Amazing Grace by John Montgomery Boice 1993
My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness. 2 CORINTHIANS 12:9
In the last chapter we looked at 2 Corinthians 12:9 as a verse in which grace refers to God’s helping us to live a strong Christian life. That verse goes a step beyond merely standing for God against such things as ridicule, hardship, and corruption in the church. Those things are difficult, but they are all nevertheless external. That is, they are in the world about us and attack us from there rather than being deep within ourselves. Second Corinthians 12:9 takes us within ourselves to individual deficiencies, personal handicaps, and humiliating limitations, telling us that God’s grace is sufficient for us even in these areas.
A Cruel Theology
A chapter in J.I. Packer’s Knowing God speaks critically about what Packer calls the cruelty of a certain kind of gospel ministry.
The chapter is called “These Inward Trials,” and the cruelty he discusses is the result of a well-meaning but mistaken theology. It is the teaching that God will save us not only from the punishment due us for sin and the guilt we feel from it, but also from all the burdens, confusions, discouragements, and defeats of this life. As he says, the teaching is usually well-meaning. Its advocates want to commend Christianity. They want to win people to Jesus Christ. But it is also cruel, because the people who teach this way are buying immediate, visible results with false promises. As anyone who has been a Christian for any length of time knows, becoming a Christian does not automatically overcome or eliminate life’s difficulties. In fact, it even creates a few that the new Christian did not have before.
And there is this additional cruelty. When people who begin to follow Jesus Christ under a mistaken notion of what being his disciple means face difficulties, even personal failures, they are told by such teachers that the problem is in themselves and to overcome it they need to seek out the secret sins in their lives, confess them, and get right with God again.
It is true, of course, that Christians do sin and that, when we do, we need to confess the sin and turn from it. But that is not the sole or even the major reason for most of life’s trials. There are multiple reasons. And if they are wrongly oversimplified in the service of such a cruelly mistaken gospel, the result is either Christians who deny reality, sticking their head in the sand whenever tragedies occur, or else Christians who admit the tragedies of life but blame themselves to the point of undergoing spiritual breakdowns, hysteria, or even (temporary) losses of their faith.
Packer’s point is that we have a lot of this type of error today, especially in the “superstar,” successful, glamour-oriented approach of much contemporary evangelicalism. It is a dreadful aberration. The proper theological name for it is triumphalism.
The Church at Corinth
There were people like this in the church at Corinth, that fellowship of believers located on the narrow isthmus between upper Greece dominated by Athens and the lower portion of Greece dominated by Sparta, which Paul had founded on his second missionary journey. Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians has a lot to say about them. Ironically, he calls them “super-apostles” (2 Cor 11:5). But they were not actually apostles. They were “false apostles, deceitful workmen, masquerading as apostles” (v. 13). They were promoting themselves in order to collect religious followers.
They boasted about their “God-given” visions and revelations. This set them apart, of course. It made them awesome. It gave their words what we would call clout, as it always does when someone says, “God told me so-and-so.” To Paul these claims were false, and the type of Christianity they encouraged was both mistaken and harmful. But think what the false apostles would have been saying. They would have pointed to their success and Paul’s apparent failure. They would have said things like, “God gives me revelations all the time. Why, just this morning the Lord spoke to me and told me to say what I am about to say to you. What revelations has Paul had in recent years? What visions has he shared with us? As for God’s blessing on his work, well, I don’t see that God has blessed him very much. In fact, if you look at his career, it seems to be just one great failure or disaster after another.”
How does Paul deal with this problem? The way he does it is marvelous and a great example for those who are trying to deal with difficult people as they themselves pursue Christian work.
First, Paul points to what the detractors must have been pointing to as his failures: the beatings he had received, the stoning at Lystra (Acts 14:19), the shipwrecks, the lack of food,
clothing, and shelter. “Do you want me to boast like these false apostles?” he seems to be saying. “All right, then, I will boast. But not about my special revelations or God’s miraculous interventions in my life. I will boast about my sufferings for his sake. My sufferings are my credentials.” The text reads:
Are they servants of Christ? (I am out of my mind to talk like this.) I am more. I have worked much harder, been in prison more frequently, been flogged more severely, and been exposed to death again and again. Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was pelted with stones, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea, I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my fellow Jews, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false believers. I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked. Besides everything else, I face daily the pressure of my concern for all the churches. (2 Cor. 11:23-28)
He concludes, “If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness” (v. 30). What a contrast to the triumphalism of the false apostles, as well as the many equally mistaken triumphalists today.
