A Song Born Out Of Difficulty
II Corinthians 12:1-10
I want to read for you from Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians, the twelfth chapter. And I’m going to begin reading at the seventh verse. Here is what Paul says, and it is, in fact, the Word of God. “And to keep me from being too elated” – the word there really means conceited – “To keep me from being too conceited by the abundance of revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from being too elated, too conceited. Three times, I besought 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.’ Well, I will all the more gladly boast of my weaknesses, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, calamities for when I am weak, then I am strong.”
Soli Deo gloria. To God alone be the glory.
Let us pray. Now may the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, oh God, our rock and our Redeemer. Amen.
Tucked securely away in a corner of my heart, there is a perfectly beautiful verse written by the poet Shelley. It goes like this: “Our sincerest laughter with some pain is fraught. Our sweetest songs are those which tell of saddest thought.” Now, if what Shelly says is true – and I believe it is – then one of the sweetest songs ever to come from the pen of the Apostle Paul is found right here in the twelfth chapter of II Corinthians. It is a song born out of difficulty.
Remember, please, that Paul was a very tough, very positive, very dynamic man. And it’s always very hard for people like that to be able to share something of their weaknesses, something of their saddest thoughts, and yet here it is. This page in II Corinthians, which is so tender and so intimate that it can best be read only when there is quiet all about us for here, Paul opens up his heart to us and says, “I had a thorn in the flesh.”
For centuries, scholars have debated as to just what that thorn may have been. Tertullian, one of the great heroes of the early Christian church, declared that Paul’s problem was that he had chronic earache and that periodically, that earache would flare up and would upset his equilibrium, causing his sense of balance to go out of kilter, and he would be afflicted with times of dizziness and would even suffer serious falls.
John Calvin. John Calvin said that Paul’s problem was the guilt for his past, and let’s remember that Paul did consent to the stoning death of Steven. Paul did attack the early Christians with uncompromised zeal. And Calvin says Paul just never could get beyond the terrible guilt for his past.
Martin Luther declared that Paul’s problem was one of depression. Now, we know now that sometimes at least depression can be caused by a chemical imbalance within and can be rather readily treated, but of course, they knew nothing like that then, and so perhaps it’s true. Perhaps Paul did suffer from depression. Perhaps he was laid low periodically by deep, deep depression.
Some scholars have suggested that Paul was an epileptic and that occasionally, he was stricken by terrible seizures that incapacitated him. Still, others have suggested that after the Damascus Road experience – you remember the great blinding light – that after that experience, Paul spent the rest of his life with serious eye trouble and with migraine headaches. And any of you who have ever experienced those kinds of headaches, well, you know what it would have been like to stand up and try to preach the Word of God with your head pounding, pounding, pounding. Maybe that was his problem.
Still, others have suggested that Paul contracted malaria that was rather common in those days in the Mediterranean world, and that it would have been a chronically recurring condition that would frequently have given him serious illness. Yep.
Do you know, for all of the speculation, we do not know precisely what painful infirmity Paul had to face in his life? But we know this: it got in his way. He called it a messenger of Satan. It harassed him. That’s what he says. It disturbed him. It drained him. He found that it diminished his joy in the service of Jesus Christ. As a matter of fact, he says it even threatened to undermine his ministry before he finished his course. It wore away at him all of the time. And, you know, because we too face difficulties in our lives, because we too encounter sufferings in our journey through life, maybe it will help us to look at this tender, intimate page, this song born out of difficulty.
The first thing I want to say to you is this: Paul asked God to remove the thorn.
Now, that’s an important point. You and I both know people, some people, who when they encounter suffering in life, immediately give in to the circumstances. They run up the white flag of surrender first thing. And if they don’t do that, some of them at least give themselves over to a kind of morbid sentimentality like that woman of whom it was said she enjoyed ill health. As we know people who in the face of suffering and difficulty either surrender to the circumstances or in some strange, twisted way, take delight in their circumstances, that’s not Paul. No. Paul wasn’t like that at all. No. Paul prayed to God to remove the thorn. He says, “Three times, I besought the Lord about this, that it might leave me, three times.” Now, understand, please, that that does not mean that on one day in particular, Paul sat down and shot three little prayers up to Heaven. That’s not what it says at all. No. In the original language, the meaning is quite clear. It says that three times, Paul withdrew from everything else for extended periods of time to give himself to intensive prayer. Not once, not twice, but three times, he pulled apart and focused all of his energy and all of his effort and all of his attention on asking God to remove that thorn, three times.
