become a thorn in our side.  Why?  Often, just as with the case with Paul, it’s to keep us humble and reminded that our power is small, and God is big.  If we want to fight the devil on our own terms, we will lose.  We let God fight the devil through us, God will win every time. 

The rest of this verse says the same thing, that we need humility if we are going to let God fight these battles through us,

Therefore humble yourselves under the mighty hand of God, that He may exalt you at the proper time, casting all your anxiety on Him, because He cares for you.  Be of sober spirit, be on the alert. Your adversary, the devil, prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.

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We cannot do it on our own, but we forget so easily.  When things go right, we say, “look at me, look how great I’m doing!”  It’s when things go wrong that we say, “Lord, I need you.”

Azalea shared her testimony a few weeks back about being a diamond in God’s eyes, amazing testimony.  But I was thinking about the last lesson I taught about being clay in the potter’s hands.  How do I reconcile being a diamond and being a big blob of clay?  In one of the many ways God performs miracles in our life, we must be humble enough to let God shape and form us into a diamond.  If we resist, well, we can remain clay if we want.  God will give us our desire.

Paul says he prayed three times for the Lord to remove the thorn.  Do you know who else prayed three times for the Lord to do something?  Matthew 26:36 –

Then Jesus came with them to a place called Gethsemane, and said to His disciples, “Sit here while I go over there and pray.”

Three times Jesus prayed to the Lord to take away the cup from Him.  But Jesus also prayed in verse 39,

My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from Me; yet not as I will, but as You will.

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God’s will is sovereign, God’s will be done.  When we pray, both Jesus and Paul prayed persistently, earnestly, specifically for something.   

             V.      Paul’s Reaction to the Lord’s Answer

And did the Lord answer Paul’s prayer?  Of course the Lord answered.  But like Jesus, Paul didn’t get the answer he wanted.   God’s answer to Paul was not, “here, let me help you with that thorn.”  God’s answer was in 2 Corinthians 12:9a,

My grace is sufficient for you.

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What can the world throw at us that God cannot overcome?  We complain about the problems in this world, but God has an answer.  He has a better place for us.  He sent His own son to die for everything we’ve ever done wrong or ever thought about doing wrong so that we may dwell forever in the house of the Lord.  We don’t have to earn it; God’s grace is freely available to those who believe.

What, then, is a thorn to us?  2 Corinthians 4:17,

For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all.

A thorn is nothing compared to the grace of God.  God’s grace is sufficient.  God sacrificed everything He is because he loves us. 

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God’s answer to Paul was also,

My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness.

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God is there for us when we need Him.  But too often we think we don’t need Him.  We can do it on our own. 

I know I’m guilty sometimes of “saving” God as a last resort.  I can do this on my own, I don’t need to bother God about it. And when things go right, hey, I did it myself.  I didn’t need God after all. 

It’s when I can’t do it on my own that God demonstrates His power.  As a result, I find myself praying more and more, not just about the big things but about the little things.  And every time God answers, I can offer thanks and remember, “Every good gift comes from the Lord.” 

Paul prayed three times and didn’t get what he prayed for.   But He received something better.  2 Corinthians 12:9b-10 –

Most gladly, therefore, I will rather boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me.  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.

Paul rejoiced.  When Paul is committed to rejoicing in the Lord, he can expect trials, tribulations, difficult times.  Many of those times challenge our understanding of God’s work in our life, and we want to respond in anger or sadness.  But Paul says if we can rejoice in unanswered prayers, then we are trusting that the Lord knows best for us. 

Everyone of us has gone through a trial, most of us more than one.  I shared part of my testimony a few months back about how on my own power I failed in marriage and in my weakness finally bowed my knee to God and told Him I was ready to follow Him instead of trying to drag Him around like a merit badge or “shown and tell”.  I was ready to honor Him and follow Him, and I needed His help to learn how to do that.  And that I saw miracle after miracle as God moved me overseas, taught me about the love of Christ, moved me back, and then restored my marriage.  I’ve thought often about unanswered prayers during that time, thinking at the time that if my prayers would have been answered, I’d have been a lot happier.

Or so I thought at the time.  Doing things God’s way brought more challenges, pain, tears.  But it also brought me far closer to Him as I learned to depend on Him instead of myself.  To do things God’s way instead of trying to fit God into a box I built for Him.  And during this journey, found more joy than I could imagine, bringing me closer to Him.

I know you’ve been through challenges.  Lost parents, children, siblings.  Lost a job, lost health.  And if you’re like me, you’ve found that depending on God because we realize we are weak has brought you even closer.

Knowing all that, make that same prayer again.  Pray for God to show us our weaknesses.  They say the hardest thing to pray for is patience because God will answer that prayer.  God will give you a reason to need patience.   But I say that prayer is easy compared to the lesson we learned today.  Pray for weakness.  Pray for God to bring us to our knees and show us His power in our lives.  When we are weak, then the we are strong with the power of Christ within us.  We can rejoice in our trials and tribulations because we know that God is at work in our lives.

          VI.      Conclusion

Our human nature urges us to show the world around us how strong we are, how fast we are, how smart we are, how rich we are.  It’s all about us and our human pride.

But pride in our own strength is ridiculous.  We aren’t strong.  We can’t move a mountain, we can’t calm a storm.  We can’t remove a thorn.  In our Christian spiritual walk, it’s a paradox that we do not get stronger.  We get weaker so that Christ may be demonstrated.  The more we rely on the Lord’s power instead of our own, the more we bring glory to the Lord instead of to us. 

Let’s look at our verses one last time:

Therefore, in order to keep me from becoming conceited, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me.  Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from 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 about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me.  That is why, 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.

  • Verse 7: Protect me from my pride
  • Verse 8: Remind me to pray persistently
  • Verse 9a: Remind me of the grace You provide.  If your grace can save me from Hell, it can surely delivery me from temporary pain.
  • Verse 9b: Remind me that your power is perfected in my weakness.
  • Verse 10: Remind me of the proper perspective of Your strength and power.  Please Lord, teach me to be weak so that your power is demonstrated, for your power is unmatched.  When I am weak, then I am strong in you.

What are you struggling with?  What is your greatest challenge?  Are you trying to solve it under your own power?  Maybe it’s time to stop, breathe, and confess to the Lord that there is no power like His power. 

It’s time to stop telling God how big the storm is.  It’s time to start telling the storm how big our God is.

To God be the glory.  Amen.

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