That’s where Paul writes about a painful harassing thorn in his life given to him by God. Despite Paul’s repeated prayers, God let him know that he was not going to remove the thorn. Instead, the pain would keep Paul humble, and through that thorn Paul would experience the sufficiency of God’s grace and the perfecting of God’s sustaining strength. Consequently, he never felt stronger than when he was weak, and he came to glory in what gave him grief. Whatever this chronic pain was, it not only kept him from pride, it became his pride!
THE BACKSTORY AND MY STORY
There’s a backstory here. Paul had had some incredible spiritual privileges in his life, what he calls the “surpassing greatness of revelations.” These visions of heaven were glorious enough to make any normal man pretty full of himself—and Paul was, despite all his gifts and ministry, still a very normal man. So God gave him a thorn to keep him from becoming conceited. What this thorn was we do not know, and it doesn’t really matter. It’s enough to know that it was a chronically harassing and painfully humbling trial, and that it was given to guard Paul from the pride of self-sufficient superiority. Apparently, chronic affliction is the kind of pride-deterrent that some of us need.
I should know. While I am no Paul, I have been privileged. I’ve heard the gospel since birth. I had godly parents. I’ve had great teachers. I’ve experienced supernatural gifts, along with ministry opportunities that many only dream of. I’ve never had a bad pastor. I’ve been reading and digesting theology since youth, with theology books coming out my ears. I’ve had wonderful partners in ministry, a happy marriage, beloved children, over a dozen grand-children, a measure of spiritual insight, forty years of ministry experience, and at least some ability to preach and write—all of which can tempt toward self-sufficient pride.
I am convinced this is why I have a headache. I will not bore with all the details (though if you want to know more, check out my book about this). What I will say is that I had viral meningitis over thirty-three years ago, and it left me with constant head pain, always at least 6.5 on a scale of 10. The math works out to more than 12,000 days and 288,000 hours of God-given aching pain in a row. I believe God saw the pride danger I was in and sent me a thorn—a piercing, painful, persistent problem—to remind me every single day that I cannot do anything unless he enables it. My stabbing thorn bleeds my pride with relentless effect.
Paul says his affliction was God-given, but Satan delivered. I believe the same is true for me. To be sure, the mystery of the heavenly realms is on display here. We know Paul’s thorn was God-given since it was intended to keep him from conceit, something Satan would not be interested in quelling. But we also know it was Satan-delivered because, well, Paul says so. I don’t understand the workings of the invisible dimension, but I do know that no trial ever gets to me without God’s consent and that whenever evil gets involved, God still wins (Gen. 50:20). Satan wants my headache to create doubts about God’s love. God wants it to create doubts about myself, leading to deflated pride and increased reliance on him.
Jesus told Paul that his grace would be sufficient and his strength would be made perfect in the apostle’s weakness. For this reason—and because he found it to be true—Paul boasted in his weakness, because in it he was made strong. Because he was a fragile jar of clay, the surpassing and renewing power of God was on display in his life (2 Cor. 4:7, 16; 12:9–10). In other words, Paul’s Christ-sustained life while in weakness was a living sermon.
I truly know what that is about. I calculate that over 40 years, I have preached more than 1,600 sermons, counseled more than 15,000 hours, planted a couple of churches, written hundreds of articles and blog posts, and devoted more than 95,000 hours to the study of the Word. But my headache has probably preached more of God than anything else in my ministry. While some people express appreciation for sermons I’ve preached, more express gratitude for my headache’s effect on their faith. The real-life illustration of God’s truly sufficient strength that my headache embodies has touched thousands with lasting blessing.
It’s pretty humbling. What has done people the most amount of good in my ministry? Not my eloquence. Not my style. Not my great wisdom or insight. Not my leadership gifts. None of these has preached the gospel most effectively. My pain has. I do not mean to diminish the need for truth proclaimed. What I’m saying is that in my experience, what has preached most compellingly is the truth proclaimed married to the truth proven. And the truth proven has been proven through my pain.
People have let me know many times that when they had a headache “the other day,” they thought of me. And when they thought of my headache they thought of the God who sustains his children over the long haul. And then they trusted God to face their own pain in life. How amazing is that?
But it makes humbling sense. When thirty-three years of pain don’t reduce a man to a puddle, but somehow are met with daily, renewed inner strength, there is something more at work than an indomitable human spirit. It is the power of God, evidence that the very grace that God has promised is the grace that will be delivered. I’ve been renewed with joy day by day for thirty-three years. That is the hand of God alone, a hand that you and I can trust today.
This is all very humbling. The most powerful part of my ministry is me at my weakest. God’s sufficiency in my pain may well be my very best sermon ever.
A BADGE OF WEAKNESS
Paul says he is content with, and boasts in, his weaknesses. Think about that. Contentment and pride while in affliction. Wouldn’t you agree that most would see the first as only remotely possible and the second as utterly ridiculous?
But not me. I’m with Paul. I wear my badge of weakness with humbled, holy pride. I love to brag about it! I’m not just passively content with my headache, I actually boast in it. In fact, I’d boast in it daily, if not for the concern that some might think I’m talking about me. It’d be easy to assume that in talking about thirty-three years of endurance through pain, I’d be boasting in myself. But that would miss the point entirely.
I wear my weakness badge because it gives me a chance to boast in God. I will brag again even now: I glory in my headache because it has been an astonishing source of joy in my life. I know without doubt that I have tasted the sweetness of all-sufficient grace more exquisitely because of my weakness than I ever would have if my ordeal had never happened. The experience of God’s gracious strength through pain has been more precious than gold—so precious, in fact, that it is more dear to me than healing.
I’ve often imagined God coming to me and saying, “Tim, here are your two options: (1) you can be healed of your headache right now, but with that healing you will not feel as much of my everyday grace-filled renewing strength as you have for these thirty-three years, or (2) you can keep the headache for the rest of your life, but with that I will keep pouring a daily conscious enjoyment of my amazing renewing grace into you. What’s your choice?”
The decision would be no-brainer easy. Without hesitation, I’d keep the headache. Even as I type through an intense morning of pain right now, I am here to say that sustaining grace is more precious than healing grace. Daily awareness of God’s renewing presence through his Word and Spirit is simply an inexpressible joy. So I will wear my badge with pride. I will boast, both now and forever, in the sufficiency of grace and in the surpassing worth of my Savior’s replenishing love, grace, truth, and power.
But what if Jesus were to come to me and offer me complete healing and a continuing everyday delight in his amazing grace, right now? I’d take that deal for sure! But then again, there’s a word for complete healing and everyday delight in Christ. It’s called heaven. So until that morning breaks, I will wear my weakness badge with pride.