Paul’s Vision and His Thorn in the Flesh
This boasting will do no good, but I must go on. I will reluctantly tell about visions and revelations from the Lord. I was caught up to the third heaven fourteen years ago. Whether I was in my body or out of my body, I don’t know—only God knows. Yes, only God knows whether I was in my body or outside my body. But I do know that I was caught up to paradise and heard things so astounding that they cannot be expressed in words, things no human is allowed to tell.
That experience is worth boasting about, but I’m not going to do it. I will boast only about my weaknesses. If I wanted to boast, I would be no fool in doing so, because I would be telling the truth. But I won’t do it, because I don’t want anyone to give me credit beyond what they can see in my life or hear in my message, even though I have received such wonderful revelations from God. So to keep me from becoming proud, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger from Satan to torment me and keep me from becoming proud.
Three different times I begged the Lord to take it away.
Each time he said,
“My grace is all you need. My power works best in weakness.”
So now I am glad to boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ can work through me. That’s why I take pleasure in my weaknesses, and in the insults, hardships, persecutions, and troubles that I suffer for Christ.
For when I am weak, then I am strong.
(New Living Translation, 2 Corinthians 12:1–10)
How can Paul say this?
Pleasure in your weaknesses? Pleasure in the insults, hardships, persecutions, and troubles?
Weakness as strength?
In times past, I think that I would have—with certainty, conviction, and a certain amount of boldness—quoted these words of the apostle. I rejoiced in the logic of the theology, and moved quickly to practical application. What a great Scripture passage to share with people who are going through difficulties, “Hey, God is displaying his power in you. God is working out his strength through this momentary weakness you are experiencing. Your weakness is actually strength.”
Bible quoted and applied. Problem solved.
And now I cringe at the thought of how many times I may have done this (or how many times Christians this to each other). Or maybe, as I think about it, it isn't so much about what I was saying being true or untrue, but more importantly, how I was saying it.
The tone. The heart. The thoughtlessness. To be so cavalier.
I was on a run recently thinking about this passage, along with the last couple years of my experience. You see, over that timeframe I have been in counseling for depression and generalized anxiety disorder. And when I hear these words of Paul now, there are two conflicting responses that arise within me.
The first is that I want to scream,
“Are you kidding me!? I mean, I understand what you are saying, but it doesn't make sense in the feeling of it. Pleasure. In hardships and troubles, like depression and anxiety and the weakness they bring. Pleasure? NO!”
But the second is more the norm. My shoulders slump. My head bows. My voice, if speaking, would tremble.
“Paul, I don’t get this. I don’t feel pleasure in this brokenness and weakness. I sense no joy here. None of this feels like strength. It feels the opposite, I feel only weak. I feel useless and a failure, and everything in me wants this to change. I want to go back to the way I was before.
I want the darkness to lift and the anxiety to evaporate away.
I want to be happy again.
I want to feel strong again.”
So what do I do with this text?
What struck me on the run, and as I sit writing this, is I need to figure out how to want what God wants for me. That his will and his ways and his plans truly are best. For that is why this story from Paul is in the Bible for me to wrestle and argue with. It’s not there for me to carelessly drop on someone else, but here to transform us as we share it together.
From God's Viewpoint
The way that this started changing me was when the Holy Spirit helped me see that this text from Paul is telling me something about how God views me in the midst of my weakness. Namely, our Father looks at us in all our brokenness, and all our weakness, and in the depth of our dependancy, and says,
“Huh. There is something, someone, I can work with. Perfect.”
Which is so often not the view I have of myself in my weakness. Here is what usually plays out in my mind.
I look at all of my fear, sadness, grieving, and anxiety, and feel the weakness of that. I see it as this obstacle to all I feel I should be and do. It’s in the way--of being a better follower of Jesus, a better father, and husband, and friend, and senior pastor/leader for our church family and staff, and effective preacher. I listen to podcasts of preachers, read books of living and dead theologians, see people around me serving, and think, “If only I was that happy and strong, how much I could do and what a help I could be to those in my life, the way that they are!” (Never mind I have no idea of what weakness, trouble, or heartache they may be struggling with; ah, the danger of comparison...)
But then this text comes in with the voice of the Father and says,
“No. It is not my design for you to be free of the thorns of depression and anxiety that I have placed in your life. No, my child. I have placed them there so that you might more deeply drink of my grace in the midst of them. In fact, you will drink more deeply of my grace because of them. And it is in your weakness in those things that my power will be displayed, in exactly the way I want, in all the circumstances of your life. And if you will trust me, and quietly rest in me, if you will breathe that in, you will slowly and in ways that surprise you, discover pleasure. Pleasure in the hardship. Pleasure in the troubles. Pleasure in the brokenness. Pleasure in the weakness.”
When I hear my Father speak that way, in this text and story from Paul, hope breaks into my story like a thin shaft of sunlight through skies darkened by threatening clouds. I feel a bit stronger, in the same way a bone is stronger after the breaking, and the healing.
And that is where I am today, dear reader. In the fragile place of hearing his voice that way, at various moments throughout my experience of weakness, day by day.
On Being Weak...Together
I was talking with someone the other day in their own place of darkness and brokenness. After a season of tears, it was clear that part of what this person was feeling so acutely was the pain of their own weakness, and the embarrassment attendant to it. I could literally feel with them the intensity of their weakness, and the desire, right along with it, to be strong. And then that common declaration of the hurting, “I don’t want to be a burden to other people!” (Oh how I can relate!)
As we spoke, and I shared a few hugs, and we prayed, part of what I wanted this person to know was what I am learning.
That our Father looks at them and says,
“Huh. There is someone I can work with. Perfect.”
That one of the ways that God’s power is made perfect in weakness is because it pulls out the best in the body of Christ and reflects the glory of Christ, in this way--
It used to be when someone would say, “I’m such a burden” (implied: because of my weakness), I would say, “No, you’re not!”
But now I say, “Yes, you are. You are a burden. And that’s OK. Because what we do in the family is bear each other’s burdens. God’s strength is operating in me in such a way right now that I am here to stand with you. And together, with Christ’s help, we are strong. And someday, when I need that help, you will be here to bear my burden and be strong with me. And all of that show’s our Father’s perfected power in weakness.”
It is beauty I may have missed, without depression and anxiety. The beauty of a small, intimate group of loving friends who ask each day how I’m doing. Who care about my brokenness and weakness. Who bear the burden with me, and speak God’s truth to me. Who help me better understand my own story, and how God is getting himself glory in it.
It’s been over two years, and the learning isn’t over. I’m slowly seeing how these thorns are precious gifts that open the way to more of God’s grace for me. If I could sit down with Paul right now, I could share with him how I see what he was talking about, that I am beginning to see how pleasure is possible in the midst of the pain. And I would thank him for sharing his story.
And one day, because of Jesus, I will.
(The idea for this article came from some meditations on a sermon by Raymond Ortlund Jr. on 2 Corinthians 12, and how the Holy Spirit continues to use that in my life.)