2 Cor. 12:7-9, “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” (ESV).
Paul had been blessed with spectacular revelations of God. These blessings could have become the foundation of his ministry. He could have held crusades throughout Asia Minor, purporting to share his awesome revelations with anyone who would listen (and pay) to hear them. To undermine prideful conceit in Paul, God sent another blessing, which Paul didn’t recognize as blessing at first sight, second sight or even third sight. It was, as Eugene Peterson paraphrases in The Message, “the gift of a handicap.” This gift was weakness, specifically a “thorn in the flesh,” which could have been one or a combination of the following:
1) Paul’s inner psychological struggles, such as sorrow over Israel’s unbelief, painful regret over his past persecution, of the church, etc.
2) Paul’s persecutors who continued to malign him.
3) A recurring, potentially debilitating physical ailment, such as issues with his eyesight, headaches, malaria, etc.
4) Some other form of demonic harassment.
The fact that Paul calls it his “thorn in the flesh” speaks most likely to some version of #3, though it is easy to see how the others could also be involved as well. Regarding what these “weaknesses” are in our lives, John Piper comments that “They are circumstances and situations and experiences and wounds that make us look weak; things we would probably get rid of if we had the human strength” (sermon dated July 14, 1991).
Whatever it was, it caused Paul a great deal of discomfort and torment. There was urgency to his requests to have it removed. Paul pleaded three times for the Lord to take this thorn away. He desperately wanted deliverance, and he knew only God could grant it. But God had something better in mind for Paul and for us. God’s answer to Paul’s prayer challenged his desires to be sure. “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (v.9). God’s unmerited favor and unfailing love are sufficient for Paul to live the Christian life and to minister in Jesus’ name. It is the same for us.
God’s response to Paul is his response to our weaknesses too – his grace, his unmerited favor, his unconditional love, is enough, sufficient for us in the midst of weakness. God’s goodness, greatness and glory are best displayed against the backdrop of human weakness. This implies that the removal of weakness, albeit the “messenger of Satan,” would somehow detract from God’s glory, the display of his power. In fact, God’s power becomes enfleshed in our weakness - 2 Cor. 4:7, “But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us” (ESV). Indeed, 1 and 2 Corinthians are full of references to weakness being God’s way in the world, as opposed to the ways of beauty and worldly power (1 Cor. 1:25,27; 2:3,5; 15:43; 2 Cor. 12:9; 13:3,4,9).
We should further note that there could have been significant periods of time between Paul’s three requests, maybe days, weeks or years. There could also have been a significant period of time that Paul mulled over God’s response, taking it into the depths of his soul through meditative prayer until it became his genuine response to it as well. We are not told what the process looked like, but we are told that Paul concluded that his ministry, or rather, God’s ministry through him, was not to be based on displays of human strength, power, or having-it-all-together, but on human weakness. His boast was to be in his weaknesses because when he is weak he is strong in Christ.
There is no evidence that Paul ever received the answer to his original prayer. All evidence suggests that he continued to carry this thorn for the rest of his life. But the thorn had been transformed from a curse into a blessing by the word of God’s love. Many of our weaknesses and wounds are first received as a curse; they are painful reminders of the lies we have believed about our identity and serve to torment us of the same. But when brought to the Lord, and kept under the message of his sufficient grace, they can become messengers of truth, light and love, not only to us but to those around us.
Frodo Baggins received a fatal wound from the Witch-King on Weathertop in The Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring. Although he was healed by the efforts of Gandalf and Elrond, the wound remained throughout the rest of his life in Middle Earth. It was no longer fatal, but served to remind him of an earlier, darker time when Hobbits were subject to attacks from creatures of darkness. Our wounds, our weaknesses also will likely remain with us throughout this life. What never happened for Frodo in his life can happen for us in the gospel. Our wounds can become the very basis of blessing for us and for others. What purpose our weaknesses and wounds serve for us and for others depends upon how much we believe and rely on the sure word of God’s sufficient grace. As C.S. Lewis wisely said, “God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: it is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world” (The Problem of Pain. HarperCollins: New York, 2001, p. 93).
Are we listening?