We live in a world of pain, and we hate it. God created the world and declared that it was good, but from the minute sin entered the world we have experienced trouble, pain, and difficulty. Our struggles take many forms: physical pain, fear, doubt, betrayal, temptations, mistreatment, and a host of others.
We should never ask if we will walk through trouble in this life, but when we will and what form it will take. Since pain is certain, the question for us becomes: how will we respond to our pain? And how do we process what God is doing through us in our struggles?
People in 2016 are not the first to walk a path strewn with thorns, and we will not be the last if Jesus tarries longer. Thankfully we can look to Scripture and see the ways of God with our fellow sufferers to gain a greater understanding of how we can respond to our trials and how God is at work through them.
One passage I have been thinking through a lot lately is 2 Corinthians 12:1-10, a passage with which many are familiar because it contains Paul’s description of his “thorn in the flesh.” Paul writes to the Corinthian church as this church has been calling his apostleship into question because men had come into it and lured the people toward themselves by attacking Paul’s ministry. He answers the charges about his lack of eloquence, unimpressive appearance, and multitude of trials by showing what these prove: that the power of God drives his ministry rather than the shrewdness and cunning of men.
In 2 Corinthians 12:1-10, he talks about a man (himself), whom God carried up into the third heaven, and who saw things that were to great to come back and recount. Paul shares his experience by referring to himself in the third person here because he wants the emphasis to be on the greatness of the visions and not on him being the one who saw it. This great revelation led to God taking action in Paul’s life to ensure he would not be puffed up with pride because of what he saw.
Paul describes the burden God placed upon him as a “thorn in the flesh.” Pastors, scholars, and theologians have spilled barrels of ink discussing the thorn in the flesh. All manner of fanciful interpretations exist, but there are two possibilities that make the most sense. Since this thorn was “in the flesh,” it could have been a physical malady. Or, when you consider the historical situation leading to the writing of this letter, the possibility arises that Paul uses “thorn in the flesh” as a metaphor to describe the false teachers who are actively working to discredit him. It is this latter interpretation that makes the best sense in light of the rest of the book.
We don’t have to be going through the exact kind of trial Paul was experiencing to receive the grace and help extended in this passage. He says he prayed three times for God to take away the thorn, but God wouldn’t do it. God’s answer to Paul, and Paul’s response to what he hears, offer great hope to those who are walking through pain and suffering.
Depend on God’s Grace
“My grace is sufficient for you.” God tells Paul that his unmerited favor which he lavishes upon us richly in Jesus Christ will be all that he needs to endure. God’s grace saves us, but that’s not all. In his grace God gives us everything we need at the moment we need it to persevere through our trials and to walk through them without being crushed by them.
Grace is the antidote we need for the anxieties we face. In Philippians, Paul tells us to be anxious for nothing, but in everything to make our requests known to God. We place our burdens on him and in exchange he gives us his peace. This is grace. When we realize that we do not have to carry our burdens on our own or spend our lives riddled with anxiety, and we go to the Lord in prayer, we get to start experiencing the blessing of his peace. We need to hear, “My grace is sufficient for you” every day, because every day we will be tempted to think our burdens will destroy us. We need the reminder that his grace is sufficient and that he welcomes us in so he can give us peace instead.
Growing up in the South, I often heard, “The Lord won’t put on you more than you can handle.” The Bible does not teach this. The best I can tell, this is an unhelpful paraphrase of 1 Corinthians 10 where Paul teaches that God will not allow a temptation to come our way without providing a way of escape. God will, and often does, put more on us than we can handle. When life seems easy and we think we can handle it on our own, we get tempted to forget him and live as if our own resources will get us through life just fine. God is a master at getting our attention, and he often uses our trials and difficulties to remind us of how desperately we need him. And every time a trial comes our way to remind us that our self-sufficiency is an illusion, he says, “My grace is sufficient for you.”
Don’t Despise Your Weakness
“My power is made perfect in weakness.” These words seem like nonsense to us today because we don’t associate weakness with power, and in man’s reckoning they are polar opposites. We hate our weaknesses and spend considerable effort trying to hide them or work on them so they at least become our mediocrities. God is not interested in helping us maintain our appearances of having it all together and our facades of self-reliance. He wants us to depend on him so that his power shines through.
Paul, who had a spiritual experience beyond anything we could imagine, needed a thorn so he could be reminded that he was a dependent man. God sent the thorn to keep him humble, and to remind him that he was a man who needed a power he didn’t possess on his own. We need to get this memo as well, and the Lord in his providence sends thorns our way. Every time we feel their prick, it should drive us toward the only source of real strength.
Pride and despair come from the same place. When we try to live life in our own power and fame and succeed, we become puffed up with pride. On the other hand, if our efforts at self-justification fail, we get overwhelmed with disillusionment and despair. Since both of these maladies have the same source, they also have the same solution. We have no choice but to put our pretensions of strength and self-sufficiency to death. In their place, we must discover faith and humility. In the place where we come to an end ourselves and trust in God’s promises to us in Christ, this is the place where we find God’s sufficient grace and the help we so desperately crave in our time of need.
This article originally appeared on ScottSlayton.net. Used with permission.
Scott Slayton serves as Lead Pastor at Chelsea Village Baptist Church in Chelsea, AL and writes at his personal blog One Degree to Another: scottslayton.net. He and Beth have been married since 2003 and have four children. You can follow him on Twitter: @scottslayton.
Publication date: September 8, 2016
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