June 16, 2010 David Balzer

2 Corinthians 12:1-10: A Thorn in the Flesh

On 29 May 1953 a young New Zealander stood on top of Mt Everest with his climbing companion Tenzing Norgay. That young man was Edmund Hillary, soon to be knighted, and to become the most famous New Zealander of our time.

So began Prime Minister Helen Clark’s eulogy last week for Sir Edmund Hillary who died a few weeks ago. He was the first person to climb the tallest mountain in the world.

Here’s some of what she went on to say in her speech.

Sir Ed’s achievement on that day cannot be underestimated. He went to a height and a place no man had gone before.

Sir Ed’s “can do” pragmatism, and his HUMILITY as the praise flowed for him over the decades, endeared Sir Ed to our nation and made him an inspiration and a role model for generations of New Zealanders.

We mourn as a nation, because we know we are saying goodbye to a friend. Whether we knew Sir Ed personally a lot, a little, or not at all, he was a central part of our New Zealand family.

When news broke of the ascent by Ed Hillary, a beekeeper from New Zealand, and Tenzing Norgay, a Sherpa from Nepal, it made headlines around the world. This was one of the defining moments of the twentieth century, and earned these two brave men their place in history.

(But that was just the beginning) From the early 1960s, Sir Ed began the work which is his living legacy, founding the Himalayan Trust dedicated to the wellbeing of the Sherpa people in the high mountain valleys of Nepal, and supporting the education of their children and the development of health services.

Sir Ed lent his prestige as patron to so many good causes. Schools and other institutions, organisations and facilities bear his name with great pride.

And Sir Ed also served our country with distinction as High Commissioner to India, based in New Delhi with accreditation to his much-loved Nepal.

Sir Ed described himself as a person of modest abilities. In reality he was a colossus. He was our hero. He brought fame to our country. We admired his achievements and the great international respect in which he was held.

But above all, we loved Sir Ed for what he represented: a determination to succeed against the odds, humility, an innate sense of fair play, and a tremendous sense of service to the community, at home and abroad.

Sir Edmund Hillary’s extraordinary life has been an inspiration to our small nation and to many beyond our shores. As individuals, we may not be able to match Sir Ed’s abilities or strength, but we can all strive to match his humanity and compassion for others.

His values were strong; they are timeless; and they will endure.

May Sir Edmund Hillary rest in peace.

So said Helen Clark.

This was a man who’d scaled great heights. And yet he viewed himself as nothing special.

On the fiftieth anniversary of his ascent of Mt Everest he said

“I like to think that I am a very ordinary New Zealander, not terribly bright perhaps but determined and practical in what I do.”

And even though New Zealanders were incredibly PROUD of his ACHIEVEMENTS, that wasn’t why they loved him. It was this HUMILITY, and his SERVICE of OTHERS that stood out to them.

If you’d asked Sir Ed what he was most proud of, which of his achievements meant the most to him, it wouldn’t have surprised me if Everest didn’t rank that highly.

It seems like his charity work for Nepal, and his other humanitarian projects – getting his hands dirty building schools and hospitals and airstrips – these were the things he was REALLY proud of. And the things he’ll be most fondly remembered for. And, in reality, the things which have been MOST VALUABLE.

Well. Today’s passage describes ANOTHER man who’d scaled the heights. Been where no one else had been. The Apostle Paul. ALSO someone who thought he was nothing special.

And, just like Sir Ed, he’d come back DOWN the mountain. And got on with life. In fact, it was the everyday slog of life and ministry and evangelism and church planting and persecution that he MOST gloried in. And that was of greatest benefit. Because it was only through THOSE things that Christ’s power was able to work through his weakness.

The Situation

Paul’s situation wasn’t a LITERAL mountain. But it LITERALLY happened. It’s all a bit mysterious. In fact, Paul himself’s not really sure what happened.

He describes a VISION he had. Or perhaps it was A PHYSICAL TRIP. He was caught up to the THIRD HEAVEN. He calls it PARADISE in v4. Same thing.

The best we can make of it is that God took him on a trip. And Paul got a peek into WHERE GOD IS. A peek into his throne room. With Jesus by his side. A bit like John did in Revelation Ch 5.

But we don’t get a lot of detail. Frustratingly! Because that’s not Paul’s priority. He’s not into bragging about his experience. He only mentions it because that’s what the false teachers have been doing. Talking about their visions and dreams. And personal experiences of God.

Paul mentions HIS mountain-top experience to put these guys in their place. Yes, it happened. And it’s even more sensational that any of the visions THEY’RE boasting about.

But he refuses to DWELL on it. Because it’s not what’s important. People’s opinion of his ministry should be based on what he SAYS, and what he DOES. – that’s there in v6. Not on some spiritual experience he had YEARS AGO.

