The Believer's Resource
(Read 2 Cor. 12:1-10)
It is not what Paul's "thorn in the flesh" might be, nor the nature of the revelations he received in "the third heaven," nor whether he subsequently wrote what he tells us it was "not possible for a man to utter," that I would now consider; but a point of far more practical importance, namely, the conditions on which the grace and strength of Christ are imparted to believers for their daily walk and service.
When the question of salvation is in view, one does not speak of conditions--for it is God's grace to sinners; but when it is the believer's walk with God, it is otherwise. Here there are conditions. If it be as to the certainty of divine knowledge, it is "If any one desire to practise His will, he shall know concerning the doctrine, whether it is of God;" or if it be the sustainment of the soul in trial, or the impartation of strength for service, it is, "My grace is sufficient for thee, for My strength is made perfect in weakness." For, if the apostle's case was special as to revelations and the necessary counterbalance of a thorn in the flesh and the buffetings of Satan's messenger, the principle which it brings out, in the Lord's answer to his thrice-repeated supplication for the removal of the cause of his trouble, is absolute and universal.
There are two points in this answer: first, the entire sufficiency of Christ's grace to meet the exigency; and, second, the conditions on which alone that grace is imparted. Now, the grace of the Lord Jesus is the only sufficiency of a Christian. "The flesh profiteth nothing." Yet Christians often act as if they themselves were sufficient for everything, except to meet some great trial, or to cope with some great difficulty, which drives them to their knees, and forces them to acknowledge their weakness, and to seek for Christ's strength.
This was not, however, the case with the apostle. He habitually leant upon that grace, and not on his own strength. He says, "we are not sufficient of ourselves, to think anything as of ourselves, but our sufficiency is of God." His ordinary course was not to go on, like many, in the spirit of neglectful unconscious independence, until some crisis in his experience, or his circumstances, made him feel his dependence, and turn to the source of his strength. But even he had to learn that there was a fuller sufficiency in Christ's grace than he had ever yet experienced, or even imagined. His crushing trial drove him to the Lord as his only resource, and the intensity of his feelings is seen in his earnest prayer for deliverance; but he had no thought of a grace that could sustain under it and make it an occasion for the fuller display of Christ's glorious power.
Still, when the answer comes, it shows how simply Christ's glory was his object, and not his own ease, or credit, or anything else. We hear no more of the pricking of the thorn, nor prayer that the messenger of Satan might depart from him; but he says, "Most gladly therefore, will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me." The paradox, "When I am weak, then am I strong," by which he closes this account, shows how entirely his heart assented to the conditions of his strength, and how thoroughly he had learned the force of that word, "My grace is sufficient for thee, for My strength is made perfect in weakness."
And how many practical lessons are to be drawn from this narration! In the first place, it is manifest that the higher we reach in heavenly things, the lower it will put us in the estimation of ourselves and in our condition as to this world. He who was highest of all in heavenly glory and heavenly worth was lowest of all in earthly circumstances and human estimation. "I am a worm and no man," was His declaration in the hour of His sorrow; and "the Son of Man hath not where to lay His head," shows the condition in which He pursued this earthly service. But even in this, He is our example. "Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus, who being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God but made Himself of no reputation, and took upon Him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men: and being found in fashion as a man, He humbled Himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross" (Phil. 2:5-8).
And if Paul was taken to "the third heaven," where none but himself had ever been, his heavenly elevation must be balanced by a corresponding earthly depression; or else he would not have been able to use this token of the Lord's favor for anything but self-exaltation, which is but to corrupt from its true end what Christ bestows. Hence the necessity of the flesh being mortified in proportion as spiritual advances are made. If I enter into the truth, practically, of being "risen with Christ," the other side of the question is, "mortify therefore your members which are upon the earth." A ship must be ballasted in proportion to the sail she carries, or she will inevitably be capsized. In the school of Christ, the spirit is taught, on the one hand; and the flesh is scourged into submission, on the other; and the proof of advancement in the knowledge of Christ is found in increasing distrust of self.
