Gleanings from Paul
by A. W. Pink
8. Prayer In Affliction
2 Corinthians 12:7-10
First We Shall Consider the occasion of the prayer in 2 Corinthians 12:7-10 as we find it in the immediate context. False teachers had appeared at Corinth and had succeeded in sowing seeds of dissension in the assembly there. The saints were in danger of being turned away from Christ by having their confidence in Paul undermined by the misrepresentations of his enemies. This had obliged Paul to engage in the distasteful task of vindicating himself, presenting the grounds he had for claiming spiritual authority over them, and asserting his apostolic powers. So repugnant was this to his feelings that he apologized for thus speaking of himself and begged them to bear with him (2 Cor. 11:1), pointing out :it was solely for their good that he now appeared to indulge in self-laudation.
Paul’s enemies had insisted that he was greatly inferior to the eleven disciples, that he was not an apostle at all since he lacked all the essential qualifications stated in Acts 1:21-22. He had neither been one of the favored band who were most closely associated with Christ during His public ministry nor had he been a witness with them of His resurrection. That was an exceedingly grave charge, for if Paul was not a divinely called apostle he had no authority to oversee the churches and to regulate their concerns. This obliged him to indulge in what seemed like boasting and to affirm, "I was not a whit behind the very chiefest apostles" (2 Cor. 11:5). Previously he had openly acknowledged his personal unworthiness to be numbered in their company (1 Cor. 15:9), but now he was compelled to point out that in authority, knowledge, effective grace, none of them excelled him. Then Paul spread before the Corinthians his credentials (2 Cor. 11:22-33).
To see the nature of the proofs Paul advanced to show that he was a true minister of the gospel is very blessed and touching. He did not boast of the success of his labors, the souls that had been saved under his preaching, or the number of churches he had planted; rather be mentioned the opposition he had met, the persecutions encountered and the sufferings he had gone through. He showed them as it were the scars he had received as a good soldier of Jesus Christ. He demonstrated he was a real servant of Christ by calling attention to the reproaches, the ignominy, the cruel treatment he had received. His sufferings and his patient endurance of them made manifest that he was a genuine minister of Jesus Christ (cf. Galatians 1:10). Though great indeed was the honor attached to his office, yet the faithful discharge of it entailed that which no impostor, no self-seeker, no hireling would continue to bear meekly.
In chapter 11 the apostle first met his opponents on their own ground, and by comparing himself with them he answered the fool according to his folly (Prov. 26:5). Then he demonstrated that he was a genuine officer of the despised and rejected One. But then he came to that which was peculiar to himself and related an experience which far excelled any that the other apostles had been favored with. He continued his apology, but in an altered tone: "It is not expedient for me doubtless to glory. I will come to visions and revelations of the Lord" (2 Cor. 12:1). To have seen the Lord was one of the requisites of valid apostleship (1 Cor. 9:1), and Paul had done so by a heavenly vision (Acts 26:19). Moreover these Christians were probably aware that he had been the subject of a vision which especially concerned them (Acts 18:9-10). But over and above these Paul went on to relate an experience which afforded superlative evidence of the favor of God to him as an apostle.
"I knew a man in Christ above fourteen years ago, (whether in the body, I cannot tell; or whether out of the body, I cannot tell: God knoweth;) such an one caught up to the third heaven. How that he was caught up into paradise, and heard unspeakable words, which it is not lawful for man to utter" (2 Cor. 12:2, 4). This was an experience unparalleled in the recorded history of men, an honor and privilege which far exceeded that bestowed upon any other mortal. It is impossible for us to adequately conceive of the extraordinary favor that was here granted the beloved apostle. He was personally transported to paradise, translated to the Father’s house, permitted an entrance into the palace of the Sovereign of the universe. For a brief season he was taken to be with "the spirits of just men made perfect." He saw the glorified Lamb upon the throne, and he heard the seraphim exclaiming before Him, "Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts." It is useless to indulge in speculation and impious to give rein to our imagination; we can but wonder and worship.
And note the following verses. "Of such an one will I glory: yet of myself I will not glory, but in mine infirmities. For though I would desire to glory, I shall not be a fool; for I will say the truth: but now I forbear, lest any man should think of me above that which he seeth me to be, or that he heareth of [not from] me" (2 Cor. 12:5-6). This is exquisitely lovely. Paul could have boasted about the high favor which God had shown him, but he did not. Had he gloried, it would not have been as a fool or empty boaster but according to truth, to fact. But Paul restrained himself because he desired others not to think too highly of him! He preferred that men should judge him by what they saw and heard and not esteem him by the special revelations God had given him! He would glory in his "infirmities," for weakness, sustained by grace, is all that any saint may boast of in himself.
"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" (2 Cor. 12:7). Having stated in the preceding verse that he did not wish others to think of him more highly than they should, he now tells us what means God used to prevent him from doing so. Paul was in danger of being unduly elated by the extraordinary manifestation of the divine favor he had received. This is quite understandable. For one who had visited paradise itself to be suddenly returned to this world of woe required a heavy ballast to keep his ship on an even keel. The third heaven was too dizzy a remembrance to be safely borne by one who had to walk again on earth in a body of sin and death. The Lord knew this and graciously dealt accordingly, bestowing on Paul that which kept him humble.
