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when God says “no”

Though Paul had planted the church in Corinth, having preached the gospel in that city and seeing God bring many men and women to faith in Jesus, his bona fides as an apostle seemed to be always questioned by the Corinthian believers. In each of his letters to this church he defended his role—and authority—as an apostle. In his second letter to them he defends his apostleship by appealing to his sufferings as an apostle. He lists multiple struggles he faced, from shipwrecks to beatings to stonings to the anxiety he felt for the churches he planted. Paul’s life as an apostle was not an easy life, and he offers this as evidence of his calling.

He also boasts, at least a little. In chapter 12 he offers a teaser of a boast.

I must go on boasting. Though there is nothing to be gained by it, I will go on to visions and revelations of the Lord. I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows. And I know that this man was caught up into paradise—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows—and he heard things that cannot be told, which man may not utter. On behalf of this man I will boast, but on my own behalf I will not boast, except of my weaknesses—though if I should wish to boast, I would not be a fool, for I would be speaking the truth; but I refrain from it, so that no one may think more of me than he sees in me or hears from me.

2 Corinthians 12:1–6 ESV

Paul says that fourteen years earlier he had been taken up into God’s presence, where he was shown things, marvelous things. He doesn’t know whether he was taken into God’s presence in his physical body or in a vision, but he knows that he was in God’s presence. He also knows that he saw amazing things. The obvious question is: what did he see? He can’t tell us. Think of this boast. Paul says he’s seen things, but he can’t say what he saw. Uh-huh. Sure, Paul! This sounds like a guy at the local playground who brags about his ability to dunk a basketball but when asked to prove it says, “I don’t really like jumping in these shoes.” (It’s gotta be the shoes, right?)

How does this function as evidence of his apostolicity? It doesn’t. The outcome of this privileged revelation does, however.

So to keep me from becoming conceited because of 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 becoming conceited. 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.

2 Corinthians 12:7–10 ESV

The evidence that Paul had received truly mind-boggling revelations of things in heaven, things that he could not share with others, is that a thorn was given him in the flesh. There have been myriad speculations as to what this thorn was. Some think it was epilepsy or a terrible problem with his vision or some other physical ailment, and some think it was the constant physical threat from his opponents. Most likely it was a physical ailment, given his reference to his “flesh”, though it was not enough to keep him from traveling and serving and enduring physical hardship from others. Whatever the actual thorn, Paul says two things about it. First, it was a messenger of Satan to harass him, that he might not become conceited (for the knowledge he possessed). Second, he pleaded with God three times for relief, for the thorn to be taken away. Paul wanted to be rescued from this affliction. Think of those prayers! He had been taken into the direct presence of God and shown things that few—if any—other humans had seen. We know this because he was forbidden to tell any other human what it was that he saw. If anyone has an inside track to God’s ear, it’s Paul. Paul was truly on the inside, with an amazingly privileged position. Notice closely God’s response to Paul’s repeated plea: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” That’s a fancy way for God to say, “No.”

It is more than simply denying Paul’s request. There is a plan and a purpose to Paul’s suffering. It isn’t merely part of the ordinary difficulties of life, like stubbing your toe when you try to make it to the bathroom in the darkness in the middle of the night. God tells Paul that his grace is sufficient for Paul, which means he will get Paul through whatever difficulty he faces. His grace is sufficient. Paul does not need anything more than God’s grace. It is his grace and his grace alone that will get Paul through each day. He does not need to be taken out of the struggle, for God’s grace will carry him through the struggle.

God also declares that his power is made perfect in weakness. We often think of power as overcoming struggle or pain. Real power is victory over the enemy. This was the reason for Paul’s original hatred of Jesus and his mission. How could Jesus be God’s Messiah if Jesus’ “power” resulted in his death on a cross? The greatest display of God’s power was the crucifixion of Jesus, and Paul has come to realize this. Paul doesn’t need God to take away the pain of whatever affliction he was enduring; he needs God to sustain him through the affliction, that God’s power would be most evident.

We must recognize that any suffering we experience is an opportunity for us to experience both God’s grace and his unlimited power. God can, and often does, grant our requests. This is why we pray for healing, for example. Sometimes, though, God makes it clear that healing will not come, at least not until the resurrection. Sometimes God makes it clear that he will not take away the struggle or the pain. We must remember that whenever God says “no” to a request like this, he does not leave us to ourselves. Instead he promises that his grace is sufficient for us, and his power will be on full display as we trust him in the midst of the affliction.