2 Corinthians 12:2-10
1. Our Struggles and Our Prayers
We all bear struggles of one kind or another. Indeed, some people seem to face nothing but struggles, while most of us only have periods where life can be difficult. And when life is a struggle, it can seem that no matter how much we pray—or others pray—nothing ever seems to change. It’s like God isn’t listening, or that he doesn’t seem to care.
In these difficult times, then, our dilemma can be that we know (intellectually) that God does care. But on the other hand, it’s like what we experience doesn’t match up to what we believe to be true.
Because whatever we know about God, how many of us still face the family struggles—the constant battles between family members, who make no attempt to get on with one another; a wayward child, who seems incapable of growing up; there are the various ailments and diseases that either won’t go away, or that it’s just one thing after another; there are the people or individuals, who just seem to be out to give you a hard time, and who take great delight in making your life a misery. And those are just a few examples.
Indeed, how many of us have faced (or face) one, or even all of those struggles? And despite knowing intellectually that God cares, it’s like hitting your head against a brick wall as far as God is concerned.
2. My Grace Is Sufficient for You
Well, if I’ve hit a raw nerve today, then I’d like to refer you to some words that God spoke to the Apostle Paul. Because Paul was a man that knew that God was with him, and yet he was a man who suffered—and he’d been suffering for a long time. He had even prayed to God to take his suffering away. But the words, the reply from God, were not, “Well done you good and faithful servant, I will take your suffering away.” Rather, they were simply, “My grace is sufficient for you.”
So today what do those words mean? Are they some sort of religious gobbledygook—to explain away a God who doesn’t care? Do they represent a lack of faith and, consequently, a lack of healing? Or is there much more to it than that?
And if so, how can our understanding of the meaning of those words help us in our own struggles in life, and with own prayers that don’t always seem to get answered too?
B. LIVING WITH INFIRMITY
1. Healing Miracles
Well, I don’t know about you, but when I pick up the Bible, and read it, one of the first things that comes to mind is the sheer number of times that God came to the rescue of his people. He rescued Jacob and his family from starvation, by placing his son Joseph in Egypt, in charge of the grain (Gen 41:41). He rescued the Israelites from slavery in Egypt, by calling Moses to lead them into the Promised Land (Ex 6:6). He rescued the Israelites from the Philistines, by using David to defeat Goliath. He used prophets like Elijah and Elisha, to heal the sick, to raise the dead, and to provide food for the hungry. And then with Jesus . . . there are all the healing miracles, seemingly one after another: people who were lame, blind, on their death beds, and even dead. In addition, he cast out demons; he rescued a woman caught in adultery from being stoned to death; and he encouraged the poor, fed the hungry, and forgave people’s sins.
And all of these things are just some of the list of the things God that God did for his people. And, if that wasn’t enough, there are stories where God came to rescue of unbelievers too. And Naaman, a commander in the Aramean army who was cured of his leprosy, is just one example (2 Kings 5).
When we read the bible, therefore, it is very easy to get caught up with the expectation that God will fix every little thing that we ask—physical ailments or whatever—and that no request will be refused.
However, even in Jesus’s time, not everyone who wanted healing was healed. Indeed, the priorities of Jesus often meant that were times when he withdrew from situations so that he wouldn’t be hijacked into simply being a physical healing kind of Messiah. And sometimes he called people to secrecy, so that he wouldn’t be inundated with people simply wanting physical healing.
So with that in mind, therefore, perhaps we could reread our bibles and look with a different focus. Because there are many examples where God did not resolve people’s struggles, even for the most faithful. And instead, he asked them to live with the dilemmas they faced.
King David, for example, for most of his days, lived with the constant threat of his life. Before he became king, his life was threatened on a number of occasions, most notably by King Saul. When he became king, he faced many years of opposition from Saul’s family. His life was almost at constant risk from the surrounding nations. And at the end of his reign, even members of his own family—his children—plotted against him.
The prophet, Elijah, many times, was in fear for his life. He wasn’t popular with the then King Ahab, having constantly to be the bearer of bad news. And he certainly wasn’t popular with Ahab’s wife Jezebel either—denouncing her obsession with her god Baal. And on at least one occasion he had to run for fear of his life.
The Apostle Paul’s protégé, Timothy, we’re told suffered from a weak stomach and frequent illnesses (2 Timothy 5:23).
3. Paul—A Case in Point (2 Corinthians 12:2-10)
And the Apostle Paul . . . well, haven’t we just read that he faced two problems? Firstly, he was under constant attack from members of the Corinthian church. They were saying that Paul wasn’t all that he claimed to be, that he was a fraud, and that he hadn’t really seen Jesus on the Damascus Road or anywhere else—that was just part of his imagination. And these attacks continued, despite the witnesses to his Damascus Road experience (Acts 22:17-21).
And, secondly, that he suffered a “thorn in the flesh”.
Now we really don’t know what that thorn in the flesh was. However, the evidence does suggest that it was a distressing, if not humiliating, physical ailment. Some suggestions have been that he suffered from pains in the ear or head, epilepsy or convulsive attacks, eye problems or malaria. But whatever the ailment it was, it was evidently something that was a recurring physical disability, and it wasn’t going away.
4. My Grace Is Sufficient for You (2 Corinthians 12:9)
Now, in all of these examples—of those who were required to live life with their struggles—they weren’t just any people, they were David, Elijah, Timothy, and Paul. They were all great men of the bible—all who were noted for their faith.
And yet they were also four people who had had to come to grips with that message from God. And God’s words to Paul, again . . . “My grace is sufficient for you”.
