2 Corinthians 11:21b-33; 12:8-10
Are you familiar with the poem: “Footsteps in the Sand”? There is no real consensus as to who authored the poem nor is there any consensus regarding the date it was written. Based on the little evidence that is available, it is possible that it was written as early as the 1800’s, but it didn’t receive much attention until after it was formally published in 1978. It has been used across denominational lines, been included on countless memorial service programs and recited in funerals around the world. Most notably, a variant of “Footprints” was cited by the late President Reagan on February 5th at the 1981 National Prayer Breakfast. If you are unfamiliar with the poem, permit me to share it with you:
One night a man had a dream.
He dreamed he was walking along the beach with the Lord.
Across the sky flashed scenes from his life.
For each scene, he noticed two sets of footprints in the sand:
one belonging to him, and the other to the Lord.
When the last scene of his life flashed before him,
he looked back at the footprints in the sand.
He noticed that many times along the path of his life there was only one set of footprints.
He also noticed that it happened at the very lowest and saddest times in his life.
This really bothered him and he questioned the Lord about it.
“Lord, You said that once I decided to follow you,
You’d walk with me all the way.
But I have noticed that during the most troublesome times in my life,
there is only one set of footprints.
I don’t understand why, when I needed you most, you would leave me.”
The Lord replied,
“My son, My precious child, I love you and I would
never leave you. During your times of trial and
suffering, when you see only one set of footprints,
it was then that I Carried You.”
In the darkest and hardest times, does the Lord carry his people through such experiences, and if he does, what does it mean that he carries us through the seasons of suffering and trials in our lives?
Is it true that God will not give you more than you can handle? There are two passages that Christians have used to support such a view. One verse is from the Old Testament and the other is from the New Testament. The New Testament verse is from 1 Corinthians 10:13, which is about the temptation we often experience to sin against God: “No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it” (1 Corinthians 10:13). The point Paul was making in this verse is that the Christian will never find himself in a situation where he or she will have no other option but to sin.
The Old Testament passage is found in Deuteronomy 1:30-31 in which Moses reminded the Hebrew people of the faithfulness of God. Here is what Moses wrote: “The Lord your God who goes before you will himself fight for you, just as he did for you in Egypt before your eyes, and in the wilderness, where you have seen how the Lord your God carried you, as a man carries his son, all the way that you went until you came to this place” (Deuteronomy 1:30–31). Think for a moment how God led his people. He led them by a cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night, he often strengthened his people when faced by their enemies so that they could defeat them, he fed them mana for food and brought forth water from a rock, but while doing all those things and more, he never exempted them from the difficulty and suffering experienced in the wilderness. This seems to be a theme in the Bible regarding the people God loves… especially when we consider the apostle Paul’s life.
Paul Endured Much Suffering (11:16 – 12:6)
One of the things Paul felt that it was necessary to do for the Corinthians church was to defend his role as an apostle of Jesus Christ. There were people inserting themselves into the Corinthian Church like a virus to undermine the gospel work he established when he entered into the city of Corinth. His critics claimed that his sufferings proved that he was not a true apostle. This is why he spent the first five chapters of his epistle to show how suffering is a temporary but important part of the Christian life. It is not until we come to chapters 11 and 12 that Paul shows that his suffering was God’s stamp of authenticity regarding his apostleship.
Paul participated in three missionary journeys while he was alive; it wasn’t until his second missionary journey around 50AD that he planted the church in Corinth. It was while he responded to Christ’s call to bring the gospel to the nations that Paul suffered much. Even though he lived his life to honor Jesus by carrying his message to people who needed to hear about him, his journey was filled with a lot of pain, as he describes in verses 24-27,
Five times I received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches.” (2 Corinthians 11:24–28)
Not once did God or Jesus carry Paul in any such way that he did not have to walk through the fires of pain, suffering, and the deep concerns he lived with for the spiritual health of the churches he planted.
There was more that Paul endured, for in 12:1-5 he had what seems to be an out-of-body experience. In Acts 14:19-23, we learn that people in the city of Lystra (located in present day Turkey) stoned Paul with the intent to kill him. We are told that the angry mob, “stoned Paul and dragged him out of the city, supposing that he was dead” (v. 19). I believe that this is when Paul had the experience he describes in 2 Corinthians 12:1-5,
I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows. And I know that this man was caught up into paradise—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows— and he heard things that cannot be told, which man may not utter. On behalf of this man I will boast, but on my own behalf I will not boast, except of my weaknesses… (2 Corinthians 12:2–5)
Paul survived the stoning he suffered in Lystra, but eventually he was arrested for preaching the gospel and in his last letter to another pastor by the name of Timothy (who he most likely met in Lystra) said of his impending death sentence:
For I am already being poured out as a drink offering, and the time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that day, and not only to me but also to all who have loved his appearing. (2 Timothy 4:6–8)
When I read of Paul’s life and his last words written in a letter before he was beheaded, it seems to me that God gave him more than he was able to handle or endure in his own strength.
Paul Was Given More Than He Could Handle (12:7-10)
What I find interesting about Paul’s description of his suffering as an apostle is that his description up through 12:6 seems to be the least of his struggles. All of his sufferings experienced by angry mobs, angry authorities, angry seas, robbers, dangers in the wilderness, sleepless nights, and even death by stoning lasted only as long as the time it took Paul to endure those experiences. However, there was something that he experienced that did not go away.
