Parents in every culture can relate to this common sequence…
- The child makes an urgent and impassioned request.
- Due to the experience and perspective gained by higher mileage on planet earth, the parent knows that what the child is requesting is not in the child’s best interest.
- The parent says NO to the request, disappointing and frustrating the child.
- The child pushes back.
- If the relationship is functional, the parent uses this NO to guide the child into a better alternative, a better YES. In effect, the parent is saying, “No, but….”
- The child usually cannot appreciate the wisdom of this “No, but…” response until the child becomes a parent and must dance to the same tune.
God goes through this sequence with us all the time.
2 Corinthians 12:2-10 finds Paul the apostle defending himself. Paul spent years of his life traveling throughout the Roman Empire, introducing Christ to a diverse mixture of people who had no exposure to the Gospel. They also were not Jewish. During these journeys Paul was at odds with a group of people called legalists. Legalism is the name for any brand of Christianity that decides God’s grace and our faith are not enough, that a surplus of do’s and don’ts must be added to the life of faith in order for that life to pass inspection. The legalists, of course, are the self-appointed inspectors.
A pack of these legalists (called Judaizers) followed Paul from place to place. When the Judaizers entered a town or city Paul had just left, they would locate the brand new Christians and ask them what Paul had taught them. When the brand new Christians answered by describing the breathtaking simplicity of relationship with Jesus, the Judaizers would sadly shake their heads and tell them Paul had left out some important information. In order to follow Christ, these brand new Christian also had to start living by Jewish laws. Grace and faith were not enough. The Judaizers tried to convince these new Christ-followers that Paul was a fake and that Paul had no authority to be doing what he was doing. These legalistic Judaizers had come in the nick of time. They had come, in fact, to help the new Christians become more like Jesus AND become more like them.
In 2 Corinthians chapters 10 through 12, Paul defended himself and his calling from these opponents. Toward the end of this defense, Paul enhanced his credibility by recalling an ecstatic spiritual experience. Years earlier Paul found himself swept into the highest heaven, in the very presence of Almighty God. During this heavenly encounter, God confided in Paul! In order to counterbalance this ecstatic experience and in order to prevent Paul from developing an over-inflated ego, Paul wrote that he was given what he called “a thorn in the flesh,” a chronic and harassing attack from Satan. It might have been poor eyesight. It might have been recurring malaria or epilepsy. It might have been the residual effects of being stoned to death and surviving. The passage’s context tells us it most certainly included the people problems referenced earlier.
God would not remove this thorn even though Paul begged God on three occasions to remove it. In essence, God responded by saying, “No, but….” The chronic condition (the thorn) was going to remain in Paul’s life because God had something better than relief in mind. God’s grace was more than enough for Paul. In fact, God’s power would show up best in and would even be fulfilled in Paul’s chronic weaknesses.
The Wuest translation renders 2 Corinthians 12:8 this way – “My grace is enough for you, for My power is moment by moment coming to its full energy and complete operation in the sphere of weakness.”
Ever the extremist, Paul reacted to this answer from God by becoming a fan of his chronic condition, boasting that when he was weak he was actually strong. Carla showed me 2 Corinthians 12:9-10 in The Voice Translation, which says, “So ask me about my thorn, inquire about my weaknesses, and I will gladly go on and on – I would rather stake my claim in these weaknesses and have the power of the Anointed One (Jesus) at home within me. I am at peace and even take pleasure in any weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and afflictions for the sake of the Anointed (Jesus) because when I am at my weakest, He makes me strong.”
Many of us contend with something I call a theology of evacuation. We come to believe God’s primary role in our lives is relief, that God is obligated to always say YES to us by getting us out of unpleasantries or by getting unpleasantries out of us. Eavesdrop in on your prayer life and you may catch yourself in the act. But with God, evacuation is more the exception than the rule. God loves us too much to give in to our emotionally charged appeals for relief. Instead of removing the hardship, God may leave the hardship in us or God may leave us in the hardship. Why? Because it is the ideal environment for God to become our strength. The sufficiency of God’s grace is the BETTER YES. With the thorn still imbedded, we discover that God’s grace is more than enough.
Isn’t Jesus Himself the ultimate example of this truth? In the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus writhed on the ground praying for evacuation three times. The Father said “NO, but….” Jesus emerged from the garden strong and proceeded to become vulnerable and helpless, all the way to an unspeakably brutal death.
God’s power was more than enough to raise Jesus from the dead. That being the case, is there any chance God might have what it takes to be more than enough for us in our area of greatest weakness?
Catholic author and speaker Brennan Manning (1934-2013) once said, “Jesus comes not for the super-spiritual but for the wobbly and the weak-kneed who know they don’t have it all together and who are not too proud to accept the handout of amazing grace.” (The NIV Ragamuffin Bible, page 1330)
Brennan Manning also said, “…the question no longer is: Can I do it? Am I able? Can I overcome my moodiness, my laziness, my sensuality, my grudges and my resentments? The only question is: Is Jesus Christ able? Can my Savior, the Lord of my life, revive my drooping spirit and transform me?” (The NIV Ragamuffin Bible, page 1331)
What are your strengths?
What are your weaknesses (or challenges)?
How do you typically handle a “no” answer?
What is your “thorn in the flesh?” Do you have more than one “thorn in the flesh?”
When has God answered your prayer with “no” in favor of a better “yes?”
What would it look like for Christ to show up strong in your greatest weakness?
What would it look like for Christ’s grace to be perfected (fulfilled) in your weaknesses?
Are you willing to embrace the miracle you were not seeking, the miracle where God gives you more grace instead of less discomfort?
Grace and peace,
Rick Jordan (www.rickcarlajordan.com, firstname.lastname@example.org)