Second, Paul mentions a vision the Lord had given him. He does it with great restraint and apparent uneasiness. We know that Paul had received numerous visions because of Luke’s reporting of them in the book of Acts (Acts 9:12; 16:9-10; 18:9-10;
22:17-21; 23:11; 27:23-24). The remarkable thing, however, is that in his letters Paul almost never speaks of them. He tells us why here: “There is nothing to be gained” (2 Cor. 12:1). Talking about his visions might add to his prestige, but it would have no benefit at all for the Corinthians. The only thing that would benefit them is careful teaching of the Word of God, which is what Paul actually did instead.
Here he is forced to speak about a vision. He does not want to, but he is driven to it by the foolishness of the Corinthian Christians. Earlier, when the false apostles had boasted of their successes, ironically Paul had boasted of his failures. But he cannot do that here. The opposite of having received a vision is not having received a vision, and Paul could not claim that: first, because it would not have been true (he had received them), and second, because it would have played into the hands of his critics.
So he does speak of a vision. He speaks in the third person, referring to himself as “a man in Christ” whom he knew, a man who was caught up into the third heaven, into Paradise, where he heard inexpressible things that he was not permitted to speak. Obviously, Paul is suggesting that if the false apostles really had been given special revelations by God, they too should have kept silent about them. The very fact that they were speaking about their visions so freely suggests that they were not true visions at all.
The way a ministry should be evaluated is not by claims to special revelations but by faithfulness in preaching and teaching God’s Word and by willingness to endure hardships in order to continue doing it.
Paul’s Thorn in the Flesh and Ours
At this point Paul must have been embarrassed that he had been forced to mention even this one vision because it is against this
background — all I have been describing — that he talks about his thorn in the flesh (v. 7).
What was it? No one knows exactly what it was, though there has been a great deal of speculation, as you might imagine. Since he mentions “flesh” there are people who have supposed this to be a weakness in his moral nature. John Calvin took this view. William Ramsay, the great investigator of Paul’s travels, suggested that the thorn was malaria that Paul had picked up in the mosquito-infested swamps of lower, coastal Asia Minor on his first or second missionary journey. Some have suggested epilepsy, which is certainly a physical infirmity. Some have suggested a speech defect because of his admitting to the Corinthians that he did not speak with eloquence when he was among them (1 Cor. 2:1). The explanation that has always appealed to me is that Paul may have had a serious eye infection or condition that restricted his ability to see and brought him personal embarrassment. It is because he seems to have signed his letters personally, after a scribe had taken them down by dictation, but with “large letters” (Galatians 6:11). This might mean that he could not see well and therefore awkwardly copied out the letters of his name. But, of course, it could also mean only that he had not been trained to use the fine, cultured letters of a professional writer.
Still others have imagined that Paul was afflicted by guilt over failure to convert his fellow Jews, still others that his thorn was Jewish or Gentile persecution.
As I say, we do not know what this thorn was. But we can probably say that it was physical, the literal meaning of “in my flesh,” and that it must have caused Paul great physical torment and embarrassment. In other words, it was a substantial problem and not merely a minor irritation, at least to him. I say this because Paul was a man who willingly put up with all the serious setbacks and sufferings mentioned in chapter 12, not suggesting
for a moment that he ever asked for the removal of any of these things. Yet this thorn bothered him so much that in some substantial way he pleaded with the Lord on three separate occasions that it might be removed.
I do not believe it was an oversight on God’s part that we have not been told what Paul’s affliction was. In my judgment it has been left indefinite so we can identify with him and learn from him, whatever our individual, differing afflictions may be. If Paul’s problem was bad eyes, and we were told that this was his thorn, the fact might be comforting for those who have bad eyes. But others would not think about Paul’s trouble or be helped by him in this way very much. Since we do not know what he experienced, we can imagine him hurting from what it is that hurts us.
And people do have hurts, even the most triumphant-appearing, victorious Christians or Christian leaders.
Pastors have unusual opportunities to learn of these hurts because the people in their churches often share them and ask for counsel. I have unusual opportunities myself because, in addition to being a pastor of a large inner-city church, I am also a radio pastor to thousands who tune in to the “Bible Study Hour” each week. A radio program is no substitute for regular worship in church. I encourage full church participation. But sometimes people are unable to get to church or attend a church. They are not free to share their burdens with others for one reason or another. Many write to me, and I and the staff of the “Bible Study Hour” pray for them regularly.
Here is a random sampling of things listeners have written to me about.
From a town in Iowa. A family writes that their daughter was diagnosed as having viral encephalitis when she was only twenty days old. She was expected to die quickly because her body was not able to control her body’s temperature, but the child lived, though she has been in and out of many hospitals. She is now
about eleven years old. This is not all, however. The father suffers from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, which limits the amount of work he is able to do. He cleans offices part time. His wife helps, as well as working part time in a school cafeteria. They have other problems, too.
Are they complaining? No. The wife writes, “Please ask God to strengthen us, to fill our hearts with love for him, for one another, and for our fellow humans, and to help us meet these challenges with love, courage, strength, and wisdom.”
