2 Corinthians 12:7-9 “To keep me from becoming conceited because of these surpassingly great revelations, there was given me a thorn in the flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me.”
Pride, conceit, arrogance–no matter what you call this sin, it is always with us, ready to take a thousand different situations in life and turn them into an excuse for believing that we are better than others. The Apostle Paul had spent long years savoring an inflated self-image as a Pharisee.
That temptation to see himself as superior because of his heritage or life did not come to a complete and sudden end when Paul became a Christian. That sense of pride he had so cultivated years ago could easily take the new, spiritual, Christian Paul and blow him up into some sort of little god at whose feet everyone should fall down in worship and respect. Paul needed something to keep him humble.
If we dig into our own lives, we find that pride is just as capable of taking any quality we have and using it to convince us that we are so much better than everyone else. You can become conceited because you look pretty, because you’re smart, because you’re a good athlete, because you make a lot of money, because you drive a cool car, because you make friends easily, or because you take great care of your body. Or you can become conceited because you go to church every Sunday, because you work hard, because you sacrifice yourself to take care of others, because you read your Bible and pray for hours, or because you accept people who are different than you. You can become prideful in the fact that you are conservative or progressive, open-minded or unbending, contemporary or traditional. The possibilities for our pride are endless. No sin is more spiritually deadly than pride.
So God confronted Paul’s potential for pride with a unique preaching of his law. God gave Paul a “thorn in the flesh.” We don’t know exactly what this was. Some people have suggested that he might have had an eye-problem, or suffered from recurring malaria, or struggled with a speech impediment.
What we do know is that everything about this thorn in the flesh seemed wrong, even evil to Paul. He calls it a “messenger of Satan.” That’s not just a colorful way to talk. The Lord might well have allowed Satan to make life miserable for Paul with this thorn. Of course, Satan meant it only as a temptation. No doubt Satan was whispering in his ear, “You see, God doesn’t really love you.” But the Lord was using this for Paul’s good to battle his pride. So we see that even Satan himself must serve God for our good.
Every once in a while, when talking about someone whose life is a mess, I or someone else will comment, “He really needs Jesus.” Of course, that’s true of everyone one of us. I really need Jesus. We really need Jesus. Paul really needed Jesus.
And that was God’s answer for Paul. “But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness’” (2 Cor. 12:9). He didn’t make the problem go away. He gave him a Savior. The Lord set his heart upon Paul, laid down his life for him, forgave all his sins, preached the gospel to him, brought him to faith, made him a dear member of his own family, gave him a new life, reserved a place in heaven for him, and guaranteed him an eternity of endless joy. In short, he made Paul the object of his grace–his unending, unequaled, unconditional love. And that was enough.
Note what the Lord is saying. He didn’t say, “My grace is sufficient to solve your problems and take away your pain.” He said, “My grace is sufficient for you.” God’s grace is the big thing, the one great need we have. We become so obsessed with our lives in this world that we tend to overlook God’s grace. We take it for granted. We don’t value it as highly as we value our cheap junk.
Often, it is not until God sweeps all our cheap junk away and pokes us with thorns that we appreciate his grace. Then we realize it is the one, substantial, priceless gift we need. Everything else about our lives is trash by comparison. “God’s grace is sufficient for you” is something of an understatement. In reality, it far exceeds every need. Its value far surpasses all else. This is a hard lesson to learn. Asaph, the author of Psalm 73, dealt with his own thorny problems before he came to the conclusion: “Yet I am always with you; you hold me by my right hand. You guide me with your counsel, and afterward you take me into glory. Whom have I in heaven but you? And earth has nothing I desire besides you. My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.”
If the problems we suffer help us to see God’s grace for what it is–the single, sufficient gift of God for our lives–then thank God for the thorns!