Let’s say you sat down for coffee and conversation with a friend, wanting to unburden yourself about some personal struggle. You pour your heart out, looking for solace and sympathy, maybe even some help or advice.
But what if your friend responded, “God’s grace has to be enough for you, period. You’re going to have to depend on his strength, not yours.” How would you react? Would you feel more like hugging or hitting your friend?
Of course, the same words can be said in different ways: with patient listening or without, with compassion or condescension. And what constitutes the appropriate counsel will depend on the situation. But I wonder how well we even accept the idea that there are situations in which we must rely upon the power of God just to get through, and that this makes life more meaningful and not less.
Consider the example of the apostle Paul, who refers to struggling with some form of suffering about which he prayed repeatedly, Lord, take it away–please, I beg of you! Jesus’ answer to that prayer was more than just “no”:
I was given a thorn in my body because of the outstanding revelations I’ve received so that I wouldn’t be conceited. It’s a messenger from Satan sent to torment me so that I wouldn’t be conceited. I pleaded with the Lord three times for it to leave me alone. He said to me, “My grace is enough for you, because power is made perfect in weakness.” So I’ll gladly spend my time bragging about my weaknesses so that Christ’s power can rest on me. Therefore, I’m all right with weaknesses, insults, disasters, harassments, and stressful situations for the sake of Christ, because when I’m weak, then I’m strong. (2 Cor 12:7-10, CEB)
There’s been endless speculation about the nature of Paul’s “thorn,” but certainty is impossible. Apparently, after Paul had a strikingly unique spiritual experience (2 Cor 12:1-6), he began to suffer some inexplicable affliction. At first, he may not have known what to make of it, and prayed for release.
But somehow, he got the message from Jesus that there was divine purpose in his suffering. Paul interprets it as a matter of pride: he’s been called to be a witness to the power of God and the gospel; his recent spiritual epiphany was tempting him to think more highly of himself than was proper; his “thorn” was a way of keeping him in his place.
Note that Paul doesn’t say that Jesus told him all this directly. Rather, knowing his own mind and heart, Paul seems to infer it from what Jesus does say: My grace is enough, because power is made perfect in weakness. And Paul promptly takes the message to heart: Therefore, I’ll take anything that comes my way, because when I’m weak, then I’m strong.
So here’s an example of what we discussed in the first post: yes, God may allow suffering in order that we might learn something from it. But notice that the lesson is one that should make complete sense to anyone that lives by a gospel of grace that centers on a crucified Savior: God’s power is manifested in and through human weakness.
Paul refers to a pretty broad catalog of human experience: “weaknesses, insults, disasters, harassments, and stressful situations.” There’s something for everyone. So pick your favorite and ask, “What makes life meaningful in the face of that?” That’s the subject of the final post.