Where does suffering come from? That has been the age-old question that has plagued us since the fall of Adam and Eve. A friend once complained to me that God was the cause of all her loneliness because He could change her condition in a moment and give her a husband. I always wondered how that would happen, should God just conger up a man out of thin air for her. It always amazes me that our expectations of God are a bit like waiting for Santa Clause on Christmas Eve. We expect God to unload a sleigh load of gifts at our feet and if He doesn’t deliver then we walk away from God. Jesus told the Pharisees, “this people honors me with their lips but their heart is far from me;” Mark 7: 6b
I think we have become very good at saying we are Christians when things go our way and we have become very self-centered when things don’t go our way. Our expectations regarding God may need a bit of an overhaul. Paul faced so many challenges in his ministry and overcame so many obstacles that we sometimes think that he had a constitution made of steel. He writes, “Are they servants of Christ? I am a better one-I am talking like a madman-with far greater labors, far more imprisonments, with countless beatings, and often near death. Five times I have received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. Three times I have been shipwrecked; a night and a day I have been adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brethren, in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure.” 2 Corinthians 11: 23 – 27 Paul had given his all for the ministry never retreating from his commission or finding fault with God. Yet, there was something that Paul longed to have changed in his life, and he talked to God about it.
In 2 Corinthians chapter 12 we read these words, “And to keep me from being too elated 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. 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.’” (verses 7-9) WOW! That is not the answer you would expect from God for a man of Paul’s caliber. Paul had seen miracles, observed signs and wonders, had a Spirit led ministry, established church’s under unbelievable conditions, suffered and lived constantly harassed by Christian legalists and Jewish authorities alike. All he wanted in exchange was for this “thorn in the flesh” to be removed. No one knows what the thorn was, though some commentators speculate that it involved his poor eyesight. I wonder if it wasn’t the constant struggle against the “false brethren” who followed him everywhere undermining his ministry of grace. Regardless of the problem, God’s answer was “no” to removing the thorn from Paul’s life.
Paul acknowledges that this problem was not from God, he says it was, “a messenger of Satan, to harass me, to keep me from being too elated.” (verse 7) So many Christians, when they face hardship, are all too willing to place the blame on God. It is easy to forget that suffering and pain are the result of Satan’s work in the world and not God’s. But this acknowledgment leads to the question, “if Satan is bothering me with afflictions then why doesn’t God remove them because He is more powerful than Satan?” From the text it seems Paul went that route, but God’s answer was a simple, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” (verse 9)
Here’s a question for us; what is more important in our lives, that a physical ailment is taken away from us, or, that God’s grace is sufficient? In the note on these verses in the Harper Study Bible that I sometimes use are these words, “One thing about it is plain enough: Paul regarded it (thorn) as having come from Satan, yet he recognized God had permitted it to come into his life and intended to use it for His own glory. It was in the midst of the weakness resulting from this affliction that the power of God was able to manifest itself most conspicuously. It always has been so, Christians in every age find God’s sustaining power greater than Satan’s ability to afflict them and cast them down.”
Paul’s thorn’s come from Satan and through those afflictions God’s perfect will and grace is made manifest. Anyone can follow God when everything goes well, but it is the trust in the mercy, grace and love of God that caries us through the hard times. As Christians we might think God owes us for following Him, but the reality is we owe God. Spiritual growth is learning to trust God through the storms of life. It is when we can continue to trust regardless of the circumstances that the glory of God is manifested to the world. No, I don’t have the answer to suffering, but I do know that it never comes from God and His grace is sufficient to see us through. God’s plans and leadings are not necessarily our plans, but His love is eternal and He proved it on the cross. I’ve stopped trying to question why God does what He does. I am trying to accept God’s sufficient grace for my life and rejoice in His saving power. And maybe someday I can say with Paul, “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: 10