5. The Reason for Unresolved Struggles
Now does that seem harsh? Does it sound like a god who cares? Or does it sound like a god who really doesn’t care?
The problem for us is that we know that God wants us to live ideal lives—free from anxiety and pain. And yet the reality for the Christian is not like that at all. Indeed, I’ve just quoted examples where some of the greatest of God’s people have been told by God, that they needed to put up with their lot in life.
And why? Because God had something far greater in mind than just people’s physical healing, or even living a peaceful life. More important that both of those things was people’s spiritual welfare. It’s the one thing that is far more important than any other thing.
As a consequence, Jesus was prepared to walk away from people requiring physical healing, because he didn’t want the message of spiritual healing to be lost. As a consequence, God is prepared to use people’s weaknesses—and not take them away—so that they, and others, might come to know him or to know him better.
And there’s a good illustration of God’s priorities recorded in John’s gospel. Indeed, John tells us of an incident in Jesus’s life where he saw a man who had been born blind. Now at the time, it was believed that blindness was the direct result of someone’s sin, and consequently only someone who had the authority to take away sin could cure them. So the disciples asked Jesus the obvious question: “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” (Jn 9:2). To which Jesus’ reply was: “Neither . . . It was in order that the work of God might be revealed in him.” (Jn 9:3).
“It was in order that the work of God might be revealed in him.” A sentiment that is matched by those words of God to Paul. Because God didn’t just say that “My grace is sufficient for you” but he said … “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”
1. David, Elijah, Timothy, & Paul
It’s a sobering thought, then, that we are faced with passages in the bible that tend to suggest that physical healing—and the resolution of ongoing worldly problems—may not be the immediate priority that God has on our lives. For sure he wants our total healing, but there is a priority of God which goes beyond physical healing and goes beyond the solving of all worldly dilemmas. Indeed, it may be that God is telling us that rather than removing those dilemmas, we might actually have to learn to cope with them.
After all, King David—despite the enemies that surrounded him, and the enemies that never seemed to go away—still quite clearly identified his God as the great shepherd king, who would look after him and care for all his needs. David learned to put his struggles aside, and despite all the opposition was able to get on with his life—a life with God at the helm.
Elijah—having escaped the clutches of Ahab and Jezebel, and despite not being offered an immediate and permanent solution to his persecution—was able to take on the training of his future replacement Elisha. And he was able to continue his work with Elisha by his side, despite Ahab and Jezebel still being around.
Timothy also continued his work, and often accompanied Paul on his missionary journeys.
And Paul stopped praying for healing for himself, and instead, considered that his suffering was a good thing. Because far from hampering his ministry, he acknowledged that it made his ministry far more effective.
2. The 2 Corinthians Solution
So what is the point of all this? What benefit is there in God not always healing physical ailments or solving people’s various worldly dilemmas? Well, in terms of the letter of Paul to the Corinthians, Paul identified three reasons why his continued suffering actually helped him grow in his Christian faith.
Firstly, Paul recognised that his sufferings were necessary as a means to keep him humble (2 Cor 12:7). It would have been very easy for Paul—with all his personal experiences and visions of Christ—to get carried away, to lose perspective, and to big note himself in the eyes of the rest of the church. However, Paul identified that his continuing thorn in the flesh was a good thing in keeping him humble, particularly in regard to keeping him on track in the Christian faith.
Secondly, Paul identified that even though God hadn’t healed him, he had given him the strength to cope with his struggles. Yes, the struggles may still have been there, but they no longer occupied his mind to the exclusion of all else. Indeed, he rejoiced in them to the point where he could cope with more than just his physical ailment. He could also cope with all the insults, hardships, persecutions, and difficulties (2 Cor 12:10)—that he faced as a Christian—inflicted upon him by believers and non-believers alike.
And thirdly, Paul recognised that because he was weak, Jesus shone through him even more. The things that Paul did, he couldn’t possibly do on his own. It was, therefore, much more obvious not only to Paul, but to the people to whom he was ministering, that God wasn’t just a theory to be discussed, but someone who was alive, and active, and working through Paul.
For Paul, therefore, God’s lack of healing was a good thing. He recognised that his lack of healing served as a constant reminder of his dependence upon God. For Paul, this wasn’t a punishment, but rather had more positive implications—with a view to his growth in grace. It helped him in his own spiritual growth, and it helped him to be more effective in his service for his Lord and saviour. Paul’s suffering was a test of his Christian character—to which he could either grow or crumble in a heap. And our suffering can be a test of our Christian character too.
When we consider our struggles and our prayers—and our prayers which don’t always seem to be answered—it is not necessarily that God has abandoned us. Rather, that he may have an alternative plan.
For sure, physical healing, or the resolution of our dilemmas, may be our first choice. But in the context of God’s greater concern for spiritual healing, rather than physical healing, maybe, when our prayers do not appear to be answered, we should consider God’s alternative priorities.
For sure, when we read the bible, we might like to focus on all the positive healing miracles, and on all the times when peoples’ health is restored. But we should balance that out with the situations experienced by other people of God, where God did not always take away the problems they faced. But rather said, like he said to Paul, “my grace is sufficient for you.”
Being able to accept those words of God isn’t a religious cop out for apparently unanswered prayer. Rather, it is the way forward where we too can acknowledge that God gives us the ability to cope with our struggles—he helps to learn to live them; that those struggles can be used by God to help us grow spiritually; and, in addition, those struggles can place us in a position where God is able to use us more effectively for the spiritual building up of others in the world.
Posted: 4th June 2021
© 2021, Brian A Curtis
2 Corinthians 12:2-10