This article studies 2 Corinthians 12:9, and draws from it certain points about the grace of God in allowing thorns to remain in our lives.

Source: The Messenger, 2013. 4 pages.

Sufficient Grace for Life with a Thorn

He said unto me, my grace is sufficient for thee...

2 Corinthians 12:9A

What can you do with a thorn? If you were given an assignment to speak on a thorn for ten minutes, you might be puzzled. A thorn is not worth much attention, is it? We might prefer to speak about flowers or plants. But the Bible gives much instruction and comfort on thorns. Paul received much instruction through the thorn in his life.

Instruction was also needed in the church at Corinth. False teachers had infiltrated the congregation in a spirit of pride, bringing another gospel, which took them away from Christ (11:3). These false teachers also criticized Paul for his lack of gifts, his lack of success, and his lack of experiences. It must have been sad for Paul to see Satan at work in a congregation where he had spent so much time (Acts 18:11) and to see strife stirred up by proud hearts (Prov. 28:25). Since these false teachers boasted of their manifold experiences, Paul shares one of his own experiences, which showed that he took refuge in the manifold grace of God.

Precious Experience🔗

Paul had many experiences to choose from. He could have written of the meeting He had with the exalted Christ on the Damascus road (Acts 9). On another occasion, in a vision he saw a man from Macedonia saying: “Come over and help us” (Acts 16:9). There was the time in Corinth, growing discouraged and ready to leave, the Lord said to him: “Be not afraid, but speak, and hold not thy peace ... for I have much people in this city” (Acts 18:9-10). Paul, however, shares another experience of more than fourteen years earlier (v. 2). Notice with how much humility he tells of his experience. He wants to share this experience about himself, but he does not want to focus on himself, and that is why he writes in the third person (vv. 2-3).

In this experience Paul was caught up to the third heaven. The first heaven is the atmosphere in which the birds fly. The second heaven is that part that shines by day and night (the sun, moon, stars, the planets and meteors). The third heaven is where God is. He describes it like a garden where one can enjoy rest and peace, as in paradise (v. 4). Paul does not know whether it was an experience in the body or only an experience of the soul (vv. 2-3), but it was a special experience.

We might like to ask Paul: “What did you see? What did you hear?” Paul says: “I cannot tell you” (v. 4). Later, John on the isle of Patmos would see something similar, and he could describe it because the church was in need of such heavenly comfort. Then John could tell them of that throne in heaven, and of the songs of praise in heaven, and of the Lamb of God who takes the scroll, and begins to open it, and much more (Rev. 4ff.).

Why does Paul receive this privilege? Was it because the Lord knew how much Paul would suffer for His name’s sake and this experience would enable him to endure? Or was it because he would write about departing and being with Christ, which is far better (Phil. 1:23)? Whatever the reason, the Lord had His wise and sovereign reasons. What is clear is that humility is important in the Christian life. Pride brings division and disunity. Humility is one of the first lessons that the soul learns when it comes under the saving operations of the Holy Spirit. Zaccheus learned that he had to “come down” because Jesus wanted him at His feet. “Before honour is humility” (Prov. 15:33). But also, after honour is humility.

Painful Providence🔗

Paul received a thorn in the flesh (v. 7). We can say several things about this thorn. First, it was a painful thorn. A pointy piece of wood in the flesh, even a little splinter, how painful that can be! What this thorn was in Paul’s life is not specified. Perhaps he suffered from severe headaches or recurring bouts of malaria. Maybe, ever since meeting with the exalted Christ where the light shone brighter than the sun, he had eye problems. He hints at this eye problem in his letter to the Galatians (Gal. 4:13-16, 6:11). Maybe it was spiritual trouble, the sin that so easily besets us (Heb. 12:1). Or maybe it was what he writes in this chapter: infirmities, reproaches, persecutions, distresses (v. 10). Whatever it was, the Holy Spirit has not seen fit to specify it, so that no one can say: “Paul had to endure much more trouble and pain, so this must not refer for me.”

The Holy Spirit wants you to sit next to Paul. What is the thorn in your life? Is it sickness, exhaustion, depression, or troubles in your family? Maybe no one understands you, and you say with Asaph: “Thy way is in the sea, and thy path in the great waters, and thy footsteps are not known” (Ps. 77:19).

Secondly, it was a given thorn. It was not by chance or by accident that he had this thorn. Paul says it was “given” to him (v. 7). Who gave it to him? Only an enemy would do something like this! No, not an enemy, but a Friend gave it to him. The Father gave this thorn to him. “He will make whatever evils He sends upon me, in this valley of tears turn out to my advantage...” (Heidelberg Catechism, Q&A 26). “All things come, not by chance, but by His Fatherly hand (Q&A 27). It comes from the Lord, but He sends it like a mother who sends a gift to one of her children and writes on it: “Sent with love.”

Thirdly, it was a thorn with a purpose. Two times Paul says: “lest I should be exalted above measure” (v. 7). The Lord knows what lives in His children. He knows the old man is still there, and that they are so ready to be puffed up with pride. The Puritans were right when they said that “pride is like a garment, the first one on, and the last one off.” The Lord wants His people to remember their place. After all, that is why Paul had his name changed from Saul to Paul (“little one”). While Paul was given a precious experience, the thorn was given to remind Paul that he is a “little one.”