The worst of Paul’s suffering was not what people and the elements did to his body, but the thing that would not go away. Paul called it a “thorn in the flesh” and he described its purpose in the following way: “So to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited” (v. 7). What the thorn of the flesh is not, is it is not some type of sin Paul struggled with. His thorn in the flesh was most likely something to do with his person either emotionally or physically. Many theologians believe his thorn in the flesh may have had something to do with his eyesight, but it could have been the physical toll that the many things he suffered throughout his ministry as an apostle had on his body. Whatever it was, his experience of it was worse than all of the other things he suffered because it would not go away.
We are told in verse 8 that Paul “pleaded” three times that God would take away his “thorn in the flesh.” The parallel Paul makes here with Jesus’ prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane is staggering (see Mark 14:32-41). What happened in the Garden of Gethsemane? What happened was that Jesus pleaded that God remove the cup of suffering he was about to drink, he prayed: “Abba, Father, all things are possible for you. Remove this cup from me.” Jesus then concluded, “Yet not what I will, but what you will” (Mark 14:36). Jesus drank the cup by going to the cross for people like Paul.
Paul’s answer from Jesus was that his thorn would not be removed. However, unlike the cup Jesus drank in Paul’s place, the thorn was not given to Paul because God was angry with him, but because God loved him too much to leave him to himself. The answer Paul received from Jesus after pleading that his thorn be removed was simply this: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (v. 9a). The thorn was given to Paul to force him to look not to his own resources to live the Christian life and participate in God’s mission in the world, but to find his strength in the risen Christ. So, what was Paul’s response to his thorn that was given to him? Here is what he wrote: “Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weakness, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong” (vv. 9b-10).
The Greek word that the ESV translated “content” is eúdokeō, and it means “pleased” or “to take delight in.” The way verse 10 should be translated is, “For the sake of Christ, then, I am pleased with weakness, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities…”. Why? Because it forced Paul to find his strength and his approval in Christ alone. There it is! Paul gives us the answer as to how it was that when God had given more than he could handle, his faith was able survive and he was stronger for it.
Paul pleaded three times that the Lord would remove his thorn in the flesh, but the answer he received was that it had a purpose and that purpose was to force the apostle to find his strength in Christ alone. The word Jesus used to describe the way one would find the kind of strength Paul needed in the midst of his weakness is the word “Abide.” Here is what Jesus said, “Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:4–5).
There is a name used of God that gets at the heart of what it means to abide in Christ; we are first introduced to the name in Genesis 17 when Abraham was 99 years old and his wife Sarah was 89 years old. The hope Abraham and Sarah had for a child of their own was nothing more than a dream for the couple. God’s reputation, Abraham’s lineage, and the blessing of the nations was on the line and all of it was completely out of Abraham’s power and ability to father the child God had promised him. It is in the dark despair Abraham experienced that God introduced himself as El-Shaddai and it was there that God made a promise that was conditioned not on Abraham but completely on God alone. El-Shaddai means The All-Sufficient One; and the point made to Abraham in his despair was that his sufficiency could only be found in the God who called him out of Ur and the God who keeps his promises. It is this name that is also used more than thirty times in the book of Job, a book in the bible about a man who seemingly lost everything, including his own health.
God gave more than Abraham could handle and he gave Job more than he could handle only if either of these men did not have El-Shaddai as their God. Paul’s suffering and his thorn was only more than he could handle if he did not have Jesus to abide in. Paul uses a phrase throughout his epistles that is the equivalent to abiding in Jesus and finding your hope in the all-sufficient God, and that phrase is, “In Christ.” Paul uses the phrase not 30 times, but over 140 times throughout his epistles. It is a phrase included in one of the more powerful modern hymns in our generation titled, In Christ Alone.
In Christ alone, my hope is found
He is my light, my strength, my song
This Cornerstone, this solid ground
Firm through the fiercest drought and storm
What heights of love, what depths of peace
When fears are stilled, when strivings cease
My Comforter, my All in All
Here in the love of Christ I stand
Paul prayed three times, and what he was reminded was that it was in Christ that his sufficiency was found. It was in Christ that Paul’s weakness gave way to a strength that sustained his faith, empowered him for mission, and crushed his pride. Jesus prayed three times and drank the cup of God’s wrath so that our sins could be forgiven and that we could be reconciled to the God who is El-Shaddai.
Does God give his people more than they can handle? Yes, but his grace is sufficient for you and his power is made perfect in your weakness. In the garden and on the cross, Jesus was crushed so that you never would be. Jesus was abandoned by God so that you would forever be treasured by God. Jesus suffered the unbearable wrath of his Father in your place, so that you could experience his unrelenting grace and ever reaching mercy.
The story of God’s people is a story where God consistency gives his people more than they can handle so that that they can experience more of him. In such seasons in life where you find yourself pleading that God remove something that he, in his wisdom and love, has chosen not to do so, understand that his grace is sufficient for you and his power is made perfect in your weakness. It is in our weakness that we discover the sufficiency of a God whose love for you was expressed in the outstretched arms of his perfect Son who wore not a thorn, but a crown of thorns and hung on a cross we all deserved for your sins and mine.