Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Strength Through Weakness: Boasting about Splinters from Satan?

Top Twelve Scripture Texts: Number 12A
2 Corinthians 12:7-10

Bob Rakestraw

For many years I have been truly amazed—standing with my mouth wide open, as it were—at the ways God’s thinking and acting often are in direct contrast to the thoughts and ways of the world. In the first chapter of James, for example, God’s people are instructed to consider it “nothing but joy” when we “face trials of any kind” (v. 2). In the book of Romans, after saying that “we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God, “the apostle Paul writes that “we also boast in our sufferings” (5:2-3).

In the famous song of Mary, after learning that she would be the mother of the Lord, we read that God “has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts…. He has lifted up the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty” (Luke 1:51-53). The very idea of the perfect, just and infinitely wealthy God coming as a baby into a miserable, unjust and desperately needy world, in order to be crucified for the eternal salvation of sinful humanity, is truly incredible and even foolish to the natural mind (1 Cor. 1:18-31; 2 Cor. 13:3-4).

When I am Weak

My theme for this month is another one of the great paradoxes in scripture: “when I am weak, then I am strong.” Here is the classic statement from the Bible:

“Therefore, to keep me from being too elated [by remarkable visions and revelations from God], a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me, to keep me from being too elated. Three times I appealed to the Lord about this, that it would leave me, but he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for [my] power is made perfect in weakness.’ So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses,’ so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:7b-10, NRSV).

God Overrides the Plans of Satan

This is surely one of the most mysterious passages in all of the scriptures. And it must be one of the most talked about—and written about—or thought about—by those who know the Bible. Paul’s “thorn in the flesh” has left me wondering, irritated and grateful for decades. I wonder what in the world it could possibly be. I feel irritated at times because I can’t apply the Greek language and theological reasoning to arrive at a definite conclusion. And I am often—more and more as the years pass—thankful to God that the thorn is not clearly identified. This way, the principle of strength through weakness applies to numerous situations of life here on earth.

While I do not intend to identify this “messenger of Satan,” I do want to point out a number of details that have been helpful to me in thinking about the thorn.

1) Paul considers this affliction to be of God—probably not in the sense of being directly sent by God, but being permitted by him. He is in control of even the painful aspects of our existence.

2) The word “messenger” in the Greek language is angelos, translated “angel” almost all of the time in the New Testament. Is the thorn a fallen angelic spirit—a demonic influence or temptation (or even a person or persons) who lingers around us without dominating us (because of God’s protection)? Such a view is not inconceivable. In any case, the thorn is said to be “of Satan.”

The Thorn in the Flesh

3) The word for “thorn” may also be translated as “splinter”—a constant irritant as we move through the day. It may also be translated as “stake”—that is, a sharpened wooden shaft. New Testament scholar Philip E. Hughes notes that what Paul is saying, literally, is: “there was given to me a stake for the flesh,” rather than “in the flesh.” According to Hughes “it seems to us that Paul is thinking graphically of a body helplessly impaled. He sees himself as it were transfixed, painfully held down and humiliated…” (The Second Epistle to the Corinthians).

4) The word for “flesh” (sarx) is used numerous ways in the New Testament and other early Christian literature. While it sometimes means the human body, or the material that covers the bones of our body, at other times it refers to human nature, life here on earth, the external or outward side of life, or the sinful tendency of humanity apart from God There are other possible meanings as well. It may therefore refer to the earthly, but non-material, realm of life, or the physical side of existence’. These are closely intertwined, so it is not wise to view the thorn in an either/or manner.

5) The thorn “tormented” Paul as an ongoing aspect of his life. One commentator, writing of the word “torment,” or “buffet,” notes that “the present tense of the verb to buffet me seems to imply that the trouble was permanent. And the word itself, kolaphizo, means literally ‘to strike a blow with the fist,’ and so ‘to maltreat,’ especially in such a manner that shame and indignation are felt by the sufferer” (R.V.G. Tasker, The Second Epistle of Paul to the Corinthians).

The Purpose and Power of God

6) The splinter accomplished God’s good purpose in Paul’s life—it kept him from being overly elated (conceited, boastful) from the remarkable visions and revelations he had received from God. The NASB—“to keep me from exalting myself”—gets the idea right. This is stated twice in verse 7 (in the Greek; see NRSV) as the reason God allowed the thorn.

7) God did not answer Paul’s thrice-repeated prayer in the way that he wanted—to have the thorn removed from is life, but God did answer it by giving Paul his remarkable grace. God said that was enough!

8) God’s supernatural power is, according to the divine economy, “made perfect in weakness.” The translation by Kenneth S. Wuest is very encouraging: “power is moment by moment coming to its full energy and complete operation in the sphere of weakness.”

9) Paul’s boasting “all the more gladly” of his weaknesses was a God-pleasing response to the denial of his prayer request. Elsewhere, as I mentioned earlier, he records a similar theme: “we also boast in our sufferings” (Rom. 5:3, NRSV). I admit to being greatly perplexed, and sometimes much distressed over these teachings, but I also admit to having daily peace and even joy in my sufferings.

10) Paul says that his boasting is “so that the power of Christ may dwell in me.” The expanded translation by Wuest is quite revealing: “…in order that the power of the Christ [like the Shekinah Glory in the Holy of Holies of the Tent of Meeting] may take up its residence in me [working within me and giving me help].”

I am Content

11) Paul’s remarkable conclusion, “Therefore I am content,” silences all who may take offense at the sufferings of God’s people. Because Paul had learned the secret of contentment (see Phil. 4:11-13; 1 Tim. 6:6,8; Heb. 13:5), he could boast gladly of his weaknesses, since he knew when he was weak (and only then, in Spurgeon’s view), he was truly strong.

12) The threefold theme of God’s strength, human weakness, and godly boasting, interspersed throughout 2 Corinthians 10-13, lies at the very core of the apostle Paul’s successful life and ministry. He learned—through long and severe difficulties and hardships—that he was incredibly strong as a Christian and as a Christian leader, but only when he was weak in himself. He did not buy into the world’s mantra, “Believe in yourself.” He saw the example of Christ (“he was crucified in weakness, but lives by the power of God,” 2 Cor. 13:4), and chose to make this same pattern his very own. “If I must boast,” he said, “I will boast of the things that show my weakness” (2 Cor. 11:30).


I will end this study for now, and will leave with you these twelve pieces of spiritual truth to chew on and, I trust, swallow (according to the insights God gives you). As I wrote a few days ago, I am physically very weak these days. My desire is to follow Jesus, Paul, Amy Carmichael (her excellent but profound book is Rose from Briar), and numerous others (see Hebrews 11) who have learned that godly boasting in one’s weakness leads to great peace, joy, hope, and inner strength.

By God’s grace I hope to continue on these deep things of God in my next posting. May the Jesus of Bethlehem and the Christ of Calvary be for you and yours the one who satisfies. May he be enough, and may you be satisfied in him and through him.

1 comment:

Amy said...

Thank you again, Bob. Your insights continue to bless me, and I am so grateful to God for you!