From a city in Virginia. A wife asks us to pray that God would work in the life of her husband to bring him back home. He has deserted her.
From Kansas. A widow who lives on a pension of less than $1,000 a month and who has lived in her own home for thirty years, writes that she is about to be evicted because of a lawsuit. “Please remember me,” she says. “I am so afraid.”
From Michigan. A visually handicapped Christian woman is also about to be evicted from her residence. She cannot drive because she cannot see. She has no family, nowhere to go.
From a small town in California. A man writes that he is sixty-one years old and has just lost his job, a frightening thing at that age. He does not even ask for prayer specifically. His letter is a testimony. “I know things are going to be OK. God has supplied and does supply all my needs, and I know he always will.”
Many people write about their families, often about unsaved children who are ruining themselves but who will not recognize it, confess their sins, and turn to the Lord. They are a constant grief to their parents, who pray for them earnestly. Sometimes it is an unsaved wife or husband. Sometimes the wife or husband has died. Still other people write of physical suffering. A listener from Montana is dying of cancer and likes the radio because it is the one device she is able to control from her bed even though she cannot raise herself and is always lying down.
This is the kind of thing that I could extend indefinitely, but I have included these stories to make the point. Christians do suffer. God frequently leads even his choice people through deep waters. The Christian life has its thorns.
But that is not all, because it is chiefly to these people (though it is to the rest as well) that our text comes. Paul had a thorn. It was so debilitating that this very godly man, a man who had suffered so much without complaining, asked the Lord on three separate occasions to remove it, and the Lord did not. Instead, he replied in what is surely one of the greatest and most encouraging verses in the Bible, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor. 12:9). That is a text for you if you are suffering from some inescapable affliction.
The Lessons of the Thorn
From this lengthy approach, we should now understand well the context for Paul’s remarks and understand that many Christians suffer from similar ailments. But from this point we need to explore the text for its lessons about these inescapable burdens. There are at least five of them.
1. Paul’s thorn was from Satan.
In a moment we are going to see that Paul’s suffering was simultaneously a work of God. The whole point of what Paul is saying depends on the fact that God had his hand on him even in this area. But the fact that God uses evil for his own divine purposes does not mean that evil ceases to be evil or that suffering, which flows from evil and is often caused by it, is not real suffering. Paul makes the nature of the case clear when he speaks of his thorn being “a messenger of Satan, to torment me” (v. 7).
Of all the cruel things that are done to Christians who are
suffering — apart from blaming it on some sin they themselves have committed, which is what Job’s comforters tried to do to him — the worst is to minimize or deny the suffering, pretending that it is not really what it is. How easy it is to do that! It is easy to pretend that being confined to a wheelchair is not really very bad, as long as you are not in a wheelchair yourself. It is easy to make light of legal blindness or a loss of hearing, memory, or other faculties, as long as you are not blind, deaf, or otherwise afflicted. It is easy to put on a happy face and paint a rosy picture for the cancer patient, as long as you do not have cancer. But that accomplishes nothing, and it is not genuine Christianity. Christianity faces the evil squarely. Even more than others, Christians believe that this is indeed a genuinely evil and terribly painful world.
2. Paul’s thorn was simultaneously from God.
Even though Satan had a hand in Paul’s suffering, God was nevertheless ultimately in charge and was responsible. Paul makes this clear in two ways. First, he uses the passive tense to say that the thorn “was given me” (v. 7). It was God who gave it. Second, he says that he prayed to the Lord to take it from him, which would make sense only if God was in control (v. 8).
This is something only Christians can understand. The first point I made, that evil is evil and should not be glibly explained away, is something the world can say, too, though it often doesn’t. The world can call evil, evil — particularly if it is in someone else. Only Christians can confess that it is also controlled by God. Why? Because we know it is true, even though we may be at a loss to explain how it is. I say we know this because, even though we may not have been able to see it clearly in our own lives or have experienced it, we have at least seen it in the case of Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior.
There is no question but that the arrest, trial, and judicial murder of Jesus was a triumph of the most malicious evil. Satan
had plotted it, and he accomplished it “with the help of wicked men” (Acts 2:23). Even Jesus called it an “hour … when darkness reign[ed]” (Luke 22:53). Yet at the same time, there has never been a moment in history when God was more evidently in charge. All that happened to Jesus happened that the Scripture which had been given by God beforehand, might be precisely fulfilled. Peter, when he spoke of the Crucifixion at Pentecost, in the same sentence that placed blame squarely on Christ’s wicked persecutors, said, “This man was handed over to you by God’s set purpose and foreknowledge” (Acts 2:23). Then he quoted texts to show that what happened had been clearly prophesied.
So although we freely confess that we cannot fully understand this or explain why certain things are happening, we say as the framers of the great Westminster Confession of Faith did in classical language: “God from all eternity, did, by his most wise and holy counsel of his own will, freely, and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass” (chap. 3, par. 1).
