"Thanks for 'No'?"
2 Corinthians 12:7-10
(Delivered Thanksgiving Sunday, November 23, 2003 at Bethany Bible Church. Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotes are taken from the New King James Version.)
The act of giving thanks is crucial to our Christian life. It is, in fact, the essence of true reverence toward God. I believe that one of the greatest descriptions in the Bible of true religion is found in 2 Thessalonians 5:16-18 - "Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, in everything give thanks: for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you." And so, it's not just appropriate that we remember to give thanks on Thanksgiving Day; it's also vital to our walk before God that we live a life of continual thanksgiving all year long.
Now it's easy to keep this in mind when things are going well; and when we can clearly see the abundant blessings God pours out on us. There are times when it seems as if God is answering our prayers in great abundance, and when we see His mighty hand at work for us at every turn. But there are also times when it seems as if He doesn't answer our prayers, and when the blessings appear to be far and few between. And this brings us to an important question: How are we to feel during those times in our lives when it seems as if God is withholding His hand of blessing from us, and is allowing suffering to fall upon us? Why should we give thanks for those times when we sincerely ask God for relief from our suffering, and He seems to say "no" to our request?
That's a question I'm often asked as a pastor. Another question comes to mind, however, in the light of that question: How do we explain the apostle Paul? After all, here was a man who - unquestionably - was a great man of faith. He prayed and cried out to God often; and yet it's hard to imagine anyone who suffered more persecutions, more beatings, more insults, more periods of hunger and poverty, more animosity and rejection and disappointments for the faith. God certainly didn't seem to spare him from suffering. And yet, we never find that Paul lost his confidence or trust in God in the midst of it all. Nowhere do we find Paul throwing up his arms and saying, "I cry out to God, and yet He still allows me to suffer? I ask Him to take my pain away, and He seems to ignore me. Why should I be thankful to God anymore?"
What was Paul's secret in all this? I believe that an answer is found in the perspective God gave him concerning his suffering. He writes of this perspective in this morning's passage:
And lest I should be exalted above measure by the abundance of the revelations, a thorn in the flesh was given to me, a messenger of Satan to buffet me, lest I be exalted above measure. Concerning this thing I pleaded with the Lord three times that it might depart from me. And He said to me, "My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness." Therefore most gladly I will rather boast in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in needs, in persecutions, in distresses, for Christ's sake. For when I am weak, then I am strong (2 Cor. 12:7-10).
I have felt led to turn our attention to this unusual passage on 'Thanksgiving' Sunday, because I believe it addresses a question that so many of us ask: "Why should I be thankful to God when it seems as if He ignores my plea, and doesn't take my suffering away?"
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Now it needs to be said from the outset that Paul was not writing about "Thanksgiving" in this passage. In fact, his main theme was not even "suffering". His real theme in this passage - believe it or not - was "boasting". His authority as an apostle had been questioned by his brothers and sisters in the ancient city of Corinth; and in defending his authority, he wanted to explain what it was that he 'boasted' in.
You see, many were presenting themselves to the Corinthian believers as apostles and teachers, but who were in fact false apostles and false teachers. These false teachers were boasting in their powerful speaking abilities, and in their skills in rhetoric, and in their grasp of Greek philosophies as signs of their authority; and at the same time, they were slandering Paul and calling his authority and the authority of the other true apostles into question. Paul writes to rebuke the Corinthians for giving attention to such "external" things, and says,
Do you look at things according to the outward appearance? If anyone is convinced in himself that he is Christ's, let him again consider this in himself, that just as he is Christ's, even so we are Christ's. For even if I should boast somewhat more about our authority, which the Lord gave us for edification and not for your destruction, I shall not be ashamed - lest I seem to terrify you by letters. "For His letters," they say, "are weighty and powerful, but his bodily presence is weak, and his speech contemptible." Let such a person consider this, that what we are in word by letters when we are absent, such we will also be in deed when we are present (2 Cor. 10:7-11).
