Saturday, February 11, 2017

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We have likely heard the expression, “No pain; no gain.”  That is true in getting physically fit.  Working out is exactly that—work!  If muscles are to be built they are first made sore.  It is the exertion that produces the stamina and strength.  There is no easy way.  This is a spiritual axiom as well.  Faith muscle can only develop through resistance.  Pain produces power.  It is for our profit if received as such.  We have the notable example of the Apostle Paul as he shared it in 2 Corinthians 12:1-10:

It is doubtless not profitable for me to boast. I will come to visions and revelations of the Lord:  I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago—whether in the body I do not know, or whether out of the body I do not know, God knows—such a one was caught up to the third heaven.  And I know such a man—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows—how he was caught up into Paradise and heard inexpressible words, which it is not lawful for a man to utter.  Of such a one I will boast; yet of myself I will not boast, except in my infirmities.  For though I might desire to boast, I will not be a fool; for I will speak the truth. But I refrain, lest anyone should think of me above what he sees me to be or hears from me.

And lest I should be exalted above measure by the abundance of the revelations, a thorn in the flesh was given to me, a messenger of Satan to buffet me, lest I be exalted above measure.  Concerning this thing I pleaded with the Lord three times that it might depart from me.  And He said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore most gladly I will rather boast in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me.  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.

Paul is speaking of an experience he had—unsure whether it was a vision or transported physically into God’s presence.  The occasion is uncertain, but the destination is said to be, “the third heaven.”  The first heaven is our sky—the atmosphere where clouds form and birds fly; the second heaven is space—where the stars shine and planets pursue their courses; the third heaven is Paradise where God sits on His throne—the object of worship by angels and departed saints.

It is of note that Paul refused to give details of his trip to Heaven, unlike many who have found great profit in writing books and making movies about “near death” experiences.  If Paul was forbidden to speak of what he heard, then why are people free today to describe such?  I am making no judgment, just asking the question.

Be that as it may, what is known is that God put a governor on the Apostle, lest he run away with pride and wreck his ministry.  Conceit over his experience would potentially prove his downfall, so God moved to preserve his servant—and in a most unusual manner.  God sent Paul “a thorn in the flesh…a messenger of Satan to buffet me….” 

We do not know the nature of Paul’s affliction—a myriad of ideas have been proposed—and we simply cannot say with confidence.  Perhaps this is God’s intent, so that whatever affliction we may face enables us to identify with the Apostle, and it would prevent pride from those who had the same problem were it defined, perhaps prompting the boast, “I’ve got Paul’s disease!”  That is how sinister pride can be, and that is why God would afflict his choice servant with pain so he would not fall.

Notice the source of Paul’s pain—God!  It was, “a messenger of Satan,” to be sure, but dispensed by a sovereign God as a gift!  He says this was “given” to him.  Strange gift!  Not exactly what you would want to find under your Christmas tree!  Yet, the omniscient and omnibenevolent God gave Paul precisely what was needed when he gave permission for this demonic buffeting to occur.  This is reminiscent of Job’s experience, where God initiated the waves of disaster that would sweep over him as a result of the Lord’s challenge to Satan and subsequent permission to attack him.  Always remember that God is in charge.  Satan and his imps have no power but what God permits, and if he permits them to bring problems then it is to fulfill His purpose with that very evil generating good (Rom.8:28).  The Old Testament story of Joseph is a perfect illustration.  All the harm that was meant for him would become the very vehicle that would carry him to power!

Paul described this as a “thorn,” literally, a sharp stake driven into him.  That is most suggestive.  It recalls the sharp spikes hammered into the flesh of Christ and the spear thrust into His side.  What an awful evil was done; what agonizing pain He felt!  Yet, this is how God wrought His most wondrous work as the satanic act of killing Jesus would be the very means of crushing the Serpent (Gen.3:15).  This is God’s mysterious and glorious way.

Still, Paul was human and not a masochist who found pleasure in the pain itself.  Normal folk would not.  They would do what he did—pray for deliverance!  Jesus prayed that if there would be any other way to accomplish His mission than to drink that bitter cup, then that would be His desire.  There was not, and He submitted after praying three times.  In this, Paul followed the Lord’s example.

Beware those who claim that if you have enough faith then all your problems will vanish.  Faith often creates more pain than it removes!  It was true for Jesus.  It was true for Paul.  It was true for Job.  It was true for Joseph.  It will be true for us.

God had something better in mind for His servant.  He promised something superior to physical deliverance.  God gave him abundant, amazing grace.  The Apostle’s pain that drove him to his knees in submission would enable him to rise clothed in power!  The affliction would not limit him, but enable him to tap into God’s limitless might.  So, instead of expressing grief, he exuded gladness.  Paul’s contentment in his circumstances was found in being in the will of the Lord.  There is no better place to be!