The Strategy for Strength
Scripture: 2 Corinthians 12:7–10
The Strategy for Strength
2 Corinthians 12:7-10
Sunday, February 15, 2015
Pastor Randy Smith
How many times in life have you used something for the wrong purpose? Has anybody ever come up to you and said, "That's not the way it's done." When we do this we're clueless, but to the informed outside observer it must be rather comical.
Frequently we do this with the English language. We're confident in a choice of words, but they are spoken in a way that is totally incorrect. I'll most likely make a few of these mistakes in today's sermon!
- I could care less verses I couldn't care less.
- One in the same verses One and the same.
- You've got another thing coming verses You've got another think coming.
- On accident verses By accident.
- For all intensive purposes verses For all intents and purposes.
- He did good verses He did well.
- I'm givingyou leadway verses I'm giving you leeway.
- Expresso verses Espresso.
- Irregardless verses Regardless.
- Nip it in the butt verses Nip it in the bud.
- I made a complete 360 degree change in my life verses I made a complete 180 degree change in my life.
On a much more tragic level, there are professing Christians that have been doing the Christian life entirely wrong. It comes down to a biblical understanding as compared to a cultural understanding as to what it truly means to be a Christian. We all have blind spots, but making sure we have it right in this area is essential if we wish to experience the essence of our relationship with Christ. Today's sermon will deal with this.
Understand today's message and you'll be filled with joy in all circumstances. Complaining will cease. Despair will be lifted. Divine strength will be provided. Grace will abound. Trials will be embraced. Humility will improve. Contentment will thrive. Faith will increase. And Jesus Christ will be glorified.
I'd say these are some important areas. I'd also say these are the areas where most believers act very similarly to the world. So what's the secret? It's found in rightly understanding and applying today's message from 2 Corinthians.
First we will take a general look at this passage. Then we will seek to determine to the best of our ability Paul's famous "thorn in the flesh." Then we'll wrap it up and bring forth some invaluable application.
1. An Overview
Let's roll! The first point, "An Overview."
So we learned last week in verses 1-6 that Paul was given a vision of the glories of heaven. He says he kept the vision a secret for fourteen years and only brought it up with great reluctance because of the situation in which he now finds himself with the false teachers. He doesn't communicate any of the details and even adds that the Lord prohibited him from doing so. To demonstrate his humility, he speaks of himself in the third person. "I know a man" (verse 2, etc).
Yet when we get to verse 7, Paul now reverts back to the first person. We see the words "me" and "myself" used in the verse. We also see him refer to the "surpassing greatness" of his revelations because Paul knew what God knows, revelations of this magnitude can easily lead to pride. "No one else received this vision." "I'm more loved and honored and esteemed and informed and privileged than the rest of creation."
Prideful people are miserable people. Prideful people are incapable servants of Christ. Prideful people are a contradiction to the Gospel. So the moment God brings Paul up to heaven is the moment God brings him down. So to "keep [him] from exalting [himself] (verse 7), Paul was given a "thorn in the flesh" (verse 7). The purpose of the thorn is repeated a second time at the end of verse 7. "To keep me from exalting myself."
We'll come back to this thorn (which literally could be translated a "stake), but whatever it was, we have to conclude that it was a painful, ongoing trial. Paul said it tormented him. The word "torment" in verse 7 (KJV - "buffet") always refers in the New Testament to a harsh treatment of somebody (cf. 1 Cor. 4:11; 1 Pet. 2:20). It's used in Matthew 26 to refer to the time, when on trial, that Jesus was punched in the face (Mt. 26:67).
Paul wanted this thorn in his life removed. He even tells us in verse 8 that "concerning this I implored the Lord three times that it might leave me."
Paul's first reaction was similar to ours. He wanted the thorn gone so he went to His Lord, His loving Savior, with the power at His disposal to do as He desires with the perfect wisdom to act in the most appropriate way. Paul prayed. There is something wrong with loving pain. And there is nothing wrong with asking for God's help.
Many run away from God during their trials. Prayer signifies that Paul ran to Jesus Christ. As a matter of fact, he says he prayed "three times." Possibly that could be taken literally. Maybe he was following the example of Jesus Himself, who prayed three times in the Garden of Gethsemane. It also may just be a way of emphasizing the fact that the prayer was frequently repeated (Psm. 55:17; Dan. 6:10, 13).