In the next place, it rebukes that vanity of mind which esteems everything of little worth which cannot be displayed for the admiration of others. The mere reference to what he had been taught as to "visions and revelations of the Lord," the apostle characterizes as speaking "like a fool." They were afforded for another end than to bring himself forward. And if he could not talk about his experience in the best sense, namely, what Christ had taught him and wrought by him, without being in danger of becoming "a fool," I wonder what those are who are constantly talking about themselves in connection with what the flesh and the devil accomplish in them! Moreover, the apostle could not communicate to others what he had learned in the third heaven. The revelations were abundant, but it was "not possible to utter" them. As good not to have them, then (says the foolish heart), as not to be able to use them.
But why is it necessary for the heart to disclose all its treasures, like Hezekiah to the ambassadors of the king of Babylon? Is there nothing that Christ teaches me for myself? Must I count that as nothing which I cannot vainly show to others, or even use for the edification of others? Why should I hinder Christ from giving me a "white stone, and in the stone a new name written, which no man knoweth save he which receiveth it?"
But the non-removal of the thorn in the flesh, moreover, teaches us the folly of thinking a change of circumstances, or the removal of trial, necessary to one's service for Christ. If we want to shine ourselves, circumstances of trial will hinder our shining; and Christ sends them for the very end that we might not shine. But if we want Christ's grace to shine, that will shine most by means of the very trial and difficulty we may have longed to get removed. "My grace is sufficient for thee; for My strength is made perfect in weakness!" And this was to bring out in the apostle, "Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in necessities, in persecutions, in distresses for Christís sake: for when I am weak, then am I strong." Circumstances may have their effect on our own spirits, but, unless they are sinful (and then we must get out of them), they are certainly no hindrance to God's Spirit. A man may feel his hands to be always dirty in the world's service, and yet if he leans on Christ's grace, which is sufficient for him, he may have his heart always clean for the enjoyment of Christ, and for the service of Christ. Such a man serves Christ in his daily toil; and if he cannot always be reading and praying, he may, nevertheless, be always in communion.
A mother, with half a dozen children which occupy her hands through the day, and often keep her awake through the night, cannot serve Christ as she sees, perhaps, some others; but if she owns Christ in her circumstances, and hangs on His grace, while she is rocking one child in the cradle with her foot, and mending the clothes of another with her hands, she may have her heart fed by the hidden manna from Christ's own hand, and serve Him, whom she loves, more effectually than if she had all her time to herself, and thus felt less the necessity of the injunction, "Gird up the loins of your mind, be sober and hope to the end."
I want no change of circumstances, nor removal of trials, to enable me to pursue Christ's service; I only want to know the truth, practically, of the word, "My grace is sufficient for thee, for My strength is made perfect in weakness." But then the sense of weakness, which alone makes room for Christ's strength, is what nature always shrinks from. "I am so weak," is often on the lips of Christians; and it often means that they expect strength in themselves instead of in Christ; or that they have hitherto leant on a strength which has now broken down. In either case, they have yet to learn the solution of the enigma, "When I am weak, then am I strong." A Christian ought always to feel himself so weak as to dread to undertake anything in his own sufficiency; and yet so strong in Christ as to be able to accomplish everything through His grace. The sense of weakness, from which nature shrinks, is essential to the display of Christ's strength. Without it, we should neither know the extent of our dependence ourselves, nor should we use the grace communicated for the glory of Christ.
"We had the sentence of death in ourselves, that we should not trust in ourselves, but in God which raiseth the dead." "Not that we are sufficient of ourselves to think anything as of ourselves; but our sufficiency is of God." "He giveth power to the faint; and to them that have no might He increaseth strength. Even the youths shall faint and be weary, and the young men shall utterly fall: but they that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run, and not be weary; and they shall walk, and not faint."(Isaiah 40:29-31.)--excerpted from "Girdle of Truth" (available from Present Truth Publishers)