But rather than boast in his natural speaking abilities or power of personal presence, Paul chose to boast in Christ Himself. "But 'he who glories, let him glory in the LORD,'" he said; "For not he who commends himself is approved, but whom the Lord commends" (vv. 17-18). And so, the things that he boasted in - the things that he pointed to for the Lord's endorsement of his ministry - were far different from the things that the false apostles and teachers were pointing concerning themselves.
Paul, for example, boasted in his suffering. Imagine pointing to "suffering" as a part of your credentials! He pointed to the false teachers and (speaking as if a foolish man) asked,
Are they Hebrews? So am I. Are they Israelites? So am I. Are they the seed of Abraham? So am I. Are they ministers of Christ? - I speak as a fool - I am more: in labors more abundant, in stripes above measure, in prisons more frequently, in deaths more often. From the Jews five times I received forty stripes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods; once I was stoned; three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I have been in the deep; in journeys often, in perils of waters, in perils of robbers, in perils of my own countrymen, in perils of the Gentiles, in perils in the city, in perils in the wilderness, in perils in the sea, in perils among false brethren; in weariness and toil, in sleeplessness often, in hunger and thirst, in fastings often, in cold and nakedness - besides the other things, what comes upon me daily; my deep concern for all the churches. Who is weak, and I am not weak? Who is made to stumble, and I do not burn with indignation? If I must boast, I will boast in the things which concern my infirmity (11:22-30).
When Jesus first called Paul, He said, "For I will show him how many things he must suffer for My name's sake" (Acts 9:16). And so, it's as if Paul says, "I am clearly marked as an authentic apostle - truly marked as one sent under the authority of Jesus Christ - by the many things I have suffered in my calling. These false teachers; ... how much suffering can they boast of?" Obviously, the content of Paul's boasting was radically different from theirs.
Paul also boasted of his humiliation - how humiliatingly 'on the run' he's always had to be as an apostle. Certainly, none of the false apostles boasted of how often they escaped arrest! But Paul boasts of something that - on the surface - would sound like a humiliating and demoralizing experience to boast of;
The God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who is blessed forever, knows that I am not lying. In Damascus the governor, under Aretas the king, was guarding the city of the Damascenes with a garrison, desiring to arrest me; but I was let down in a basket through a window in the wall, and escaped from his hands (11:31-33; cf. Acts 9:23-25).
Why would anyone, who based their authority on their own power and talents, boast in such a thing? But a true apostle would boast of such a thing!
Paul was even tempted to boast of a heavenly vision God had given him, but restrained himself from doing so. Paul may be speaking of the time when he was attacked and nearly stoned to death in the city of Lystra, and left for dead - when he writes;
It is doubtless not profitable for me to boast. I will come to visions and revelations of the Lord: I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago - whether in the body I do not know, or whether out of the body I do not know, God knows - such a one was caught up to the third heaven. And I know such a man - whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows - how he was caught up into Paradise and heard inexpressible words, which it is not lawful for a man to utter. Of such a one I will boast; yet of myself I will not boast, except in my infirmities. For though I might desire to boast, I will not be a fool; for I will speak the truth. But I refrain, lest anyone should think of me above what he sees me to be or hears from me (12:1-6).
Even in the light of such remarkable experiences, Paul refrained from boasting except in his infirmities. In other words, he boasted in the very things that marked him out as weak and frail and needy. And he boasts in such things in order to reveal that the true source of his power and authority is in Christ - while the false prophets and teachers boasted in their own talents and strengths.
And this leads us to the connection Paul's words have with "Thanksgiving". Paul mentions some particular aspect of his suffering in this passage - something that plagued him deeply and painfully; and says that he prayed repeatedly that it be removed from him. But the Lord replied to his request by teaching him instead that his weakness was actually accomplishing something very powerful and eternal. And as a result of gaining this perspective of his suffering, Paul actually learned to rejoice in receiving a "no" to his request! He learned to accept that the Lord's "no" was actually a "yes" to something even greater.
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Let's consider Paul's words in greater detail. Notice first ...
