Scripture: 2 Corinthians 2: 1-10
Many of you have asked about our beach trip last week… My family and I had a wonderful vacation… at Englewood Beach, in Florida, south of Tampa. We enjoyed some perfect or nearly perfect days there. So thank you, Lord! The only thing that detracted from the trip at all is that, somehow, I forgot to apply an adequate amount of sunscreen on Day One at a the beach, so I had to manage a sunburn for the rest of the week. No big deal, though!
But getting sunburned reminded me of a traumatic experience one summer, when I was 11 or 12, when the Whitewater Water Park opened in Atlanta. Do any of y’all know Whitewater? The summer it opened, there was a big marketing campaign to promote it. And the TV commercials showed this fair-skinned kid whose skin tone was unnaturally pale. I’ve always been fair-skinned—prone to sunburns, unable to tan—but even I wasn’t like the kid on TV; they added some special effect to make him appear ghostly white. And there was a jingle that went along with the commercial. The kid sang these words: “I used to be the whitest/ I looked just like a ghoul.” A ghoul—like a ghost or phantom. And they rhymed “ghoul” with “cool”—as in “staying cool at Whitewater.” That was the tagline.
So that summer, when this commercial was all over the airwaves, when I went to my neighborhood pool for the first time, a classmate of mine, whose name was Francis, said, “Look! Here comes the ghoul… You’re a ghoul!” And the other kids at the pool laughed at me! And I’m thinking, “Here’s a kid who’s name is Francis,” and he’s making fun of me!” Not that there’s anything wrong with the name “Francis,” but back in 1982 kids made fun of other kids named Francis! Because kids, in case you haven’t heard, can be very mean.
And speaking of mean, I wanted to punch Francis in the face. Because, unlike Paul in verse 10, I am not content with my weaknesses! I’m not content with being insulted! Unlike Paul, I’m usually not content with any of the ways that Paul suffers—be they “weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, or calamities.” I’m not usually or often content with those things!
And I’m probably not alone. I suspect we could all use help in learning to deal with adversity, with pain and suffering, with setbacks, with people opposing us, seeking to harm us, gossiping about us, working against us. So I hope today’s sermon will help us with this.
But first we need to answer, “What’s going on in today’s scripture? Why is Paul writing these words to the Corinthians in the first place?”
It’s because a group of people, whom Paul refers to sarcastically as “super-apostles,”1 are teaching a version of the gospel to these Corinthians that is far different from the gospel that Paul has taught them. These super-apostles risk leading the Corinthians into false teaching. And they’re attacking Paul, and questioning his credentials as an apostle, and sowing doubt in his teaching.
Paul, they say, is an inferior apostle. They say he isn’t an eloquent speaker. They were even criticizing Paul for not taking money from the Corinthians—they were criticizing him for preaching and teaching and pastoring “free of charge.” “If Paul were as good as we are,then he would charge for his services!” The super-apostles were charging the Corinthians for their services! And… they were even criticizing Paul for constantly getting into so much trouble! Trouble with the government, trouble with religious authorities… trouble with fellow Jews… trouble with his opponents in the churches.
Surely someone who enjoyed so much of God’s favor—that he was called by the resurrected Lord Jesus to be the apostle to the Gentiles—surely God would not allow that same person to suffer so much… Paul is clearly doing something wrong!
Finally, it’s clear the super-apostles were boasting about themselves—and about amazing spiritual experiences that they’ve had!
And that’s why Paul begins today’s scripture by talking about one of his own spiritual experiences! “You want to talk about grand, exalted, supernatural personal spiritual experience? Okay… I know a man who’s had one of those. Listen to his story.” Then it becomes clear in verse 7 that he was really talking about his own experience: Paul, in other words, is the one who, fourteen years earlier, was taken up to what he calls, in verse 2, the “third heaven” or “Paradise.” We would just say “heaven” today—the “third” heaven was an ancient way of referring to the heaven that’s beyond this physical universe. And it’s also the place that Jesus refers to in Luke 23 when he’s talking to the thief on the cross—“Today,” Jesus tells the man who’s dying next to him, “Today you will be with me in Paradise.” In other words, when you die, you will be with me in the direct presence of God, in heaven.
