2 Corinthians 12:7-21
To keep me from being too elated by the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from being too elated. Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave 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 of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.
I have been a fool! You forced me to it, for I ought to have been commended by you. For I was not at all inferior to these super-apostles, even though I am nothing. The signs of a true apostle were performed among you with utmost patience, with signs and wonders and mighty works. For in what were you less favored than the rest of the churches, except that I myself did not burden you? Forgive me this wrong!
Here for the third time I am ready to come to you. And I will not be a burden, for I seek not what is yours but you. For children are not obligated to save up for their parents, but parents for their children. I will most gladly spend and be spent for your souls. If I love you more, am I to be loved less? But granting that I myself did not burden you, I was crafty, you say, and got the better of you by deceit. Did I take advantage of you through any of those whom I sent to you? I urged Titus to go, and sent the brother with him. Did Titus take advantage of you? Did we not act in the same spirit? Did we not take the same steps?
Have you been thinking all along that we have been defending ourselves to you? It is in the sight of God that we have been speaking in Christ, and all for your upbuilding, beloved. For I fear that perhaps when I come I may find you not as I wish, and that you may find me not as you wish - that perhaps there may be quarreling, jealousy, anger, hostility, slander, gossip, conceit, and disorder. I fear that when I come again my God may humble me before you, and I may have to mourn over many of those who sinned earlier and have not repented of the impurity, sexual immorality, and sensuality that they have practiced.
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Monday after Pentecost 13
8 September 2014
"Always look on the bright side of life," or so goes the cheery bromide. Much that passes for Christianity is just a sappy spiritualization of this bromide. The box church preachers are simply distilling common sense, waving a floppy Bible over it and calling it the Christian teaching. "Don't worry, be happy," as a life philosophy is both inadequate and theologically misleading. In this sense, Victoria Osteen is decisively wrong about our own happiness, as she is about a great many things. In fact, the great saints were not always happy or bright. The Psalmist talked about weeping all night until his bones wasted away (Ps 32:3; Ps 6:6-8). The Bible is full of complaints, tears, lamentations, trials, sorrows, and downright anger with God. What shall we say of these sacred writers, those who had been called by the Lord to speak His Word? Shall we berate them for their lack of steadfastness, courage, and fortitude? Should we tell them to buck up and quit complaining; to "man-up," so to speak?
No, we should understand the Lord Jesus has come into our broken and contorted lives to save those who are troubled in their hearts and full of complaints. He does not reject us because we complain anymore than we would reject our own children when they complain. He does not decline to save us when we blame Him for our own failings. He comes with mercy and strength into the lives of those who are troubled in their hearts. Even the apostle Paul suffered times of despondence and sorrow. He was frustrated with the congregations that he founded in the faith. He struggle with the external conditions of his ministry so that he began to experience times of spiritual depression. So we should not beat ourselves up for struggling. Such people are exactly those whom the Lord Jesus seeks to bring His mercy and forgiveness. He promises to be with them and turn their suffering to their good and His glory.
Nor are spiritual trials merely the problem of sexual lust. All too often the fleshly burdens are reduced to issues of sexual purity. But much deeper and more troubling spiritual struggles may have nothing to do with sexual issues, as troubling as those may be by themselves. Furthermore, sexual fixations may be a matter of some other greater spiritual trial or struggle; which issues in libidinous excesses. What the Bible says about the sins of the flesh is about the power of flesh perverted by the fall to lead us into all manner of sin and unbelief. "Flesh" is the divine judgment against us through and through. This does not apply to just one part of us, or one perverse desire. In fact, lust leads to all manner of sin: of thought, word, and finally deed. Augustine lamented that when he considered himself free of sexual lust, he was overcome by pride. Pride is just a lust of a different order; the lust to be considered superior to others.
The Lord sends a thorn in the flesh to the Apostle Paul. This was a cause of struggle and suffering in the great missionary's life. This is not unique but indicative of a truly spiritual person; spiritual in the biblical sense. Such a person does not refuse to acknowledge their trial and struggles, but freely admits them knowing that he has a God who saves. This is the truth brought to us again and again by our brothers in Christ, as it was brought to Paul through his companions. The final great companion is none other than Christ Himself.
"Now Paul experienced not only the outward trials we have just discussed but also inward and spiritual ones, as Christ in the garden. Such was the trial of which he complains in 2Co 12:7, a thorn in the flesh, a messenger of Satan, to punch him. It is impossible for anyone afflicted with these profound trials to be vexed by sexual desire. I am reminding you of this in passing because the papists, upon seeing the Latin translation "stimulus in the flesh" (stimulum carnis) interpreted it as the stimulus of sexual desire. But the Greek word is "thorn," which means a very sharp stake or thorn. Therefore it was a spiritual trial. It does not matter that he adds the word "flesh," saying: "A thorn was given me in the flesh" (2Co 12:7). He deliberately calls it a thorn in the flesh; for the Galatians and others with whom Paul had contact often saw him moved by great sadness, trembling, terrified, and vexed by an unspeakable sorrow and grief.
Therefore the apostles had not only physical but also spiritual trials. Paul testifies to this about himself, with these words: "fighting without and fear within" (2Co 7:5). In the last chapter of Acts Luke says that after Paul had struggled for a long time in a stormy sea to the point that he was gloomy in spirit, he was restored and took courage upon seeing the brothers who came from Rome to meet him at the Forum of Appius and Three Taverns (Acts 28:15). And in Phil 2:27 he confesses that God had mercy on him when He cured Epaphroditus, who was ill and near to death, lest Paul should have sorrow upon sorrow. In addition to their outward physical trials, therefore, the apostles also suffered sorrow of the spirit.
Martin Luther, Lectures on Galatians, 4.14
Lord, if You will not take my thorn from my flesh, help me to grow ever more dependent on the care You give me in the Word of Your Son. Free me to acknowledge my sorrow rather than deny it. Send me Your grace that I might bask in the attitude of Your favor rather than in my own changeable attitude. Amen.
For all military personnel, especially those at the military academies, Andrew Coulter and Jack Ogden, that the Lord would watch over them in the conduct of their duties
For Hugh Travis Pernoud, who was baptized into Christ, that the Lord Jesus, whose death and resurrection he shares, would keep him in his baptismal grace
For Ken Hennings, President of the Texas District, that he would be strengthened in his work of leading the churches
Art: Crucifixes Uppsala Cathedral (medieval)
© Scott R. Murray, 2014