The article on Paul’s thorn in the flesh has generated some questions. To those who emailed me, I apologize that I can’t reply individually. I’ll try to answer the main points of objection in this post. Some of the emails I’ve received said that God did heal Paul of his thorn in the flesh. As one person put it, “God’s grace was sufficient, and that means Paul was healed.”
The primary point Paul was making is that when he was weak through the infirmity of his flesh, God more than made up for his weakness with God’s limitless strength. This is intended to teach us a principle of life.
It is hard not to be emotionally invested in a belief, but we must be careful not to explain away scriptures that challenge what we’ve been taught to believe. Every Christian group has misconceptions. Many of the things I was taught, such as a legalistic mixture of law and grace, have been dismantled by scripture. When someone challenges our beliefs, the first reaction is to fight against it, but I encourage you to examine the scriptures and see if these things are so. Perhaps you have a perspective I haven’t considered; but equally true is that I may have a perspective you haven’t considered. Don’t disregard the scriptures I am using but prayerfully seek to reconcile your understanding to what the Bible is teaching.
This is why clarity through looking at a scripture in its context is so important. The purpose of the passage from 2 Corinthians 12:7-10 was to rely on God’s strength, and that our weaknesses enable God to show Himself strong on our behalf. Paul did not say he was healed. He said, “I will glory in my infirmities that the power of God may rest upon me.” To glory in our infirmities is not a declaration that we have been healed. It is a call to look beyond human strength and our measures of success, and rest fully upon God’s power. When we recognize our inabilities or infirmities, we are then able to rely on God all the more.
This does not mean that God does not heal. It does mean that God has the right to use infirmities when the greater blessing is our discovery of His strength.
This is not a passage about healing. Paul pleaded three times and God made it clear that the answer was not to come through healing. How can we see Paul acknowledge his infirmities, but then deny that God allowed it to remain? Let’s let Job testify again. Look at Job 23:10-11
10 But He knows the way that I take; When He has tested me, I shall come forth as gold.
11 My foot has held fast to His steps; I have kept His way and not turned aside.
Job wrote this in the midst of his anguish, and gave this as a testimony to his friends that declared, “God will never do this to a righteous man.” Does God not have the right to refine us? Peter instructed the church not to be shaken when a fiery trial comes upon them as though some strange thing has happened. God not only permits hardships, often times God orchestrates these things for the purpose of removing the things that hinder our life in the Spirit. Let’s let Job again testify, Job 2:10
But he said to her, “You speak as one of the foolish women speaks. Shall we indeed accept good from God, and shall we not accept adversity?” In all this Job did not sin with his lips.
This is when his wife was shaken by the trials Job went through, and told him to curse God and die. Some say that God will never bring adversity, but the Bible says that Job’s statement was not sin. He said that God has the right to send adversity, and clearly credited God with the trials he was going through.
So is it a sin to make a false declaration about God? Yes. The Bible calls this blasphemy. But God said to us, “Job did not sin with his lips,” when Job testified that this adversity was from God’s hand.
The heart of the problem is that people measure good based on comfort and what the flesh determines as good. It’s easy to call the monetary blessings good. When we prosper in this world, we say, “God is good.” But when we suffer in this world, this is a greater blessing than worldly prosperity. To be refined with the promise, “I shall come forth as gold,” is not evil. The truth is, if we get everything we want and God meets our will as we demand His riches, our faith will be tissue thin and our perspective will be flawed. God does not produce spoiled children. He produces people who are strong in the power of His might, a people who are not shaken by this world, and trust in God without wavering.
When the church teaches that God answers our prayers based on what we will to happen, this shakes people’s faith more than adversity could ever do. Paul pleaded with God three times to change his circumstances, but God’s will was for Paul to be refined. God’s answer was ‘no’ to Paul’s will, but yes to God’s perfect will for Paul’s life. And God’s will was to weaken Paul’s human strength for the purpose of revealing to Him God’s perfect strength.
If we are taught that God must answer as we expect, this forces people to pretend they have what they demanded, even when it never comes to fruition. There is no willingness to acknowledge that God’s purpose may be counter to what we are claiming for ourselves. Then people either have to keep saying, “I have it,” when they don’t, or they are criticized with, “You just don’t have enough faith.” But when we teach people to trust in what God is doing, then God’s people walk confidently in every situation, knowing that on the other side of every adversity is greater glory.
Yes, God WILL sacrifice your physical comfort for your eternal good. The point of the Christian life is not to demand our will, but to die to our will and rest fully upon the Lord. We trust God to both heal, and to give us strength when the Lord chooses to use our struggles to refine us. Stop looking at the earthly perspective, and start seeking God to reveal the life of the Spirit to you.
Take care not to cheapened grace and reduce it to only fit within a fleshly perspective. It is commonly taught that grace means, God’s Riches At Christ’s Expense. That is true, but you have to understand that the greater riches are not the things that are manifested in our natural / carnal life. God indeed richly blesses us in many, many ways, most of which are not bound to the physical world. Grace is also the invitation to enter into the agape fellowship of God (the fellowship that has always existed between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit). The gifts of this world that come from God’s love are extras. They are not the purpose. If we only want physical riches, we are missing the true meaning of the Christian life. We are called into unhindered fellowship with the God who created us, and redeemed us out of our sin.
