"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. 8Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. 9But 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. 10For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong" (2 Corinthians 12:7-10, ESV).
None of us likes pain. Pain captures our attention so we will attend to something wrong. These words from the apostle Paul, however, offer a supernatural perspective on the fences of pain, weakness, and limitations that either confine us or set us free.
Last week on a day of aches and anxiety, this familiar passage came up in my usual read-through-the-Bible schedule. Sometimes, in spite of myself, words so familiar may flow past my eyes without really penetrating my soul. In the context of the day's fears, though, the word that pierced through was "given." The thorn (more like a stake than a splinter) was given to him, a gift. Twice he repeats the purpose, "to keep me from becoming conceited."
His thorn was a gift to puncture his pride, the pride which blocks the flow of grace and draws God's opposition (James 4:6). Many writers have told me that pride, the desire to be my own god, is the root of all other sins. It is the enemy of my deepest desire to know Christ. Consequently, anything which deals a blow to pride is truly a gift. Yes, Paul also attributes causation and ill intent to Satan, but the context indicates that God allows that harassment for a greater good.
Still, three times Paul prayed for the thorn's removal. (Here is no fatalism or refusal of the means available for healing.) Three times his prayer was refused. With the final "no," he received some explanation. God's grace is enough, enough for him. God's power is most fully displayed in human weakness. Sufficient grace for me, God's power in me--aren't those the things Christians long for? Aren't they what I long for?
The explanation that accompanied refusal seems to have transformed Paul's outlook on the limitations imposed by his thorn. No longer pleading with the Lord for its removal, now he boasts gladly of his weaknesses and rests content in them because he recognizes they are the means of experiencing and displaying the strength and power of Christ.
I have not arrived yet at such glad boasting, but it is my destination. May we learn not only to accept God's "no," but to delight in it. Amen.