We are in a series called “When God doesn’t make sense”.
For all of us, there’s going to be . . . or you are currently in . . . a season of life that’s just plain ole’ difficult. You’re praying about it and you believe that God’s going to do something about it, but he hasn’t, and it just doesn’t make sense.
Do you know what I’m talking about? If you do, I’ve got some great news for you; you are not alone, and you are not the first.
The men and women whose stories make up the foundation of our faith were no strangers to this feeling, but they never seemed to be put off by it.
In fact, it somehow fueled them in such a way that they were even more adamant about making sure the message of Jesus made it out of their tough times to us, sitting here, worshipping God in my house.
Perhaps the best example of this is a guy named Paul. Paul steps on to the pages of history as a one-man wrecking machine and his mission in life was to destroy the Christian church because he saw them as a knock-off of Judaism that distorted the law.
And as you know, God got his attention and he becomes the greatest evangelist of his day and he went around all the major cities telling everyone about Jesus and planting churches; just like ours.
But just as he was getting right with God, just as he got in to the center of God’s will and began doing the things he ought to do . . . he was stricken with a physical ailment. We don’t know exactly what it was, but it was keeping him from doing the very thing that he felt God had called him to do.
And so, in his turmoil and in his inner wrestling with God, we get this insight, a unique perspective, for those of us who find ourselves in a season of life where God just doesn’t make any sense.
Let's listen to our text: 2 Corinthians 11:7-10
He begins with this . . .
“Therefore, to keep me from becoming conceited, I was given a thorn in my flesh . . . to torment me”
Let’s break this down a minute so we can hear what he’s saying . . .
This Greek word “given” expresses the receiving of a gift; something you would get for your birthday or Christmas. So, this is a positive thing. In fact, this term was most commonly used to talk about God giving a good gift to someone.
But the good gift God has given him is a thorn in his flesh; a constant irritating problem . . . and he says that this thorn torments him, the same way a bully would torment a kid at school day in and day out.
This “gift” . . . is painful, humiliating, and debilitating.
So, you would think that Paul has chosen the wrong word . . . right? Perhaps he should have said, “I was cursed”, or “I was punished”, or “it was Karma for my previous life”.
But he doesn’t, he called this painful, humiliating, and debilitating thorn in his flesh a gift because it has a purpose and its purpose was to keep him from becoming conceited.
Or, as the Message reads, “to keep him from getting a big head”.
And when Paul realizes that this “gift” wasn’t going away, he did what most of us would do, he pleads with God three times to take it away.
This doesn’t mean that he got up Monday morning and prayed about it at the breakfast table and then on Tuesday, he woke up and realized the problem was still there, so he prayed about it again and then, you know, by the end of the week . . . he got a little frustrated and so he prayed again.
These were seasons of his life, where his thorn, whatever it was, was so unbearable that he finally fell on his knees and said, “God, I cannot continue doing what you’ve called me to do if you don’t remove this from me”
Many of you, right now, have a thorn in your life; some issue, some challenge. Some of you might say, “My thorn is a person”, if you’re sitting next to them, don’t point at them, look at them, or even breath in their direction. That would be rude.
Some of you, it might be a health issue, or it could be that you’re praying that God would change some circumstance. Whatever it is, you look at it and say, “God, would you please help” but it seems that he is not, and it doesn’t make sense.
Here’s the interesting thing. Some of you have been told the reason things aren’t getting better or at least changing is because you don’t have enough faith.
But I want you to hear this, trying to faith God into something we want God to do is bad theology.
Paul had more faith than all of us put together and yet he pleaded with God three different seasons of his life to take this thorn away from him.
- The first season he begged God, he heard nothing.
- But the second season, yeah, he heard nothing.
- Finally, during his third season of prayer where he’s begging, “I’ve had enough. God, you’ve got to do something.”
God spoke . . . I don’t know if it was an audible voice or God’s spirit stirring within his soul but what he heard was clear . . . “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”
Some of you might be thinking, I thought grace is what brings forgiveness of sins and this doesn’t seem like a sin issue that Paul is dealing with. But Grace is so much more than that.
