I Prayed, and Received Grace (2 Corinthians 12:1-10)
Sunday, July 5, 2015
Think of a time when you prayed for something, something you wanted very badly and did not get it. Recall when there was in your life a great desire. You wanted something and you prayed for it. You prayed hard. You prayed deep. And you did not get what you wanted so badly.
This can be painful. Did you pray you would be accepted into Harvard? Did you end up going to Appalachian State? There’s nothing wrong Ap. State. I have relatives and extremely close friend who graduated from there. It is a great school. But your heart was set on Harvard.
Did you pray through tears that God would fix the relationship with your dad? And is that relationship now as broken as ever?
Was your prayer that God would heal your husband? Did he die?
No, this is not fun.
As a 22-year-old recent college graduate, I desperately longed to be married. It ate away at me. I am sure intensity of that desire worked against me. I had plenty of dates, but women who genuinely liked me were scared away. It is nothing I did, just a vibe that I put off. Looking back, I can see that a voice was going off in these women’s brains: “This guy is way too intense about something. Get out now.” And they did.
I was 22, 25, 28, 30. Dear God, I prayed, I so badly want to fall in love and get married. Please help me. And God did not help me. At least, I couldn’t see it. With the passing of each year, I struggled more and more with this. But I was still single. Finally, when a woman I had been seeing threw a huge 30th birthday party for me and then shortly after told me she did not want to be my girlfriend, I was so confused and frustrated, I changed my prayer. Dear God, please help be content as a single person. Maybe your call for me is to celibacy. Please help me be happy with that.
I spent a little while convincing myself God had answered that prayer, but that was a sham. I was single. I wasn’t happy about it. God had not answered my decade-long prayer. When I changed the prayer, it was clear God wasn’t answering that one either.
You know that eventually changed. People here only know me as a married person. However, the struggle was real for me in those years. Since then I have had other prayers go unanswered or answered in a way that was not at all what I was hoping for.
What do we do with that? In church we are taught to be praying people. This week, I wrote a newsletter article calling for prayer that is specific. Prayer includes listening to God in the spirit, lamentation, confession, and praise. Prayer is also petition (where we ask for things), and intercession (where we pray to God on another person’s behalf). Often these petitions and intercessions seem to fall on deaf ears. Either God is not listening, or we have to assume from God’s silence that the answer is “No!” How do we keep our faith in the face of this?
In 2 Corinthians 12, the Apostle Paul deals directly with the matter of receiving from God the answer he did not want to hear. We’ll see how he took this “No” from Heaven, but first we need to move through the opening verses because there Paul shows the connecting point between the Spirit of God and humans trying to live in relationship to God. That connection might not be what we’d expect.
Chapter 11 provides context. I am reading from The Message, 2 Corinthians 11:1-6.
1-3 Will you put up with a little foolish aside from me? Please, just for a moment. The thing that has me so upset is that I care about you so much—this is the passion of God burning inside me! I promised your hand in marriage to Christ, presented you as a pure virgin to her husband. And now I’m afraid that exactly as the Snake seduced Eve with his smooth patter, you are being lured away from the simple purity of your love for Christ.
4-6 It seems that if someone shows up preaching quite another Jesus than we preached—different spirit, different message—you put up with him quite nicely. But if you put up with these big-shot “apostles,” why can’t you put up with simple me? I’m as good as they are. It’s true that I don’t have their voice, haven’t mastered that smooth eloquence that impresses you so much. But when I do open my mouth, I at least know what I’m talking about. We haven’t kept anything back. We let you in on everything.
Paul refers to “Big-shot” apostles that came to Corinth after him and disparaged him. These others preached a different word about Jesus. They were smooth talkers offering a flashy, polished presentation. They claimed that they had received visions from God which enabled them to speak as spiritual authorities.
Listen to Paul’s response to this in 2 Corinthians 12:1-5.
It is necessary to boast; nothing is to be gained by it, but I will go on to visions and revelations of the Lord. 2 I know a person 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. 3 And I know that such a person—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know; God knows— 4 was caught up into Paradise and heard things that are not to be told, that no mortal is permitted to repeat. 5 On behalf of such a one I will boast, but on my own behalf I will not boast, except of my weaknesses.