So God answered Paul's prayer, but not in a way that Paul had first desired. God told Paul that the thorn was going to stay, but that verse 9, "My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness." Interestingly, Paul refuses to tell us what Christ said in his vision, but he tells us what Christ said to him in his pain. And what did Christ say? That regardless the depth of Paul's pain, God promises His grace is always sufficient to meet the need to continue a Christian life of joy, peace, hope, service, contentment, faith and worship despite the circumstances being unchanged (Phil. 4:12-13).
Still in verse 9, Paul draws the right conclusion. "Most gladly, therefore, I will rather boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me." In other words, if God's grace and power are best experienced through our weaknesses, Paul found great contentment in the thorn, understanding that his specific weakness was actually the necessary avenue for God's strength. Paul was not thankful for the pain in and of itself (after all, it was satanic in origin). He was thankful for the ways God used the pain in his life. So when it comes to boasting on his part, he says in verse 9 he would "rather" boast in the thorn than the heavenly vision. The latter resulted in pride. The former resulted in humility leading to true spiritual strength and greatness.
So Paul concludes in verse 10: "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 told us many of his others trials at the end of chapter 11. He's learned to be content with them and with the "thorn in his flesh" because these afflictions emptied him of self-sufficiency and moved him to a place where he could better depend on the Lord. And when he found himself in that place, he was strong, not in his own strength but the strength that God supplied.
So a brief word of comparison before we move to the second point. Let's observe what we see from many Christians today compared with what we just witnessed right here in our Bible.
- Escaping weakness verses embracing weakness.
- Boasting in strengths verses boasting in weaknesses.
- Only praying for relief of trials verses praising God for the trials.
- Binding Satan verses allowing God to use Satan's work.
- Casting out demons verses realizing God sometimes uses messengers of Satan for our good.
- Name it and claim it verses trusting the Lord's will be done.
- Complaining verses contentment.
- Halfhearted prayer verses persistent prayer.
- Need to supplement with humanistic means verses God's sufficient grace.
- Running away from God in trials verses running to God in trials.
- Admiring prideful people verses admiring humble people.
- Wanting God's comfort verses wanting God's holiness.
Do you see how far removed from biblical thinking we can become? Can you imagine the conflict when we are running with a different agenda than God's for our lives?
2. An Explanation
Point number two, "An Explanation." Specifically, what was Paul's thorn in the flesh in verse 7? Allow me to initially say that no one ultimately knows, and this has been a matter of speculation and debate throughout the history of the church.
As I studied out this passage, I believe much of it depends on how we interpret the Greek word "sarx" or as it is translated in English, "flesh." There are at least three possible interpretations. All of them are doctrinally sound and applicable, but only one of them is the correct interpretation for this passage.
Was it a thorn in Paul's physical flesh? In other words was it a form of mortal suffering in his physical body that brought tremendous hardship and pain? Suggestions throughout the millennia have suggested that for Paul it was leprosy, migraines, sciatica, arthritis, dental infection, epilepsy, gallstones, or gout. Possibly the best proposals along these lines would be malaria that he contracted during his missionary journeys or significant problems with his eyes. Many point to his letter to the Galatians when he spoke of his loathsome "bodily illness" (Gal. 4:13-14). He said the church would have "plucked out [their] eyes and given them to [him] (Gal. 4:15; cf. 6:11). Some even claim his poor eyesight initially resulted from the brightness of the vision he experienced (2 Cor. 12:1-6)!
People have also argued it was an emotional problem such as depression and feelings of insecurity.
Some claim that Paul's thorn was more spiritual in nature as the verse could also be translated "a thorn for the flesh". In this case it is said that Paul is speaking of his flesh, the part that we all struggle with in our Christian life that still desires and pursues sin. We are called to crucify the flesh, and what God did in Paul's life was drive a stake through his unredeemed nature, maybe even using the possible difficulties we previously mentioned. Obviously this would have curbed all those sinful desires like conceit and boasting and arrogance that would have resulted from the vision.
A third option for Paul's "thorn in the flesh" is to take it as a figure of speech, a way we commonly employ the saying today. In other words, Paul's thorn was a chronic harassment, a pain in his side if you will. Our dishwasher has become a small thorn in our flesh! For many of us it can be significant - an annoying person, an inability to ever succeed in something, a never-ending discouragement or again, an ongoing physical ailment. It's something that poses the temptation for continual disappointment, despair and despondency. It is something that's hard to tolerate and easy to want removed. In Paul's case it had persisted for fourteen years (verse 2).
Regardless of which interpretation you choose (and there was a reason for Paul not wanting to be specific), all of these options would bring about the main purpose Paul stated to humble himself and draw him to the Lord for strength.