Which is all really background to what I want to focus on today. Which is the SECOND paragraph of the Bible reading. From v7. Paul’s learned this lesson about boasting in magnificent experiences the HARD way. It was 14 years ago. And a lot of water’s gone under the bridge since then.

Sometime AFTER the vision, we read in v7 that he was given A THORN IN THE FLESH. Which we don’t know exactly what it was. It was probably a severe physical ailment. Perhaps a chronic sickness. But it might have been depression, or some other burden.

Either way, the specifics aren’t important. Because Paul wants to focus on the PURPOSE of the thorn in the flesh. Why he had it. See it there at the start of v7?

7 TO KEEP ME FROM BECOMING CONCEITED because of these surpassingly great revelations, there was given me a thorn in my flesh,

Paul’s temptation had been to be PROUD of his special vision. To think himself better than other Christians. But the purpose of the thorn was to keep him humble. To stop him getting a swollen head. To make him remember his own frailty and mortality.

But who sent it?

Firstly, GOD did. That’s what we learn from the phrase “THERE WAS GIVEN ME”. It’s in THE PASSIVE form. And it’s often the way the Bible describes GOD doing something.

God sent it to Paul, just like he’d sent the vision, and he’d done it to stop him becoming puffed up by the vision. And we’ll see HOW that works in a minute.

But ALSO, at the same time, in some way that’s not contradictory, it was A MESSENGER OF SATAN. It’s literally an ANGEL of Satan. And his purpose? To TORMENT Paul. To HAMMER him. To punch him in the face, and smack him around. It’s the same word used to describe the beating the Sanhedrin gave Jesus before his crucifixion.

God ALLOWS Satan to send his messenger. Satan has ONE purpose, God has ANOTHER.

Just like JOSEPH. At the end of Genesis, after all the terrible things that happened to him – his brothers’ betrayal, his slavery, his unjust imprisonments – he was still able to say to his brothers, in Gen 50,

20 You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.

God working THROUGH the actions of wicked men to achieve HIS ends. Two different influences, with two different PURPOSES.

Just like JOB. Satan asked PERMISSION before he wrecks havoc on Job’s life. And God ALLOWS it. To achieve HIS GOALS.

And it’s just like Jesus’ . Satan thought he’d WON. But God had DIFFERENT plans. Acts 4:27-28 says this:

27 Indeed Herod and Pontius Pilate met together with the Gentiles and the people of Israel in this city to conspire against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed. 28 They did what your power and will had decided beforehand should happen.

God ALLOWS Satan to send his messenger. Satan has ONE purpose, but God has ANOTHER. One is to HARM Paul, the OTHER is for his BENEFIT.

It’s the sort of truth that flies in the face of some of the comments I hear from people when things go wrong.

They often make one of two mistakes. Either they say, “This is terrible. What did I do wrong? God’s punishing me. He must me”

Or they’ll leave God out of it, and say, “This is terrible. Satan’s trying to trip me up. It’s not God’s plan”.

When the reality is BOTH positions are wrong. The reality is God is USING a terrible thing, something that Satan is using to knock you around, to work something GOOD in you. You may not be able to SEE the good, but to LOOK for it is a position of TRUST. It’s to hammer your anchor point into the rock which is the loving and powerful God, who sent Jesus to save you, and who wants your GODLINESS above everything else.

It’s the truth in that well –known verse Rom 8:28.

Rom 8:28 And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.

And when we take THAT truth on board, and let it seep right down into our souls, it can have a wonderfully FREEING effect on our outlook. And how we approach life. WHATEVER our thorn is. God promises that ALL things – even THIS – is working for MY GOOD. He’s got a PURPOSE in it.

The Request

Have a look at how it worked in PAUL’S situation. His thorn in the flesh was really knocking him around. So he brought A REQUEST to God. Not once, but THREE TIMES (v8)

8 THREE TIMES I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me.

Not just an off-hand request. But sustained, and consistent, and long-standing PLEADING on Paul’s part. “PLEASE God, take this thorn away. HEAL me of it. Satan’s fists are smashing me to pieces. I’m not sure I can LAST.”

You see, No one’s suggesting we should go LOOKING for suffering. To WANT sickness, or , or separation, or disability. To welcome it with open arms.

It’s RIGHT that we should ask our LOVING Heavenly Father for RELIEF. Sometimes he CHOOSES to say YES. And sometimes, like in Paul’s case, his answer’s DIFFERENT.

The Answer

NO. God says, “There’s something more important to me than your COMFORT. Your GODLINESS”. Look at the first part of v9.

