So to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited. Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave 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 of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me” (2Co 12:7-9 ESV).
I recently had the opportunity to speak to a group of 35 Christian athletes at a local high school. These students wake up at 6 a.m. each Wednesday to hear a speaker give an inspirational and motivating presentation. I chose the following title for that morning’s session: “I’ve had cancer three times and I’m still the luckiest man alive.”
We quickly sorted out a few things from what I hoped was an attention-grabbing title. First of all, as Christians we don’t believe in “luck.” The word “blessed” would be a more accurate statement. So why would someone who’s had cancer three times be called “blessed”? Simply put, it is because I’m now able to experience God’s sufficient grace as never before.
Growing up I always thought grace was something that happened to a person at conversion. Ephesians 2 was emphasized in gospel services: “By grace are we saved …” This was both true and appropriate. However, I’ve discovered that grace isn’t only for the moment of salvation. It’s a continual experience known especially during difficult seasons of life.
The Apostle Paul described to the Corinthians one of his specific hardships. He told them about amazing revelations that were both seen and heard. Following his timeline, shortly after these great experiences he received a “thorn in the flesh.” Let’s quickly consider some of the things he’d been through: shipwreck, beatings, stonings; being whipped, imprisoned, homeless; having little food and clothing, etc. With this in mind, it would be reasonable to conclude that Paul was not a complainer. With his history of such legitimate distress, this thorn in the flesh must have been significant in order to get a mention. The so-called thorn was bad enough that he pleaded with God that it would leave him.
Let’s look at what exactly occurs in verses 7-10:
Bible Narrative Lesson Learned Implications a thorn was given implies that God was still in control – He gave it we all face our own thorns – you fill in the blank in the flesh our bodies/lives are temporary keep an eternal mindset a messenger from Satan the devil looks for any foothold to make us miserable be aware of the difference between enemy attacks and what God gives three times consistent prayer is essential in hardship and suffering absolute surrender to God in every moment he pleads with God that it would leave authenticity with God he is able to articulate his situation honestly with God He said to me God answers He knows our future before it happens my grace is sufficient His grace satisfies thorn was not removed – power made perfect in weakness – His presence experienced
I personally can’t claim to be an expert on suffering or dealing with messengers of Satan like Paul could. I have, however, been in two doctors’ offices and an emergency room where the word “cancer” hit like a conversation with the prophet Nathan. As a result, I’ve had considerable bouts with anxiety over health-related issues. Chemotherapy has left permanent scarring in my lungs and neuropathy in my feet. I’ve taken over 450 pills and had more than 280 pokes with a needle. I wouldn’t wish cancer on anyone. My prayers go out to those who are suffering, that they would know God’s sufficient grace.
One of the first honest questions we ask is “Why is this happening?” I wish I could say these adversities happened to me for the cause of the gospel, as in Paul’s case. Those of us who go through similar physical distress may not always know why. There is no exact science to suffering. We come to it at different points in life and different stages of Christian maturity.
Paul does seem to give the Corinthians a perspective on why it happened to him. He specifically stated that this “thorn” was given to keep him from becoming conceited, and hinted in verse 6 that people would start thinking too highly of him. We aren’t told if Paul knew this because of something God revealed to him or if he was summarizing from the rearview mirror. The “why” may not always be obvious. Perhaps, like Paul, we get our best perspective by realizing our own frailty and how weak we are in our own strength.
Paul described this thorn as a messenger from Satan that was harassing him. The thorn was causing him complications consistently enough that he requested God’s help three times. He did not get an alleviating answer. It was not removed. The hard lesson is that God’s grace is sufficient even when prayer isn’t answered the way we desire.
I began by suggesting that I still feel blessed in spite of the triple cancer diagnosis. I would not have known the depths of God’s sufficient grace without these trials. In all the books I’ve read, in all the testimonies I’ve listened to, and in Scripture itself, there seems to be a recurring concept regarding this grace experience. Paul explains it well when he says, “the Lord stood with me, and strengthened me” (2Ti 4:17). I suggest that “He is with me” is one of the most remarkable statements a person can make. This is what Paul relied on for strength in his weakness. I think about the Lord Jesus in His prayer of agony in the garden, entering God’s presence in apparent physical weakness, obtaining strength from the Father to finish the course.
God’s sufficient grace is experienced through the person of Jesus Christ in salvation, through the Holy Spirit from that moment on, and through the Father as He gives it generously. God gives the thorn, but He also gives His sufficient grace.