Pastor Joel Leyrer

Text:  2 Corinthians 12:7-10 

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Dear Friends in Christ,  Imagine this.  Ever since you were a little boy or a girl you’ve been fascinated with the city of Paris.  You’ve read everything there is to read on its history, you know the places that interest you the most, and you know exactly what you want to see once you get there. Now you’ve reached a point in your life when you can make the trip, so you board the plane with great anticipation of just how wonderful this long-envisioned vacation is going to be.  It’s a direct flight, so you don’t have to worry about layovers or connections.

After hours in the air the plane begins its descent.  Thoughts of the Eiffel tower, the Louvre museum and the night life of Paris fill your head. As the plane gets lower you look out the window and are surprised to see that the terrain is flat and the landscape is crisscrossed with canals and dotted with windmills. The plane touches down and comes to a stop. Then you hear the voice of the pilot over the speaker who matter-of-factly intones: “Welcome to Holland.”

There must be some mistake. You talk to the flight attendants who all tell you the same thing. No, this is where the plane is scheduled to be. You tell them that this isn’t the trip you signed up for. They sympathize, but they tell you this is the trip you’ve got. And there are no flights out.

Fast forward. You are well into your vacation now. You’ve worked through your disappointment and your shattered expectations. It may not be Paris with its bright lights and energy, but after a while you’ve begun to appreciate Holland for its understated beauty, its simple charm and slower pace. And you come to the realization that Holland isn’t so bad after all.  It’s just different than what you expected.

This story is based on an article originally written to help parents of newborn children with special needs put their unexpected circumstances into perspective. But its application extends to anyone whose life has not gone as planned or find themselves dealing with circumstances they never imagined; anyone who has ever reflected on what is in their life as opposed to what was expected and said to themselves: This isn’t the trip I signed up for.

To one degree or another, every one of us fits into that category. So did the Apostle Paul.  Today we’re going to look to him, his situation and especially his divinely inspired words for guidance and direction on the general topic of

MAN’S PLANS and GOD’S PROMISES

“To keep me from being conceited because of these surpassingly great revelations, there was given me a thorn in the flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me.”

Much of what Paul writes in 2 Corinthians is a defense of his ministry against those who were slandering and discrediting him as a man of God. In the verses immediately preceding our text, Paul speaks of special visions and revelations which the Lord granted to him alone; experiences that “proved” his genuineness against those who were slandering him.

However, in case these revelations and visions he experienced become an object of sinful pride for the Apostle, Paul tells us the Lord allowed a particular circumstance to be a part of his life. This circumstance was not an accident, and it wasn’t the natural result of his labors or his enforced mode of living.  It was sent by God.

We don’t know exactly what it was.  But as you might imagine, identifying Paul’s “thorn in the flesh” has been an endless source of speculation among Bible scholars throughout the centuries. Based on clues taken from his other letters, some think it was a physical condition; among the theories are poor eyesight, malaria, epilepsy, maybe even leprosy. Others think it may have been a tendency toward depression or some sort of spiritual affliction. Luther, for example, thought it might be the constant temptation to despair or doubt that he was doing any good.

While we may not know exactly what his “thorn” was, we do know the effect it had on him.  It “tormented” him. That’s a very strong term. Its constant presence in his life – at least as he initially perceived it – was only bad. And because Paul obviously felt that such a “thorn” was a hindrance to his ministry – that it somehow held him back from being everything he felt he could be or should be for the Lord – he specifically and pointedly prayed for God to remove it.

Not just once. Not even twice. But on three separate occasions. “Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me.” The word “plead” indicates this was not just a passing thought in his bedtime prayers, but the specific subject of what were, no doubt, intense periods of prayer in Paul’s life.

Because we are not told, again, we can only speculate on the approach Paul took in these prayers. Perhaps he confronted God with logic – something along these lines: “Lord if this is lifted, I can serve you better” or “Lord, if this is lifted, I can be a much more effective missionary.” Or maybe he played on God’s sympathy and compassion: “Lord, I am your child whom you love. This is bothering me and I am in pain and I ask that you please lift this burden from me.”

