2 Corinthians 12: Thorny Comfort

Who?  Paul and the "super Christians" in Corinth

the second part of the Bible (the New Testament) starts with four books about the life of Jesus.
At the end of these, Jesus is killed on the cross.
Then he comes to life again, and goes back up to heaven
after these four books, is a book called Acts.
we looked at the book of Acts for a lot of this year.
The biggest person in Acts is a man called Paul
Paul travelled around to different countries, telling people the good news about Jesus.
He’d come to a city where no one had heard about Jesus,
and soon there was a new church there.
Paul is an amazing guy!
He is maybe my biggest hero in the Bible, after Jesus.
why do I like Paul?
Paul was very intelligent.
He had a very deep understanding of Jesus
He did a lot of study.
I study theology and philosophy at university, so I like this
Paul knew a lot in his mind – but he also loved a lot in his heart
He was totally in love with Jesus (see Philippians 3).
And he loved people.
He was like a father to the new Christians.
So Paul wrote letters to help and encourage them.
A lot of these are in the Bible after Acts.
today, we are going to look at one: a letter Paul wrote to the church in Corinth.
Corinth is a city in Greece.
Paul lived there for one and a half years (Acts 18).
In the Bible, we have two letters that he wrote to the Christians in Corinth
Today, we are looking at the second letter: 2 Corinthians.
This is maybe Paul’s most personal letter.
He tells us a lot about himself.
Since the last time Paul had been in Corinth,
some bad people had come,
they tried to lead the Christians away from Paul and what he taught about Jesus.
They said Paul is weak.
He is poor.
Sometimes he gets sick
He is not a good preacher – he’s boring.
He is not a good Christian.
And these people boasted about themselves
boasting means they were proud.
They told everyone, “look how how intelligent and strong and great we are”.
They said "we are the best" – much better than Paul
We are rich.
We are successful
we are "super Christians"[1]
We know more about God
That Paul is a loser – we are super!
Paul heard what those people were saying.
That’s one reason why he wrote the letter of second Corinthians
If you were Paul, what would you say?
What do you think he wrote?
Paul could boast about himself.
He could say:
no, I am the best.
Look, how many churches in how many countries I have started
I am more successful
I am a better preacher
I am a real super-dooper Christian – they are the losers
Well, Paul doesn’t quite write like that.
In 2 Corinthians, Paul writes, yes, God has spoken to me in some amazing ways,
God gave me special experiences and "revelations"
– secret things that nobody else knows.
I could boast about that says Paul, but I won’t
I’ll only boast about my troubles and suffering, about how weak I am (11:30)
let’s read now what he says, near the end of the letter.
2 Corinthians 12: 5-10 (page 888).
5 That experience is worth boasting about, but I’m not going to do it. I will boast only about my weaknesses. 6 If I wanted to boast, I would be no fool in doing so, because I would be telling the truth. But I won’t do it, because I don’t want anyone to give me credit beyond what they can see in my life or hear in my message, 7 even though I have received such wonderful revelations from God. So to keep me from becoming proud, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger from Satan to torment me and keep me from becoming proud.
 8 Three different times I begged the Lord to take it away. 9 Each time he said, “My grace is all you need. My power works best in weakness.” So now I am glad to boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ can work through me. 10 That’s why I take pleasure in my weaknesses, and in the insults, hardships, persecutions, and troubles that I suffer for Christ. For when I am weak, then I am strong.
revelations = things that noone else knows
a thorn = something sharp that hurts us.
Satan = the devil, the spiritual enemy of God
torment me = hurt me
begged = asked very hard

What Was Paul’s Thorn?

Paul says God gave him a "thorn in the flesh."
A thorn is something with a sharp point that hurts us.
Like a thorn on a rose flower
Or if you go tramping, nasty gorse bushes or spear grass!
God gave Paul a thorn, a painful weakness
Paul really hated it.
Three times, he begged, he asked God so hard
-"please take this away."
"I could serve you so much better without this thorn"
please Lord
Sometimes when we pray like that, God says yes and takes our problems away,
it’s wonderful, and we are so happy.
But this time for Paul, God says no.
Many of us have some sort of "thorn" in our own lives.
Something that hurts us, and we wish God would take it away.
But maybe he doesn’t
do you have something like that?
So what was this strange "thorn" that Paul had?
Nobody really knows,
I read many pages of people’s different ideas.
Here’s some of them, and maybe some will be like something in your life

One: persecution

Some people think Paul’s Thorn was persecution.
Persecution is when people hate us for no good reason because we love Jesus.
Paul always told people about Jesus.
Sometimes they just got angry, they hated Paul,
they said bad things about him or even tried to kill him
earlier in second Corinthians, Paul wrote this:
We have troubles and hardships and sufferings of every kind.
We have been beaten, been put in prison, faced angry crowds,
we have worked until we were totally tired, had nights without sleep, and gone without food.
2 Corinthians 6:4-5
-if you heard the talks from the book of Acts this year might you recognise some of these things!
here in New Zealand, maybe people laugh at us because we are Christians.
That might hurt us, but it’s not really bad
in some countries, where some people here come from, persecution is a very real thorn.
The sorts of things Paul wrote about still happen to Christians.
Paul was especially unhappy and hurt because his own people, the Jews rejected him
they didn’t want to know about Jesus.
Some of us here might be afraid that our family and friends will reject us if we are Christians.

