Because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, for this reason, to keep me from exalting myself, there was given me a thorn in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me--to keep me from exalting myself! Concerning this I implored the Lord three times that it might leave me. And He has said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness.” Most gladly, therefore, I will rather boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Therefore I am well content with weaknesses, with insults, with distresses, with persecutions, with difficulties, for Christ’s sake; for when I am weak, then I am strong. 2 Corinthians 12:7-10
We ended 2019 with a worship service in which we ‘boasted in our weaknesses.’ I think that is a great way to finish a year – and a decade. There is a lot of comfort in knowing our weaknesses. It puts us in our proper place, reminding us of the sufficiency of God’s grace.
Paul wrote these words to the church in Corinth. There had been some folks coming into their little community who were saying less than flattering things about Paul and casting doubt upon his ministry. This was deeply hurtful to Paul, as he had put so much heart and soul into kindling each of the small churches he helped ignite.
Doubt leads to hurt…which leads to doubt. I know that I’ve experienced that pattern. Anytime someone has questioned my work, intentions, character, or authenticity – even in the smallest of ways – it hurts. That hurt, in turn, typically succeeds in getting me to question myself. Is there a problem with my work or flaw in my intentions? Is there something questionable in my character or authenticity?
Of course, sometime there IS a real problem and all of us should be able to self-reflect, even if it is negative criticism rather than constructive feedback. But perhaps the best news is that God does not expect us to be perfect. He knows our weaknesses far better than we do…and He chose to commit to us even knowing those shortcomings.
Paul knew his weaknesses…and knew that God knew his weaknesses. In his rebuttal to the criticism and defamation in Corinth, Paul even speaks of a ‘thorn in the flesh.’ The nature of this thorn has been a mystery to the church as we have no other definitive hints in scripture. Perhaps it was related to the damages from his sins as Saul the persecutor or a particular temptation with which he struggled in his life as Paul the missionary. Others say it was a physical condition or impairment while others conjecture it is some attribute he lacks or feels is a shortcoming.
But whatever that thorn is, Paul had come to a point in life in which he accepted that it would be a longstanding weakness. He had prayed for God to remove it, but God allowed it to remain. Thus, Paul makes the great connection between humility, grace, and power. His thorn would keep him from boasting and exalting himself. Afterall, just before these verses he was talking about the great vision he had from God and had plenty of successes in church planting that he could brag about. But this thorn would be a constant reminder of the frailty of human experience, that we are jars of clay full of cracks.
Yet Jesus Christ has shown us the sufficiency of grace. Our jars are leaky. But in Christ they are able to hold the very power of God, sealed by the Holy Spirit. So like Paul, we can boast in our weaknesses. As long as we keep nourishing the roots of our faith, we need not beat ourselves up when others cast doubt. So as we enter 2020 we need to stay the narrow course and walk by faith. May we bear witness to His glory through our humility and His grace through our surrender. May our weaknesses and the thorns in our flesh become an opportunity to exalt the Almighty as He continues the work already begun in us who are saved.
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