9 But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”

I won’t remove THE THORN, but you’ll have something BETTER. MY GRACE. And that will be ENOUGH. That’s sufficient for you to COPE with this.

The gifts I give you will provide you with the resources to continue. You won’t lack anything.

God’s gifts. What ARE they? What does he give us instead of removing a thorn. Firstly, the gift of being one of God’s CHILDREN. The forgiveness and new relationship that come through Jesus. A new purpose and future and hope and identity.

Second, God gives us His SPIRIT – empowering and guiding us. God’s WORD – full of his promises and truth and strength. And God’s PEOPLE – his means of support and help and building-up.

All of these things are God’s grace for us. And his promise is that they’ll provide the power we need in our weakness. IN OUR WEAKNESS. Notice that God’s answer is not that we BECOME STRONG?

It’s BECAUSE of the weakness of Paul’s thorn, that he must RELY on God. That he’s prevented from being conceited. That he continually looks to God for provision. That he’s driven from self-sufficiency.

And when THOSE things are happening, then God can USE him. Can MOULD him, and work THROUGH him.

And so other people recognise God’s hand, and give him praise!

And that’s the goal Paul loves to see.

The response

Notice his RESPONSE to God’s answer. It’s quite surprising. Because it’s a response to God saying NO. A response to his thorn STAYING. To Satan continuing to SMASH him. We might expect him to get angry. Or to sulk. Or feel sorry for himself. There in the second half of v9.

Therefore I will BOAST all the more GLADLY about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s POWER may rest on me. 10 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.

Paul’s FIRST response is to BOAST. Not boast of his successes, or his gifts, or his spiritual visions. But boast of his weaknesses. Because they’re the means by which Christ’s power can flow through him.

And to do it GLADLY, not GRUDGINGLY. Which means he DELIGHTS in weaknesses. He RESTS TRUSTINGLY in God’s purposes for him.

And not just his thorn. He’ll do it for ANYTHING that causes him to take his eyes off himself, and keep them focussed on Jesus. Anything that reinforces his frailty, and fragility and mortality and foolishness. And emphasises instead God’s strength and wisdom and power.

He delights in INSULTS, in HARDSHIPS, in PERSECUTIONS, and DIFFICULTIES. Because it’s in the midst of those things that he can see Christ’s strength working.

You see, you can’t see Christ’s power working in you, while you cling to your own abilities. The two are incompatible. You must let go of ONE to take hold of THE OTHER. And often it takes a thorn in the flesh for us to do it.

Since we’ve been talking about Sir Edmund Hillary, let me give you a mountaineering example. When you abseil down a cliff, you HAVE TO trust your harness and the rope. It doesn’t work if you try to support yourself.

As you walk to the edge of the cliff, you HAVE TO lean back over the edge, and trust the strength of the rope. You have to almost be horizontal as you go over the edge. If you don’t, and you stand up too straight, and trust yourself, your feet will slip in the vertical cliff-face, and you’ll smash face-first into the cliff.

Even MORE dangerous is if you don’t trust YOUR HARNESS. I’ve seen people let go of their bottom hand that’s controlling their descent, and cling with both hands to the rope above their descender. Rather than their harness supporting them, their whole weight is hanging on their hands. Which is ly when they’re 50m off the ground.

Trusting the rope’s strength means recognising your own weakness, and letting go of trusting yourself.

Just like trusting GOD’s strength.

Which is why Paul will delight in ANYTHING that causes him to lean on God, and not on himself.

And the application’s obvious. Whatever YOUR weakness, your thorn in the flesh, are you viewing it as an opportunity to take your eyes off YOURSELF, and put them onto JESUS? An opportunity to take the burden off your own shoulders, and place it onto HIS?

By ALL means, let’s PRAY with all our might that God would deliver us. But just perhaps, he’s got a more IMPORTANT goal in mind. To display his power THROUGH us as we humbly submit to him. And bear up under the pain of the thorn.

There’s lots of things going on with INDIVIDUALS. There’s Caroline’s breast cancer, there’s Ethan’s health problems, there’s marriage separations and divorce. There’s unemployment, depression, diagnosis of child’s learning difficulties. There’s miscarriages, sickness, even of a loved one.

How will you VIEW those things? How will you lean on God through them?

Or what about AS A CHURCH. Are these things WEAKNESSES? Times when we have to cut back, batten down the hatches, suffer through? Or just perhaps, are they times when we can accept with gratitude the gifts of God’s GRACE. Which he PROMISES is sufficient for any circumstance.

Can we lean on him? Hammer our anchor point deep down into the rock of God? Can we look for HIS power to be made perfect in our weakness? And DELIGHT in all that God brings our way so that we might see his strength in the midst of what he LOVINGLY brings our way?

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