"My grace is sufficient for you." 2 Cor. 12:9
Paul was a hero—defying difficulties, danger, death. He gloried in tribulation, yet he deeply felt it. He knew the darkest shadow of the garden of grief. In writing to the Corinthians he spoke as having been "pressed out of measure, above strength, insomuch that we despaired even of life." In defending his apostleship against false teachers, he briefly refers to having endured stripes above measure, been in prisons more frequent, deaths often, thrice beaten with rods, stoned, shipwrecked, in perils of waters, of robbers, in the wilderness, in the city; weariness, painfulness, hunger and thirst, cold and nakedness; with the daily care of all the churches. (2 Cor. 1:8-10; 11:24-28.) He also testified that he had been "caught up into paradise;" but that to prevent undue elation "there was given unto him a thorn in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to buffet him."
The trial, whatever it was, is described as a "thorn," not a sword or a spear. Comparatively small annoyances, continued, may become a severer trial of patience than great calamities, which rouse all our energies to meet them, but, like a thunder cloud, discharge their bolts and roll away. The traveler with a thorn in his foot may be obliged to travel on without halting to extricate it. Every step gives pain; he is hindered, vexed, and receives little sympathy. It is only a thorn. The thorn may be some bodily ailment, not perilous but painful—vexations in business, petty worries, painful restraints, uncongenial occupation, social antipathies, aggravating intimates, malicious slander, cruel criticisms, plotting foes, Job's comforters. The devil often takes advantage of such trials to tempt to sin. Such a "messenger of Satan" may come to "buffet;" not to give one heavy blow and depart, but to continue to deliver stinging slaps, allowing no interval of rest.
The Apostle says this thorn was "given him." It was not by accident or merely the malice of Satan. The permission of it was the kind dispensation of a Father, in order to prevent greater evil. "Lest I should be exalted above measure" is the reason repeated twice in the same sentence. This confidence in God's loving purpose was great consolation.
A thorn may not only pain the body, but irritate and depress the mind, and hinder important work. Thorns out of sight, rankle in spite of littleness. Doubtless Paul's chief desire was the removal, not of the pain so much as of the hindrance to usefulness. But greater humility was more important than greater work. What we are is more than what we do. If the continuance of the thorn kept him from being "exalted above measure," the result was better than active labor. The tool is more valuable than the extra wages, in earning which it is damaged; and pride unfits for holy service, especially pride in what appears pious.
Whatever drives or draws to the throne of grace does us good, whether bitter cup or piercing thorn. Even a messenger of Satan brings us some blessing, and his malicious buffets fresh experiences of Divine love. "Concerning this thing I besought the Lord thrice, that it might depart from me." Here again he learned a lesson from Gethsemane. It is natural to continue to ask relief from continued pain. Little things that trouble the child are not too little to bring again and again to the Father.
The prayer was answered in a better manner than Paul expected. The thorn remained, but not because the prayer lacked faith, sincerity, or earnestness. It is an error to suppose that every real prayer will be answered literally, and that disappointment is evidence of unbelief. Moses asked in vain to enter Canaan. The prayer of Paul was answered by the assurance, "My grace is sufficient for you—for my strength is made perfect in weakness." The Lord disappointed for a time, in order to enrich forever.
"My grace is sufficient!" What a proof that "the Lord" to whom Paul prayed was Divine! How could man or angel presume to say that his influence would suffice Paul at all times, in bearing all trials? "God manifest in the flesh," who lives forever, "mighty to save," is alone able to supply all the need of all His disciples. We may, with full assurance, rely on His promise of grace. It is Sovereign grace, the free gift of the King; Covenant grace, ratified by His precious blood; Effectual grace, successfully working in all who believe; Unchangeable grace, never diminishing in quantity and power.
The grace promised is "sufficient;" adapted to the case in quality, quantity, continuance. It is "grace for seasonable help;" grace for today, and similar grace for tomorrow's additional or different trials. As in a great ocean-steamer all necessaries are provided for the voyage, so that passengers entering into contract and going on board need have no anxiety about the daily provision, so God assures us, not that we shall escape all storms and discomfort, but that we shall be amply provided for and brought safely home.
The promise of grace was confirmed by the assurance that the strength of God would be made perfect, in the weakness of man. The weakness would be the occasion for the bestowment of the strength. The strength being that of Omnipotence, and the weakness that of frail humanity, such weakness would become immeasurable gain. It was not promised that the strength of God would be given to supplement that of Paul, but as linked with the very weakness he dreaded, the very thorn he would be rid of. And this strength was to be given, not in limited measure, but would be "made perfect." The weaker, the sadder, the more tempted, so the more strengthened, comforted, victorious, would Paul be. The child most ailing receives most of the parent's care; the patient in greatest danger the physician's greatest and most prompt attention.
If grace is needed when our path is plain, much more when it leads among bogs and precipices; if when we have no burden to carry, much more when weighed down with sorrows; if when the wind is fair and only dancing wavelets beautify the sea, much more when the cyclone rages, and our dismasted vessel leaks, almost a wreck—how precious in such extremity this promise!