Paul says, “I know ‘a person,’” and from the context it is clear he is talking about himself. He is the one who had the vision of Heaven fourteen years prior. Many different people in our time have claimed to have died and gone to Heaven and then come back to life. A boy in the Midwest had angelic visits and his visions were made into a book and a movie. In this sensationalized cases, what is seen in Heaven is always reported and hyped.
Paul says he cannot be sure that he was taken in the body or the spirit. He saw and heard things but was forbidden to share it. In the book of Revelation, John is commanded to write and share all that he witnesses. Paul, on a similar journey, is silenced and he heeds that command. He heard things no mortal is permitted to repeat.
He only raises the point of his vision to show that he has what these competing apostles claim to have had – supernatural experiences and divine visions. He can match them boast for boast. Whatever they have done, he has done more in terms of seeing and knowing God.
However, look at verse 5. Highlight it, underline it, and remember it. This sets the condition for our spirituality and how we see ourselves and the experiences in our lives.
“On my own behalf, I will not boast except for my weaknesses.”
He did not name himself when he referred to a spiritual journey through the third Heaven even though most experts believe he is obviously talking about himself. He distanced himself. He did not report what was seen in that vision even though people are usually quick to trumpet their divine experiences as recent stories have shown. Instead of bragging the way the “big shot apostles did,” Paul paradoxically said, “I refrain from boasting so that no one may think better of me than what is seen in me or heard from me”(v.6).
Lest Paul be tempted, he says in the next verse that the Lord gave him a thorn in the flesh, a messenger from Satan. We don’t know what this was. Commentators have speculated about it and tried to determine it through vague references in other letters of Paul. We simply do not know what the thorn was that plagued him.
It was so bad, he said it was of Satan. Yet, he also said it was given by the Lord Jesus as a means of keeping him humble. He asked God to remove it. Three times, he begged God to take it away. The only response he received is that the grace of Jesus is all he needs and that power of the Lord is made perfect in weakness.
How do we keep our faith when we have a great struggle or we suffer, or we have a need or a desire, and we pray and either God doesn’t answer or says “No?” In that how do we joyfully sustain our faith and live as disciples of Jesus?
Paul had this very experience. Something he described as a thorn in his flesh and as a tormenting messenger of Satan, ate him up. Not only did Jesus not relieve this bother. Paul says Jesus sent it to keep him humble and told him, “My grace is sufficient for you.” It is about this that Paul boasts!
He intentionally distances himself from self-promotion. Instead, he gladly boasts in the thing that is seemingly the least likely cause for such confidence. “I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong” (12:9, 10).
Unanswered prayer can lead to a crisis of faith. I do not suggest that your unanswered prayer was God’s way of keeping you humble in the way Paul said Jesus gave him a thorn to keep him humble.
Two equally qualified students apply to Harvard. Both pray. One gets in. The other goes to Appalachian State. She is disappointed, but she discovers grace from Christ in Boone, North Carolina that she may or may not have discovered in Boston because Jesus’ grace is what she needs more than anything.
Your husband is in the hospital and shares a room with another man who also has cancer. You pray for your husband and the other’s wife prays for him. They are both there so long, soon you are praying for both men and so is the other man’s wife. The other man shows improvement, goes home, returns to Health. Your husband dies. I don’t know why it when one way for one and the other for you. No one can say, from God’s perspective why. But in your sorrow, you meet God. You find that His grace will carry you until you meet your beloved in the resurrection. God’s grace walks you through the seasons of grief and you find joy in life again.
I started by asking, think of a time in life you prayed for something, but did not receive it.
What are we praying for in our lives today? A new job? A baby? Healing for someone we love? A broken relationship to mended, forgiveness given?
Pray in the hope that the prayers will be answered. I don’t how it will go, but pray as Paul did, expectantly, believing God hears us and loves us.
We stand in our brokenness and weakness and we pray. No matter happens, in our brokenness and weakness, we meet Jesus, the giver of grace. Jesus gives us grace to have joy in life, in the ups and even the downs. In triumph and sorrow, we have him and we know it. We can feel it.
Thus we end with invitation. This is a time of prayer. Do what Paul did. Bring your heaviest burdens to Him. Tell God about the thorn in your flesh. And receive from Him the grace He has for you.