There was a great violinist once who had a daughter who took up the study of that instrument, but not from her father, from another teacher. And when this 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. And so to anyone who experiences difficulty or suffering in life, I would say this: first, remember Paul. Remember that the first thing Paul did, pray long and hard, he says, that God would remove that thorn. And yet – and I want this truth to pierce your heart today – yet when the thorn was not removed, still, Paul would not surrender.
And that leads me to the second thing that I want to say to you today. It’s this: Paul then asked God to use the thorn.
See, Paul came to understand that out of his own suffering, God, by His power, would be able to bring a victory. And you and I know perfectly well that great things in life are never accomplished without cost. We know that. Beethoven could write magnificent music, but the splendors of the Ninth Symphony could never be his until after he had suffered deafness. Milton could write beautiful poetry, but the majesty of Paradise Lost could never flow from his heart until after he was stricken blind. George Frederick Handel was poverty-stricken and partially paralyzed, and yet the Word of God was planted so deeply in his pain that it would not let him go. And so as a result of that word planted deep within him, he sat down in pain, and for 24 straight days, night and day, stopping only for an occasional catnap, 24 straight days, he wrote, and the result, we know it, Handel’s Messiah, song born out of difficulty. Out of the suffering, there comes the victory. That’s God’s way.
God says no one will ever sneak into the Kingdom of Heaven by following any road except the road which leads through pain and suffering and conflict. That’s because if faith meant that everything would then be transformed into a bed of roses, well, then everybody would have faith, and all for the wrong reasons. So God says suffering is going to be the road you will know. But then God doesn’t leave it there. He goes on to say, “But if you offer your pain and your suffering to me, I will bring from it a victory.” That’s what He did for Paul. Make no mistake about that. That’s what He did for Paul. Paul asked God to remove the thorn, and 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.”
Hoo. We’re onto something very important here. It’s so important. You’ve got to learn that verse. You’ve got to write it indelibly on your hearts. You’ve got to do – if you don’t do anything else, you’ve got to do that. You’ve got to learn. I’m going to ask you to say it with me. “My grace is sufficient for you.” Come on. Say it with me. I need to hear you. Say it out loud where I can hear it. Say it. “My grace is sufficient for you.” That’s good. Do it again. We got to learn it. “My grace is sufficient for you.” “My grace is sufficient for you.”
And God’s grace was sufficient for Paul for God, by His grace, took that thorn in the flesh and like an oyster – you know the oyster. The oyster feels a grain of sand grinding away down inside, giving him pain and agony. And so what does the oyster do? He proceeds to secrete a solution that surrounds that grain of sand. And ultimately, the pain of the grain is transformed into a priceless pearl. That’s what God did. God took Paul’s thorn in the flesh, and by the power of His grace, he transformed Paul. He transformed Paul from a tough, harsh, brusque, conceited man into a sensitive, loving, power-filled disciple of Jesus Christ. “My grace is sufficient for you.”
And it’s little wonder then that writing here years later, Paul says, “I am glad for this weakness because in my suffering, the power of Christ rested upon me. Out of the suffering came the victory.”
And that leads me then to the third thing that I would say to you today. It’s this: what happened to Paul can happen to us.
So what is it for you? What is your weakness? What is it that you would call your thorn in the flesh? What is it that gets in the way of your service to Jesus Christ? What is it that you use to justify being half-hearted in the cause of Christ in the world? What is it of which you say, “Oh. If only the Lord would remove that, then I’d be faithful”? What is it for you? What is your weakness, your thorn in the flesh? What is it that gets in the way for you? Whatever it is, ask God to remove it. But if it stays, then offer it to God and ask Him to use it. And if you do that, then you are going to hear whispering down in your heart, the voice of God saying, “My grace is sufficient for you, for My power is going to be revealed in your weakness.”
I know what you’re thinking. You’re saying to yourself, “That’s not the way life works. Come on, preacher. Power is not revealed in weakness. Power is revealed in strength. The powerful are strong, and the strong are powerful. That’s the way life really is. If you’re going to be powerful in life, you got to be strong. That’s the way power gets revealed, through strength, not through weakness.” You’re absolutely wrong. You’re wrong because, my friends, the greatest power, the power of Almighty God, is not revealed through strength. The greatest power of all is revealed through human weakness. And I can prove that. I can prove it by letting you see some friends of mine who are living proof.