1. PAUL'S PRAYER FOR RELIEF (vv. 7-8).
He said that, to prevent him from being "exalted above measure by the abundance of the revelations", a "thorn in the flesh" was given to him. This obviously wasn't a literal thorn in his literal flesh; because that would be rather easy to remove. There certainly wouldn't be the need to repeatedly pray for relief if he had a real sliver in his real finger. He uses the phrase "thorn in the flesh" in a figurative sense. But we're not told exactly what this "thorn in the flesh" was. Some have suggested that it was a physical ailment of some kind - perhaps related to his vision problems (e.g., Gal. 4:16; 6:11). Others have suggested that it was some kind of temptation to sin that he wrestled with (e.g., Rom. 7:13-24). Still others have suggested that it was a person who had become a particular trial to him (e.g., 2 Tim. 4:14-15). But the fact is that we simply don't know what his thorn in the flesh was. Perhaps it's good that we don't know, and that it has always been left vague to us; because that makes his words on suffering in this passage applicable to all of us - whatever our particular "thorn in the flesh" may be.
We do know this much about Paul's "thorn in the flesh," however: it was "a messenger of Satan". It was an attack, in some way, from the devil himself - the great enemy of our souls. It was an attack, however, that was still under the sovereign and restraining hand of God; because this attack was the very "thorn in the flesh" that the Lord purposefully allowed Paul to suffer. The devil could only do what God had permitted him to do to Paul; and even then, only so that God's greater purposes for Paul's growth, and edification, and conformity to Christ, might be fully fulfilled. Satan can never do more to God's servants than God Himself allows; and so, what was said of Joseph's brothers can also be said of the devil - that what he means against us for evil, God means for our good (Gen. 50:20).
This "thorn in the flesh" - this messenger of Satan - fulfilled a divine purpose in Paul's life. It was intended to "buffet" or "pound upon" Paul in order to keep him humble and dependent. It was specifically given, as Paul says twice in verse 7, "lest I be exalted above measure". Paul was commissioned to a great and honorable role in the purpose of God. He was commissioned with the preaching of the mystery of Christ to the Gentile world; and he was even apparently given a vision of heavenly glory. God needed to keep His valued servant from the sin of pride, so that he could remain a holy vessels who was fit for holy purposes.
Have you ever thought about the nature of pride? It's a remarkable sin. Other sins plague those who are evil-doers, and whose hearts are bent toward wickedness and sin. But pride is a sin that most afflicts those who are prone toward righteousness and holiness. Just when we think ourselves most free from the affects of other sins, that's when we fall victim to one of the greatest sins of all - pride. And our ability to be useful to God is greatly hampered when we think proudly of ourselves and consider ourselves sufficient in our own talents and abilities.
I remember hearing once that one of Billy Graham's close associates said, "If God will keep Billy useful, we will keep him humble." How thankful we should be, then, for those things that God allows in our lives to keep us humble. Such things result in our being kept useful to Him.
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Three times Paul prayed and asked that God remove this thorn. And the Lord's final word on the matter was "no". God had a great purpose for this thorn that required that it remain in Paul's "flesh". But consider what happened through that thorn's presence: Paul cried out to God, and was persistent in his doing so.
We may not think of this at the time; but God has truly gained a great victory in our lives whenever He has so worked in us that we cry out to Him. So often, our problem isn't that we have a thorn in our flesh that God is slow to remove. Rather, the real problem is that we don't cry out to God in the first place. We try to remove the thorn ourselves; or if we do cry out to Him, we give up doing so far too easily. We're frustrated by the presence of the thorn He has permitted to afflict us; and yet, He's frustrated because we don't cry out to Him in the affliction! And the whole while long, He has said, "Call upon Me in the day of trouble; I will deliver you, and you shall glorify Me" (Psalm 50:15).
