The persistent pressure of a physical ailment. In a passage of intimate personal biography Paul reveals that he was troubled by a physical affliction. He calls it “a thorn in the flesh”—language which suggests that it was something very painful and unpleasant, something physically agonising, intolerable, exhausting.
Exactly what it was we do not know; epilepsy, malaria, ophthalmia have all been suggested. The scriptural reference is possibly deliberately vague and general in order that we may realise it was typical of afflictions, which are common in the experience of all God’s servants.
We can, therefore, each put ourselves in Paul’s place in our thinking, and the more so if it so happens that we, too, are only too painfully aware of some ‘thorn’ sent to buffet us, something, perhaps, which seems at times to make continuance of work and witness for God almost impossible.
The perplexity of unanswered prayer
Paul cried earnestly and repeatedly to the Lord for relief from his distress. The trouble seemed unquestionably evil and undesirable. Paul knew the Lord to be almighty and merciful. His genuine desire was to devote himself the more unreservedly to God’s work. But the expected answer was not granted. Such disappointment occasionally involves some in the danger not only of giving up active service for God but also of giving up unquestioning faith in God. Our need, like Paul’s, may be the need of the God-given word of enlightenment and assurance.
God’s plan perceived
God did not leave Paul without any answer. He gave him not a work of healing but a word to help. This word contained not only a passing assurance but a permanent answer. This is brought out by the form of Paul’s statement. The R.V. renders it: “He hath said unto me” (v. 9). For the Lord spoke a word of abiding and enduring significance.
If ever Paul was afresh perplexed, or tempted to despair or to feel depressed, the right thing for him to do was to recall and to rest on this word. “My grace is sufficient for thee; for my strength is made perfect in weakness”. For this word brought to him by its illumination not the hope of the fulfilment of his own prayer for relief but insight into the way of the divine purpose. He saw how God proposed to meet the situation, and three truths stood out clear.
1. God’s answer was not removal of the trouble but grace sufficient to prevail over it.
“My grace is sufficient for thee.” This is important because indicative of a general principle of God’s working. His chosen method to help the needy, who cry to him for relief, is often not that of eradication but counteraction. He does not remove the trouble; he provides the enabling grace to make possible a life of triumph in the presence of the trouble. This is well illustrated by John Bunyan’s picture of the fire on which the adversary poured water to put it out, and the Lord poured oil to keep it on.
2. This experience of personal weakness and sustaining grace was good for his spirit, to save him from pride and undue exaltation.
Paul saw that such a method served to keep him low at God’s feet, conscious of his own utter inability to carry on, and aware of his utter dependence upon the divine enabling. Whereas, if the Lord were to give him complete freedom from frustrating affliction, there was a real danger lest he, Paul, should become self-confident and conceited. So he saw that in his painful physical limitation God had a positive purpose for Paul’s good—to save him from pride.
3. This condition of personal weakness was best for the perfection or full manifestation in him of God’s strength.
It is in the circumstances of our obvious limitations that the power of God finds the most unlimited scope for its own complete expression. “My strength”, the Lord said, “is made perfect in (your) weakness.” For the resulting achievement is obviously all his doing.
This God-given illumination made Paul genuinely glad no longer to pray just for the removal of physical infirmity, and the pressure of the adversary, but rather to glory, to find something spiritually thrilling in such infirmities and trials, because they afforded occasion for the tabernacling upon him of the manifested strength of God’s Christ. “So”, he says, “for Christ’s sake, in order that His power may be manifested, I actually welcome or take pleasure in trials and afflictions. For when I find myself involved in limitation or pressure, I can now regard it as the very circumstance most suitable to the display of his grace. It is when I, the natural man, am weakest that I, the Christian, am strongest.”
But such paradoxical delight in physical limitations and temporal distress is only possible for those who, like Paul, both belong to Christ, and desire to live for his glory not their own.
This article was first published in the Australian Church Record on 10 November 1960. In this series we hear reflections on Scripture from the Rev. Alan M Stibbs.