Whatever the approach may have been, Paul undoubtedly had a dozen good reasons why the Lord should remove this burden from him. So, he prayed long, and he prayed hard.  And true to his form and his many promises, the Lord heard his child’s prayer, and he answered it.

And the answer was… No. Not once. Not twice. But “no” all three times. 

However, we hasten to add, it was not just a plain “no.” It was a qualified “no;” a “no” with provisions attached to it.  “But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in your weakness.’” How God communicated this message to Paul is not revealed, but what a beautiful answer the Lord gave him!

In effect the Lord said: "I know this disappoints you, but no, Paul, I am not going to take this problem away from you.  What I am going to do is give you an outpouring of my grace. What I am going to do is provide you with the strength and the ability to handle this problem. In addition, Paul, your ‘thorn’ and your ability to be effective and carry on despite it will serve as a powerful example of the strength God works in and through his children.  And all this will then give ultimate glory to God. Which is really all you ever wanted in the first place.” 

And Paul got it. He moved from disappointment to acceptance to trust to embracing whatever situations the Lord allowed into his life. So, he concludes: “Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me.  That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.”

The lesson Paul learned is that he could count on God’s help in every situation and problem he faced. Furthermore, when, humanly speaking, he was the weakest – meaning it was evident that he could not change things by his own power – he was, spiritually speaking, actually the strongest – because he had to rely totally on God’s sufficient grace to see him through any and every situation. In other words, Paul says to himself, God will provide me with strength as I shift from relying on my plans to relying on God’s promises.

Paul knew first hand the truth expressed by the hymnist: 

In every condition, in sickness, in health;  

In poverty’s vale or abounding in wealth

At home or abroad, on the land, on the sea,

The Lord, the Almighty, your strength e’er shall be.

What can we learn from Paul’s words to us today and apply to our lives of faith?  Three simple but profoundly important lessons are found in this text:

#1:  When it comes to our prayers and even our most earnest desires, God sometimes says no.

This doesn’t mean he doesn’t hear us or love us or care for us. Because he is the God of grace. And central to the idea of grace is Jesus Christ. “You know the grace of our Lord Jesus, Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, that you through his poverty might become rich,” Paul writes earlier in this letter. In other words, the cross of Jesus Christ and his shed blood for our forgiveness and eternal life, sinners though we be, is ample proof of God’s loving and caring nature. 

When God says no it means he simply has a different plan for our lives than we do. At first that may disappoint us. And sometimes God may choose to answer us with what we at first may interpret to be silence. But God is never silent to the needs of his children. 

Which leads to the next thought:

#2:  When God does say “no,” it is a qualified no, and he will give us the strength to bear up.

The beautiful promise of God that Paul records in our text was not for him alone. When God says “My grace is sufficient for you,” he is speaking to every one of his children. It is along much the same lines of another promise he gives us, this one in First Corinthians, where we are told God will never give us more than we can bear, but will either provide a way out or give us the strength to deal with it.

To this end it needs to be said that sometimes God sees us as being stronger than we think we are. So, he stretches us, and he challenges us to trust him in ways that are deeper than we’ve ever experienced before; but he never, ever abandons us.

Paul’s confidence in this promise shines through in his letter to the Philippians where he says of himself and every Christian, “I can do all things through Christ, who gives me strength.”

#3:  When life doesn’t go according to our plans and when we are personally our weakest – that is, not able to handle the problem by ourselves – we can actually become spiritually the strongest.  Why? Because we rely on God more and ourselves less. And God will never let us down. Because his grace is and always will be sufficient for us. That’s the promise he makes to his children – children touched by grace, saved by grace and standing in grace. 

And when we understand that he will never leave us or forsake us in whatever path he asks us to walk down and whatever situation he asks us to endure, like the Apostle Paul we can reevaluate our plans in light of God’s promises. And like Paul, we can progress from disappointment to acceptance to trust to embracement that somehow, someway in the end God will be glorified. 

Which is all we ever want as his children, isn’t it?  Amen.