A Study of 2nd Corinthians 12:9
“And he said unto me, My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness. Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me.” (2nd Corinthians 12:9)
There has been a great deal of curiosity to know what Paul’s “thorn in the flesh” was. There is not, I suppose, one ill which has touched humanity, which has not been dignified and made to stand in the place of this affliction. The apostle speaks of it as a definite affliction. It had a specific nature. He prayed that it might be removed. This is the most we know about it. It is very evident that whatever the nature of the thorn was, it in some way impaired his ministerial and personal abilities. It was a hindrance, an obstruction, a limitation. It was a weakness in which Christ’s power was to be made signally illustrious.
The severity of his suffering is indicated by the figure; for nothing can be more painful or irritating, in a small way, than the piercing of a thorn, sharp, and harder to be borne than many dull heavy continuous pains. And his repeated solicitations for relief would not have been if the trouble had net been most serious.
The desire to get rid of suffering, and the repeated prayer for release from it, were right enough. They were both natural and proper. Paul carried his trouble, whatever it was, to his God.
The reply which he received implies that the trouble was not removed. He does not explicitly say this. It is left to be inferred, “And lest I should be exalted above measure through the abundance of the revelations, there was given to me a thorn in the flesh, the messenger of Satan to buffet me, lest I should be exalted above measure” (2nd Corinthians 12:7). That was the object of its being sent — to keep down his pride and his vanity. “For this thing I besought the Lord thrice, that it might depart from me. And he said unto me, My grace is sufficient for thee.”
The passage does not state that it was — or that it was not taken away. It is left to be inferred that it remained, for that was the answer to the prayer. It implies the trouble was cured — but not by extraction. The nerve was killed — although the tooth was not extracted.
There are two ways in which troubles are got rid of: one is by ejecting them, throwing them away, so that they cease to be present with us. The other is by keeping them, but growing them over with such grace and such sustaining power, that they cease to be an annoyance. It was in this latter way that trouble of Paul was dealt with.
“My grace is sufficient for thee.” That word “sufficient” has great amplitude in it. It is not simply a promise of help — it is a promise that there shall be enough help to meet the emergency. The power of God has a clear field; and if, when His servants are in trouble, His grace shall be adequate to their needs — shall be sufficient for them — nothing more can be added or imagined. The bounds of such promises include all possibilities of human experience.
It is eminently proper that Christians should bear their troubles to God. There is a general concurrent conviction in the Church, and throughout the world, of the efficacy of prayer. But there are many people whose prayers are rather general, than specific; whose prayers are for the advance of God’s kingdom; whose prayers do not go down to deal with the daily cares and troubles of everyday life.
Every Christian believes that he may carry his religious troubles to God. All believe that under great and pressing afflictions, men may resort to God with them. But in the case of the apostle, we have an instance of a trouble that carried him to God, which was neither one nor the other of these kinds.
It is very significant that the figure employed is “thorn” — not sword, not spear — no instrument that indicates great breadth of power, but a “thorn”. He was nettled, scratched, pierced. It was a little thing that he was called to endure. It was the annoyance of a pungent thorn, which brought pain — but no peril; which worried him and fretted him; which drew his thoughts away from higher things, and made his life a burden to him.
It was a little thing continued, so that its sum total of affliction was a great deal. That was the thing that thrice the apostle went to God with, praying for release from it.
We may, therefore, in prayer, bring to God minor vexations — all the things that burden and annoy and hinder us in life; whatever takes away our peace and restrains our joy.
Thus the range of this Christian duty is vastly enlarged. Our life is filled up chiefly with little things. Great occasions come seldom. And if we exclude from prayer little things — we may almost as well exclude life itself; for all the way through we live by minutes and seconds, every one of which has its own peculiar relation to our pleasure or pain, our joy or sorrow. There is no thing so minute that God does not take cognizance of it, and consider it. Christ is so united to His people, that there is no trial which they bear, which He does not bear.
