A Provocative Church: Undaunted By Difficulty
II Corinthians 12:1-10
On this Veteran’s Day weekend, it seems an appropriate time to tell you the story behind the military bugle call we know as Taps. The melody of that bugle call is both eloquent and haunting. The words, which have been added through the years, are equally eloquent and haunting:
Day is done, Gone the sun,
From the hills, From the lake,
From the skies.
All is well, safely rest,
God is nigh.
What you may not know is that Taps was composed by General Daniel Adams Butterfield. During the height of the Civil War, in July of 1862, the Army of the Potomac was resting during a lull in the battle. Gen. Butterfield sent for his company bugler, showed him some notes he had jotted on the back of an envelope, and asked him to sound them on his bugle. General Butterfield then suggested lengthening some notes, shortening others, but retaining the basic melody as he first gave it. At the end of that day, the bugle call, Taps, was played for the first time. Its use quickly spread so that it was played not only at the end of each day, but also at military funeral ceremonies. It is not only the most beautiful of all the bugle calls, but the sounds of that music combined with the power of the words has enabled many a soldier to face the difficulties of life, serene and unafraid. All is well; safely rest; God is nigh.
Interestingly enough, in II Corinthians 12 we find eloquent and haunting words which enabled Paul, in his life, to remain undaunted by difficulty. Yes, Paul was a tough, positive, dynamic man. But he was not immune to the shattering difficulties of life. In fact, here in this passage, he opens up his heart and declares, “A thorn was given me in the flesh.”
For centuries scholars have debated as to just what that thorn may have been. Tertullian, one of the heroes of the early Church, said that Paul suffered from chronic earache which upset his equilibrium and plunged him into periods of paralyzing dizziness and disorientation. John Calvin said that Paul’s problem was unrelieved guilt for his earlier persecution of the Christians. Luther surmised that Paul battled periodic bouts of serious, debilitating depression. A few scholars have suggested that Paul suffered from seizures associated with epilepsy. Some scholars advance the theory that, after seeing the blinding light on the Damascus road, Paul spent the rest of his life with serious eye trouble and migraine headaches. Still others have suggested that Paul, in his travels, contracted malaria, and it would have been a chronically recurring condition, frequently giving him serious illness. Yet, for all that scholarly speculation, the fact is that we do not know precisely what painful difficulty Paul had to face in his life, but we know this: it got in his way. He actually called it “a messenger of Satan.” It harassed him; it disturbed him; it drained him; it diminished his joy in the service of Christ. It even threatened to undermine his ministry before he finished his course. It wore away at him all of the time.
Now, because we, too, face difficulties in our lives; because we, too, encounter sufferings in our journey through this world, maybe it will help us to look at this eloquent, haunting page in II Corinthians—this message straight from Paul’s heart.
Notice, please, that Paul first asked God to remove the thorn.
That’s an important point. You and I both know people who, when they encounter difficulty in life, immediately surrender to the circumstances. And, if they don’t do that, some of them at least give themselves over to a morbid sentimentality like the woman of whom it was said, “She enjoys ill health.” Yes, we all know people who in the face of suffering and difficulty either surrender to the circumstances or in some strange twisted way almost take delight in their circumstances. But, that’s not Paul. Paul wasn’t like that at all. Paul prayed to God to remove the thorn.
Now, I want you to see something here. Paul says, “Three times I appealed to the Lord about this, that it would leave me.” Three times. Understand, please. That does not mean that Paul whistled off three little prayers up to Heaven. No, in the original language, the meaning is clear. It says that three different times, Paul withdrew from everything and everyone else and gave himself to extended periods of intensive prayer. Not once, not twice, but three times, he pulled apart and focused all of his energy on asking God to remove that thorn. Three times.