So 14 years earlier, God gave Paul a “sneak preview” of heaven. Whatever it was like… it was amazing! No wonder Paul would later tell the Philippians that “to live is Christ, but to die is gain.” He knew from whence he spoke! Heaven is unbelievably good. It is something to look forward to. Maybe that’s why God gave Paul this experience; he doesn’t say.
I’ve told you before about at least one amazing spiritual experience I’ve had in which I knew for sure that Jesus Christ was right here with me, every bit as much as y’all who are sitting in these pews, that he was doing something supernatural within me. It happened at youth camp here, in Toccoa, at the old Baptist Center in 1984. I know many of you have had experiences like that. I wish I could have put that experience in a bottle… you know? And pull that bottle out, and open it up, and experience it all over again whenever I wanted to.
So if I were feeling depressed, I’d just open that bottle and be transported back to that same place in the summer of 1984! If I were feeling discouraged, I’d open that bottle and go back to that place! If I were feeling afraid, I’d open that bottle and go back!
But whether or not, or when, or how often, God chooses to give me or any of us some edifying, supernatural, spiritual gift or experience—this is God’s business, not ours.
When our Father gives us some amazing blessing, we trust that he has good reasons for doing so! When our Father withholds the blessing, we’re supposed to trust that he has good reasons for doing that, as well!
But can I be honest and say that I don’t often or always trust that my heavenly Father has good reasons for withholding some blessing from me that I want… and I certainly don’t often or always trust that my Father has good reasons for giving me some blessing I don’t want.
By the way, the 19th century English Baptist preacher Charles Spurgeon said that anything that causes us to pray is a “blessing.”
But I’m not as sanctified as he was! You see, far too often… I am—how do I put this?—exceedingly confident that I know how to run the universe better than God! Or… if not the entire universe… then at least I know how to run my life within it better than God!
But I promise I’m learning, and growing, and getting at least a little better at this “trusting in the Lord” thing! I am! God is changing me for the better! But inasmuch as I am able to trust God to run the universe better than I can, it’s only because God has drilled it into my thick skull that what Paul says in today’s scripture is really true! What Paul says in today’s scripture has helped me, in the most practical of ways… It’s helped me to be… a little less angry… a little less short-tempered… a little less grumpy… a little happier… a little more patient… a little more joyful… when things don’t work out the way I want them to… when things don’t go “my way,” at least as I perceive it… when circumstances are not favorable, so far as I can tell… when I’m in the midst of a painful trial… when I’m hurting… when I’m suffering.
So I pray that Paul’s message can help you, too!
And the most important part of this message is to believe that when you trust in Jesus, things are never as they appear to be… never as they seem. Regardless of what is or isn’t happening in your life right now… whether you perceive that things are going your way or not, working out according to your plans or not… things are never exactly as they seem.
If, like me, you grew up in the ’70s and ’80s, you will remember the Canadian rock band Rush. (Casey Owen knows Rush! Probably not Sarah!) My favorite song of theirs is called “Limelight.” The singer describes his misgivings with his life of fame and fortune and celebrity—what he calls living in the limelight. He’s apprehensive about it, uneasy about it. And some of us are like, “Well, if he doesn’t want to be a rich and famous rock star, I’ll gladly trade places with him!”
Be that as it may, he says that “living in the limelight” is the “universal dream for those who wish to seem.” For those who wish to seem… I like that!
In other words, what matters—in the singer’s world of celebrity, he says—is not who you are, but who you seem to be. What matters is not the way things really are, but the way things appear to be. And he’s tired of it! He’s tired of the superficiality. He wants something real for a change!
I don’t think you have to be a famous rock star to relate to this. Most of us have accounts in Facebook or Instagram or Twitter. I didn’t post pictures of myself in a bathing suit last week… And I won’t unless or until I lose a few pounds! For every picture of myself that I post on social media, trust me, there are a dozen others that I would never post… My pride can’t take it!
Because I don’t like the way I look. And I suppose I could say, “Well, tough, Brent. This is who you are! That spare tire around your waist belongs to you! Embrace it! Be the person that you are!” I could do that!
But I don’t want to… Why?
Because I don’t want you to see me and judge me and accept me for who I really am. I want you to see me and judge me and accept me for who I seem to be! A lot of effort and energy goes in to keeping up appearances… into seeming, rather than being!