The continuance of pains and troubles with God’s people is not an evidence of His displeasure — but oftentimes the contrary. It makes no difference what the trouble is — we have a right to carry it to God, and ask that it may be removed, or that we may be sustained under it. The compliance on the part of God with either of these conditions is a sufficient answer to our prayer for relief from trouble. Many of our troubles may be removed, and are removed — while many others remain. Many of our troubles are like snow, which starting as snow, becomes rain before it meets the ground; while others are like snow, which falls to the ground as snow, but which, though it lies there all winter long, is sure to melt when spring comes. And to carry the figure forward, as the snow-drop becomes the rain-drop, and the rain-drop becomes the juice of fruits and flowers — so our troubles, though they fall cold on your branch, melt and carry sap to the root.
There are many troubles that God brings upon His people, or permits them to bring upon themselves — which He does not care to take away from them, and which it is not best for them to have removed. Continued troubles are not, therefore, evidences of God’s displeasure. He distinctly affirms, that unless we have such troubles, we cannot be His sons, “And ye have forgotten the exhortation which speaketh unto you as unto children” (Hebrews 12:5). When any Christian is in trouble, God says to him by that trouble, My son, “You have forgotten that word of encouragement that addresses you as sons: “My son, despise not thou the chastening of the Lord, nor faint when thou art rebuked of him: For whom the Lord loveth he chasteneth, and scourgeth every son whom he receiveth. If ye endure chastening, God dealeth with you as with sons; for what son is he whom the father chasteneth not?” (Hebrews 12:5-7)
This is the word of God. When your trouble is real and painful, and you carry it to God and ask for its removal, if it abides with you, you are apt to think, “It must be that God is punishing me for my sins, and that He is hiding His face from me.” “No,” says the voice of God; “so far from it, I am dealing with you tenderly, I am your heavenly Father, I love you, and the trouble that I permit to remain with you is one of the evidences of the affection I cherish toward you.”
It is every Christian’s duty to have a victory either over his trials — or in them. And this last is the better of the two, and far the more glorious; for it is a higher exhibition of grace to be able to bear trouble, than to get rid of it. To be able to endure is more noble, than to have nothing to endure. Who would not be a Christian, if every time anything touched him to hurt him — prayer, like a shield struck right between the weapon and the sensitive skin, so that he could always avoid pain? But if trouble really wrings the nerve and muscle of a man, and then a heroism is given to him, such that he can afford to have it continued, there is awakened in him a manhood transcendently higher than that which would be awakened if the trouble were removed in answer to prayer.
And this is the promise of the Saviour — either that it shall be removed — or that grace shall be given with which to bear it. God says, “My grace is sufficient for you. Take trouble and bear it, and I will sustain you under it.”
God’s sustaining grace produces a sense of our real weakness, which is most wholesome. For we tend naturally to arrogance when we are in strength. Prosperity has the effect to puff us up; and a sense of our weakness is a returning to our reason.
God’s grace also humanizes us, and causes us to sympathize with our fellow men. In the day of prosperity, we are apt to feel quite independent of our fellow men; but when the day of trouble comes, we find that we stand greatly in need of them. Blessed are those troubles that make us feel, not only our dependence on God, but our relations to our fellow-men.
God’s grace, upon our troubles, develops in us a Divine power of faith and hope. We live by faith. We walk not by sight.
God by trouble, disenchants the world, so that it ceases to be what we tend to make it. We are accustomed to feel its fascination in the flow of ordinary affairs. We are liable to be brought into bondage to the customs and practices and influences of society. But trouble takes off the varnish that overlays the raw material of things, and lets us see them just as they are. Blessed are they that know how to find Heaven, without leaving the earth. Blessed are they, the door of whose closet, when they shut it, shuts out the world.
“Almighty God, guard me against that anxiety about provision for my bodily needs, which is incompatible with child-like trust in Your paternal care and bounty. Let me not indulge in immoderate concern about the future, but rest for the supply of all things on Your sufficiency and Your grace.”
“But my God shall supply all your need according to his riches in glory by Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 4:19)
“(A Psalm of David.) The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters. He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.” (Psalm 23:1-3)
“And the LORD shall guide thee continually, and satisfy thy soul in drought, and make fat thy bones: and thou shalt be like a watered garden, and like a spring of water, whose waters fail not.” (Isaiah 58:11)
“But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you. Take therefore no thought for the morrow: for the morrow shall take thought for the things of itself. Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.” (Matthew 6:33-34)
“Not that we are sufficient of ourselves to think any thing as of ourselves; but our sufficiency is of God!” (2nd Corinthians 3:5)