Robert Wurtz II
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. 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: 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. Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in necessities, in persecutions, in distresses for Christ’s sake: for when I am weak, then am I strong. (2 Corinthians 12:7–10 KJV)
In defending himself against false teachers at Corinth, Paul offers us insight into his thinking process regarding all of the horrific life experiences that he dealt with after becoming a Christian. In addition to all of the terrible deeds leveled upon him by unbelieving Jews and Gentiles… there was given to Paul a thorn in the flesh, the messenger of Satan to buffet him. Apparently, this was done so that he would not be exalted above measure through the abundance of the revelations. We are not told specifically who or what this “thorn” is — we only know that he needed the grace of God to endure it. In fact, Paul asked God three different times to remove this “thorn” only to hear the familiar words, “My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness.” God was not going to take away this trouble… He was going to provide the grace to endure it.
As a young Christian, I lived on a steady diet of modernistic teachers and preachers of the so-called “Faith Movement” who would suggest that Christians should never be sick or suffer hardships related to finances, etc. I’ve heard everything from, “Elijah backslid and moved into a cave” to “Job’s real problem was his lack of faith.” Fortunately, one famous preacher repented of this teaching and promised to apologize to Job once he got to heaven. These ministers (unlike Paul) would have never counseled Timothy (as did Paul who didn’t even suggest that Timothy pray) that he use a little wine for his stomach sake and his frequent infirmities (I Timothy 5:23) and certainly would have never left Trophimus at Miletum sick (2 Timothy 4:20). Indeed, they could have shown Paul a thing or two about walking in Divine health and wealth. We are left to believe that had they been around with Paul — they would never have suffered toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure.” (2 Corinthians 11:27 ESV) I guess we all can’t be as spiritual as these folks are. Fortunately, I renounced this nonsense early in my Christian life before it had a chance to shipwreck my faith.
Generally, when a person has a false view of health and wealth (typically buttressed by erroneous interpretations of verses like 3 John 2) they end up believing that if they suffer hardship (lack or prosperity and health) that the problem is either a lack of faith or a lack of God’s faithfulness that is causing it. After all, it has to be someone’s fault. What happens? They blame either God or themselves when trouble strikes. Bad things will happen at some point. They will get sick or something similar that contradicts their health and wealth beliefs. Sometimes when things get really bad their faith begins to waver or they get very angry at God.
Does God want everyone to prosper and be in health? What is the context of that verse in 3 John 2? Who was the verse addressed to? The truth of the matter is that John wanted Giusto prosper and be in health as his soul prospered. Why? Because he was in reputation for being sickly and John “wished/prayed” that he would prosper and be in health. I feel the same way about my sick friends. Don’t you? Of course. However, 3 John 2 is not an “across the board” absolute expression of God’s will for all Christians any more than Jesus telling the rich young ruler “go thy way, sell whatsoever thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven” (Mark 10:21 KJV). It also assumes that the person in questions “soul is prospering.” Think about it. How many Christians have active sin or compromise in their lives? How many are filled with hatred, deceit, bitterness, lust, envy, pride, etc? If God matched their physical condition to their soul’s condition — many would be destitute of all possessions — with one foot in the grave. Selah.
Paul believed God and knew all things are possible to him. In fact, he prayed three times about his thorn(whatever it was) asking God to remove it. However, Paul could also take no for an answer. This is where true faith comes in. Think about all the miracles Paul witnessed. He believed in healing and even saw special miracles of healing through his ministry. When troubled by demon possessed people he cast the devil out of a woman. He even smote a man with blindness by the power of the Spirit. The list goes on. Consider this… no matter what the thorn may have been there was a situation in Paul’s life where he saw that very thing (or something similar) dealt with by the power of God. He knew God could fix the problem. Yet this thorn remained. Why? Because God had a higher purpose in allowing it to remain. It’s a hard saying, but God’s primary purpose is not to make us comfortable or give us all the creature comforts of life but to conform us to the image of Christ. Sometimes He wants to display grace in the life of a believer who is suffering. Much more could be said.
An old-time preacher once rightly observed that “Faith is not when faith healers empty a hospital or tear up a graveyard. Faith is when we keep trusting God in spite of the difficulties we are going through.” Satan wants us to blame God and even curse God and die when the trials and tribulations appear that Jesus promised would come (John 16:33). He wants us to believe that God is a liar by putting words in God’s mouth. This is Satan’s “end game.” It’s not God who is a liar it’s the false teachers and preachers who have helped Satan’s cause by promoting an overly-realized eschatology or some other heresy. In other words, they teach things that apply only after the resurrection or things that appeal to the flesh. These false ideas about theology and faith will leave us blaming God, blaming ourselves, or blaming someone who is suffering. What is it? Usually, the suffering ones are said to have a lack of faith or sin in their life. Understand that Job’s counselors are still alive and well.
Paul then moves into a realm that I struggle to comprehend. He states, Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in necessities, in persecutions, in distresses for Christ’s sake: for when I am weak, then am I strong. It makes me want to ask, Paul, are you saying that you rejoice in infirmities (Gk. asthenia)… a word that could easily be translated as a physical illness? This is a man with poor eyesight and a weak bodily presence. In the second century Acts of Paul and Thecla, he is pictured as small, short, bow-legged, with eye-brows knit together, and an aquiline nose. A forgery of the fourth century (in the name of Lucian) describes Paul as “the bald-headed, hook-nosed Galilean.” (A. T. Robertson) This is just the physical part. What about reproaches and lack of basic necessities?
Paul didn’t like pain and suffering any more than you and I would. But his point of view made him practically invincible spiritually. He knew that when he was suffering that he fully relied on God and His sufficient grace. He ceased to move in his own limited strength and began moving and standing in the realm of God’s grace. God was holding him up and making him stand. This was the safest and strongest place he could possibly be in the area that matters most. The flesh hates it. The flesh prefers the comforts and smooth life of Fair Havens and the predictability of Egypt (so to speak). The carnal man hates being in a place where he knows he must rely on God for his next breath. Not Paul. He preferred this way… in his own words… that the power of Christ may rest upon me.