I am not the way I seem. In fact, the Bible says that people and circumstances are never the way they seem…
The Bible tells us this, for instance, in Numbers chapter 13. There, the Lord tells Moses to send spies into Canaan to scout out the land that God has promised to give the Israelites. Most of the spies return from their trip deeply discouraged: “By all means,” they tell their fellow Israelites, “the land is wonderful… it’s flowing with milk and honey, just as God said it was. But the cities… they’re like fortresses. And the people… they seem like giants compared to us! And we seem like grasshoppers compared to them!”
And look at Numbers 13:33: they use the word “seem” twice: “They seem… we seem.”
Only Caleb, one of the spies, has the boldness to speak up. He says, “Let us go up at once and occupy [the land], for we are well able to overcome it.” He’s saying, in so many words, “Who cares the way things seem. We know—or at least we ought to know—the way things really are. And here’s the way things really are: God is with us! God is on our side. God is for us.2Who can be against us? Certainly not these people who seem like giants! Big deal! They’re not giants as far as God is concerned!”
See, Caleb knew that God is the difference between the way things seem and the way things are. If you want to get past the way things seem, and get to the way things are, get to what’s really real, you have to go through God first!
And Paul knows this too!
Paul knows that the super-apostles aren’t completely off-base when they spoke of Paul’s weaknesses and shortcomings. Paul himself addresses the fact that he’s not an eloquent speaker elsewhere in his letters.3
So how is it that Paul, in spite of the way things seemed to everyone, was the most effective and successful preacher and evangelist and missionary the world has ever known?
Because the way things seem don’t matter; what matters is the way things are. Paul’s weaknesses became opportunities for God to show out, and to show off… to show off his power—not Paul’s power, God’s power! Because Paul’s success was not about Paul, and what he could do or accomplish through his own strength… It was about Jesus Christ, and what Christ could do through Paul… through the strength of Christ… as Paul learned to depend on Christ more and more.
And if not for Paul’s “thorn in the flesh,” this display of Christ’s power through Paul never would have happened! Paul needed the thorn, oddly enough, to make him as weak as he needed to be, so Christ’s power could be made perfect in weakness!
So what is this “thorn”?
The truth is, we don’t know. Bible scholars don’t know. It might have been some kind of conspicuous, obvious physical ailment or disability of some kind. Or it might have been just the non-stop persecution and suffering and violence that Paul routinely experienced through his ministry. Whatever it was, the original readers of Paul’s letter knew what Paul was talking about, even if we don’t today. And I think you can see from the thorn’s description that it caused Paul great pain and anguish… It was agonizing to Paul. So much so that in verse 8, he writes, “Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me.”
Notice what Paul doesn’t do… He doesn’t console himself with his previous spiritual experiences. He doesn’t say, “Oh well… I’ve visited heaven. I’ve seen these amazing things there. I’ve heard things that cannot be told. And I know that ultimately I have a home in heaven, with the Lord. So, Satan, bring it on! Do your worst! Bring on the pain! Bring on the insults, the hardships, the persecutions, the calamities! Bring on the suffering… because I’m above all that now! I’m on a higher spiritual plane now. I’m unfazed by earthly things like suffering!”
No… To say the least, Paul’s profound spiritual experience did not insulate him from his “thorn.” Our profound spiritual experiences, if we’ve had them, don’t insulate us, either! God doesn’t want them to!
Because—and here’s the hard part… because our thorns are good for us!
And on that note, we need to ask, where do our thorns come from? Paul gives us a hint in verse 7:
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.
So… the first thing that needs to be said is, the thorn is from Satan—“a messenger of Satan to harass me.” But not so fast… If Paul was in danger of becoming “conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations,” why should the devil care? The Bible says that “Pride goeth before destruction, and [a] haughty spirit before a fall.”4 Why would the devil do anything to prevent that from happening to Paul? He loves our sinful pride!
It’s not in Satan’s interest to prevent Paul from becoming conceited. It is in God’s interest, however.
So do you see what’s happening? The thorn came from Satan. He’s attacking Paul with the thorn. The idea originated in the devil’s mind. The thorn is evil. It’s bad! But the good news is, that’s not all the thorn is! Not in God’s hands, it isn’t!
