To keep me from becoming conceited because of these surpassingly great revelations, there was given me a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from 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 about my weaknesses, so that Christ's power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ's sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong. -- 2Corinthians 12: 7-10 (NIV)
God gave me an "a-ha!" moment as I slept last night. I woke up temporarily and was thinking what I would write about today. What direction I should seek God for. Being an occasional linear thinker I immediately thought I should write about the grace of God since yesterday dealt with the topic of sin. Verses started floating around in my head as I searched for a key verse and the "thorn" verses above kept popping up and I kept dismissing them. I love the verses but I rationalized they are not dealing with sin and grace, to which God answered, "they're not?" It never occurred to me why God chose to use the word grace here for what was sufficient for Paul. Many have speculated over the centuries as to what the thorn was that Paul beseeched the Lord to remove from him. Many had settled on some form of infirmity. I personally liked the idea that Paul was haunted by his memories of when he persecuted Christians; even presiding over the stoning of Stephen the first martyr. That this was God's way of keeping him humble in all he was accomplishing for the Lord. I think sometimes we turn these Bible heroes of the faith into plaster saints, somehow above the mere constraints of humanity that we all have to deal with. Paul was very much aware of who he was though even if we lose sight of it:
This is a trustworthy saying, and everyone should accept it: "Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners"--and I am the worst of them all. -- 1Timothy 1: 15 (NLT)
Some might be tempted to dismiss this as humble Paul simply being humble but he really seemed to be grappling with the sin issues in his life as we often have to in our own:
So the trouble is not with the law, for it is spiritual and good. The trouble is with me, for I am all too human, a slave to sin. I don't really understand myself, for I want to do what is right, but I don't do it. Instead, I do what I hate. But if I know that what I am doing is wrong, this shows that I agree that the law is good. So I am not the one doing wrong; it is sin living in me that does it. And I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature. I want to do what is right, but I can't. I want to do what is good, but I don't. I don't want to do what is wrong, but I do it anyway. But if I do what I don't want to do, I am not really the one doing wrong; it is sin living in me that does it. -- Romans 7: 14-20 (NLT)
Whenever I read these verses I can almost feel the internal struggle Paul was experiencing. I know it because it is what we all go through in our lives. We try our hardest sometimes and it doesn't seem to matter because we fall into sin time and again. The more frustrating thing is when it is the same sin. It leaves us feeling defeated and unworthy. It drives a wedge between God and us. We have to realize though that the wedge is there because we place it there, not because God does. God knows we are going to sin:
If we claim we have no sin, we are only fooling ourselves and not living in the truth. But if we confess our sins to him, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all wickedness. If we claim we have not sinned, we are calling God a liar and showing that his word has no place in our hearts. -- 1John 1: 8-10 (NLT)
We sin because it is our nature. But the beauty of these verses from First John is that God forgives because it is His nature! This is why there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. Is there sin? Absolutely. But the nature of being in Christ Jesus alone means there is grace. It means there is forgiveness. It seems sometimes in modern Christianity we have a tendency to over focus on only one aspect and ignore the other. The grace alone doctrine is wrong because it removes people from being aware of their own sin. While it is true that no one can pluck us out of the hand of God there is still a principle of sowing and reaping on this earth that we need to be aware of. Sin still has to costs -- one is eternal and paid for by Jesus. The other is temporal and will cost us something if we are not aware. The opposite is equally dangerous where we only focus on our sin and somehow fail to grasp the awesome grace of God. That is what will lead to Christians walking under condemnation and in defeat. Is our sin something to be aware of? Absolutely. Is something we need to dwell on and ruminate on? No, because we know that the grace of God will be sufficient for us. If we confess, He is faithful and just to forgive. He will cleanse us again. And again.
So let us walk through the key verses again with this as the backdrop. We start with Paul explaining some aspects of the thorn we need to examine in light of the realization that sin could be the thorn. We do not need to know what the sin was, only that Paul is acutely aware of it here and it was tormenting him. Isn't that the nature of sin? When we read Paul in Romans 7 above doesn't he sound tormented? I try to do the right thing but I keep finding myself doing to wrong thing. Nothing good lives in me. Later on in the chapter Paul actually says "what a miserable person I am!" This is the nature of sin. Sure it has it has pleasurable side effects in a worldly context. But since we are indwelt with the Holy Spirit of God we have a struggle between enjoying what the world values and the realization in the eternal that it is wrong. There is the conflict. There is the struggle. There is the torment. We also see that Paul shows us that the thorn comes from Satan. I know it has become vogue in modern churchianty to downplay the evil one. I know that we do not hear a lot of preaching on the enemy to our souls but he is real and he doesn't take union breaks! He is a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. I have watched him devour Christian friends of mine who maybe were lulled into thinking he was a harmless kitten. Sin is sin. The wages of sin are death and it comes from the devil. Yes our flesh makes choices in an evil and fallen world but it is the enemy that starts the whispering. You see, I am not saying that all sin comes from the devil but the condemnation afterwards sure does. The wedge we spoke of before does. You see the thorn doesn't have to be the actual act of sin -- it can be the ramifications of what follows. It can be the devil whispering in Paul's ear about the sin. About how worthless he is. About how he doesn't deserve the grace of God. Haven't we all been there? Maybe even this week?