By nature Paul was just as proud and foolish as all other men. If his heart was kept lowly, it was not by his own unaided fidelity to the truth but because of the faithfulness of his Master who dealt so wisely with him. We must: distinguish between the cause and the occasion of pride: the former is the evil nature, or principle, from which it proceeds; the latter, the object on which it fastens and which it perverts to its use. The pride of life (1 John 2:16) can feed on anything and turn temporal mercies and even spiritual gifts and graces into poison. Pride was the main ingredient in the sin of our first parents. They aspired to be as God. There is pride in every sin since it is the lifting up of the creature against the Creator. We are shown how God regards and abominates pride in Proverbs 6:16-19 where seven things are mentioned which the Lord hates. The list is headed with "a proud look!" The great work of grace is the subduing of our pride.
The celestial revelations which Paul had received had no tendency whatever in themselves to produce or promote pride, but like all other things they were capable of being abused by indwelling sin. Therefore lest he should be spiritually proud, become vain and self-confident, regarding himself as a special favorite of Christ, there was given to Paul "a thorn in the flesh." That it is termed a "thorn" intimates it was something that was painful. That it was a bodily affliction is signified, we feel, by the words "in the flesh." That it remained within him is seen from his prayer that it might depart. That Satan aggravated it appears from the next clause of the verse: "the messenger of Satan to buffet me." As to precisely what this thorn consisted of we are frank to say we have no idea.
Personally, we admire the divine wisdom in restraining the apostle from being more explicit, for the general statement is better suited to a far wider application. Human nature being what it now is, had the Holy Spirit made known the specific character of this particular "thorn in the flesh" certain afflicted and querulous souls would be most apt to say, "Paul might glory in his,but if he had had the painful distress which is mine he would have sung another tune." Suppose the apostle had mentioned any certain physical disorder (say, inflamed eyes) those free from it but having another (say, the gout) would consider that their thorn was much harder to endure. But since God has wisely left it undefined, each afflicted saint may take comfort from the possibility that his affliction is identical with Paul’s. Whatever in our persons or our circumstances serves to mortify our pride may be regarded as our "thorn in the flesh."
Let us draw comfort from the blessed fact that Paul’s thorn in the flesh was not sent but given by God as a divine favor! It is thus that we should regard each painful trial—as a merciful bestowment from God, the design of which is to hide pride from us. But the word given also connotes Paul’s acceptance of the affliction; it shows that he meekly and thankfully regarded it as from the Lord. This thorn he also spoke of as "the messenger of Satan to buffet me." The cases of Job and his boils, the woman of Luke 13:16, and the demon-possessed man Christ healed show that the devil is given the power to cause bodily affliction. In Paul’s case Satan desired to disqualify him from his work, but the Lord overruled Satan and made him render Paul a good service. This should teach us to look above Satan and seek from God the reason why He has permitted him to afflict us.
"Lest I should be exalted above measure" (2 Cor. 12:7). Paul not only accepted this painful affliction as a gift from the Lord but he also perceived why it was given him. The thorn came to humble him. Is that not usually God’s chief design in His disciplinary dealings with us? In Paul’s case the affliction was not for correction but for prevention. Such may have been God’s merciful design toward you: perhaps He turned a wealthy relative against you to will his money elsewhere, or perhaps he has withheld business prosperity from you lest you become proud. How effective Paul’s thorn was appears from the fact that for fourteen years he never mentioned his rapture into paradise and would not have done so now but for exceptional circumstances.
"For this thing I besought the Lord thrice, that it might depart from me" (2 Cor. 12:8). The thorn did not make Paul fret and fume; it caused him to pray! This brings us, second, to the Object of his prayer, namely, the Lord Jesus, as the next verse plainly shows. This is a decisive proof of the Godhood of Christ and also a clear intimation that petitions may be addressed to Him as well as to the Father. Prayer was made to the Son in Acts 1:24 and 4:24. As Stephen was being stoned he cried, "Lord Jesus, receive my spirit" and begged Him not to lay this sin to the charge of his slayers (Acts 7:59-60). After Paul’s conversion before he received his sight, Ananias told the Lord that Paul had authority from the chief priests "to bind all that call upon thy name" (Acts 9:10-14). That it was the common practice of the Christians of the early Church to invoke the Savior’s name is very evident from 1 Corinthians 1:2. There was special propriety in Paul’s here addressing Christ, for He is the One who admits into paradise (Acts 7:59; Revelation 1:18).
"I besought the Lord thrice, that it might depart from me" (2 Cor. 12:8). We regard this request as being made before he had any perception of why the Lord had afflicted him, and we also regard it as manifesting Paul’s native kinship with us. Thorns are far from pleasant, and we desire their prompt removal. Nor is it wrong for us to do so; we would not be rational and sentient creatures if we did not shrink from suffering. For us to ask for deliverance from pain and trouble is not sinful, neither is it spiritual. Then what is it? Why, the exercise of that instinct of self-preservation with which the Creator has endowed us. But it becomes sinful when we insist on deliverance, insubordinate to the divine will. In Paul’s case, and in many others, we see how grace triumphed over nature, the heart gladly acquiescing to the Lord’s design.