As we read the Bible, we learn why God sometimes seems slow in answering our prayers: it is to make us more persistent and earnest in our asking. We know that this is true, because Jesus has taught us that it is so. He spoke a parable to His disciples to specifically teach them "that men always ought to pray and not loose heart"; saying, "There was in a certain city a judge who did not fear God nor regard man. Now there was a widow in that city; and she came to him, saying, 'Get justice for me from my adversary.' And he would not for a while; but afterward he said within himself, 'Though I do not fear God nor regard man, yet because this widow troubles me I will avenge her, lest by her continual coming she weary me.'" The the Lord said, "Hear what the unjust judge said. And shall God not avenge His own elect who cry out day and night to Him, though He bears long with them? I tell you that He will avenge them speedily. Nevertheless, when the Son of Man comes, will He really find faith on the earth?" (Luke 18:1-8).
Because of this story, we certainly have to consider that one of the reasons God allows a "thorn in the flesh" to remain upon us and to afflict us, in spite of our request that He remove it, is because He knows that we need to develop persistence in our prayers. When the time is right, and when the thorn has accomplished His purpose for us, He is fully able and willing to remove it - but He will not do so until it has served its purpose in us. And so, we need to see it as God's having accomplished a great victory of faith in our lives when our affliction causes us to cry out in dependence upon Him.
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Now; I characterized the Lord's answer to Paul as a "no". But really, there was much more to His answer than that. This leads us, next, to consider ...
2. THE LORD'S ANSWER TO PAUL'S REQUEST (v. 9a).
Before we consider these words, just think of what a blessing they really are! These words are a revelation about suffering from the Lord Himself! We sometimes cry out to God and ask, "Why are you doing this to me?" - and then, it seems as if we don't receive an answer from Him. But the fact is that the Lord HAS given us an answer! Here is His answer!
First, we notice that the Lord told Paul, "My grace is sufficient for you." Grammatically, the Lord placed the greatest emphasis on the word "sufficient" or "of service". He's literally saying, "Sufficient for you is my grace;" and the Savior was thus emphasizing to His servant Paul that, when it came to all Paul wanted accomplished through the removal of that thorn, Jesus' grace alone was more than sufficient to accomplish it. Paul simply wanted the thorn removed - and then, how happy and satisfied he would be! But the Lord's answer was that His grace alone was going to prove sufficient for Paul, to strengthen Paul in the midst of the trial. And then, how much more of a vessel of Christ's glory he would prove to be!
Jesus promises His grace in the midst of our trials. He does not promise that we will be delivered from all trials; but only that His grace will give us the strength in the midst of those trials. This reminds us of what God said to Israel through the prophet Isaiah:
But now, thus says the LORD, who created you, O Jacob, and He who formed you, O Israel: "Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by your name; you are Mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you. When you walk through the fire, you shall not be burned, nor shall the flame scorch you. For I am the LORD your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior ... (Isa. 43:1-3a).
God didn't promise to keep Israel through the waters - but only that the waters would not drown them. He didn't promise to keep them away from the fires - but only that the fires would not scorch them. He promised that He would be with them in the waters and in the fires; because they belonged to Him, and because He was their God. Similarly, God doesn't promise to remove the "thorns" from our "flesh" whenever we ask - but only that His grace will sustain us during the times of affliction.
Now that's not what we wanted to hear, is it? We would much rather have all hindrances, infirmities, afflictions and liabilities removed from us, so that we'll never feel pain, never experience fear, never experience limitations, and never feel weak, tired or confused. We want to be freed from the thorns, so that our own power can shine through, unhindered and unrestricted. But that's not God's plan for us. His plan, instead, is that His power be made to shine through our weakness. The Lord said to Paul that His grace alone is sufficient for him, "for My strength is made perfect in weakness". Paul wanted his own strength to be perfected by the removing of the suffering; but the Lord wanted His own strength to be perfected in Paul's weakness.
What does it mean that the Lord's "strength" is "made perfect in weakness"? We know for sure that it doesn't mean that the Lord's strength is somehow "imperfect". The Lord's strength is already perfectly sufficient and complete in and of itself; and we who are so utterly weak and frail could never in any way add to the perfection of the strength of the Lord. Rather, it means that the Lord's strength is "perfected" (or literally, "brought to its ultimate goal") when it exhibits itself in and fully shines through us!
