“The Value of Affliction for God’s Children”

(2 Corinthians 12:7-10 – Pentecost 7 – July 8, 2018)

2 Corinthians 12:7-10 – And 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. 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.” 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.

Dear beloved children of God in Jesus Christ,

Have you ever wondered why God lets Christians suffer? Why doesn’t He just make our lives in this world easier? Why do His children have to go through such trials and tribulations here before entering heaven?

In our text, as the apostle Paul speaks of his afflictions, we see that he actually came to value them highly. He says: “Therefore most gladly I will rather boast in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me… For when I am weak, then I am strong.” This is not the response we would expect to hear from one who suffers: boasting in, and even seeing strength in weakness! Yet this is the way God wants us to respond to our afflictions, as we trust His grace at work in our lives.

Let us consider “The Value of Affliction for God’s Children.” For while 1) God’s faithful people experience affliction, yet 2) Through our afflictions God works His good.

1) God’s faithful people experience affliction

What was Paul’s affliction? He says: “a thorn in the flesh was given to me.” We do not know what it was. On the basis of certain passages, some think it was a problem with his eyes. In one place he writes to loving Christians: “If possible, you would have plucked out your own eyes and given them to me” (Galatians 4:15). Again he writes: “See with what large letters I have written to you with my own hand” (Galatians 6:11). But these expressions could have just been idiomatic or used to emphasize a point. Others think Paul’s “thorn in the flesh” was a chronic health problem like malaria or epilepsy with recurring symptoms. In his letter to the Galatians, Paul reminded them that an illness had brought him to preach among them (Galatians 4:13).

Whatever Paul’s “thorn in the flesh” was, it felt sharp and painful. When he says it was given “to buffet me” it is in the continuous sense. The word carries the meaning of a beating received from a clenched fist. Paul was being tormented by a bully that would not let up. Like an annoying thorn or splinter that cannot be removed from the finger, he just had to live with it.

But Paul’s affliction was on a larger scale than that. He calls it “a messenger of Satan.” We are reminded of the afflictions of Job, a man of whom God testified: “There is none like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man, one who fears God and shuns evil” (Job 1:8). Yet, God allowed Job to suffer unspeakably for a time, pounded and bullied by the devil’s afflictions.

Satan and his messengers have a stake in trying to disprove the faith of God’s people. If Satan could disprove our faith, then he could disprove God’s power at work in us that creates and sustains our faith. Satan accused Job of trusting God only because God had been so good to him in life. “Take it all away and Job will curse You,” Satan challenged God (Job 1:11).

So also, a messenger of Satan afflicted the apostle Paul with many blows, trying to shake his God-given faith and prove it useless. Satan would have loved to discredit the power of the Gospel, which God was preaching through his faithful servant Paul. Indeed, part of Paul’s afflictions was the constant jabs of his opponents, those false apostles and puppets of Satan, who tried to discredit Paul’s preaching in the churches and turn people away from God’s Word.

We remember that, like His faithful people in this world, Jesus Himself suffered affliction. He endured the constant jabs of enemies, who challenged who He was as the Son of God and tried to lead others astray. Jesus suffered the devil’s relentless temptations and resistance. He took the blows of soldiers, who struck Him on the head again and again, put a crown of thorns on His head, and pierced His hands and feet to nail Him to the cross. Jesus was even afflicted by the blows of His heavenly Father, as He suffered for our sins and the sins of the world.

As one who took up his cross and followed his Savior, Paul knew the way of affliction. In our text, he refers to the “infirmities… reproaches… needs… persecutions… distresses” that he endured for the sake of preaching Christ’s Gospel. Once Paul was stoned nearly to death by a mob that rejected the Gospel. But by God’s grace he recovered, and he told believers: “We must through many tribulations enter the kingdom of God” (Acts 14:22).

Is there a “thorn in the flesh” you have felt – maybe a painful trial others cannot understand, and maybe you cannot either? Is there a frustration, pain, or weakness you cannot get rid of as hard as you try? Have you been ridiculed and hurt for the faith you show in your life? As followers of Jesus, we may wonder at times: “Why does God allow ‘infirmities… reproaches… needs… persecutions… distresses’ in my life? Why does God allow me to be afflicted?”

2) Through our afflictions God works His good

The answer is that through our afflictions God works His good. Through these hardships, God works His grace and power to strengthen our faith in Him, and to fulfill His purpose in our lives as His beloved children. Let us see how Paul benefited by his afflictions.

He says the thorn in his flesh was given: “lest I should be exalted above measure by the abundance of the revelations.” Just before our text, Paul spoke of revelations God gave him, in which he was “caught up to the third heaven… caught up into Paradise.” He heardheard inexpressible words, which it is not lawful for a man to utter” (2 Corinthians 12:2-4). Paul was shown heaven itself. This special revelation was meant to strengthen him as an apostle, so that he might know his great efforts and suffering for the Gospel were not in vain. For by the Gospel he was proclaiming, many people would be brought to those inexpressible joys of heaven!

