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What on earth does God promise us? Health, wealth, success?
Confusion often arises amongst God’s people, as well as in the wider community, because many of us think we have a right to expect to be healed and blessed with material riches and success. And there are preachers who reinforce this idea.
Paul the Apostle experienced an affliction that in 2 Corinthians 12:7 he speaks of as a thorn in the flesh.
To understand why Paul writes about this, we need to consider how some of the Corinthians regarded him. His Letters reveal that some treated him as weak because he lacked oratorical skills and spiritual experiences. And he had a recurring sickness. ‘How can a man like that be an apostle?’ they asked. ‘Spirituality means presence, power, mystique.’
Paul faced a dilemma. How could he puncture their self-opinionated spiritual disdain? It’s evident that he was uncomfortable in making a response: he didn’t want to boast. But he saw he had no option. In chapter 11 we see that his boasting or self-promotion has an unexpected focus. His response identifies principles that begin to answer our question: ‘What on earth does God promise us?’
Paul’s boast. In 2 Corinthians 11:23 – 28 he writes about the various challenges and afflictions he experienced. He doesn’t refer to the number of churches he has started, or the number of books and articles he has written. Rather, he sets out the persecutions and dangers he faced. He also speaks of the sense of responsibility that daily pressed on him.
In verse 30 he concludes: If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness. The God and Father of the Lord Jesus, he who is blessed for ever, knows that I do not lie….
Paul turns upside down the glamorous image of Christian spirituality the Corinthians were being fed by teachers who insisted that spiritual leaders were superheroes. True Christian leaders experience hardship. They have a sense of their own unworthiness and inadequacy.
An autobiographical note. That said, in chapter 12 Paul touches on an experience he once had. He writes: I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven — whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows…. and he heard things that cannot be told, which man may not utter. On behalf of this man I will boast, but on my own behalf I will not boast, except of my weaknesses (12: 2, 4, 5).
This very special, personal and private experience happened only once. And that Paul does not elaborate is very important. He wanted his reputation to be based only on what others could observe of his character, his life, and his teaching.
A thorn in the flesh. Paul continues: And to keep me from being too elated by the abundance of revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan, to harass me, to keep me from being too elated. Three times I besought the Lord about this, that it should leave me;… (12:7-9a).
Much ink has been spilled in discussing the nature of Paul’s thorn in the flesh. Was it depression, an eye issue, or something else? Certainly it wasn’t insignificant. Three times I besought the Lord, he said.
But consider the Lord’s response: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (12:9). God used the thorn to prevent any conceit in Paul. His ministry wouldn’t suffer. Rather it would become more effective, not because people saw Paul as some impressive, super-spiritual leader, but because the grace of God could be seen at work in him.
From our human perspective true spirituality looks ordinary and weak. The Son of God looks weak and ordinary when he lies in a manger and hangs on the cross. Paul’s testimony contrasts with that of Christian leaders who surround themselves with an aura of spiritual power and mystery. Sadly, a number of them have fallen into disgrace.
Paul’s testimony brings us back to the question: ‘What on earth does God promise us?’ He shows us that the prayers of the greatest saints are sometimes not answered in the way they desire. Prayer is not a wish to be granted unconditionally. God, who is our Father is not going to give us something he knows is not good for us, no matter how much we press him. Even Jesus prayed, ‘Take this cup from me’ and received the answer, ‘No!’
True Christian spirituality acknowledges and accepts weakness. Indeed, it is only when we recognize and confess our weakness that we find the supernatural grace of God flowing to meet our need. In speaking like this I am not wanting to make light of the harsh realities of sickness and suffering, of loss and grief. Nor am I wanting to gloss over the tough questions posed by the Bible’s teaching that God is all-powerful, good and loving.
Yet, only in humiliation do we find God exalting us. Only in dying to self do we find God making us alive. Only in throwing our lives away do we find God giving life back to us. Only when I am weak, am I strong.
When we are pressed by some thorn in the flesh in our own lives, let’s never forget God’s words to Paul the Apostle: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness”.
A prayer. Lord our God, fountain of all wisdom, you know our necessities before we ask and our ignorance in asking: have compassion on our infirmities; and those things which for our unworthiness we dare not and for our blindness we cannot ask, graciously give us for the worthiness of your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.