Strength in Weakness

The apostle Paul wrote to the Corinthians describing himself in the third person as a man who was caught up to heaven and saw inexpressible visions and revelations from the Lord. Paul’s ministry was marked by great signs, wonders, miracles, incredible revelations, and encounters with the Lord. Then Paul follows this up with a really important lesson about weakness. He writes:

Even if I should choose to boast, I would not be a fool, because I would be speaking the truth. But I refrain, so no one will think more of me than is warranted by what I do or say, or because of these surpassingly great revelations. Therefore, in order to keep me from becoming conceited, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.

2 Corinthians 12:6-10

Paul received and experienced “surpassingly great revelations” from the Lord. Yet, as a way of keeping Paul from getting conceited and puffed up, the Lord allowed “a messenger of Satan” to come against him. I’ve explained before in a previous post that this “thorn” in Paul’s flesh was not a physical illness or a sin issue. It was the so-called “super-apostles”(2 Cor 11:5 & 12:11) who had been opposing Paul’s ministry and sending his churches into confusion about the nature of the gospel.

What we learn from this is that God chose to perfect (bring to fullness) the incredible power that Paul was operating in (signs, wonders, miracles, and surpassingly great revelations – 2 Cor 12:7 & 12) by allowing men to oppose his ministry. And when Paul asked that God deal with these men and get rid of them, God didn’t. Instead He said to Paul, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.

I used to apply this verse to sin in my life. I used to think this passage was God saying that He could use me even in the midst of my sin, my weakness. And while there is some truth in that statement, that is not what God was saying to Paul here. What God was telling Paul was that, in order to bring the operational power of God in Paul into its fullness, Paul needed to be perfected/refined by humility.

While Paul could boast in all the amazing things God was doing through him, God didn’t want Paul to give his spiritual resume as a way to prove the credibility of his apostleship. Instead, God wanted Paul to take a posture of humility, talking about the hardships he faced.

So when Pauls says, “when I am weak, then I am strong” he’s not saying, “even when I sin, God can use me.” What he’s saying is essentially, “The operational power of God that flows through me is brought to its fullness when I resist the urge to defend myself with my resume, and instead I lean into humility and take the low place.” This is exactly what we see in the life of Jesus. The humility of Jesus is what perfected the power of the Spirit that flowed through Him. And Jesus’s most powerful act was also His most humble act–His death on the cross.

This discussion Paul is having about strength in weakness carries the same themes as the teaching of Jesus when Jesus told His disciples:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. 

Matthew 5:38-41

Strength in weakness–power perfected in humility–is a completely counterintuitive message. When people come against our work, our ministry, or us personally, we want to defend ourselves. We want to stand against the injustice of it all and give our resume of all that God is doing in and through us. We want people to know the truth about us and not believe the lies that are coming against us.

But Jesus says to turn the other cheek. Paul says to boast in weakness. I believe when we do this we will see a side of God we’ve never seen before. When we stop trying to defend ourselves and allow Him to defend us, we will discover God as our Defender. But if we are always coming to our own defense, we’ll never get to see that side of our Heavenly Father.

If we want the power in us to be perfected, we must make room for humility. We must take a position of weakness as we learn, in Christ, to delight in hardships, insults, and resistance.

Thorn in the Flesh

What was Paul’s thorn in the flesh?

After the apostle Paul describes having an incredible vision of going to heaven, he writes, “…because of these surpassingly great revelations. Therefore, in order to keep me from becoming conceited, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:7-9).

Verse 9 is one of the most quoted passages of Scripture in all of the Bible. Many people use this passage as a reason they shouldn’t receiving healing prayer for their illness. They assume Paul was given some physical illness by God to keep him from becoming conceited. So, they reason, God must have given me this illness, and I just need to let God’s grace be sufficient for me.

But is that what Paul is talking about here?

First, whatever this thorn is, it was given to him because of his “surpassingly great revelations.” So unless you’ve visited heaven recently and seen inexpressible things, you don’t fit this category.

Secondly, whatever this thorn is, it is a “messenger of Satan.” That word “messenger” is the same word in the Greek for angel. So whatever this thorn is for Paul, it is functioning as a demonic fallen angel bringing the lies and deception of Satan. To say that this is “from God” is a stretch. So even if a person contends that this thorn is a physical ailment, then this passage indicates that it is a physical ailment from Satan, not God.

Thirdly, I do not believe this thorn for Paul is a physical sickness or disease because every other time in the Old Testament where it mentions a thorn, it does so in reference to people, not sickness.

Numbers 33:55 references how people with false beliefs still living in the Promised Land would become a thorn in the flesh of the people of Israel:
“But if you do not drive out the inhabitants of the land, those you allow to remain will become barbs in your eyes and thorns in your sides. They will give you trouble in the land where you will live.”

Joshua 23:13 warns Israel that if they associate with and intermarry with the Canaanite people who stay in the land, then they will become thorns:
“then you may be sure that the Lord your God will no longer drive out these nations before you. Instead, they will become snares and traps for you, whips on your backs and thorns in your eyes, until you perish from this good land, which the Lord your God has given you.”

Judges 2:3 once again warns Israel against the previous inhabitants of the Promised Land: “Therefore I also said, ‘I will not drive them out before you; but they will become as thorns in your sides and their gods will be a snare to you.’” (NASB)

Paul, being a Pharisee in his former life, would have know these references to thorns really well. So when Paul talks about his own “thorn in the flesh,” he is most likely talking about people who’ve become a problem to his ministry. He’s saying that the false teachers who oppose his ministry are to him like the Canaanites were to Israel. This fits with the context of 2 Corinthians 12, since Paul has been addressing false apostles in Corinth for the last few chapters.

It also fits with his concluding statement, “That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:10). The weakness, the thorn, that Paul is dealing with are people who oppose his ministry with insults, hardships, persecutions and difficulties. They are the so-called “super-apostles” (2 Cor 11:5 & 12:11) who send Paul’s churches into confusion and theological error.

So, no, that sickness you’re dealing with is not a “thorn in the flesh” from God meant to humble you. I do not believe God is the author of any kind of evil, including illness. I believe God wants you healed! While God can take awful things and redeem them, He is not the source of those awful things in this world.