Two: physical

some people think Paul’s Thorn was a physical problem:
maybe Paul had bad eyes so he could not see very well.  (Galatians 4:13-15, 6:11)
Some people think Paul had a disease like malaria, that gave him terrible bad headaches.[2]
he was maybe a bit ugly, not very good looking (2 Corinthians 10:10).
Maybe he had a problem that made it hard to speak (like stuttering).
We’re not sure.
Probably some of us have a sickness or physical problem.
We wish God would take it away.
We pray so hard and other people pray for us.
But it is still there
Like for Paul, God says no.
I work as a computer programmer.
And sometimes my hands and wrists get a bit painful from typing (RSI/OOS).
Especially now, at the end of the year.
I have to write essays for my study, and there’s a lot of work to do for my boss
So, I get worried about my wrists having no rest and getting worse
I have had it for a lot of years, even though the pastors here have prayed for me.
That’s a little physical thorn for me.

Three: emotional

Persecution, a physical problem…
other people think Paul’s Thorn was more emotional:
maybe Paul got very unhappy or had depression.
He felt like his life was meaningless and he was a failure.
Maybe that’s a thorn for some people here
I’m a bit like that sometimes.
With all his travels, Paul was probably often lonely and homesick – like some of us.
his life was hard, sometimes he had no friends, and he wasn’t married
For hundreds of years (through the Middle Ages), most people thought Paul’s Thorn was sexual temptation.
Temptation is when we want to do something, but we know it’s bad
Maybe Paul found it hard to keep his mind clean and pure,
Hard not to think bad thoughts about those good-looking women walking down the street in Corinth,
he felt so lonely and alone.
For many Christians, this is a big thorn
maybe you really wish you had a boyfriend or girlfriend, a husband or wife.
Maybe you’ve been asking God, but there’s no answer.
It’s so hard to wait and try to stay pure in our culture.

Why Does God Say No?

persecution, physical sickness like headaches, depression, loneliness, temptation?
Whatever Paul’s thorn was, he hated it.  It hurt him.
Three times Paul asked God to take it away.
And each time, God said, no.
Sometimes God doesn’t answer our prayers the way we want.
God didn’t give Paul what he wanted.
God didn’t take away Paul’s thorn, and sometimes it’s the same for us.
If God loves us, why does he say no?
the problem of pain
It’s often a mystery
I don’t think we’ll ever totally understand in this life.
But Paul gives some answers in this letter that might help us.

One: so we will rely on God and grow closer to him

God said no to Paul’s prayer, but he gave Paul something better:
“My grace is all you need. My power works best in weakness.” (12:9)
God’s grace is what Christianity is all about.
God’s grace means, says Paul, that
God loves us, even when we don’t love him.
God gives us his riches, when we are poor.
He gives us his strength, when we are weak
God helps us when we are helpless
this is the big message of this letter:
God’s power works through our human weakness – in fact, works best!
God’s grace and strength and power is made perfect in our suffering and failure and weakness
very different from those "super Christians" in Corinth who boasted about how great they were.
Very different from our society today.
So in a way, says Paul, my enemies are right.
I am poor, and foolish, and weak, and powerless like they said.
I am a loser.
But that doesn’t matter, because my God is rich and strong and wise and powerful
I may be a loser, but God is super!
And you know what?  He loves me!
That’s good news when I feel like a failure!
when I am weak in myself, then I can be strong in him. (10:10)
And it’s best that way, says Paul,
because then I won’t be proud
I won’t think I don’t need God.[3]
Paul was intelligent and successful.  He could have relied on his own strength.
Because of our sufferings, wrote Paul
we stopped relying on ourselves and learned to trust God.
2 Corinthians 1:9
If you ask people who are really close to God,
often they’ll say it is the hard things in our lives.
The things that poke into us like thorns and hurt us.
That bring us closer to him[4]
It’s been like that for me.
The times I felt alone and weak and afraid,
when I didn’t know how I’d get through the week, or even the day.
It’s often been those times that I started to pray.
The Bible came alive, almost like a love letter from God
verses touched my heart that I never noticed when life was happy and I felt strong.

