God’s grace is sufficient
The Rev. Kathy Brumbaugh, Special Writer
Background text: Joshua 23:13
Devotional text: 2 Corinthians 12:8-9
In my reading this week, I came across 2 Corinthians 12:8-9. It is a continuation of Paul speaking about his “thorn in the flesh” given to him by Satan.
Many commentaries will attempt to explain what Paul’s “thorn in the flesh” might have been. Some cite various ailments from eye troubles to sickness and disease. I, too, at one time believed he was referring to a physical ailment. It has even been suggested that Paul had an eye problem following God’s light that came upon him on the road to Damascus.
I had been thinking about the many times in this world, and the many people, who are suffering. My thoughts went to God’s reply to Paul when he said, in 2 Cor. 12:9, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”
I have to admit, it has been awhile since I studied this scripture. Now, I find that what I once believed no longer makes any sense as we consider the love of God. This passage from 2 Corinthians is based in context, which has to do with what Paul had been going through and continued to go through most of his life. We need to take a step back for clarity.
There are three Old Testament scriptures which help us to see the meaning of having a “thorn in the flesh.” We begin with Numbers 33:55 as Moses and Aaron were leading God’s people into the Promised Land. The words of the Lord told Moses that the evil inhabitants of the land needed to be driven out before the Israelites took over, because if they remained they would become “barbs in your eyes and thorns in your sides.”
The meaning of these words are self-evident. If the former inhabitants remained, they would cause nothing but trouble for the Israelites. They would become a constant annoyance.
Next, let’s take a look at Joshua 23:13. These are Joshua’s words to his fellow Israelites when he is in his old age. He reminds the people to not intermarry or keep in contact with survivors from the nations who were driven out by the Hebrew people. To do so would cause “snares and traps for you, whips on your backs and thorns in your eyes.”
So, here too, we see the “thorn” as something coming from people who will annoy, bother and try to destroy the Israelites. It has nothing to do with a physical ailment or disease.
Finally, we come to Judges 2:3 when a angel of the Lord warns what is to happen when the people do not drive out the nations of the lands they were to settle in, “they will be a thorn in your sides.” Again, this phrase refers to people and what they will do.
Now, let’s look at 2 Corinthians again, but this time let’s go back to chapter 11. In the beginning of this chapter, Paul talks about those who were preaching a “false gospel,” as well as his own inadequacies that included not being a trained speaker.
In chapter 12, he goes on by writing of great revelations given to him by the Lord. Then, he talks about the “thorn in the flesh given by a messenger of Satan, to torment me (him).” Paul’s reasoning for the burden from Satan was to keep Paul from being conceited in himself for all that God had done for him.
In verse 10, Paul lists those thorns: “weakness, insults, hardships, persecution, and difficulties.”
If we take this list in context, it becomes clear that Paul is not talking about a physical ailment that held him back, but about the constant annoyances, frustrations and even prison that kept him from speaking as much as he would have liked concerning the true word of God about salvation by Jesus, the Messiah.
So, we discover the “thorn in the flesh” was not a physical ailment (accept for the times he was stoned and suffering from wounds), but the annoyances of other prophets proclaiming a different word or otherwise trying to take Paul out of the picture.
Not only was Paul not a trained speaker, though he had all the knowledge of Torah and Prophets as a Pharisee, he also was not a trained writer.
Some people believe that when Paul wrote letters to the churches without a using a scribe, he would remark from time to time about his large handwriting. By these comments came the thought he had eye trouble. That too, is not the case.
At the time of Paul, scribes were skilled writers, using small uniformly-spaces words. Paul was only showing that he was not a trained scribe. However, he could write in his own hand and he did so, remarking that in this way the recipients would know the letter came from Paul’s own hand.
So, what does all of this tell us about God? How can we understand the scriptures that tells us God’s grace is sufficient for our needs and, in our weakness, God makes us strong?
Again, if we take the example of Paul’s life — whether he was in prison, was still alive and preaching after being stoned or constantly preaching against false prophets — God let him know God’s grace was with him.
Paul kept going by the grace of God. God had a plan for Paul’s life that made him one of the leaders of the church, of spreading the gospel far and wide. There was nothing that seemed to stop Paul’s focus on the Word of God.
He leaves that legacy to us. God has a plan for each of our lives. Yes, times will be tough from time to time. Our lives do not always go smoothly. We get annoyed, frustrated by other people. We hear unkind words directed at us. And sometimes we feel too weak to go on.
God knows all of this. God knows what our lives are like, every day. We are not always at our best. Sometimes, we feel we are at our worst.
The word from Paul is that God is with us through it all. God’s grace supports our lives. God gives us joy even in the midst of hardship, especially when we take to heart that God is in control and always wants the best for us, including and especially to help us through the hard times.
Whatever you are feeling, whatever your emotional mood, even if you are hurting badly, remember, God’s grace is sufficient to see you through it all and to turn whatever problem you may have into a good outcome. You can trust him.