“A thorn was given me in the flesh…. Three times I besought the Lord about this,
that it should leave me, but he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you,
for my power is made perfect in weakness.”
2 Corinthians 12:7-9
What in the world ~ what in this world ~ is sufficient grace? In a society that craves abundance and even celebrates extravagance, is it even remotely possible that we might be inclined to say to the Lord, “Lord, thank you for your offer of endless grace, but quite frankly we’re completely satisfied with a sufficient amount of your grace?”
Or what of a church that encourages spiritual adventure, where the longings of the soul awaken to the spiritual mysteries of life, is it likely that we would ever want to curtail our interest in spirituality by saying, “God, we’ve really had just about all the grace we can handle right now, we’re satisfied with a sufficient amount?” What then ~ in this world ~ is sufficient grace?
Chances are that when you got out of bed this morning this was not an issue of great concern. (Although, I did imagine some of you feverishly brushing your teeth and thinking to yourselves, “Golly, I sure hope David clears up the mystery of sufficient grace so I know when I’ve had enough of it!”)
My use of humor comes from the passage itself, for I sense that even Paul was addressing the Corinthians with tongue-in-cheek; yet how profoundly he drives his point home, both to those who followed Christ in Corinth, and those who follow Christ in Peoria.
Apparently, in the Corinthian church some people were having some rather extraordinary experiences of the Holy Spirit ~ mystical revelations in the mind, speaking in tongues, and Pentecostal fever in the heart. God was becoming every theologian’s worst nightmare with experiences of glory beyond all comprehension.
In and of itself, that was not the problem. What was dividing the church and desecrating the spiritual legacy of the life and ministry of Jesus was that some were using their spiritual experience to exalt their own sense of importance, and looking down on everyone else.
From our perspective it was childish behavior, and could almost be expressed by that monotonous litany that every child is born with. You know, the one that goes Na-Na! Na-Na! Na-Na! Only they put words to it by their behavior like: “I’m more saved than you are!” and “I’m more loved than you are!” or “I’m more faithful than you are!”
That posturing for position with each other was devastating to the spiritual solidarity of the church in Corinth. And Paul’s concern was that if he did not deal with it there in its infancy and innocence, and deal with it decisively, that one day it might become institutionalized, and then doctrinalized, and then become socialized and politicized, until, … well, until the whole world would be divided because of their diverse experiences of the same God.
Therefore, Paul offered a truth that would confront, challenge, and change, and then to help the medicine go down he did it with humor. We really had to be there to appreciate his humor because it was as brilliant as it was subtle. Essentially it went like this: Since the Corinthians were bragging to each other about spiritual ecstasy, he would counter by bragging about the authenticity of spiritual humility.
He begins with anonymity! I know a man who was taken up to the third heaven. Whether it was in the body or out of the body I do not know. Paul was referring to his own experience of spiritual ecstasy ~ what we sometimes refer to as an out-of-the-body experience, the awareness that the spirit has a life of its own beyond the temporal ~ but he puts it in the third person, remaining anonymous, to show that his ego dos not need the self-inflation like those who were bragging about their spiritual experiences in Corinth. In other words, he was not posturing to elevate himself, but was celebrating being least of all.
His humility in the face of spiritual ecstasy is a sign of the authenticity. Genuine spiritual experience does not produce arrogance. Quite the opposite. Authentic spiritual experience of God is always overwhelmingly humbling!
And then he personalizes it ~ reveals his own weakness in a passionate plea with the Lord. He tells the Corinthians of what he calls his thorn in the flesh that keeps him humble before the throne of grace. He does not tell us what it was, but that has not kept theologians and biblical scholars from guessing.
Some interpret the word flesh to refer to his physical body and suggest everything from epilepsy to a speech impediment. Others interpret the word thorn to refer to psychological problems, the way we might refer to a pain in the neck. As long as they’re guessing in thin air, I offer mine, that it was in fact a nagging wife he left behind, and that God was using his unhappiness as incentive to carry the Gospel to the farthest corners of the earth!
The truth is that it is none of our business, and that it doesn’t matter. The whole point of his honesty is to demonstrate that we all have flaws in our character, weaknesses in our will, obstacles in our path that keep us humble. And the real miracle is not that God loves some of us more than others, which is blatantly false, but that God loves us even with all of our flaws!
Then he offers the Corinthians ~ and those of us in Peoria ~ this timeless gem. He explains how he prayed three times to the Lord to have thorn removed, and shares the answer that came: My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect n weakness. It is his style of highlighting he truth of his position without bragging, as if to say: Which is better, to be thrilled every now and the n with out-of-this-world sensations of spiritual ecstasy, or to discover in the trials and tribulations of daily life that. God is sustaining us with a sufficient amount of grace for each and every circumstance?
Let us think about that for a moment. It means never being given more courage than you need, but always just enough to meet the challenge at hand. It means never receiving an over-abundance of patience, but always just enough to endure the suffering we’re forced to endure.
It means never being able to call forth more faith than we need to triumph over fear, never finding more love than we need to live beyond despair, but by some ineffable mystery realizing that there is just enough ~ a sufficient amount of grace ~ to prove the livability of life, and to make us whole!
Imagine the grandeur of it! Common-ordinary, garden-variety, run-of-the-mill human beings being sustained in life by an extraordinary God who knows just what we need to grow, just what we require to mature, just what we need to be drawn out of ourselves and into life, just what it takes to inspire us to be all that we are able to be.
It was as though Paul was saying to the Corinthians and to us: Don’t get so high on spiritual experience that you cannot be down-to-earth with God in ways that really matter ~ in ways that enable us to discover in our own weakness the sustaining power of the Living God.
There is an endless supply of god’s amazing grace; but the mystery is not in its abundance but in its sufficiency. The most amazing part of God’s grace is the way it is imparted to us in precise measure with our need for it. So that we too are able to say with Paul: God’s grace is sufficient for me too!
David S. Hodgson
Peoria Presbyterian Church