Some have argued from the example of Christ in Gethsemane and Paul’s case here that we ought never to ask God more than three times for any particular thing and that if it is not then granted we must desist. But such an idea is contrary to the many scriptures where importunity in asking is inculcated, for example, in Isaiah 62:7; Luke 11:8; 18:7. God is often pleased to test our faith and patience, for He waits to be gracious (Isa. 30:18). The repeated request for deliverance shows how heavily the burden pressed upon Paul, as well as indicating how human he was—a man of "like passions as we are." But as God’s dear Son learned obedience by the things which He suffered, so also on the behalf of Christ it was given His most eminent servant to tread a similar path and be perfected by a special process of affliction.
Fourth, let us consider the answer Paul received: "And he said unto me, My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness" (2 Cor. 12:9). God’s answer is not always along the line that we think; how good for us that it is not. How little we are able to perceive what would be for our good. "We know not what we should pray for as we ought" (Rom. 8:26). Often we ask for temporal things, and God gives us eternal; we ask for deliverance, and He grants us patience. He does not answer according to our will but according to our welfare and profit. Hence we must not be disheartened if our requests are not literally answered. Sometimes God answers by reconciling our minds to humiliating trials. "My grace is sufficient for thee." Sufficient to support under the severest and most protracted affliction, to enable the soul to lie submissively as clay in the hands of the Potter, to trust His wisdom and love, to be assured that He knows what is best for us.
"My grace." It is mediatorial grace, the grace given to Christ as the covenant Head of His people (John 1:16). It is the Head speaking to a member of His Body. It is not inherent grace or the new nature but freshly imparted, quickening grace. "My grace is sufficient" not simply "will prove to be." What Paul had known theoretically he was now to learn experimentally. A grace that can save a hell-deserving sinner must be sufficient for the petty trials of this life! He who gives the thorn also gives grace to bear it. Grace is given not only to resist temptations and strengthen graces but also to endure trials. Yet grace must be definitely and diligently sought (Heb. 4:16). "In the day when I cried thou answeredst me, and strengthenedst me with strength in my soul" (Ps. 138:3). "For my strength is made perfect in weakness," in supporting earthen vessels under the buffetings of Satan.
Fifth, we will observe Paul’s improvement of his weakness: "Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities that the power of Christ may rest upon me" (2 Cor. 12:9). Paul’s statement was more than a sullen submission or even a meek acquiescence. The rather points a contrast from the removal of the thorn: to glory on account of infirmities went far beyond resignation in suffering, namely, to rejoicing. To this we should aspire and pray. "Souls that are rich in grace can bear burdens without a burden," said a Puritan. Here is a test by which we may measure the degree of grace we have: not by our speculative knowledge but by the ease with which we bear afflictions, the cheerfulness of our spirits under persecution. When the apostles had been beaten they departed "rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer shame for his name" (Acts 5:40-41).
"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 Cor. 12:10). This goes farther than the foregoing verse. Because Paul "took pleasure" in his infirmities he gloried in them; and because they were the occasion of manifesting the power of Christ to uphold and work through one so frail he was glad of them. What nature recoils from, an enlightened faith accepts and delights in for the sake of the ulterior blessing—another example of how God can bring a clean thing out of an unclean, another example of how He can make both the wrath of man and the enmity of the serpent to praise Him! In the same way, though on a lower plane, David said, "It is good for me that I have been afflicted; that I might learn thy statutes" (Ps. 119:71). By the power of Christ Paul triumphed over all obstacles.
What is meant by "when I am weak, then am I strong"? This needs to be correctly defined, for there is a weakness which does not result in strength, yes, a Christian’s consciousness of weakness. Some are constantly talking about their inability and bemoaning their helplessness, and there it ends! But he who has a true and spiritual sense of his insufficiency to do anything as he ought is the one who is most earnest in crying to the Strong for strength and, other things being equal, he is the one who is most active in appropriating Christ’s strength. To be weak is to be emptied of self; but to be all the time occupied with our inability is to be absorbed with self. To be spiritually weak is to be conscious that I "lack wisdom," and that makes me "ask of God" (James 1:5), feel my unbelief, and beg for an increase of faith.
Some say they are weak and then contradict their words by the way they act. Others are happy over the very realization of their impotency, which is like one smitten with a stroke rejoicing in his paralysis as such. It needs to be steadily borne in mind that "hands which hang down, and the feeble knees" bring no glory to God (Heb. 12:12). 2 Kings 5:7 illustrates. The king used not the language of humility and piety but of unbelief and pride. A consciousness of my insufficiency is of value only when it moves me to turn to and lay hold of the Lord’s sufficiency. 2 Corinthians 3:5 gives both sides. The complement to "without me ye can do nothing" (John 15:5) is "I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me" (Phil. 4:13; cf. Ephesians 6:10; 2 Timothy 2:1).