There was a great violinist once whose daughter took up the study of that instrument not from her father, but from another teacher. When the great violinist was asked why his daughter was not taking her instruction from him, he replied, “Because she never asked.” Well, I’m convinced that our Father in Heaven has many marvelous blessings for us in this life, but we never receive them because we do not ask for them. So, to anyone who encounters difficulty in life, let me ask you to remember Paul. The first thing Paul did was to pray long and hard that God would remove that thorn.
Of course, we need to remember that God does not always give us all that we ask for. You see, God knows better what we need than we do. That’s what happened to Paul. For all of his pleading with God, the thorn was not removed. Here’s the truth I want us to see: when the thorn was not removed, Paul did not turn away from God. Paul did not surrender to the pain, but he did surrender to God. That leads me then to the second thing I want to say.
Notice that Paul then asked God to use the thorn.
Paul came to see that out of his own suffering God could and would bring a victory. It is true, isn’t it? Great things in life are never accomplished without cost. We know that. Beethoven could write magnificent music, but the splendors of the Ninth Symphony evaded him until after he had suffered deafness. Milton could write beautiful poetry, but the majesty of Paradise Lost would not flow from his heart until after he was stricken blind. George Frederick Handel was poverty stricken and partially paralyzed, yet the word of God was planted so deeply within him, that he could sit down, in great pain, and for twenty-four straight days, night and day, stopping only for an occasional catnap, he could write the matchless chords we know as Handel’s Messiah. Out of the suffering comes the victory. That’s God’s way. Out of the suffering of the cross came the victory of the resurrection. That’s God’s way.
Mark this down: no one sneaks into Heaven by any other way than that which leads through pain and suffering and difficulty. You see, if having faith in Jesus Christ meant that everything in life would be a bed of roses, then everyone would have faith and for all the wrong reasons. So, God says that suffering and difficulty will be on the road we travel, but God didn’t leave it there. He said, “But, if you offer your pain and difficulty to me, then I will bring from it a great victory.” That’s exactly what God did for Paul. Make no mistake about that. Paul asked God to remove the thorn, but when the thorn was not removed, Paul then asked God to use the thorn, and it was at that point that Paul heard the voice of God saying to him, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power will be revealed in your weakness.”
We are on to something really important here—so important, in fact, that I want you to learn that verse. I want to write it indelibly upon your hearts. I am going to ask you to say it with me. “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power will be revealed in your weakness.” And God’s grace was sufficient for Paul. You see, by His grace, God took that thorn and, well, God did with that thorn what an oyster does with a grain of sand. You know how an oyster when a grain of sand works its way inside the oyster’s shell giving that oyster pain, you know how that oyster then proceeds to secrete a thick, milky substance that surrounds that grain of sand, layer upon layer, until the pain of the grain is transformed into a priceless pearl. Just so, God took Paul’s thorn in the flesh and by the power of His grace, He transformed Paul from a tough, harsh, brusque, conceited man into a sensitive, loving, power-filled disciple of Jesus Christ. Little wonder that years later Paul would write in II Corinthians 12, “So I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Therefore, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions and calamities for the sake of Christ. For whenever I am weak, then I am strong.” Out of Paul’s suffering came Paul’s victory. Paul did not surrender to the pain, but Paul did surrender to God, and that’s why he could remain undaunted in the face of difficulty.
I started this sermon with the eloquent words and haunting melody of the bugle call, Taps. I want to end this sermon with the eloquent words and haunting melody of another song. You see, we all have difficulties in life. All I know to tell you is to do what Paul did: ask God to remove the thorn, whatever it is, but, if the thorn remains, then ask God to use that thorn. For if you do that, then you are going to hear the word of God ringing down from Heaven itself, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power will be revealed in your weakness.” In other words, do not surrender to the pain, but do surrender to God in Jesus Christ. The eloquent words of Judson W. VanDeVenter say it best:
All to Jesus I surrender. All to Him I freely give.
I will ever love and trust Him; in his presence daily live.
I surrender all. I surrender all.
All to thee, my blessed savior, I surrender all.