The good news is, God is using that thorn and transforming that thorn, that evil, awful thing from the devil… into something that will be for Paul’s ultimate good!
And it is not hard for God to pull this off, either! After all, if God can take the worst evil the world has ever seen—which is the death of God’s Son Jesus on the cross—and transform it into the greatest good the world has ever seen—which is salvation for everyone who believes in God’s Son Jesus—then of course God can take all the lesser forms of evil and suffering that we face and transform them into something good for us! This is not hard for God to do… And God’s Word promises that God will do it!5
So… When we trust in Christ, things are never what they seem… They’re always better than they seem… And God will transform even the worst things that happen to us into something good.
Now let me finish by saying a few things about prayer…
First, is there anything wrong with Paul’s prayer, pleading with the Lord to “remove” the thorn? Not at all! There is absolutely nothing wrong in asking Jesus to remove things that cause pain and suffering—for ourselves or others… We ought to pray that way, and we ought to believe that God can and sometimes will say ‘yes’ to those prayers. I suspect that for many Christians, these are the most commonly prayed prayers—certainly in church.
But God will still—sometimes or often—say, “no,” as he does to Paul. The Lord refuses to take away the thorn.
But notice: the Lord doesn’t just say no to Paul. He says, in so many words, “If I said ‘yes’ to your plea to take away this thorn, that would prevent this better thing from happening. I want something better for you, Paul, than you can even imagine or ask for! So that’s why I’m telling you ‘no’ this time. I’m saying ‘no’ so I can say ‘yes’ to something better!”
And what is this “better thing” for Paul? The “better thing” is humility, greater dependence on Jesus… greater trust in Jesus. And, finally, as a result of greater humility and trust in Jesus, this better thing greater power through him for his life and ministry. Because my power is made perfect in weakness.
In other words, the Lord is saying, “There are things I want to accomplish through you and your ministry, Paul, that I can only accomplish if I empty you of your pride, your ego, your selfishness—and this thorn is the best way to do that! You have to trust me on that!”
As far as the Lord is concerned, therefore, more humility, more faith, and greater spiritual power are better than things like physical health and comfort; they’re better than safety and security; they’re better than the absence of pain or emotional turmoil.
Between you and me, I’m not so sure I agree with God about this. How about you? I’m tempted to say, “You know what, God? I could live with a little extra pride in myself if it meant having more comfort in this world. I’d be willing to make that sacrifice!” Or “I could stand trusting in Jesus just a little less if it meant having more earthly treasure—you know, things like money, recognition, romantic love, popularity, worldly success. I think I could live with that, Lord! I’d be willing to make that trade-off!” Or “I’d take a little less spiritual power, Lord, if it means more worldly power! Spiritual power doesn’t put food on my table or gas in my tank!”
Well, of course I would be tempted to say that! What do I know? I am filled with sin!
But notice what Paul says in verse 10: “For the sake of Christ, then, I am content…” For the sake of Christ! If we are living for the sake of career, we will never be content. Or for the sake of family… or romantic relationships… or for the sake of fame and fortune and reputation… or for the sake of my hobbies. Living for the sake of anything other than Christ will never bring contentment! In fact, nothing Paul says here will make sense if we’re unwilling to live for the sake of Christ!
What I know for sure—in spite of my sin—is that nothing I’ve tried so far has helped me to be content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. What I know is that my way isn’t working very well, so maybe I should try it God’s way for a change!
My problem is, I’m not good at volunteering to do it God’s way, so God sometimes has to send me “thorns” to force me to do it his way!
My point is, it doesn’t matter what I want… God wants something better for me than I want for myself.
You’ve probably heard that old cliché about prayer. When we pray, God always answers our prayers. And he always either says, “yes,” “no,” or what? Wait.
Based on today’s scripture, I think I would modify that a little bit.
It’s not so much that the Lord says “yes,” or “no,” or “wait.” Based on Paul’s experience, it’s more like the Lord says “yes” or “no.” But he only says no because he’s got something better for you.”
If you’re a child of God through faith in Christ, and God is telling you no… it’s only because he’s got something better for you!
Heavenly Father, give us the faith to to believe that!