This reminds me of what the Bible says about God's love. Everyone would, of course, agree that God's love is a perfect love; and that there is no imperfection in His love as it is in and of itself. But even though it's completely perfect, it still remains in a sense "imperfect" and to some degree "incomplete" - that is, until it is fully expressed through us. Then, when God's own love is expressed in and through us to one another, it becomes "perfect"; that is, it finally realizes its full purpose. The apostle John wrote, "No one has seen God at any time. If we love one another, God abides in us, and His love has been perfected in us" (1 John 4:12).
And so, in a similar way, Christ's "strength" is perfected in us when it shines through us in times of trial. And this can only happen when we are weakened - weaned of our trust in ourselves and in our own power and resources. And so, rather than remove the barriers to our own strength, God perfects His own strength in us by wisely and lovingly sustaining us in our suffering through His all-sufficient grace. Then, our experience becomes like Paul's:
I know how to be abased, and how to abound. Everywhere and in all things I have learned both to be full and to be hungry, both to abound and to suffer need. I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me (Phil. 4:12-13).
And so, can you see that the Lord's "no" to Paul's request for relief was, in reality, a very great "yes" to something of infinitely greater value? And what was true for Paul is also true for us; that God will often lovingly allow our infirmities to abide on us in order to weaken us and make us dependent upon Him - all so that His strength can shine through us more perfectly and more gloriously. We, then, should submit to God's humbling process; because that's how He reveals His glory in us. As John Calvin has beautifully written, "The valleys are watered with rain to make them fruitful, while in the mean time, the high summits of the lofty mountains remain dry. Let that man, therefore, become a valley, who is desirous to receive the heavenly rain of God's spiritual grace."
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This was the perspective the Lord gave Paul concerning his suffering. Having the Lord's perspective transformed his own. And this brings us, finally, to consider ...
3. PAUL'S RESPONSE TO THE LORD'S ANSWER (vv. 9b-10).
Perhaps now, we're not so surprised to hear Paul say, "Therefore most gladly I will rather boast in my infirmities ..." It wasn't that Paul was boasting OF his infirmities - as if they were a badge he proudly wore, and as if Paul walked around saying, "See how much I suffer?" Nobody likes to be the guest at someone else's pity party; and certainly Paul was not extending such an invitation to us.
Ordinarily, no one would "most gladly rather" boast in infirmities; but Paul's "most gladly rather" was rooted in his "therefore". Paul could delight in his infirmities, because his joyful confidence was in what Christ was perfecting IN him THROUGH those infirmities. His confidence was expressed in such remarkable statements as these:
We also glory in tribulations, knowing that tribulation produces perseverance; and perseverance character; and character, hope. Now hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out in our hearts by the Holy Spirit who was given to us (Rom. 5:3-5);
For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us" (Rom. 8:18).
Such confidence was also expressed by the apostle James, when he said,
My brethren, count it all joy when you fall into various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces patience. But let patience have its perfect work, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking nothing (James 1:2-4).
The reason for Paul's victorious gladness in the midst of his affliction was his expectation "that the power of Christ may rest upon me." If our confidence and joy is based only on the exhibition of our own power and talents and resources, then we'd have no reason to boast in the very infirmities that weaken and limit them. Rather, we'd be ashamed of such infirmities - even deeply resentful and bitter because of them. But Paul was able to "take pleasure" or "delight" in his infirmities, because his confidence and joy was rooted in the exhibition of Christ's power in him, and the perfection of Christ's power through his suffering. It was because of those infirmities that the power of Christ rested upon Him. As he says elsewhere in this letter;
Therefore we do not lose heart. Even though our outward man is perishing, yet the inward man is being renewed day by day. For our light affliction, which is but for a moment, is working for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory, while we do not look at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen. For the things which are seen are temporary, but the things which are not seen are eternal (2 Cor. 4:16-18).
