I am certainly no scholar of Paul, but, in this morning’s New Testament lesson (2 Corinthians 12:1-10), he sounds as personal as I remember him ever being. In fact, there’s an almost conversational tone to his writing that sounds a lot like a sermon from the emergent church: “I know a man who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven…” This isn’t the Paul who usually makes bold theological assertions. He’s grounding this part of his teaching in raw, unfiltered experience.
Much has been made about the “thorn” that Paul describes as having been put in his flesh—“a messenger of Satan, to harass [him].” Many have guessed what this painful reminder of Paul’s humanity might have been. Though curious, I’m satisfied just knowing that Paul was willing to acknowledge to his readership how this stumbling block kept him grounded. Usually, Paul attempts to instill within his readers a sense of God’s ability to set us free from the challenges of this world (sin, death, conflict). In this case, he addresses the all-too-present reality that sometimes we face physical, emotional, or spiritual obstacles that we can’t shake in this lifetime.
Paul’s response to his trouble is itself instructive for us: “Three times I besought the Lord about this, that it should leave me; but he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’” To me, it’s odd to hear a man as powerful in prayer as Paul admit that God thrice denied his request. To me, it’s inspiring to see Paul accept his burden as God’s will for his life.
How often have we prayed for a challenge in our lives to be lifted? A relationship that is falling apart. An illness that is promising to undo us. A circumstance that is threatening to take away everything we have. Sometimes we pray and pray and pray…yet to no avail. In situations like that, I usually respond in one of two ways. Either I convince myself that God isn’t able to fix my problem or I tell myself that I haven’t prayed hard enough to receive the answer I seek. Neither of those options is correct. As Paul shows us, sometimes God’s plan involves a burden we are forced to bear. For some, it’s difficult to think of God as one who would will for us to suffer. For me, it’s more difficult to think of God as one who is powerless to help. Which God do you worship? The God whom Paul knew so well said to him, “My grace is sufficient for you. My power is made perfect in [your] weakness.” Perhaps he’s saying the same to you and me.