One of my favorite hymns from seminary days is Grace Greater than Our Sin. It goes back to around 1910, with words by Julia H. Johnston and music by Daniel B. Towner. Few hymns exalt the saving power of the cross as “grace that will pardon and cleanse within” more than this one.
Lately I’ve been thinking about grace greater than our circumstances, the kind of “sufficient grace” Paul spoke about in 2 Cor 12:9. I don’t want to diminish the amazing grace that saves from sin when someone first believes the gospel, but saving grace is just the beginning. There is also sustaining grace for all the obstacles and afflictions that come our way. The grace that first saves from sin continues to save from pain, fear, weaknesses, and insecurities. We shouldn’t be surprised that Paul speaks about grace greater than our circumstances as well as grace greater than sin. Saving grace doesn’t stop saving once we’re saved.
Skolops: Paul’s Fleshly Thorn
2 Cor 12:9 comes near the end of what has been called Paul’s “Fool’s Speech” (2 Cor 11:22-12:10), a text brimming with sarcasm and irony. Paul answers his triumphalist opponents on their own terms by boasting, but he turns boasting on its head by exalting his weakness rather than his strength. Paul’s grace-empowered weakness is actually strength because it exalts the cross. Paul’s opponents’ self-centered strength is actually weakness because it minimizes the cross. Get the paradox?
Paul concludes his focus on weakness by mentioning his σκόλοψ (skolops, used only here in the NT but cf. Num 33:55; Ezek 28:24 in the Septuagint). The word marks a pointed object, like a stake or a splinter, so it fits here as a metaphor for something that “pricks” us, causing pain and affliction. Some think Paul’s “thorn” refers to the challenging circumstances he constantly faced throughout his ministry—persecution, false teachers, rigorous travels, rebellious followers, and the list goes on (e.g. 2 Cor 6:3-10; 11:23-29). George Guthrie makes a good case for this view in his fine commentary on 2 Corinthians. Others point out that Paul’s trying circumstances may have injured his psyche, resulting in constant stress, fear, and anxiety, especially over things like the Corinthians’ problems and Israel’s unbelief in Jesus (Rom 9:1-2). There is truth here, and yet the thorn is in Paul’s flesh, and it involves weakness (2 Cor 12:5, 9-11), leading many to think that Paul speaks of a physical ailment. Some posit recurring bouts with malaria or epilepsy, some sort of disfigurement, or even a speech impediment (2 Cor 10:9-11). The most common view is that Paul had chronic problems with his eyes. Paul was blinded on the road to Damascus (Acts 9:1-19). Later he admits he did not recognize the high priest (Acts 23:5). He says the Galatians would have plucked out their eyes and given them to him (Gal 4:13-15). He typically composed his letters with an assistant, and occasionally wrote with large letters to his congregations (Rom 16:22; Gal 6:11). These texts could indicate visual impairment, but advocates of this view may be seeing too much “between the lines.”
Charis: God’s Sufficient Grace
No one knows exactly what affliction Paul was describing when he spoke of his thorn. I think Paul was referring to an some sort of chronic physical pain, but what matters is not the affliction Paul suffered but the grace that enabled him to overcome it and experience the power of God in his ministry. Paul used the word χάρις (charis) to speak of God’s amazing favor nearly 100 times in his letters. Here are some examples of the nuances marked by this word:
- Saving grace that opens people’s eyes to the gospel. (Rom 3:24; Eph 1:7; 2:5, 7-10)
- Ongoing grace for Christian living (Rom 1:7; 16:20)
- Grace that equips Paul for apostolic office (Rom 1:5; 12:3; 15:15; 1 Cor 3:10; Gal 2:9; Eph 3:2)
- Grace that brings spiritual gifts to individual believers (Rom 12:6; Eph 4:7)
- Grace to enable special ministries, such as giving (2 Cor 8:1, 19)
- Future grace that will ultimately abound in this world, offsetting the sin of Adam (Rom 5:17-21)
Grace is the favor of God poured out on his people from the beginning to the end of their lives in Christ. We minimize the grace of God if we think it operates only in our initial salvation. The grace that opens our eyes to believe the gospel keeps our eyes open to the things of God. Saving grace continues as sanctifying, sustaining grace. This is what Paul is talking about in 2 Cor 12:9.
Astheneia: Paul’s Weakness and Ours
In 2 Cor 12:9 Paul speaks of grace-enabled powerful ministry despite thorn-induced weakness (ἀσθένεια, astheneia). Unlike his opponents who boasted in their status and accomplishments, Paul chose to feature his weakness (cf. 1 Cor 2:3; 11:30), because the power of Paul’s ministry was not in Paul’s persona or status but in the cross-centered, Spirit-empowered message that he experienced and preached. Paul had been crucified with Christ; the old Paul had died and the new Paul’s life manifested the life of Christ (Gal 2:20). Paul boasted only in the cross, not in anything related to this world (Gal 2:20). Paul’s “Fool’s Speech” in 2 Cor 11-12 recalls and applies Paul’s “foolish gospel” in 1 Cor 1:18-31. This gospel of a crucified Messiah, apparently a weak and foolish message, was actually the very wisdom and power of God, for the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength (1 Cor 1:25 NIV; cf. 2 Cor 13:4).
As he reflected on his experiences in light of Jesus’ death and resurrection, Paul resolved to serve God even if God did not deliver him from trying circumstances and chronic pain. Similarly, the three Hebrews resolved not to worship Nebuchadnezzar’s image even if they were to be thrown into the fiery furnace (Dan 3:16-18). Jesus resolved to obey the Father, even if it meant the cross (Mark 14:32-42). Paul’s three prayers for removal of the thorn recall Jesus’ three prayers to be spared the agony of the cross, a stake much crueler than Paul’s thorn. In all these cases weakness became strength when reliance on God and his promises overcame a culture that exalted human pride, status, and accomplishments.
It may surprise us that, in God’s providence, Paul’s bad relationship with the Corinthians, exacerbated by his chronic pain, has brought great good to the church. Paul spoke of his thorn as both a gift of God to keep him humble and as a messenger of Satan to torment him (2 Cor 12:7; cf. Job). Satan intended the thorn to produce pain and defeat, but by God’s grace it led to powerful ministry and teaching. Grace becomes greater than our circumstances when we, like Paul, integrate our human weakness with Jesus’ death and resurrection. Paul drank deeply from the inexhaustible reservoir of God’s wisdom and grace in Jesus and the cross. May we do likewise when we are pricked by our own thorns today.
We have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body. For we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that his life may also be revealed in our mortal body. (2 Cor 4:7-11 NIV)
Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has ascended into heaven, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin. Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need. (Heb 4:14-16 NIV)
Additional Resources . . .
- Richard Bauckham presents helpful thoughts on Paul’s weakness here.
- Daniel Akin has a detailed exegetical study of 2 Cor 12:1-10 here.
- Even If: Faithfulness Regardless of Your Situation: Watch a series of sermons on Daniel at Chapel Pointe here.
- Watch MercyMe perform “Even If” here.
- Annie Johnson Flint (1866-1932) wrote many memorable poems and hymns during a lifetime of physical affliction due to arthritis. Listen to “He Giveth More Grace” here and “God Hath Not Promised” here.