Grace is the love of God that removed every barrier between God and man so we could experience the same fellowship that Jesus had with the Father. Those who don’t understand grace still exalt sin, and rebuild the barrier by placing themselves back under condemnation each time they fall back into the flesh. Those who don’t understand grace make the Christian life about what we can get from God, and how God can make our life in this world more comfortable. Both of these perspectives rob us of the true fellowship God has invited us to be a part of. This is the only way we can live a life that cannot be shaken, for once we are in agape fellowship and grounded in grace, we’ll experience Romans 8:37-39
37 Yet in all these things we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us.
38 For I am persuaded that neither death nor life, nor angels nor principalities nor powers, nor things present nor things to come,
39 nor height nor depth, nor any other created thing, shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Any view on grace that does not center us on the love of God will not stand when the world falls into chaos. Grace is not about getting what God has, but growing in intimacy with God. Or as God told Abraham, “I am your exceedingly great reward.” God promised Abraham many things, and though these physical promises enriched his life, the center of it all was his walk with God. If he only focused on what he was getting from God, he would not have been willing to give his nephew the best of the land when a dispute arose in the family. He was able to leave possessions behind because of his confidence in God as his reward.
To the one walking in intimacy with God, hardships cause them to trust all the more. To the one focused on what they get from God, when something they want is taken out of the way, it will rattle their faith. One teacher said, “The Lord gives, but the Lord never takes away.” To those bound in this mindset, they will never have confidence when trials arise.
When Job lost everything, his faith was not shaken. He said in Job 1:21-22
21 And he said: “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, And naked shall I return there. The LORD gave, and the LORD has taken away; Blessed be the name of the LORD.”
22 In all this Job did not sin nor charge God with wrong.
Once again, the Bible makes it clear that Job’s testimony was right with God. When he said that the Lord has taken away, God declared that his words were not blasphemy. Job proved that his faith was not dependent upon blessing. The worse things became, and the more his friends called him faithless and guilty of sin, the more Job leaned upon the Lord. In the midst of many days of religious people scorning him with many accusations, Job said in Job 19:25-27
25 For I know that my Redeemer lives, And He shall stand at last on the earth;
26 And after my skin is destroyed, this I know, That in my flesh I shall see God,
27 Whom I shall see for myself, And my eyes shall behold, and not another. How my heart yearns within me!
When his health was stripped away, Job declared his confidence in the Lord. While the religious community ridiculed him, he proclaimed his faith that He will stand in the end, and his eyes will behold God. When everything humankind holds dear was stripped away, Job declared how his heart yearns for the Lord.
We should learn from this example. If your confidence is in anything other than the love of God, when hardship tries to shake you, your faith will not stand. But to the one grounded in the rock of Christ, no storm can move them.
Jesus explained this when He spoke of the two men building their houses. The man who rushed to get into prosperity and ease, his house was built on the sand. The man who built on the rock had to study the word, dig deep into his foundation, and through steady growth his house was raised on Christ. He did not escape the storms of life. Until the storms came, both foundations appeared good. Both had to weather hardship, but the one founded on Christ stood secure, while the other had a great fall.
A Christian should never be dependent upon circumstances. We all want comfort, but in the end, we’ll be grateful that God didn’t settle for leaving us in the comfort-at-all-cost mentality. God wants you to grow in the life of the Spirit, and when the flesh is in the way, God refines us. We have a natural tendency to gravitate toward the flesh, but the Lord wants us to have an eternal mindset so we don’t come short in any gift. Look at James 1:2-3
2 My brethren, count it all joy when you fall into various trials,
3 knowing that the testing of your faith produces patience.
The word ‘patience’ here is ‘hupomone’, which means steadfastness, constancy, and patient endurance. This tells us that trials are intended to break the distraction of the flesh so we can have a steadfast faith. This is why we count it as joy. Joy is when we look beyond our circumstances to the good outcome we know is coming. Just as the Bible says that Jesus despised the cross, but for the joy set before Him, He endured it. The joy before Him was the outcome of the cross – our reconciliation to Himself. You were the joy that gave Jesus endurance. The joy set before us also gives us patience/endurance when trials come.
We should not teach people that trials come because we don’t have faith, or that God would never do these things. Then people are confused because when they are taught that trials are never God’s will, but they do come, instead of being strengthened through the joy before them, they believe God has abandoned them or that they are lacking in faith.
Don’t allow the challenges of life to shake your confidence. View life through the love and acceptance of God, and when hardships come, walk in confidence knowing that God is your strength and He is producing a life in you that is pure like gold. When you are weak, take pleasure in your weakness, for that is when the strength of the Almighty rests upon you. When you walk through life with a steadfast spirit, you will see the end of God’s purpose, and you will be grateful God brought these things in your life. God never settles for merely restoring us. He restores abundantly above what we have lost when we are steadfast in our trust in Him. Let this be your confidence!