There is Heyward McDonald. He’s a friend of mine in Columbia, South Carolina. I hope that one of these days, I’m going to be able to get him down here to speak to you. I want you to know him and love him the way I do. He’s a graduate of the United States Naval Academy, and he was well on the way up the chain of command in the United States Navy. And then one day, by accident, I suppose, he was inoculated with an unsterilized needle. He contracted polio and lost the total use of his legs. He gets about now on crutches. And when he goes up the steps, he has to go up the steps backwards. He has to plant his crutches firmly on the ground and then somehow lever his useless legs up one step at a time, always backwards. He wanted to go into politics, and they said no one who has to back up the stairs will ever win. He didn’t let that stop him, and he won. And today, he is one of the most respected, one of the most powerful men in the senate of the State of South Carolina. And you know what he says about his disability? He says, “It has made me a stronger man, but more to the point,” he says, “it has made me a more effective Christian witness.” Heyward McDonald, God’s grace is sufficient for you. His power is being revealed in your weakness.
There is Daniel Berry. He’s a Presbyterian minister in Virginia. Daniel Berry is blind, has been blind from early childhood. I asked him to come preach for me once when I was serving a church in Arkansas. Just before the service, he asked me if I would take him into the sanctuary. I did. He said, “Are there columns in this room?” I said, “Yes. There are.” He said, “Are the columns in proportion to the room?” I said, “Yes. They are.” He said, “Take me to one of the columns.” I took him to one of the columns, and there, he pressed himself up right against the column. And with his arms, he reached around that column just as far as he could reach. And then, very quickly in his mind, he calculated the length of that sanctuary. He said it was important for him to do that because then when he was in the pulpit, he would know how and where to project his voice. And not only that, he said, “It will help my eye contact with the congregation.” And he laughed – he’s blind – and he said, “You know, a preacher has to have good eye contact with the congregation. Well, that will help me to have good eye contact.” And that Sunday morning as he stood in the pulpit of that church, blind – by the way, we measured the sanctuary later. He missed it by nine inches, blind, and yet standing there helping God’s people to see Jesus. And I thought as I looked at him, “Daniel Berry, God’s grace is sufficient for you. His power is being revealed in your weakness.
And there is Dr. John Stewart. He’s young, and he’s got a beautiful wife who’s here this morning, and he’s got two marvelous children. And he’s brilliant. He’s got a mind that’s light-years ahead of most of us, and he’s got a heart as big as all outdoors, and he’s got a faith as deep as the deepest sea, had a brain tumor, surgery, radiation, more surgery, more radiation, still growing. Now he’s lost the use of one side of his body, and now he’s lost the ability to talk except just a word. But his faith has only grown stronger. And I tell you, he’s preaching the gospel from his bed, just one word at a time, just one smile at a time, just one touch with that good hand at a time. And people are responding to the Christ they see living so powerfully in him. I know because I am one of those people. And John Stewart, I know you’re watching this sermon on television, and I want you to hear it. I want to say it where everybody can hear it. I want to say to you, God’s grace is sufficient for you. His power, His power, John, is being revealed in your weakness.
So, I hadn’t intended to do this, but I must. Today, yes, I must. There is also Sarah Boone Hill. She knew terrible suffering from early childhood, but that never kept her from bringing light and joy to her family. And her body was terribly twisted, but that only made her spirit all the more beautiful. Not very long ago, cancer struck. It was just too much. She couldn’t fight it off. And last Friday, at age fourteen, she died, and we shall bury her tomorrow from this sanctuary. But I’m not going to forget her, and I don’t want you to forget her either. And when I think of her, I think of all the times I’ve seen her right in the midst of all of our young people in this church, those young people so full of life and health and bouncing energy, so beautiful to behold, and right in the midst of them, there was Sarah Boone unable to run and jump and shout with the rest of them, but always there, always a Heaven-sent reminder that life in Christ is more than physical health and vitality. There in the midst of them, always this special one whose presence somehow made the whole group holy. And every time I saw her there, something down inside me said, “Sarah Boone, His grace is sufficient for you. His power is being revealed in your weakness.”
I started out to talk to you about what we do in the face of the sufferings and the difficulties that come in life, and all I know to do is to tell you to do what Paul did: ask God to remove the thorn, whatever it is, but if the thorn remains, then ask God to use it. When you do that, if you listen, you’re going to hear, ringing down from Heaven itself, the Word of Almighty God, “My grace, My grace is sufficient for you. I will reveal My power through your weakness.”
Let us pray. Almighty God, let us stand on Christ the solid rock that we may stand in the midst of this life with all its trials and tribulations, but more than that, that we may leap from that rock ultimately into the Kingdom of Heaven itself. Through Jesus Christ our Lord, amen.