Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in needs, in persecutions, in distresses, for Christ’s sake. For when I am weak, then I am strong. (2 Corinthians 12:10)
If you find pleasure in pain, then you have a psychological problem! So, how are we to understand what Paul says here? His pleasure is not in the pain itself, but in the purpose for which God permits it and the result that purpose accomplished.
There is something worse than pain—no pain! Pain is designed as a warning system. It alerts us to a problem needing our attention. For example, suppose we never had pain—then we could stand against a hot stove and never realize it was searing our flesh, or we could have an appendix about to rupture and spread deadly infection throughout our body, without being aware of it. Of course, we look forward to a land where there is no pain—a place called heaven! We are not there yet, and so long as we live in this fallen world there will be pain, but for the child of God the purpose our Sovereign Lord accomplishes is worth every hurt. That there are temporal benefits, and eternal blessings, can even bring us to rejoice and glory in our infirmities. That is what Paul is describing in 2 Corinthians 12:1-10.
Paul uses the third person in this testimony and identifies himself as, “a man in Christ” (v.2). Everything is grounded in this relationship. Being in Christ is transformative. It is an experience all of grace—for we cannot achieve nor deserve such an exalted position. Being in Christ means that all Jesus is has become available to us and God does not see us as we are, but as He views His Son. We may not have had the same experiences as Paul, or the same position as an Apostle, but every believer has the same spiritual standing of being “in Christ.” It also means that everything that reaches us must first pass through Christ and will help shape us into His image.
Fourteen years previously, Paul had a dramatic experience where he was caught up into the presence of God (v.2-3). He calls it, “the third heaven”—not the first heaven, which is the atmosphere where clouds form and birds fly; not the second heaven, which is what we call outer space where sun and stars shine; but, the third heaven, where God dwells. Whether he was physically or spiritually present not even Paul comprehends. Unlike those who have made a mint in our day describing their heavenly trips, Paul heard things he was forbidden to write about. The Apostle wanted to glorify God, not himself (v.5-6).
Lest Paul be puffed up with pride, God put a governor on his throttle, “a thorn in the flesh was given to me, a messenger of Satan to buffet me” (v.7). The pain was given by a Sovereign God to accomplish His purposes, though Satan provided the delivery service! In this fallen world, God takes even evil and works it together for our good (Rom.8:28).
Paul did what any of us would do—instinctively praying for relief. In fact, this man of faith requests God to remove it three times (v.8). That should say something to the health and wealth preachers of today! God had something better than healing, He gave grace (v.9)! This transformed Paul’s perspective on his pain (v.10). When the pain is intense and the prayer for healing denied, learn that it is only because God has a higher purpose.