One scholar describes it this way, “Grace is when God freely extends Himself, leaning in and reaching to us, because He is disposed to bless and be near us.”
It’s God saying, “I’m here for you, and I want to reveal myself to you.”
Here’s what happens. We tend to say, “God, this is what I need. This is what I want. If you’ll do this, then everything will be OK.” But God says, “No, that’s not what you need. In this situation, I am what you need. I am enough. My grace, my presence, is what you need.”
What God communicated to Paul that day, is something that some of us need to hear today.
God said, “Paul, the answer is no. I am not going to remove this from you. But I am going to give you the strength you need and the grace you need to hang in there and press on . . . because . . . and this is important . . . My power is perfected in weakness.”
My answer is no but it comes with a promise . . . my grace will get you through it.
So, what do you do when you’re Paul and God, who you’re serving with all your heart and risking your life almost every day says, “no”?
What he writes next comes from a heart that was in tune with God’s.
Therefore, I will boast more gladly about my weakness so that Christ’s power may rest on me.
In other words, I’m going to stop focusing on the handicap, on the problem, on the thorn that is beating me up on daily basis and begin to appreciate it as a gift.
In fact, I’m going to boast about my weakness. I’m not going to hide from it. I’m not going to run from it. I’m not going to throw in the towel and give up. I’m not going to make any excuses for it. Like a dog, I’m going to roll around in it and get it all over me.
If God has chosen this gift for me then I’m going to embrace it. I’m going to own it. And I’m going to look good doing it.
But it will not define me. Because in my weakness, my brokenness, my pain . . . God’s power takes over and he is glorified, and in his glory and his grace, I am re-defined as one who is loved.
Paul’s thorn was a gift with a promise and a purpose. But he had to see it as a gift. He had to receive it and embrace it, instead of resisting it. And once he received it as a gift with a promise that God’s grace is sufficient . . . something powerful happened that would not have happened any other way.
And that brings us to this interesting and uncomfortable idea. If you believe that God can change your circumstances and you’ve prayed and prayed and prayed but it looks like he’s not going to act on your behalf the way that you think he should . . . you have options; you can carry around your anger and bitterness for years and years and allow it to define you or you can receive it as a gift.
A gift with a purpose and a promise.
The purpose is yet to be made known, but the promise is, “my grace is sufficient for you.”
The reason I say you have the option is because I think I would be overstepping my boundaries to say, “you must receive it as a gift.” This is something people come to individually. I think it’s something that God leads you up to the edge of. Almost like a revelation.
Now if this is pushing up against the theology you grew up with . . . that if you had enough faith, if you just claimed it in the name of Jesus . . . then God will answer your prayer and the reason things aren’t going so well for you is because you don’t have enough faith . . .
I want to put your adversity into a broader context.
At the end of Jesus’ ministry, the night before he would be beaten and crucified . . . he withdrew about stones thrown beyond the disciples and he began to wrestle with God.
He cried out, “Father, if you are willing” . . . I know you are able . . . I have faith that you have to power to do this . . . “if you are willing, take this cup from me.”
Father, you have placed into my hands a gift that is anything other than a gift, and I realize that this gift has a purpose that will impact potentially every human being that’s ever born.
And I know not only does it have a purpose, but it also comes with a promise that somehow you will sustain me through this.
But, God . . . if you would be so willing, please take this gift from me . . . but if you choose to say no . . . not my will but yours be done.”
The good news is we have permission to ask that our cups be taken, and our thorns removed. The not so great news is that sometimes God says, “No”.
- God said no to his own son.
- God said no to the greatest evangelist this world has ever known.
And what we learn is that sustaining grace begins with not my will but yours be done. That sustaining grace, the grace that becomes power that allows you to put one foot in front of another, one day after another, is the grace that begins with, if you’re not going to remove it, not my will be yours.
So, if you are in a season of life that’s just plain ole’ difficult, I want to offer this option . . . receive it as a gift with a purpose and promise. The purpose is yet to be revealed but the promise is right now, “My grace is sufficient for you. My power will be made perfect in your weakness.”
You see, if God doesn’t do exactly what you wanted Him to do, it doesn’t make God any less God. It makes him more God.