One of the great questions that people have when it comes to God is how to do we understand God and suffering. Why do bad things happen to seemingly good people? We have explored this question in our recent Sunday night sermon series in the books of Ruth and Job. We also explored this in John 9 and John 11. Reconciling suffering and God is hard for Christians to grapple with. To the Corinthian Christians, suffering is a big issue. For them, they cannot understand how a true apostle of Jesus could suffer to the degree that the apostle Paul has suffered. This has caused Paul’s critics to consider Paul an inferior apostle. Rather than deflect his sufferings, Paul has magnified his sufferings. Thus Paul proclaimed, “If I must boast, I will boast in the things that show my weakness” (2 Corinthians 11:30). The apostle Paul is now going to lay the trump card of his suffering. Yet again Paul does not do this to promote or elevate himself but to express why suffering should never be considered a reason to dismiss a person as a true servant of Jesus.
An Amazing Experience (12:1-6)
Paul now speaks of a Christian that he knows who 14 years prior was caught up to the third heaven, into paradise (12:2-3). There were a number of ways that the ancients expressed the different heavens of our creation and the spiritual realm. One way spoke of our sky as the first heaven, space (where the stars and planets are) as the second heaven, and the abode of God as the third heaven. This place is also called Paradise by the apostle Paul, which is where God is. Now Paul does not know if this was a vision or if his body was caught up into Paradise, into the presence of God. This person was able to hear things that cannot be told. He heard things that people are not permitted to speak. Paul makes it clear in verses 5-6 that he is speaking about himself. But he is not going to boast about himself, even though what he is saying is the truth. But Paul has not spoken about these things “so that no one may think more of me than he sees in me or hears from me” (12:6). Friends, Paul is an apostle. Yet even he did not want people thinking highly of him in an improper way. Paul does not want to talk about the things he has seen or experienced. Rather, he wants people to see his godly life and his proclamation of the gospel message of Jesus. He’s not there to wow them with his personal experiences. Just look at his godly life and his faithful proclamation of God’s word. How many times do we see people today who claim to be Christians who do not do this! They want to set themselves up as special and distinct so they tell stories of visions and dreams that they claim were given to them by God so that you will be impressed and listen to them. Please notice that Paul says that he does not do this. He does not use such things to get people to listen to him, even though he had all kinds of experiences that he could have shared. Personal experiences and testimonies are not the point. His faithful life and his faithful proclamation of the gospel is what people are supposed to see and listen to only. This is what Paul did for the Corinthians.
Purposeful Suffering (12:7)
But what Paul says next is highly instructive in regards to suffering and how God runs the world.
So to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited. (2 Corinthians 12:7 ESV)
Notice the purpose to the suffering that Paul is experiencing. “So to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations” and “to keep me from becoming conceited” is the purpose of God (12:7). Now we need to see the two angles regarding what Paul is going through. This thorn in his flesh is a messenger of Satan that is tormenting him. Satan uses trials, suffering, and difficulties to torment us. Satan uses these things to harass us and trouble us. This is exactly what we see in the book of Job. Satan is using suffering to torment Job so that he will turn his faith away from the Lord. Job is afflicted so that it would be revealed that Job serves God for nothing.
But please notice that this is not God’s purpose. God is not tormenting Paul. God is not harassing Job. God has another purpose by which he allows suffering to happen in the world. Paul says that for him, because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations he received, this thorn in the flesh was given to him so that he would not exalt himself or become conceited. God used this so that humility would be maintained. A message we consistently see in the scriptures is that God allows suffering purposefully. God allows suffering so that his purpose and good would be fulfilled in us. Satan uses suffering to torment us, harass us, and attempt to destroy us.
