When I was in middle and high school, CBS aired a show called Rescue 911 that dramatized the events surrounding actual 911 calls. While this never bothered me when I was younger, in adulthood I would see the show in syndication and started noticing that almost every reenactment began with the people walking through an ordinary day. They were going to work, school, or the store and then something terrible and life-altering happened to them.
There’s something about the beginning of a new year that makes us all unbridled optimists. We think the first day of 2018 will greet us with happier relationships, healthier bodies, and fatter bank accounts. We never enter a year thinking, “this could be the year that my life falls apart.” We don’t get a text message letting us know that some catastrophic event is going to hit us this year. The worst things that happen to seemingly come out of nowhere and often change our lives in a moment without warning.
We would all do well to pause at the beginning of 2017 and ask, “what if 2017 is the worst year of my life?” We spent a lot of time thinking about resolutions for improving our lives, but do we spend time thinking about how we will respond if our lives fall apart.
In 2 Corinthians 12:7-10, Paul describes the thorn in the flesh he received because of the incredible visions he had seen. While he doesn’t identify the nature of the thorn, he tells the Corinthian church about his struggle with it and God’s response when he pleaded for him to take it away. In looking at Paul’s words in 2 Corinthians 12, we see three things we need to remember if this is the year that our lives fall apart.
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. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.
God is Sovereign Over Our Trials
We don’t know the precise nature of what Paul saw when he was caught up to the third heaven. He didn’t come back, write a best-selling book, and pawn off the movie rights. Instead, he says that what he saw was so overwhelming and stunning that he received a “thorn in the flesh” to keep him from becoming conceited.
Paul doesn’t identify the precise nature of the thorn. Pastors, scholars, and commentators offer a surprising number of options. It could be a physical deformity, false teacher, physical pain, or emotional burden. He leaves enough hints for us to come up with plausible hypotheses, but the vagueness feels purposeful. Our ignorance about the thorn is good news for us because we do not need to be going through exactly what Paul was facing at this moment to receive the grace Paul offers in this passage. Instead, any person who is suffering from any difficulty can hear the good news Paul proclaims here and receive the comfort it gives.
Paul refers to his thorn as “a messenger of Satan” to harass him and keep him humble. What he says here sounds strange initially because you would think that Satan would want Paul to be arrogant. What we should write over Paul’s thorn, and any suffering we may face, the words of Joseph in Genesis 50. “You meant evil against me, but God meant it for good.” That which Satan would bring in our lives to crush and destroy us, God uses to make us more like Jesus. That God works in this way means that Satan, “the universe,” or karma have no ultimate say over the events that come into our lives. God in his absolute sovereignty oversees everything that happens to us, and he intends for it to work in us an eternal weight of glory.
God’s Grace is More Than Enough
That God is sovereign over our trials does not negate our invitation to pray to him about them. God’s sovereignty should not produce a gloom passivity in us. Instead, we should come before the Lord in bold prayer, realizing the answer we hear from him may sound a lot like what he told Paul. Paul asked God to take away the thorn, and the Lord’s answer was that he intended to leave the thorn right where it was.
The Father didn’t keep the thorn in Paul’s flesh as some karmic retribution for something Paul had done wrong. Rather, God used the thorn in Paul’s flesh for him to learn a lesson he could not and would not learn when everything was rosy. “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” What the Lord tells Paul here is that he grace is all that Paul needs to get him through his difficulty.
We often think of God’s grace only regarding our justification, forgetting that it is God’s grace that gives us what we need every day to continue following him. It not only saves us, but it also sustains us. This truth reminds us that even as people who have experienced salvation in Christ, we still stand in desperate need of God’s kindness and deliverance in our daily lives. We have to learn to lean on him, depend on him, and rely on him through for each step we take throughout the day. Walking through the darkness reminds of this truth because walking through the sunshine often causes us to forget it.
God’s Strength Becomes Visible in Our Weakness
God further tells Paul that his grace is sufficient because “my power is made perfect in weakness.” Paul then goes on to say, “Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.”
We need to wrestle with what Paul has said here. The question is not whether we are weak people or strong people. Every person is weak and unable to handle all of the pressures that life throws at us when we try to face them in our power. This is particularly the case for the Christian, as we cannot live in a way that brings glory to God and overcomes the obstacles the world, the flesh, and the devil throw in our path when we rely on our own strength to do so. Instead, we must embrace the truth that we are weak and need the strength that only God supplies.
Often, the only way we remember this is through trial and difficulty. When the sun is shining, and everything looks grand, we forget how desperately dependent we are. Then suffering or pain arrives, and we remember that we need God. Our trials are God’s way of grabbing us by the lapels and reminding us that we need the strength that only he supplies. When we despair of our own strength and rely on his strength alone, we will know who should receive the glory when we endure and overcome our trials.
If 2017 gets rough, remember that the sovereign God who loves his people so much that he gave his only Son to die for them gives his grace and his strength liberally to those who need it.
“Four Reasons Why You Shouldn’t Live in Fear“
For Further Reading:
When the Darkness Will Not Lift by John Piper
The Beatitudes by Thomas Watson