What was its effect on Paul? "Most gladly, therefore, will I rather glory in my weaknesses, that the strength of Christ may rest upon me. Therefore I take pleasure in weaknesses, in injuries, in necessities, in persecutions, in distresses, for Christ's sake—for when I am weak, then am I strong." Paul submitted to disappointment as regarded the thorn, because of the greater benefits of the grace. He ceased to pray that the former might be removed, rejoicing that by its means the latter was bestowed. He was convinced that the strength of Christ did encompass him even as a tent. He did not submit as to a disappointment; he had realized something better. He now gloried in the thorn which had so distressed him. He retained it "most gladly," as a mark of favor, as an honor from God. He could now "glory in tribulations also." He had been in danger of glorying in his eloquence, miraculous gifts, labors, usefulness, and of being ashamed of this humiliating thorn; but now he rejoiced in it as the occasion of additional grace—not in his power to speak with tongues, to cure the sick, to raise the dead; not in his over-abundant labors and successes, nor even in his vision of Paradise, but in his infirmities. He took "pleasure in reproaches," for by the power of Christ these became titles of honor; in "necessities," for they opened wider the doors of God's treasury; in "persecutions," for the hatred of men increased the sense of the love of Christ; in "distresses," for these yielded new delights.
"There is, as the Apostle has remarked, a way to strength through weakness. Let me then be the most feeble creature alive, as long as that feebleness serves to invigorate the energies of my rational and immortal spirit; as long as in that obscurity in which I am enveloped the light of the Divine presence more clearly shines—then, in the proportion as I am weak, I shall be invincibly strong; and in proportion as I am blind, I shall more clearly see. O that I may thus be perfected by feebleness, and irradiated by obscurity." (Milton)
"One adequate support
The gospel assures me that the God "of infinite benevolence and power" is my very own God and Father. My personal interests are not lost sight of in those of the universe. Each trial I suffer is "given" as a blessing, though it appears as a buffet. The surgeon's knife has often averted death. Even God's thorns are curative. His withholdings enrich as well as His bestowings.
But though this is not always seen as regards the interests of time, it is always true as regards those of eternity. The thorn in the flesh saved Paul from pride in the spirit. How exposed are the most useful Christians to this temptation! To be proud of our beauty, strength, riches, station, power, learning, genius—this is absurd, for what have we which we have not received? and the greater the trust, the greater the guilt of unfaithfulness. But to be proud of our piety, our spiritual experience, our prayerfulness, zeal, usefulness—this is the worst kind of pride, most offensive to God, most injurious to our own soul, and most obstructive to usefulness. If so, how beneficent the thorn, in whatever shape, that checks such self-destructive abuse of heavenly gifts!
A vessel that carries much sail needs much ballast. A tree that spreads wide its branches must plant its roots deep, if it is not to be blown down by the tornado. No true prayer is lost. Faith may be exercised, in full expectation that the precise request will be granted. But it is a loftier reliance on God when we leave the manner of the response to His superior wisdom. Asking in Christ's Name is asking in His spirit—"Father, Your will!" We desire the very best He can give us—and this He alone knows. "My thoughts are higher than your thoughts." Strength to endure a trial may be better than its removal. Paul's stripes at Philippi were more painful than a thorn, but were the occasion of his songs in the night. Madame Guyon records, "The stones of my prison-walls have often seemed as rubies in my eyes." Martyr-tortures have often brought heavenly raptures. May not thorns, then, be blessed? Suppose they are in themselves trifles, may not even the worries of daily life become occasions of subduing anger, exercising patience, praising God, and so be dignified and glorified, helping us heavenward? May we not become "more than conquerors," by the "invincible might of weakness"? If the thorn remains, but grace is given to endure it, our prayer is granted in the spirit, while refused in the letter.
"The record book of every Christian's life has pages written at the bidding of that severe teacher, Disappointment. Tears blotted and blurred the page at the time. But as we turn to the page and read it in the light of experience, we write beneath it, 'Thank God for those losses; they were my everlasting gain. All things have worked together for good.' When we reach our Father's house we shall look back and see that the rough-visaged teacher, Disappointment, was one of the best guides to lead us to it. The lessons were hard to learn. But the rod we so disliked, stripping off much we valued, enabled us to travel freer and faster. Dear old, rough-handed teacher! We will build a monument to you yet, and crown it with garlands, and inscribe on it—'Blessed be the memory of Disappointment.'" (T. L. Cuyler)
But how can we endure the thorn meanwhile? By faith in our Lord Jesus. It was the Sufferer of Gethsemane who said, "My grace is sufficient for you." These words are not recorded in the gospels. They were not spoken while Jesus was on the earth. They are utterances of the ascended, glorified Christ. They prove His words, "I am with you always." He was with Paul—He is with us. He spoke to Paul—He speaks to us. By His Spirit He can so impress His written words on our hearts that we shall, with the Apostle, hear His voice addressing ourselves. "My grace!" the grace of the Man of Sorrows, the Friend of Sinners, the Healer of the Sick, the Brother of Bethany, the Weeper at the grave, the Suppliant of Gethsemane, the Omnipotent Head of the Church, the Lord of Glory—it is he who still says, "My grace is sufficient for you."
How often in fear and woe I've cried—