Epistle for the 19th Sunday After Pentecost
2 Cor. 11:31-12:9
In the Epistle reading for today, Apostle Paul discloses to us the heights and depths of the Christian life – and, in doing so, he reveals to us that it is not so much the heights of visions and revelations that strengthen and grow the Christian, it is through the depths of the inglorious daily struggles and tribulations that God builds His servants.
Apostle Paul writes, “I will come to visions and revelations of the Lord… I know a man who was caught up into Paradise and heard inexpressible words, which it is not lawful for a man to utter. This man he speaks of is himself and he reveals to us here how he was caught up into heaven and heard inexpressible words. Such heavenly experiences were not singular in his life, Apostle Paul was undoubtedly a saintly and deeply spiritual man… one to whom Christ revealed Himself directly and, following this life-changing event, a man who dedicated himself wholly to the Lord and to preaching the Gospel of Christ.
But Apostle Paul knows and teaches us that it is not right for him to boast of such things, for to do so would be the way of a fool. “But I refrain,” he says, “lest anyone should think of me above what he sees me to be or hears from me.” While God may reveal something of Himself through visions and revelations to some, this must not be thought of as something to which we would aspire. Indeed, approaching the spiritual life like an American consumer, shopping around for pleasing spiritual experiences, is a dangerous mentality that will lead us to ruin. Our approach to the spiritual life must be one of simple and humble gratitude to God – accepting whatever God sends our way, whether consolations and encouragements or trials and tribulations.
Apostle Paul tells us that, “lest I should be exalted above measure by the abundance of the revelations, a thorn in the flesh was given to me, a messenger of Satan to buffet me, lest I be exalted above measure.” He reveals to us now that God had burdened him with something, some kind of ‘thorn in the flesh’ that served to humble him down and caused him to struggle. Apostle Paul, like any of us who are suffering from some burden – (whether it be illness, debt, temptations, etc.), begged God to take this trouble away from him. He writes, “Concerning this thing I pleaded with the Lord three times that it might depart from me. And He said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness.’
What is revealed here is extremely important for us to recognize and understand. Apostle Paul pleaded with God three times to take from him his struggles and temptations and the Lord responded to him, saying ‘No, I will not take this burden from you… My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness.’
How often do we feel that we are being punished by God or that God must not be hearing our prayers when we are in the midst of some problems or down in some rut and there seems to be no relief or end to our struggles? Well, sometimes this is true… sometimes God does take corrective action to turn us around by putting some obstacles in our path of self absorption. Quite often, these obstacles and sorrows will awaken us and get us back on the right track… and the problem, having served its purpose for the correction of our life, will be resolved. But it is also sometimes the case that God places obstacles and struggles in our life to teach us weakness, to continually remind us of the sufficiency of His grace.
Apostle Paul pleaded with God to remove his burden, but the Lord taught him that this ‘thorn in his side’ was for his spiritual perfecting. And Paul, responds in this way, “Therefore most gladly I will rather boast in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in needs, in persecutions, in distresses, for Christ’s sake, for when I am weak, then I am strong.” This is the lesson for us to learn… that our trials and tribulations are not things that get in the way of our spiritual life. Our trials and our tribulations are precisely the tools that mold us and strengthen us in our spiritual life!
We must exercise great patience and great trust in the Lord amid sufferings, amid sorrows, amid temptations and frustrations. It is perfectly reasonable to ask the Lord to take these troubles away from us, but we must not be tempted to judge God or doubt God if He chooses to continue to shape us through sufferings.
Apostle Paul, who in today’s Epistle reveals to us his vision and experience of the glories of God, as well as his sufferings, tells us in his letter to the Romans, “the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed to us.” Apostle Paul knows of what he speaks when he makes this comparison… for he patiently endured the lifelong suffering of his ‘thorn in the flesh’, his persistent struggle and temptation, and he was also granted the revelation of the glories of heaven.
May we lean upon God in our sorrows and temptations. Seeking His help to relieve us of these burdens, but also having the trust and the love for God to accept things if He sees fit to shape us into the Christians He wants us to be through these burdens. Let us, along with Apostle Paul, “run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.”