3. Because Paul’s thorn was simultaneously from God as well as from Satan, it has a divine purpose, and that purpose was ultimately good.
As far as he himself was concerned, the apostle tells us what this good purpose was. It was “to keep me from becoming conceited because of these surpassingly great revelations.” (2 Cor. 12:7). And it worked, didn’t it? The way he handled the matter of visions and revelations and boastings in this important section of the letter reveals how genuinely humble this great pioneer missionary and apostle had become.
How about you? The purpose of God in your affliction may be quite different. There may be no danger of you becoming proud. Most of us have almost nothing to be proud about. But maybe God is using your suffering as a means of doing good to others, or merely to bring glory to his name.
Take the case of Joseph. Joseph was the envied son of his father, Jacob. He was so hated by his brothers that they actually sold him into slavery. He was taken to Egypt. Although he did well as a slave, even rising to a position of considerable trust and influence, he was falsely accused for two long years. This was a “thorn” if there ever was one — many thorns. But God raised Joseph to the highest position in Egypt, short of the Pharaoh’s throne itself, and used him to preserve the lives of millions during a great and prolonged famine.
When he met up with his brothers again years later and they were afraid he might take out some cherished revenge upon them, Joseph replied, “Don’t be afraid. Am I in the place of God? You intended to harm me [there is that frank facing of evil again], but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives” (Genesis 50:19-20).
In the cases of Job and the blind man of John 9, who was healed by Jesus, the reason for the afflictions was simply that God might be glorified. So do not despair. The evil in your life is real evil, your suffering real suffering. But God is in control and has a good purpose in all of it, even though you probably cannot see his good purpose now.
4. God’s grace was equal to the thorn.
The fourth point is very encouraging, at least to me. For it is the point God himself made in reply to Paul’s request to have this painful thorn removed. God did not remove it. He had a purpose for it, as we saw. But he said, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (v. 9).
I find it interesting that Paul, the great apostle, did not even ask for grace. He was asking that the thorn be removed, just as you or I would have asked. Yet God gave him grace anyway. That is, God gave him the necessary strength to live with the difficulty and continue to work and praise God in spite of it. And that is the
victory after all, not to escape the suffering, but to triumph in spite of it — particularly since the triumph is not in our own strength but by the grace of God. Sufficient grace? Yes, indeed. If we need sudden grace in some great catastrophe of life, God will supply sudden grace. If it is daily grace we need, God will provide grace day by day. If we need sustaining grace or persevering grace or overcoming grace, that is precisely what we shall have also.
You know how the great hymn “How Firm a Foundation” puts it:
When through the deep waters I call thee to go,
The rivers of sorrow shall not overflow,
For I will be with thee, thy trials to bless,
And sanctify to thee thy deepest distress.
When through fiery trials thy pathway shall lie,
My grace all-sufficient shall be thy supply;
The flame shall not hurt thee; I only design
Thy dross to consume, and thy gold to refine.
E’en down to old age all my people shall prove
My sovereign, eternal, unchangeable love;
And when hoary hairs shall their temples adorn,
Like lambs they shall still in my bosom be borne.
In the midst of his sufferings Job said, “He knows the way that I take, when he has tested me, I will come forth as gold” (Job 23:10).
God’s Power in Human Weakness
Paul’s last point flows directly from God’s special revelation to him. God said, “My power is made perfect in weakness” (v. 9). That is, grace, which provides the power, is seen in us, not when we are strong, but when we are weak. But if that is so, then, as Paul says,
“I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong” (vv. 9-10).
Do you see how different this is from triumphalism, the point at which we started out? This is not triumphalism, that is, glorying in how successful or victorious or favored a Christian I am. It is the very opposite of triumphalism. It is boasting, yes. But it is boasting in our weaknesses because we know that it is only in our weakness, not our strength, that the power and grace of the Lord Jesus Christ can be seen.
Who is it that you want to glorify? Who do you want to praise? If you want to praise yourself (and have others praise you), then tell us what a wonderful Christian you are. Tell us about your triumphs and victories and visions and revelations. But if that is not your objective, if you want to glorify Jesus rather than yourself, if you want other people to praise him, then do what mature believers in Christ have always done. They do not point to themselves. They point to Jesus. They tell others about his grace, his power, his majesty, his sufficiency, his glory. And when they come into the picture themselves, if they do, they confess only that they are sinners saved by grace. If they are called upon to suffer and do suffer, they do it, not by some great force of character within them, but by the grace and power of him who endured even greater suffering for them, even death on a cross.
“My grace is sufficient for you,” God says. Is it sufficient? It is a privilege to be able to show others that it is. So instead of boasting, learn to glory in your weaknesses, since it is only in them that the grace of God is made fully known.