Fourthly, it was a thorn that comes with assault. A messenger of Satan came to buffet him (v. 7). The picture Paul gives is of this messenger of Satan punching him with fists. It is a cowardly thing to hit someone when they are down, but that is what Satan does. What did the messenger say? Maybe you have had it too, that he says: “Do you think that you are a child of God, with all your sins? Look at you! Do you think the Lord loves you? He gives you a thorn. Why don’t you give up on such a God?” What do you do with it? Paul begins to pray.

Prayerful Desire🔗

Paul calls the Lord to his side. That is what is in view with the word “besought.” The Christian does not want the Lord to stay at a distance. He needs the Lord near to him, especially because of this thorn. Moreover, he asks the Lord to remove the thorn. It hurts. Paul must have thought that he could serve the Lord better without it; therefore his prayer – but no answer. Then there came another time when burdened by this thorn again, he asked the Lord to take it away. But again: no answer. Heaven can sometimes seem closed to the prayers of God’s people. But Paul could not give up. Later, he would write in Philippians 4:6, “Be careful for nothing; but in every thing by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be known unto God.”

Paul had learned to pray (Acts 9:11), and he prayed for many things. He prayed for the conversion of the Jews (Rom. 10:1), he prayed for the congregations (1 Cor. 1:4; Eph 1:16; Col. 1:3), and he asked others to pray for him (Eph. 6:19). But here we hear him praying for himself. Sometimes prayer can be difficult and discouraging and here we might say to Paul: “I guess this is one of those unanswered prayers.” But Paul does not give up. He receives an answer.

Promise of God🔗

Paul is not delivered from the thorn. The thorn remains. The pain continues. But the Lord comes with a promise: “My grace is sufficient for thee.” This is a different answer from the world which says: “You’ll just have to live with it. Make the best of it.” But Paul hears the secret for a life with thorns.

First, he hears of sovereign grace. That is always the case. When the Lord stopped Paul on the road to Damascus, and showed grace to him there was no reason in Paul. The reason lay in the heart of God. “I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy” (Rom. 9:15). This is the reason when the Lord humbles the proud, and when He gives a thorn in the flesh and gives grace for the trial: sovereign grace.

Secondly, it is sufficient grace. That is the first word the Lord speaks to Paul: “Sufficient.” Here is enough grace. Spurgeon says that a fish in the ocean does not need to ask: “Will there be enough water for me to swim?” There is enough water for the fish. A man who is standing on a mountain will not say: “I breathe so many cubic feet of air in a year. I am afraid I will inhale all the oxygen that surrounds the globe. Will there be enough air?” Of course, he will never use up all the oxygen; there is enough. This is what the Lord says to His children. He does not say: “Here I don’t have enough grace for you, and you will have to go this way without my grace. I have run out.” Instead, He says: “whatever I take away, a loved one, earthly possessions, comforts, I will not take my grace away from you.”

Thirdly, it is specific grace. Of course, the Lord will supply grace to His people in general. But God’s people can ask: “But does He mean me?” Then it is clear the Lord wants the soul of His people to know very personally what He says to Paul: “My grace is sufficient for thee.” And the Lord will assure his oft afflicted child with His word and make him know the Lord means him.

Don’t you think that Paul was thankful that he pressed on in prayer and did not give up on the Lord? He did not have an answer after the first time, and not after the second time, but by the Spirit of grace and supplications he pressed on in prayer and then the Lord came. No, He did not pluck out the thorn, as M’Cheyne wrote, and He did not drive the messenger of Satan back to hell. But He opened His heart to Paul and said: “I have something far better, Paul; sufficient grace for life with a thorn.”

Then the child of God can go on into a new week and a new day. That is how you too can go on in the years ahead, difficult as these years may be. Paul has depended on this promise for more than fourteen years, and he could depend on it throughout the rest of his life’s journey.

Do you have such a word to depend on? Have you come to seek for grace and to live by grace? You may have goods, friends and comforts, but what if the Lord begins to take these all away? Without His grace you do not have what you need to live and die happily

Why would he show His grace to a sinner? Because Christ went the way of suffering. He prayed in the garden of Gethsemane: “Father ... let this cup pass from me: nevertheless, not as I will, but as thou wilt” (Matt. 26:39). He knew what it was to have thorns in His flesh. A crown of thorns was planted on His head (Matt. 27:29). He is the sympathizing High Priest. He can say: “I asked the Father to take away the thorns too, but the Father said: Son, there is no other way to save my guilty people.” So He went to the cross, and on the cross there was no grace for Him, so that He might obtain grace for sinners like you.

Although you have this thorn, Christ can give you something He had to go without on the cross: grace. For it is also the Saviour’s grace. Christ speaks these words: My grace is sufficient for thee. If anyone needs this grace, He gives it through His nail-pierced hands.

Blest is the man whose strength Thou art...
Though passing through a vale of tears,
Thy grace, O God, to him appears...
E’en in death’s vale Thou failest never.
Psalter 421:3, 6

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