“Brothers and sisters: That I , Paul, might not become too elated, because of the abundance of the revelations, a thorn in the flesh was given to me, an angel of Satan, to beat me, to keep me from being too elated. Three times I begged the Lord about this, that it might leave me, but he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” I will rather boast most gladly of my weaknesses, in order that the power of Christ may dwell with me. Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and constraints, for the sake of Christ; for when I am weak, then I am strong.” (II Corinthians 12:7-10)
Paul is writing here to a Corinthian church that is in virtual rebellion against him and his leadership. After he left Corinth several “superlative apostles” arrived in town discounting Paul ( which was fairly easy to do since Paul had never spoken of his own greatness but only of the Lord’s) and bragging about themselves ( telling of the greatness of their visions, revelations, and exploits). Comparatively, Paul must have come off a sad second best.
For that reason Paul felt himself forced to defend his apostleship by playing their game- telling the Corinthians of his own visions, revelations, and exploits so that they might know he was “not the least inferior to these ‘superlative apostles’”. He was loath to do so because his mission was to represent Christ, not himself, and his motto was “Let him who boasts, boast of the Lord.” His anguish in being forced to brag is painfully evident in almost every verse of Chapters 10-12. Nevertheless, he does “brag”, but not for his sake but for Christ’s and the Gospel’s:
“I wish you would bear with me in a little foolishness. Do bear with me! I feel a divine jealousy for you, for I betrothed you to Christ to present you as a pure bride to her one husband. But I am afraid that as the serpent deceived Eve by his cunning , your thoughts will be led astray from a sincere and pure devotion to Christ. For if someone comes and preaches another Jesus than the one we preached, or if you receive a different spirit from the one you received, or if you accept a different gospel than the one you accepted, you submit to it readily enough. I think that I am not in the least inferior to these ‘superlative apostles’. Even if I am unskilled in speaking, I am not in Knowledge; in every way we have made this plain to you in all things.” (11:1-6)
Even so, by the end of this passage, after telling of one of his most striking spiritual elevations, Paul could stand it no more and felt compelled to say it clearly:
“But it’s not about me, it’s about Jesus and His grace. It is by the grace of God I am what I am! Everything is by his grace! And lest I forget that, God gave me reminders of my weakness without him [the “thorn in the flesh” but also every weakness of speech and manner the Corinthians saw]. It’s about His grace. I can’t forget that. And don’t you forget it either!” (paraphrase)
And neither should we.
As we grow in our spiritual life, as we serve more and more, as we accomplish greater things for God, our fallen human nature tends toward taking more and more of the credit and, eventually, trying to do more and more on our own so we can get the credit. We begin doing things more FOR Jesus than WITH and THROUGH Him. Sadly, the result is the demise of our own soul and the diminishing and souring of all we do. No wonder Paul was thankful for those gifts of weakness in his life. They are what reminded him of his need for grace.
There are two verses which have helped me immeasurably with this problem. The first is from John 15 where Jesus says :
“I am the vine and you are the branches. He who abides in me, and I in him, he it is who bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing”.(v 5)
The second is from Philippians:
“I can do all things through Him (Christ) who strengthens me.”(4:13)
Notice two things in both. First of all, neither disparages the human role in accomplishing God’s work. We are the ones who cooperate with him to do things: “he it is who bears much fruit” and “I can do all things”. Nevertheless, the motivation, inspiration, strength, and effectiveness all come from Christ and so to Him belongs the far greater credit: “He who abides in me, he it is who bears much fruit” and “I can do all things through Him (Christ) who strengthens me.” In both, the greater honor goes to Jesus, and must lest we in our vanity, seizing the credit, cut ourselves off from the source of our effectiveness in all we do.
For our own soul’s sake, for God’s sake, and for the sake of the world let us never forget that it is only “Through Him, with Him, and in Him” that we are effective. The greater credit, the greater glory always belongs to him. Therefore, let us “abide in Him” and always, always, so that we do not stray, “Let him who boasts, boast of the Lord.”
Fred Durham is the President of Alighieri Press and serves as an author and speaker.