"And lest I should be exalted above measure through the abundance of the revelations, there was given to me a thorn in the flesh, the messenger of Satan to buffet me, lest I should be exalted above measure. For this thing I besought the Lord thrice, that it might depart from me. And he said unto me, My grace is sufficient for thee; for my strength is made perfect in weakness. Most gladly, therefore, will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. "Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in necessities, in persecutions, in distresses for Christ's sake; for when I am weak, then am I strong."—2 Cor. 12:7-10.
THIS was the language of an overcoming saint, meekly bowing to the divine will. Noble and loyal and true and strong in character as the Apostle Paul was, he yet realized that he was a member of the fallen race, and, in common with all humanity, subject to frailties. God had called him to a most important and glorious work—that of bearing the gospel to the Gentiles; and, for the benefit of the whole Church, to him were granted special and wonderful revelations, even above all the other honored and beloved apostles. He was caught away in mental vision to the third heaven—the new dispensation, the Millennial reign of Christ, and shown things (doubtless the plan and purpose of God, as now made manifest to us, largely through his writings, in the light of this harvest period, but) not lawful to be uttered then, because not then due to the Church. (2 Cor. 12:4.) Upon him devolved the care of all the Churches of the Gentiles, and great were the responsibilities of his office. Though the position was a most laborious and trying one, requiring great fortitude, zeal, energy and self-denial to fill it, it was also one of great honor.
And Paul appreciated the honor of such intimate fellowship of service with the Lord, and manifested his appreciation by untiring zeal and enthusiasm. But even in this the Lord recognized a personal danger to his beloved and faithful Apostle—a danger of pride and self-exaltation, which, if it should develop, would soon unfit him for further service and rob him of his future reward. So the thorn in the flesh was permitted to come. It came, not from the hand of the Lord, though by his permission; but, as the Apostle affirms, it was "the messenger of Satan to buffet" him.
A thorn in the flesh is always a painful thing; and whatever this may have been, it was something severely trying to Paul. At first he thought only of the pain and annoyance it caused him, and of its hindrance to him in the Lord's work: it was a messenger of Satan that he was anxious to get rid of. Three times he besought the Lord for its removal. But no, it had come to stay, and the Lord mercifully made him to realize that though it was very undesirable to the flesh, it was nevertheless profitable to him spiritually; for otherwise he might become exalted overmuch.
The implication of weakness the Apostle humbly accepted. He did not resent it and begin to boast of his strength and to reproach the Lord for not exerting his power for its removal; but, on the contrary, with grace and gladness he accepted the Lord's judgment of his heart, and his estimate of his strength, and appreciated the love that thus cared for him personally, while through him he was ministering to the whole Church. Yes, praise the Lord! he chooses his own instruments, and whets and grinds and polishes them for the more effectual service, and wields them with force and power in the service of his people; but in all the painful and laborious service he has special care also for the willing and faithful instrument. He will not suffer it to be tried beyond that which it is able to endure; nor will he suffer it to be exalted without some counterbalancing thorn in the flesh to preserve its equilibrium.
The answer to the Apostle's prayer, although not in accordance with his request, was a blessed consolation—"My grace [my favor] is sufficient for thee; for my strength is made perfect [made manifest] in [your] weakness."
This is also the blessed consolation of every truly submissive heart. How many of the Lord's people are tempest-tossed and sorely tried in these days; and doubtless many of them have earnestly besought the Lord to remove this or that trial or affliction; but the piercing thorn still remains for their discipline and perfecting. Let all such, like Paul, give ear to the Master's voice—"My favor is sufficient for thee." What if other friends forsake thee, and hosts of foes seek to overwhelm thee, if thou hast my favor, my love: is not that sufficient? And what though the flesh be weak and the heart sometimes faint, my strength shall supply your lack; and while you walk in the way of my appointment, your weakness shall only the more manifest the power of God working in and through you.
What sincere child of God has not realized, in times of greatest need and felt weakness, the power of God on his behalf supplementing his weakness with strength from above? And when the task was accomplished to which the Lord had called him and for which he felt so incompetent of himself, has he not realized in the outcome the wonder-working power of God?
In view of such a gracious provision to supplement his weakness with divine strength, the faithful Apostle meekly responded, "Most gladly, therefore, will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me." Having put forth all his own energies and faithfully used his own ability to its fullest extent as a wise steward, it was his joy to recognize the hand of the Lord working with him—by miracles and signs and with demonstrations of the spirit and of power. (Heb. 2:4; Acts 19:11; 1 Cor. 2:4.) These demonstrations of divine power supplementing Paul's faithful use of his natural abilities were the Lord's endorsement of all he did—the manifestations of divine approval both to himself and to others, and consequently cause for great rejoicing.
With the Apostle it is also the privilege of all God's children to have their weakness supplemented by divine grace, while they meekly and faithfully use their talents in the Lord's service. And so all the faithful may rejoice in tribulations and infirmities, while God overrules the former and supplements the latter to his praise.
But to rejoice in tribulations, to endure meekly and patiently a sore thorn in the flesh, and even to glory in such personal infirmities as make the power of Christ the more manifest, is not possible except to those whose hearts are in fullest accord with the loving purposes of God. If the heart be influenced by pride or ambition or love of fame or wealth or any worldly ambition, joy in tribulation is impossible. But if the old ambitions and desires of the flesh are kept under, and faith, love, hope and zeal are all alive and active, we shall have the consciousness of the divine favor, and then we can rejoice in every experience.