But Paul knew how his sinful nature tempted him to boast in what he had seen, to glory in his position as an apostle. How the sinful nature tugs at the heart, wanting to take the glory from God to itself! The heart that looks to God with a humble, childlike faith today is able to be misled by the sinful nature and become proud, forgetting God tomorrow. God gave Paul a great responsibility as an apostle, and He wanted to keep Paul looking to His strength and grace alone. Paul knew his afflictions served to keep him humble and effective as an apostle. They kept him looking to God with a childlike faith.

As we see in the lives of Job and Paul, afflictions are not always the result of particular sins. Their afflictions came only because God, in His wisdom, allowed it to strengthen their faith and character. Of course, we may sometimes bring painful afflictions on ourselves in this life, as a result of our sins. We regret many things we have done, and we repent of our sins. But even if we do suffer the result of our sins in this life, we are not paying for our sins by our suffering. Only Jesus can and already has fully paid for our sins by His suffering on the cross for us.

You and I are washed by Jesus’ blood. We are precious in the sight of God our heavenly Father. So let us remember that if God permits any affliction in our life, it is only out of love and for our good. Hebrews 12:6, 10-11 says: “For whom the LORD loves He chastens.” It says He does so: “for our profit, that we may be partakers of His holiness. Now no chastening seems to be joyful for the present, but painful; nevertheless, afterward it yields the peaceable fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.”

We can be thankful that our heavenly Father disciplines us in love for our good. We have seen spoiled children, whose parents let them go in their own self-chosen, wild ways. Those poor children think they have the world in their hands and they can get away with anything. They may grow up to be a threat, not only to themselves but also to others around them.

Think of how we would be if we never felt our Lord’s discipline, if our proud hearts were never broken that we should acknowledge our weakness and sin before God. We might feel like we were on top of the world. Like spoiled children, in our self-chosen ways we might think we were like God. But it would be to our own harm. Proverbs 19:18 says: “Chasten your son while there is hope, and do not set your heart on his destruction.” Well, God keeps His own Word! How could He just let us go, to follow the pride of our heart over the cliff of death? No instead, like Job and Paul, He disciplines us to strengthen our faith and character as His dear children.

Think of the tender moment as a child knows his weakness and runs to the arms of his loving father or mother, seeking their strength and comfort. How tenderhearted and eager are those parents to help and comfort their child! The God of grace, who has given His only Son to die for us, is tenderhearted and eager to deliver us from troubles as He knows best, for our eternal good. Psalm 34:18 says: “The LORD is near to those who have a broken heart, and saves such as have a contrite spirit.” He tenderly invites us in Psalm 50:15: Call upon Me in the day of trouble; I will deliver you, and you shall glorify Me.”

It is in weakness that we turn in earnest prayer to our heavenly Father, calling on Him for help and comfort. Paul says: “Concerning this thing I pleaded with the Lord three times that it might depart from me.” Those were heartfelt prayers, coming from a disciplined child to his heavenly Father who alone could help.

At first, from his human perspective, it may have seemed to Paul that he could be so much more effective as an apostle if only God would remove his affliction. It is hard for us, in the midst of hardships, to see how they could possibly benefit us. Yet in the midst of affliction, the prayer of faith rises to our heavenly Father. Our prayers rise with the prayer Jesus, who Himself prayed earnestly three times: “O My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from Me.” Our prayer of faith joins His saying: “nevertheless, not as I will, but as You will” (Matthew 26:39).

God’s response to Paul’s prayer was: “My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness.” By His grace God would strengthen Paul, not only to cope with his affliction, but by it to become all the more effective as an apostle. Paul’s weakness would point all the more clearly to the power of God working through him. By God’s strength, Paul would faithfully proclaim the Gospel message, despite all adversity. By the Gospel’s power, many would be brought to saving faith in Christ. Yes by God’s grace working through Paul, many people would come to those inexpressible joys of heaven. That is why Paul could rejoice in his afflictions, knowing that his weakness pointed clearly to God’s grace and power for salvation.

Whatever our afflictions may be, let us trust that God is working it all for our good (Romans 8:28). He is teaching us in our tender moments to pray: “Thy will be done.” He is drawing us near to His Word, so we may hear Him speak tenderly to us. In His Word of grace He forgives us, He heals us, and He gives us strength to live each day to His glory. Our heavenly Father is bringing us to maturity of faith so that we may say with Paul: “For to me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain” (Philippians 1:21). For we know that in this life, Christ’s power rests upon us; and if we die, it only means that we go to be with Him in those inexpressible joys of heaven.

Think of what a joy it will be when our Savior brings us with Paul, Job, and all believers, to that “third heaven,” to “Paradise” itself. What a joy it will be then to see how God in His wisdom worked even through our afflictions to make us effective in the roles He gave us in life. What a joy it will be to see how, through our weaknesses, God enabled us to proclaim all the more clearly His powerful Gospel of grace, so that others could join us in the joys of Paradise.

That is why by God’s grace, through faith in Jesus our Savior, we can join Paul in saying: “Therefore most gladly I will rather boast in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me… For when I am weak, then I am strong.”

Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit. As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be. Amen.