2) What makes us recognize our weakness?
For Paul, what allowed him to recognize his weakness? One, he had to endure much hardship. And two, he had a thorn in his flesh.
Please turn with me to 2 Cor 11:24-30. [READ]
In this section, Paul boasts about his weaknesses and he doesn’t point to a personal list of vices or struggles as the source of his weakness. He lists suffering, external things that made him feel weak. Sometimes, we treat Apostle Paul like he is super human. Like a spiritual super hero. When God was creating Paul, He must have formed him from extra fine, high grade angelic dust compared with the rest of us made from mundane mud. We talk about him as if he must have floated through life and suffering to him was not difficult at all. He was like the man of steel. Suffering hit him like bullets and bounced off. If this is your view of Paul, re-read 2 Corinthians. This letter shows Paul’s vulnerable side. He actually gets hurt by words, people’s rejection cause him deep pain, and you realize, this guy is like one of us. He is not like Spock. He has emotions.
When he received 39 lashes on the back from the Jews, those lashes must have hurt. I wasn’t there, but I’m sure he bled, just like you and me. When he was stoned, those stones were not made out of nerf material. He must have had gashes and bruises all over his body. When he was out in the open sea for a night and a day, the water was not heated. It must have been icy cold and he must have feared that he might be eaten alive by sharks. Paul was constantly traveling and in v26 of chapter 11, we read that he faced dangers from robbers, dangers from his own people, dangers from the Gentiles, dangers in the city, dangers in the open country, dangers on the sea, and dangers among false brothers–basically, every person was a possible threat and every place–city, open country, sea–was a potential danger zone. He lived in constant fear that he would not survive as he sought to win souls. When he lacked sleep and lacked food and water and lacked clothing, he must have experienced incredible fatigue and hunger and thirst and intense cold. He was not impervious to the effects of suffering. He was like one of us.
What makes someone humble? Suffering. Hardship. Paul and Barnabas, when they were preaching in Lystra said in Acts 14:22, “It is necessary to pass through many TROUBLES on our way into the kingdom of God.”
What makes someone humble? What makes someone lose hope in this life and in themselves? What makes someone desperate for God in prayer to sustain them? Trouble, hardship, suffering. One reason Paul was humble, or weak, was because of hardship. If your approach to life is to avoid suffering at all costs, chances are, you won’t be humble.
Paul is turning boasting on its head. People normally boast because they are strong, they are good at something. And when it comes to weakness, we normally hide it, we sweep it under the rug. We don’t want to reveal any of our weaknesses. Even in job interviews, when asked the question, what are your strengths and weaknesses, we are trained to share weaknesses which are really strengths in disguise. My weakness is that I have a laser sharp focus as deadlines approach and I may lose a bit of my friendly demeanor. What that person is really saying is I get results. I get the job done. The so-called weakness is really a strength in disguise. If people were 100% honest in their job interviews and said things like, my weaknesses are, I am lazy and some Monday mornings I just like to call in sick when I am not really sick. Or, I have ADD, I have a really hard time focusing. Or, I get bored easily so I am not good with repeated tasks. If these are your answers, forget about getting a job.
Paul actually boasted about his weaknesses. About his suffering and hardship which led to his sense of weakness. Hardship made him humble. These are external factors. There is also an internal factor which contributed to his humility.
3) Paul was humble because of external hardship, but he was also humble because of an internal thorn.
Please turn with me to 2 Cor 12:1-7. [READ]
For someone like Paul who experienced such an intense, supernatural vision or possibly some kind of an out-of-body experience, it must have been extremely hard not to be proud. How could he not boast? Paul refers to these visions as “extraordinary revelations.” He must have felt a strong temptation to exalt himself. v7–the ESV translates “exalt himself” as “elated.” Figuratively speaking, the revelation could have caused Paul’s head to be so puffed up that he might have become airborne. Exalted, elated, elevated–in others words, spiritually proud.
We all know people who are proud and arrogant. They love to hear themselves talk because they always think their ideas are profound and everyone else’s is inferior. We can spot such people right away and we don’t like them. In their pride, they are airborne and they have elevated themselves above others. We like people who are down-to-earth. Such people don’t take themselves so seriously. They are not afraid to admit their weaknesses because they are not trying to maintain an image. “Down-to-earth” is an interesting choice of words. In contrast to being airborne, a down-to-earth person is grounded so to speak.
For Paul, spiritual pride would have spelled disaster for him and his ministry and the gospel. We know that he was tempted strongly to exalt himself due to the extraordinary revelations, but what kept him grounded? A thorn in the flesh.
2 Cor 12
7 …Therefore, so that I would not exalt myself, a thorn in the flesh was given to me, a messenger of Satan to torment me so I would not exalt myself. 8 Concerning this, I pleaded with the Lord three times to take it away from me.
There is a bunch of speculation as to what the thorn is. It could be a sensual temptation, a speech defect, an eye disorder, epilepsy? Because there is no consensus and the fact that Paul doesn’t mention specifics, we just have to chalk this up to, nobody knows. In some sense, the fact that Paul doesn’t mention specifically what the thorn is, I think, is a blessing. It has potential to speak to and encourage and bless a far wider audience than it would have been the case had he identified the specific nature of the disability. If he had an eye problem and you yourself are blind, you’d be encouraged by this passage. But if you suffered from a speech defect, Paul’s struggle wouldn’t hit you as personally. Just to say, there is wisdom in Paul being vague about his thorn.
I also want to point out that the thorn was a messenger of SATAN. God was not the origin of the thorn. God never torments, nor tempts, BUT he does allow things to torment and to tempt. Why? Why was the thorn allowed by God in Paul’s life? So that Paul would not exalt himself. The thorn kept the great Apostle Paul who had these extraordinary revelations from becoming airborne and floating to the spiritual stratosphere of pride. The thorn kept him pinned, grounded, down to earth where he, as well as you and I, always should remain.
We all have thorns. Areas of weakness. Desires and passions that if we are not careful could destroy us. Idols that enslave. Addictions. Character flaws. When we look inside, we all have to admit that we are weak. The problem is, we rarely look inside. We look instead at the Iron Man suit we put on. We look at external achievements. We look at the image of power, strength and competence we project out to the world. All the layers we put on to make us seem invincible to others and we can even fool ourselves.
Weakness is not an aberration to an otherwise stellar character. Weakness is not who we are on a bad day. Weakness is not an occasional blip on the radar. Weakness is who we are. Period. We are sinners in desperate need of a Savior. Not just to save us once but to continue to save us every moment of every day for the rest of our lives. It often takes hardship to see our true nature. It often takes an honest look at who we are on the inside to recognize our weakness. If you’ve suffered and you have been humbled by life, praise the Lord. If you look at yourself in the mirror and know that the strong, competent, polished self that you project to others is a farce, praise the Lord. Why?