Why was the thorn delivered unto him? To keep him from being conceited for the surpassingly great revelations God had given him. Earlier in the chapter Paul reveals to us that God showed him a vision of the third heavens! The throne room of God Himself! Things he saw he could never repeat to any man. Things that would lead the flesh to boast. Look at me! Look at how much I must mean to God! Look at all He has shown me! Things no one else has been shown! How easy it is for us to start to think the righteousness of God is our own. How easy is it to start to think better of ourselves and when we do, the effect we cannot avoid is to think less of God. Paul had evangelized the known world. He had seen successes after successes. Yet right up until the end he always said that he was the least of the Apostles. We too can spend so much time in church and doing our religious duty that we can be in danger of thinking more of ourselves. Look, I'm an elder! Look at all the missionary trips I go on! Look at all the ministries I am involved in! God will share a great many things beloved but not His glory.
"I am the Lord ; that is my name! I will not give my glory to anyone else, nor share my praise with carved idols. -- Isaiah 42: 8 (NLT)
Three times Paul pleads with the Lord to take away this torment; this thorn. Oh, don't we too wish that we could magically erase the shame and the pain that our sin causes in our lives? The relationship being played out here is one of great importance for us though. It is our sin that makes us aware that we need a Savior. It is our sin that makes us aware that we need forgiveness. The very thing we use as a wedge to drive God farther away from us is the one thing that should draw us even closer to Him! The world cannot help us with our sins. They can help justify them. They can help rationalize them. They cannot however forgive them, only God can. Only God can take the three denials of Peter and turn them into the sermon at Pentecost. Only God can take the man who stood over the dying body of Stephen and turn him into the Apostle Paul. Only God can take our sin and turn it into His will through His grace.
Because that is the response Paul received here. It contains two important elements for all believers. First, my grace is sufficient for you. Sufficient means adequate enough for the purpose. Whatever the purpose. Whatever the sin. The grace of God is sufficient. When Jesus died on the cross it was not only for the sins we had committed but for all the sins we would commit. Paul is essentially asking here for God to remove the very thing that continually draws Paul back to God. What draws him to realize that he desperately needs God! The second part of this equation is that the power of God is made perfect within us through our very weakness. It is through the realization that our sin needs forgiveness that God becomes more powerful in our lives. We can try harder all we like and we will not be able to conquer sin within our own power. In fact the more we try to do things under our own power the more we mute the power of God in our lives. Where the world encourages independence God requires dependence upon Him. Where the world encourages strength God requires weakness. Just how sufficient is the grace of God? Think of the thieves on the cross. These are probably people who had spent their lives in rebellion to the laws around them. In order to be sentenced to crucifixion, they were probably not common thieves. They probably were guilty of far more grievous offenses. And they were surely guilty as they hung there flanking the Son of God on either side. One of them represents those in the world who are unsaved and do not want the grace God offers so freely. He mocked Jesus as they were all approaching their death. Can you imagine? Well how many millions do the very same thing every single day today? How many will openly mock God right up until the point that they stand before Him for judgment? The other thief however finally got it.
But the other criminal protested, "Don't you fear God even when you have been sentenced to die? We deserve to die for our crimes, but this man hasn't done anything wrong." Then he said, "Jesus, remember me when you come into your Kingdom." -- Luke 23: 40-42 (NLT)
How vast is the grace of Almighty God? Jesus assured this man that he would be with Him in paradise. A lifetime spent as a criminal but all forgiven in a supernatural second. No matter what we think we might have done in our lives it probably cannot top the Apostle Paul's former life of killing Christians. It probably cannot top this thief's life. The grace of God however is not just a one time opportunity. He is not the God of a second chance but of another chance. Our heavenly Father does not expect that we will avoid falling. He expects that we will keep getting up, keep confessing to Him, and keep moving forward. Everyone falls beloved. King David was a man after the very heart of God and he wrote the majority of the Psalms. Yet well after he had been established as king of Israel he fell when he sinned with Bathsheba. His sin blinded him as ours often does. We make rationales and excuses in our mind for what we know we should not do. After David is confronted however by the Prophet Nathan, we see how repentance and forgiveness always works:
Then David confessed to Nathan, "I have sinned against the Lord ."Nathan replied, "Yes, but the Lord has forgiven you, and you won't die for this sin. Nevertheless, because you have shown utter contempt for the Lord by doing this, your child will die." -- 2Samuel 12: 13-14 (NLT)
David confesses and is truly repentant. The Lord forgives David. But there are always consequences in this life for the sins we commit. David would also lose his kingdom and eventually another of his children would die, all as a direct result of this sin. I like the language used here to describe our sin. It is showing utter contempt for God. Nonetheless, His grace is always available of we would just turn to Him instead of away from Him. I recently read that it isn't sin that defeats Christians it is unnecessary guilt we carry around as a result of our sins. It is condemnation we walk under because we listen to the accusations of the enemy instead of turning to the grace of God.
God's grace is sufficient for us today beloved. It is sufficient no matter how badly we fall. We cannot allow the enemy to use our sin to drive a wedge between us and God. Instead, our sin should drive us running faster towards God. Because He is only one that has the power to forgive our sins and make us right again. God does not want us to walk around under guilt and condemnation because that is what strips the power of God from our lives. There is nothing we do that God does not see. There is nothing we say that God does not hear. There is nothing we feel that God does not understand. There is no sin that surpasses the sufficiency of His grace.
Reverend Anthony Wade -- November 10, 2012