The Sufficiency of Grace
June 14, 1998
Scripture: 2Cor. 12:1-10
The human condition is a curious one. We must agree that in our present state we are far from God. And there seems to be no way to draw near to him (that is in overcoming our condition to be like him) that does not involve pain. There is a certain amount of pain even in coming to salvation because in so doing we must acknowledge that we are sinners not capable of remedy. Our bubble must burst. We may cry and feel sad for our condition that requires a Savior. And then this Savior begins to shape us with hammer blows and refine us with fire. We wince and scream as we are forced to let go our old shape and rid ourselves of impurities. Is there no other way, we cry? Alas, God says no. He has something in store for us that is so beautiful we could barely understand it if we could see it. As a matter of fact, if we saw the finished product, it would hinder its accomplishment because we would want to cut short the manufacturing process that must be used to achieve it.
This then is the story of Paul, and his vision, and his thorn. In his great mercy and purpose for Paul, God allowed him to see the completed product in order to give him the dogged tenacity he needed to fulfill his calling. It would be a hard calling beyond the capability of any man to be the apostle to the Gentiles. God opened up the source of himself to the vision of Paul so that Paul could not only impart the vision to others who would be called, but so that he himself could keep the vision when the calling became hard to hear. Much difficulty would lie ahead. The thorn would be to continually remind Paul that he had not yet arrived. It would remind him that there was still a process necessary in his own heart. Isn’t it the grace of God that he can and chooses to use us even in an unfinished state?
But back to the idea of pain. Pain is proof that the process is needed. Pain is proof that the process is taking place. Pain reveals to us that there is something that must be removed. Pain reveals to us that it is being removed. Pain becomes the indicator of process. Now everybody feels pain. So what is the difference between us and them, between pain in the child of God and pain in the child of perdition? For the child of God it is the pain of reconstruction. For the child of perdition it is the pain of destruction. For us it is God-inspired. For them it is self-inflicted. And we can know the difference because of the promises of God. As a child of God, if we feel pain we can know that there is something in us that God must remove and is removing. Paul’s thorn revealed to Paul that there was still much in his human nature that must be refined. It was God’s reminder to him of the process.
Paul’s vision must surely encourage us about that process as it encouraged him by seeing the end result. But note that he was very humble about what he saw. Could one assume that Paul knew a lot more than he was telling us in his humble recount of his vision? He elaborated more upon what he heard than upon what he might have seen. What we hear is more reliable, and what Paul probably heard was the all-surpassing glory of God to be completed in us. If we knew what Paul knew we may chuck this life in an instant. But in so doing we would cut short the process of God. The pain of life is universal and necessary. But for the Christian it is productive.
I. The Need of Grace - Human Weakness (vv. 1-6)
Paul’s boasting is not for himself but to verify his calling to those who are doubting him, even as it verified his calling to himself.
Paul’s experiences of 2Cor. 12 are what God used to get him through the experiences of 2Cor. 11.
The substance of the vision: Isaiah, Ezekiel, Daniel, John.
(Third heaven [1Ki. 8:27]; 14 years ago; in or out of the body; caught up [1Thes. 4:17]; third person - speaking of his own experience [1,5,7].)
We as Christians can get proud in our privileged position (examples). We sometimes need to be reminded of our nature - and our need.
II. The Wisdom of Grace - Sovereign Provision (v. 7)
The imagery of the ‘thorn in the flesh’ is that of something that hinders and irritates and reminds us of our weakness toward hindrance and irritation. If left untreated, it would become infected. The treatment is constant submission to God regarding the hindrance or irritation.
He may choose not to take it away, but he can also keep it from becoming infected (attitude).
Whatever we may tend to become proud of in the flesh, God is able, by his grace, to counteract. If we, like Paul, may tend to be proud of our pedigree (2Cor. 11:22; Php. 3:4-6), flesh, learning, or self-imposed righteousness, what particular thorn might God give us to counteract our nature? Whatever he gave Paul was particularly suited to his needs. He can do the same for us.
I remember my upbringing and the pride instilled in me for my lineage, image, intelligence and strength. Through God’s release of me to my sins that I didn’t want to forsake, he stripped away these things that led to pride. These things are now part of my history which I can never forget and which continue to humble me in the sight of God’s revealed power which he used to humble me, and can choose to do so at any time again. God has then revealed to us that we are not self-sufficient and are totally dependent upon him. He breaks our leg, then he becomes our crutch. Then we can echo Php. 3:7-11 with Paul. It becomes a joy of dependency upon Him which is far greater than we are and sets us free from the short-sighted prison of our own limitations (which the natural man deludes himself into thinking are not limitations at all).
Saul was certainly David’s thorn in the flesh. David’s later tendencies toward pride and lust certainly revealed his need for God’s earlier thorn through Saul which humbled him. What would David have been like without Saul. Saul was the grace of God to David who was a man whom God knew could be taught after his own heart through this adversity. Sometimes, for our very own good, God may choose not to resolve certain issues in our lifetimes, even through prayer.
It is described as a messenger of Satan. But recall that even as in the case of Job, Satan can still only act within the limits set by God. God’s purpose is not to undo us but to uphold us. It is in his wisdom that he uses the nature of the flesh to teach us about the true nature of the flesh so that we don’t depend on it but on him. In 1Thes. 2:17-18, Satan stopped Paul’s return to Thessalonica, but in so doing worked the plan of God to keep Paul on the move to spread the gospel to Berea, Athens and Corinth. Here we see Satan’s thorn as an allowance by God to keep Paul spiritually well-balanced. His weakness becomes the only safe ground for boasting.
