Thorn in the Flesh (12:7)
I believe both the timing and vagueness of this verse are significant for its application. Paul discusses the humbling effect of his “thorn” right after discussing an incredible experience that could have easily caused pride (2 Cor 12:1-6). Paul viewed his character as more important than his comfort, therefore he could see the goodness of God in stripping his comfort to protect his character.
Yet the “thorn” is also vague. While the best guesses seem to be sight impairment from the Damascus road experience, it is impossible to be sure. I believe Paul (by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit) used a metaphor to describe his ailment instead of a precise description so that we would be better able to relate to God’s work in Paul’s life.
Reflection: Can you see the goodness of God in the midst of your suffering? Admittedly, this is a very difficult question. Paul came back to God at least three times before he could answer it affirmatively. Does your struggle to see God’s goodness come from valuing comfort more than the refinement of your character? When you speak of your suffering do you consider the way others may be reading their experience of suffering onto your words (2 Cor 1:3-5)?
“My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness (2 Cor 12:9),” are some of the sweetest and most difficult to apply words (personally, not abstractly) in all of Scripture. These are words we can cling to in the darkest night of our soul, yet when we try to figure out what to “do” with them it gets hard.
Almost by definition (God’s power in our weakness), the “application” of these verses will be an altered perspective rather than a set of steps. This sanctified perspective emerges from three concepts.
- Redefined Weakness (“Therefore I will boast all the more of my weakness, so that the Power of Christ may rest upon me.” 2 Cor 12:9b): Paul so lived for God that anything—including his own weaknesses—that pointed people to the greatness of God was a reason for celebration. Paul’s life was so not about himself, that insecurity was an irrelevant concern. Yet neither did he become a doormat—by being a people-pleaser—because that also would have defamed God (2 Cor 10).
- Contentment (“For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities”2 Cor 12:10a): What an amazing list. It captures most every dimension of human suffering. Once Paul’s life became about proclaiming the sufficiency of God’s grace, then every moment of suffering became an opportunity to proclaim, “God is more satisfying than this suffering is disheartening.”
- Redefined Strength (“For when I am weak, then I am strong.” 2 Cor 12:10b): In a world that constantly tried to measure “good enough,” what a liberating statement! The best part is that Paul did not wait until everyone agreed with that statement before he lived in its freedom. But by living in the emotional freedom that Christ’s strength defined him more than his weakness, Paul’s “boldness” opened many doors to share the message of God’s sufficient grace.
As you face your own forms of suffering, and subsequent insecurities or fears, walk through this passage asking God to change your perspective rather than telling you what to “do” next.
Seeking Not Yours But You (12:14)
What a great definition of love! So often our loving is a self-centered seeking or savoring of something about the other person. In this case Paul was saying I was not seeking your money (see 2 Cor 9), but we could legitimately transfer this principle to attractiveness, intelligence, humor, touch, or power. But Paul would say that a love that pursues another primarily for what it gets from the other person is still an immature, selfish love.
Rather Paul says, “I was seeking you. I long to see you redeemed and enjoying Christ more than anything else you could give me in return. You were the ‘cake’ and I did not care if it came with ‘icing.’” Paul goes on to compare this love to the love parents have for their children (a mature love); a love that gets joy out of seeing the joy of their beloved grow.
Reflection: Are you a mature lover? Do you measure relationships based upon what they have to offer to you? Do you tend to insist on things being done the way you enjoy them? Can you take delight in the interest of another person and be deeply satisfied by their enjoyment? This is not natural for any of us, but is harder for some than others. Pray earnestly that God would make you a mature lover.
Introduction to the “Living Our Faith” series.