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Now it might be tempting to dismiss Paul's enthusiasm for his infirmities by thinking that his "infirmities" were far different from our own. He was, after all, an apostle living in ancient times - so he couldn't possibly understand the troubles we face in the twenty-first century. But then, notice that he takes the time to categorize the sorts of trials through which the power of Christ was being perfected in him. Do any of these trials have a familiar ring to you?
(1) He speaks, for example, of "infirmities". The Greek word that's translated 'infirmities' is used four times in verses 9-10. In the New King James Version, it is translated "weaknesses" twice. This speaks of those things that render us weak and powerless in our own resources. Do you ever suffer the limitations of illness, or weakness, or age, or failing physical powers, or particular inabilities? Is there ever anything physical that keeps you from doing what you want to do, or prevents you from fulfilling your own plans?
(2) He speaks of "reproaches"; which is translated "insults" in the New International Version. No one likes to be called names and laughed at. No one likes to be ridiculed by people, or to be thought less of by those from whom you'd rather have love and respect. But Jesus has told us that we would be insulted for His names sake; and that, when it happens, we should leap for joy, because our reward is great in heaven (Matthew 5:11-12). Has the fear of being called names, or of being mocked and ridiculed, ever limited you?
(3) Paul speaks of "needs"; or "hardships" as it's translated in the NIV. This Greek word conveys the idea of being pressed in or constrained; and it speaks of having a lack of that which the world supplies. Have you ever been "tight" when it comes to money, or some other necessary resource? Has a lack of resources ever prevented you from doing what you want to do? That's the idea behind this word; and who among us hasn't experienced that sort of limitation often?
(4) Paul then speaks of "persecutions". This speaks of more than is merely suggested by "reproaches". This is a matter of being openly perused and attacked for your faith. This is a matter of the devil using the fist of another to clobber you. Some of our brothers and sisters in other parts of the world are experiencing this trial even as we speak. Many, even now, choose to follow Jesus Christ at great danger to their lives. Have you ever suffered open attacks because of your identification with Jesus Christ?
(5) And finally, Paul speaks of "distresses" (or "difficulties" as the NIV has it). The Greek word here means "narrowness of place" or "straits". It's another way of speaking as we commonly do - saying that we're in a "tight-spot" or in a "tough-fix". Have difficult circumstances ever pressed in on you? Are they perhaps doing so even right now?
So you see; the things that Paul speaks of are things that we're all to familiar with. "Infirmities" have to do with illnesses and weaknesses; "reproaches" with our relationships; "needs" with a lack of necessary resources; "persecutions" with our personal safety and peace; and "distresses" with trying circumstances. Really, this is a list of trials that touches on every possible area of life.
And yet, Paul was actually able to say that he "delighted" in such things when they came upon him "for Christ's sake". And the reason he delighted in them was because they made him weak; and his weakness made it all the more possible for the power of the blessed Savior Jesus to rest upon him and be perfected in him. Therefore, Paul expresses what seems like a great paradox - although it's not really a paradox at all, but a glorious spiritual truth - "For when I am weak, then I am strong."
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So, we go back to our original question: Why should we give thanks this Thanksgiving to God for all things - even and especially for His 'no' when we ask Him to relieve us of our suffering? Because, as we can see, His 'no' is never really a 'no' to His children's real need. He always answers when we cry out to Him by, in time, giving us something far greater than we would ever have known to ask. His 'no' is always a 'yes' to something far more eternal and glorious - and that is, that His power may be perfected in us. Only our wonderful Savior can take our pain and turn it into such a display of His power and glory!
Dear brother or sister in Christ; let this be an encouragement to you. If you are undergoing a time of trial right now, and if you have cried out to God and yet feel as if He doesn't answer you - if you find that such a trial is making you weaker and weaker - then be patient with God as He does an eternal work in you. In fact, even count it joy and be thankful! The weaker we become under Godıs loving hand, the more we become a vessel of Christ's power to His glory. And when that happens, our infirmities give us cause to say, as Paul himself said,
Now to Him who is able to do exceedingly abundantly above all that we ask or think, according to the power that works in us, to Him be glory in the church by Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen (Eph. 3:20-21).
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