So let's break it down with a few observations: First, we observe that this thorn "was given" to Paul. Paul was passive in this regard. So who gave the thorn to Paul? Was it God or Satan? The answer is "yes."
Second, notice the purpose of the thorn. Satan's purpose was to destroy Paul and his ministry. Without the thorn, Satan would have used the vision to incite Paul's pride. Now that Paul was given the thorn, he most likely wanted the thorn to debilitate Paul and lead him to despair and doubt whereby putting him on the shelf and away from effective service for Christ.
From God's perspective, like He did with Job, God used Satan's attacks for His own advantage. Satan wanted the destruction of Paul. Since humility was produced with contentment and gratitude, you have to conclude that the devil's plan backfired. God permitted Satan's plans for better effectiveness in Paul's ministry (cf. Lk. 22:31).
Third, Satan's role is expressed in verse 7. We learn it was a "messenger of Satan" that tormented Paul. Literally we could translate that as "an angel of Satan." Somehow a demon was involved in this severe trial. This leads me to believe that Paul was chronically harassed either by a demon or a demon possessed/demon oppressed individual. Satan tried to destroy Paul, but God used it for good to subdue Paul's flesh from producing pride and produce in Paul great humility.
3. An Application
So as we move to the third point, let's pull it all together and by way of application draw a conclusion from this passage.
We know that we are prone to pain while we live here in this life. Some of it results from our own poor choices, some of it results from living for Christ and some of it happens from situations outside of our control. Some of these things can be attributed to Satan. However, God is completely sovereign over everything that afflicts us. He is supreme. He is in control. He is the primary cause and in permitting the suffering always has a good intent in it for those who love Him and are called according to His purpose (Rom. 8:28).
His purpose for the lives of His children is Christlikeness (Rom. 8:29). Though we often want comfort and pleasure and prosperity and healing, the Lord knows these are not always the means that will produce in us the holiness He desires. Sometimes God shows His love by removing the trial. Often He shows His love by permitting the trial to remain, knowing just the right pressure in our lives that will produce in us Christlikeness - both His greatest desire and our greatest good.
Therefore when the trial comes (and often remains), we understand that while in the trial we are being firmly held in His wise and loving arms. As the trial humbles us, it manifests a weakness in us that causes us to cast a greater dependence on Him. We are forever weaned of our self-sufficiency and our self-reliance and learn to trust in His resources and not our own. God provides perfectly measured, sufficient grace (His divine assistance through the Holy Spirit) enabling us to remain in the trial with our faith intact. We are enabled to depend more on His strength and not our own. And we are enabled to trust Him for the working of Christlikeness in our lives (Jas. 1:2-4).
So when we get to those places when it seems God refuses to remove the trial (the "thorn in the flesh"), we need to realize that now is not the time to distrust or retreat or complain against God, but now is the time to realize we are in a place to be most spiritually effective since we are stripped of our human resources.
No one is too weak to experience God's power, but sadly our churches are filled with people that are too strong and too confident in themselves. There is no taste for God's power unless you are convinced you need it. The physical suffering and mental anguish and disappointment and failure are not roadblocks, but the actual channels where God's grace can flow and His power can be manifested in and through us. When we are weak we are strong when we depend on Christ. Let's remember, "God is opposed the proud, but give grace to the humble" (Jas. 4:6).
One author said, "Only a morbid fanatic can take pleasure in the sufferings he inflicts upon himself; only an insensitive fool can take pleasure in the sufferings that are the consequences of his folly; and only a convinced Christian can take pleasure in sufferings endured 'for Christ's sake,' for he alone has been initiated into the divine secret, that it is only when he is 'weak,' having thrown himself unreservedly in penitence and humility upon the never-failing mercies of God, that he is 'strong,' with a strength not his own, but belonging to the Lord of all power and might" (Tasker, 179).
You know, the more I see my sinfulness, the more I see the need for God's grace for forgiveness. And the more I see my frailty, weakness and dependence, the more I appreciate God's grace for strength.
So do trials make you bitter and ultimately weak or do they make you grateful and ultimately strong? What a wonderful perspective and blessing when we undergo trials, something true only for the believer as a result of God's always sufficient grace!
Day by day, and with each passing moment,
Strength I find to meet my trials here;
Trusting in my Father's wise bestowment,
I've no cause for worry or for fear.
He, whose heart is kind beyond all measure,
Gives unto each day what He deems best,
Lovingly its part of pain and pleasure,
Mingling toil with peace and rest.
"Day by Day," Lyrics by: Lina Sandell