Try to isolate an incident or event in life as an exclusive work of Satan or of God is an effort in futility. We often see the scriptures showing us that it is both! Even the cross of Jesus was both. Revelation 12 reveals that Satan was using temptations regarding the cross to destroy Christ while God is using the cross to save the world. Luke 22:53 says that the time of the death of Christ was when “darkness reigns” and the apostles preached that Jesus was killed with the hands of wicked men (Acts 2:23). Yet at the same time they also proclaimed that the cross was the work of God (Acts 4:28). Please notice that is not that God comes into the plan after the fact and turns it around for our good. Often we picture God fixing Satan’s messes. But that is not the picture of the scriptures. God had a purpose from the beginning. Thus, God allows suffering with his purposes in mind and Satan also acts with his own agenda and purposes.
Paul’s Prayer (12:8-9)
Regarding this torment that Paul is enduring, Paul says that he prayed repeatedly to the Lord about it. Paul pleaded with the Lord that the suffering would leave him. I want us to stop and think about this. God told Paul “no” to his prayer repeatedly. God even told his apostles “no.” Our requests for physical peace and rest often receive an answer of “no” from the Lord. God says no. What should we make of this? Paul tells us God’s intention toward him regarding his suffering.
But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” (2 Corinthians 12:9 ESV)
What was God’s answer? “My grace is sufficient for you.” God has given us sufficient grace to endure. Notice the answer is not that suffering would be removed. Rather, God has given sufficient grace so that we are able to endure. Do we believe this? We have what we need for this life. We have what we need to endure, excel, and flourish as disciples of Christ. We have God’s grace to cope with the weaknesses that are not removed.
But the rest of verse 9 is just as staggering for us to consider. “For my power is made perfect in weakness.” God’s power is made perfect through our weaknesses. It is when we are out of strength that we finally depend on God the most. Suffering is to burn away our pride, self-confidence, and independence. Therefore we embrace the suffering given to us because we have been given God’s grace which is sufficient to endure and is necessary for the growth of our faith.
God always takes weak people to show his strength because those weak people depend on God. Gideon is not a hero. God is the hero who takes a fearful man and makes him victorious through God’s power. Moses is an exiled shepherd who becomes the deliverer of God’s people out of Egypt. David is an insignificant shepherd who becomes king of Israel and father to the King of Kings. It is in our weaknesses that allows God’s power to be put on display. This means we need to think about life and ourselves in a completely new way. Look at the rest of the paragraph.
New Life Perspective (12:9-10)
Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong. (2 Corinthians 12:9–10 ESV)
We gladly express and exult in our weaknesses so that the power of Christ may rest on us. Because of this I am able to be content in the midst of suffering, pain, weaknesses, hardships, persecutions, and the like because when I am weak, then I am strong.
But the idea is even stronger than this. The Greek word translated “content” by the ESV, NASB, and NRSV is the same word that is translated in other places “well pleased” or “delight in.” It is the same word in Matthew 3:17 when the Father speaks from heaven at the baptism of Jesus, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” The NIV renders 2 Corinthians 12:10, “I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties.” The CSB, NKJV, and NLT read, “I take pleasure in weaknesses….”
I need these things so that I will depend on God. If God did not allow us to experience these failures, sufferings, and difficulties, we would never rely on God. We would continue to think how great we are and how much we are in control over our lives. It is in our weakness and frailty that we surrender our will to God. The only way I have made it through the trials and pains in my life has been by the power of God. I did not have the power to make it through and did not think I would make it through. But God gave me strength at the right time. He sent me people to come to my aid and help me at the right time. Therefore, I will be content, delight, and take pleasure in my weaknesses and sufferings because I know that God is at work in me so that his power is on display. Thus, we learn something extremely valuable. Focusing all of our efforts on removing our difficulties is not the goal. Rather, we are able to look at trials and do exactly what James told us to do.
Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing. (James 1:2–4 ESV)
- What is your thorn that God is allowing you to experience to keep you from pride and arrogance? Look at your life and consider how God is working for your eternal salvation.
- Embrace suffering. You have been given the grace of God and the suffering is necessary for our faith. None of us are lacking what we need to remain faithful to the Lord and flourish in the Lord through our sufferings.
- Jesus suffered, prayed three times, and accepted God’s answer. Paul suffered, prayed three times, and accepted God’s answer. So we also must suffer, pray, and accept God’s answer.