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The Sufficiency of Grace

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The Sufficiency of Grace

2 Corinthians 12:7 - 10

Something often cited as one of the “distinctively American virtues” is self-sufficiency. Our national tradition glorifies the pioneer spirit that led people to strike out into unknown territories and carve a nation out of the wilderness.

We add men like Daniel Boone and Lewis and Clark to our roster of American heroes. Our poets praise the self-sufficient spirit: “I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul.” Self-sufficiency is virtually a sacrament in our national religion.

All of this makes it particularly difficult for us to deal with the notion that we may not be so sufficient unto ourselves after all. Yet the gospel itself is based on the reality that we are not self-sufficient - that we need something beyond ourselves.

Paul has been forced to confront the false apostles who have invaded the Corinthian church, preaching a corrupted gospel and trying to lead the believers away from the faith in which they were first established. Because the Corinthians were being swayed by the boasting of these charlatans - who claimed amazing spiritual experiences and accomplishments - Paul felt compelled to share some of his own experiences in serving Christ.

All that the false teachers could claim in the way of status and authority, Paul could match and even exceed. In the opening verses of chapter 12, he proceeds to tell of an incredible spiritual experience in which God caught him up to Paradise and allowed him to hear “inexpressible thing, things that a man is not permitted to tell” (12:4).

Yet alone with that singular spiritual experience came a limitation. Paul goes on to explain, “To keep me from becoming conceited because of these surpassing great revelations, there was given me a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me” (v. 7).

The word translated “thorn” is the Greek skolops, which referred to something pointed. It can be a thorn, or a stake, or even the pointed end of a fish hook. In the Old Testament, it represented anything that frustrated or created problems for a person.

Over the centuries there have been countless suggestions about what that “thorn in the flesh” might have been in Paul’s life. Although some have guessed it may have been some external opposition or internal struggle, most likely it was some type of physical disability. Based on comments Paul makes in this text and elsewhere, suggestions have been made that it may have been bad eyesight, headaches, malaria, epilepsy, or any number of other maladies.

We simply don’t have enough information to know for sure the exact nature of Paul’s “thorn in the flesh.” Whatever it was, it was a source of weakness and frustration for him in his life and ministry. That seems clear from the fact he prayed three times that it might be removed from him.

What was God’s response to that prayer? He assured Paul that rather than remove the weakness, the Father could use Paul more effectively because of the weakness in his life. Paul learned that man’s weakness and God’s grace go hand in hand.

How does God use limitations in our lives?

They Keep Us in Touch with Reality

It is all too easy for us as Christians to grow distant from the world in which we live. We can focus our lives around church activities and church friends and lose contact with the world of suffering, hurting humanity that surrounds us.

Paul’s visions and spiritual experiences could have had a devastating impact on his ministry, if they had caused him to gain too high a view of himself and become isolated from people as some kind of “super-saint.” Instead, Paul’s weakness reminded him of his link with humanity, and gave him insights into the needs of people.

In his A Spiritual Autobiography, William Barclay tells of the painful death of his mother in 1932. She was suffering from cancer of the spine, and Barclay was struggling with the theological problem of why a good person like his mother had to suffer in such a terrible way.

Her death came during the time he was being licensed as a minister of the gospel. His father said to him, through his tears, “You’ll have a new note in your preaching now.” Barclay, reflecting on those words many years later, said, “And so I had - not the note of one who knew the answers and had solved the problems, but the note of one who now knew what the problems were.”

Paul’s “thorn in the flesh” kept him in touch with reality - with the needs and hurts of people whom God loved.

They Keep Us in Touch with Humility

Paul shared with the Corinthian believers the wondrous revelations God gave to him. It was something to which he would cling all his life. The danger was that such an experience could hamper his witness for Christ by giving Paul an exalted sense of his own life and work.

Who among us has not faced the temptation to hold an inflated sense of his own importance? At work, at church, at home, we can fall victim to pride - to consider ourselves a “step ahead” of others.

Paul says God allowed this thorn in the flesh to hamper him to keep him from “becoming conceited” in the face of these incredible revelations. There was apparently something about Paul’s nature that would have made him feel exalted and distinctive because of what he had seen and experienced. God knew that Paul needed something that would remind him of his own limitations.