Two: so God can comfort and bless others through us

Right at the start of the letter, Paul calls God
"the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort" (1:3)
– isn’t that beautiful?
compassion means God suffers with us
Then he writes:
God comforts us in all our troubles so that we can comfort others.
When they are troubled, we will be able to give them the same comfort God has given us.
2 Corinthians 1:3-4
God gives us his love and grace, and we give it on to others
When we have gone through hard times, we can understand and help others with the same problem
Paul has another wonderful picture:
We have the light of Jesus shining in our hearts,
but we ourselves are like fragile clay jars containing this great treasure. 
2 Corinthians 4:7
God hides his glory – his greatness, his bright shining light – inside us, like treasure in clay jars.
Like gold and silver and diamonds
inside boring, plain, cheap Jars of Clay that are easily broken.
So when people look at us, they won’t just see us, but God
“This makes it clear that our great power is from God, not from ourselves.” (4:7)
God’s power shows up best in weak people.
 “You can see God better in broken people,
Because his glory shines through the cracks”
Think of the most loving and caring person you know, someone who helps you when you are hurting.
It’s quite likely, they have suffered a lot themselves.
They are "wounded healers", or “saints with scars”
Sometimes the most beautiful people have a very painful thorn.

Three: to make us like Jesus

God loves me enough to sometimes say no, and even give me a thorn.
A Christian doctor wrote a book called "Pain: the gift, nobody wants". (Dr Paul Brand)
Maybe we don’t want it, but a thorn can be a gift.
It stops me being proud, boasting and relying on myself.
So I will grow closer to God and trust in him.
Then God can shine out through my weakness and brokenness to bless others
thorny times can make us better people.
but there’s an even deeper meaning to all this.
there is another person in the Bible who cried out to God three times to take something away.
Do you remember who?
One night this man was praying in a garden.  (Matthew 26:39, 42, 44)
who?  Yes, Jesus.
He was afraid, and three times he asked God, “if it is possible, take this away”.
Like for Paul, God said no.
the next morning, Jesus was arrested and beaten and nailed onto the cross.
Paul had one thorn.
Jesus had a whole crown of thorns.
Second Corinthians talks a lot about God’s comfort.
But often it’s bittersweet, Thorny comfort.
Our suffering and God’s strength
Human weakness and God’s power
What’s the biggest example of this idea you can think of?
Anyone?  A clue: it was at Easter:
death and resurrection
dying and being born again to new life
God raises the dead! (1:9) – That’s real power in weakness!
Christ was crucified in weakness, he now lives by the power of God.
2 Corinthians 13:4
And here’s something amazing:
for Paul, when we follow Jesus, if we trust him,
our thorns, our pains, are like sharing Jesus’ death, dying with Jesus.
Through suffering, our bodies share in the death of Jesus
so that the life of Jesus may also be seen in our bodies.
2 Corinthians 4:10
Through Jesus’ suffering and death, God brought us all new life.
and in a smaller way, through our own suffering, and our own thorns,
This new life can grow in us and go out to others.
If you feel like a loser, a failure.
If you feel so weak and helpless you’re practically dead.
If your “thorn” hurts so much you wish you were dead…
Then remember that God’s power works best through our weakness
God’s grace is all you need, because
God raises the dead!

Questions – Thorny Comfort

2 Corinthians 12:5-10
Paul had a painful “thorn”, something that hurt him.
–          What might it have been?
–          Is there some sort of “thorn” in your life?
Paul asked God to take it away, but God didn’t.
–          Why did God say “no” to Paul?
–          Have you asked God for something, and he said “no”?
–          Why doesn’t God always answer our prayers how we want?
Paul realized that God’s power works best through our weakness.
–          What examples of this have you experienced?
–          How can we see this in the life, death & resurrection of Jesus?
Pray for each other,
asking for God’s comfort & strength in our weakness.

[1] Paul calls them "super Apostles"-2 Corinthians 12:11.  see 5:12 "those who brag about having a spectacular ministry rather than having a sincere heart".  What a contrast to Paul: “We don’t go around preaching about ourselves. We preach that Jesus Christ is Lord, and we ourselves are your servants.” 2 Corinthians 4:5.
[2] Epilepsy is another common suggestion.
[3] There’s an Indian saying, "use a thorn to take out a thorn".  If you’re out walking and get a thorn in your foot, sometimes another thorn is the best thing to get it out with.  So Paul’s painful "thorn in the flesh" , was maybe God’s way to take out the spiritually more dangerous thorn of pride, that would separate him from God.
[4] In Hosea 2:6 God hems Israel in with thorn bushes so she can’t run away from him.