Much of our calling as Christians may be to live a witness of God’s strength in the midst of human difficulty. We may ask just what is the grace part of all this. Is it the actual thorn, or is it the strength to overcome the thorn? We have been watching the Bulls and the Jazz in the NBA playoffs. Does victory consist of merely the win, or does it also consist of the fact that there was an opponent to gain victory over? Both are part of God’s program of grace. But let us also ask another question. What if one of us assumes that it is our God-given calling to actually be that thorn through which God gives grace? Shall we call in the witness of Romans 6? Certainly we are to give grace to one another. But God alone reserves the right of the thorn to give, whereas we are always called upon to side with him in giving the strength to overcome part. May the lives we live always impart strength to others and not thorns.
Without the thorns of God’s grace there may be a number of accomplishments that would never have happened in the lives of many Christians that God has purposefully intended for his glory. If Paul was not in prison, we would not have his prison letters. If John were not on Patmos, we would not have the revelation he received there. If I were not disciplined, I would not have come to be your pastor.
III. The Acceptance of Grace - Divine Strength (vv. 8-10)
God’s grace being sufficient was also God’s essential answer to Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane. “My grace is sufficient,” being perfect tense, indicates a message of continual applicability, the continual availability of grace. The grace of God is the strength of God. The principle of power manifested in weakness defends our claim as Christians and cuts the ground out from under those who oppose us, just as it did for Paul and his apostleship. So the trouble that God allows in our lives that works a mighty display of his strength gives tremendous credibility to our claims that he is real. Being a Christian does not exempt us from life and its pitfalls. What it does is put a bottom in the pit which can never thereafter keep us as we crawl out by his grace and power. If, in being a Christian, it always all went our way, we would get proud and others would get jealous of our special treatment. Living in a thorn patch gives us protection. We often pray that God would place a protective hedge of thorns around us and those we love. Here we can see that it protects us both ways; from outside attack and from inside deception.
When grace is enough, it is all that we need. The sufficiency of grace means that sometimes we may be given things to endure which we cannot understand, and to let that lack of understanding be enough, having entrusted ourselves to the greater understanding of God.
Is there anyone who can understand grace? Just as there is positive and negative providence, there is positive and negative grace. Positive grace may immediately be seen as a benefit, like the forgiveness of sin by faith in Jesus. Negative grace is harder to see as a benefit, since it is God saving us from ourselves. Instead of the necessity of forgiveness for sin, it is deliverance from sinning. It is God’s foreknowledge. Those whom he foreknew he also predestined, whom he predestined he also called, whom he called he also justified, whom he justified he also glorified. The sufficiency of grace is for the glory of God in us. He participates with us in our sanctification.
The thorn in the flesh, I don’t believe, is personal sin. God is not in the business of overlooking sin. But he may allow a difficult situation, circumstance, person or health issue to remain resident. It may be part of our trial by fire. In this, God has our good in mind. But it may be especially difficult if it is a family member or relative. We may not be responsible for the difficulty. But we can be certain that if God allows the difficulty to remain for now, even after much pleading, he has ultimate good in mind that we shall see soon enough. God has power enough even to bring good, through grace which conquers all, from the most incomprehensible human sin we can imagine. He asks us to participate with him in this grace even when we cannot understand it, and that in itself makes his grace through us even that much more profound. It is just a matter of trusting God.
What are the thorns in our flesh? Is it a health problem, a son or daughter, a son or daughter-in-law, a spouse, a job, a neighbor, a co-worker, finances, the church, God? He may be sending you the message to remain for his glory. He wants to display his strength through you. He wants you to represent him. He wants you to be the grace that you have received. The sufficiency of grace may be grace itself. We must accept that God’s purposes are greater than ours.
Last Sunday night we went through an outline model for our personal testimony of Christ’s work in our lives. It was B.C./+/A.D. We were challenged to find a common theme of before and after transformation. Paul’s example was given of zeal. I got to thinking of mine and ultimately latched on the idea of works. Before salvation I exalted myself by my works done in the flesh for my own glory. But now I can see a change in that my works are done for the glory of God. I still do works but they are transformed into God’s purposes. But this didn’t happen just as a result of a moment-in-time conversion. It happened over much time and through many thorns. And I still have a few. God is saving me from myself. And this is what I want. I want his glory and not my own. I want, like Paul, to boast only of the cross. For when I am weak, then I am strong. And that strength is God’s strength made perfect in my weakness.
God’s grace may be our thorn, but the thorn protects the rose.
Someone once said that the difference between American Christianit, and Christianity as it is practiced in the rest of the world, has to do with how each views suffering. In America Christians pray for the burden of suffering to be lifted from their backs. In the rest of the world, Christians pray for stronger backs so they can bear their suffering. That may be why we look away from the bag lady on the street and look into the displays in store windows instead. That may be why we prefer going to movies instead of to hospitals and nursing homes."
The same everlasting Father who cares for you
today will take care of you tomorrow and every day.
Either He will shield you from suffering, or He
will give you strength to bear it. Be at peace,
then, and put aside all anxious thoughts and
imaginations. St. Francis de Sales