A potter in his shop may create wonderful, beautiful works of pottery. As each one comes off the potter’s wheel, the craftsman examines it for quality. He may have a piece that is particularly well formed and attractive, but he notices a small flaw that will keep it from sitting evenly. In that case, the potter puts it back on the wheel and reshapes it until the flaw is removed.

When we give our lives to Christ, we invite him, as the Divine Potter, to shape our lives to be more like his. God uses limitations and weaknesses that exist in our lives to keep us in touch with reality and to help us retain humility. Further:

They Keep Us Dependent on God

Whatever this thorn in the flesh was, Paul clearly felt it was an obstacle to his full effectiveness. Three times he prayed for God to remove it - paralleling the three times Jesus prayed, while in the Garden of Gethsemane, that his impending burden might be removed.

In response to Paul’s prayer, we see a tremendous promise contained in verse 9, one of the high points in all of Paul’s epistles. There, God assures the apostle: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness. . . .“

The word for sufficient expresses continual availability. God tells Paul - and us - there will never be a shortage of his grace. It will always be adequate to cover every need.

One of the real concerns expressed by farmers and ranchers in the western USA is the growing shortage of water. It may well be that within a few years areas of our nation that have been suitable for farming in the past will become barren and lifeless because the water is gone. Water can run out.

Yet God’s grace can never run out. It is like a flowing spring with a limitless source of replenishment. Indeed grace is a river that runs from the throne of God and never runs dry. Whatever your need, God’s grace is sufficient.

Not only does God promise Paul sufficient grace to meet his every need, the Lord also provides the apostle with an insight that will become critical to the effectiveness of his ministry. “God says, “. . . my power is made perfect in weakness” (v. 9).

The word translated “made perfect” or “is perfect” is teletos. That’s based on the same root word Jesus uses when he urged us to “be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48). The word means the end or limit of something, finish or completeness.

So God is identifying for Paul the ultimate source of divine power in our lives: paradoxically, we know God’s power at its greatest strength through our own weakness. Does that mean God wants us to be weak and timid? No, it means that when we sense our own weakness, at that point we open our hearts to allow God’s power to work. God cannot use people who are convinced of their own self-sufficiency; God’s power is most clearly seen in the lives of those who recognize their own weakness and, therefore, seek God’s presence and power in their lives.

So Paul glories in his own weakness, not because of any perverse pleasure in his own pain or affliction, but because those very weaknesses had opened the door more fully for God to enter and work. Have you ever tried to pour more water into a glass that was already full? Nothing more can be added to a glass that’s already full. And God cannot enter and work with power in a life that’s already filled with self.

Paul willingly endured the thorn in the flesh and other difficulties, because God’s power was magnified at the very point of his weakness, “. . . For when I am weak, then I am strong” (12:10).  The false apostles boasted of their accomplishments as signs of their own power and authority; Paul boasts instead of his weakness, because through that weakness God made himself known.

Have you ever prayed asking God to remove some problem or difficulty from your life, and it is still there? Perhaps it is a physical affliction, a limitation in some area, a challenging environment. Could it be that God has not removed that thorn from your life because he desires to use it to demonstrate his power through your weakness?

A new farmer employed a professional well-digger to create a well on his property. The agreement was that the landowners would pay for the digging by the foot - the deeper the well had to go before finding water, the more it would cost.

Fortunately, the digger struck a modest supply of decent water after only about ninety feet. He assured the farmer that the water supply should normally be sufficient. Delighted at the thought he had saved money with such a shallow well, the farmer paused over that word normally. While that might be acceptable nine years out often, what would happen in a particularly dry season. Would it be sufficient then?

“No, sir,” the well-digger answered. “To be sure of that, we’ll have to go down until we strike the deep streams, those big reservoirs far underground.” Then the digger reminded the farmer.

Digging deeper always costs more. Faith can stay at a surface level - full of sweet God-talk and lots of ”warm-fuzzies” - but when the days of crisis come, that kind of faith blows away with the dust. Surviving the hard times requires a durable faith, able to withstand the storms and thorns that inevitably come our way. For that we must dig deeper.

God allows the limitations and weaknesses of life to touch us to help us dig deeper, to become stronger, to become greater servants of the Lord Jesus. Because it is in our weakness that God’s power is seen most clearly.

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