God Uses Suffering to Display His Grace
And He has said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you,” (12:9a)
Paul’s three requests for relief resulted in the same answer from the Lord. Each time He did not answer by removing Paul’s pain, because, as noted above, that pain was spiritually productive. It revealed Paul’s true character, kept him humble, and drew him intimately in prayer to God. The Lord granted Paul relief not by removing his suffering but by giving him grace sufficient to endure it.
The magnificent, rich term charis (grace) appears 155 times in the New Testament. Grace describes God’s undeserved favor to mankind. It is a dynamic force, totally transforming believers’ lives, beginning at salvation (Acts 15:11; 18:27; Rom. 3:24; Eph. 1:7; 2:5, 8; 2 Tim. 1:9; Titus 2:11; 3:7) and continuing through sanctification (2 Peter 3:18) to glorification (Eph. 2:7). Grace sets the Christian faith apart from all other religions. God is gracious, benevolent, and kind, in contrast to the gods of false religions, who are at best indifferent and need constantly to be cajoled and appeased.
The Bible teaches that believers “have all received … grace upon grace” through the Lord Jesus Christ (John 1:16), since “grace and truth were realized through” Him (John 1:17) and He, as God incarnate, is “full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). Thus, Luke, writing of the early Christians, said that “abundant grace was upon them all” (Acts 4:33); Paul wrote of the “grace in which we stand” (Rom. 5:2); James spoke of grace that is greater than sin’s power (James 4:6; cf. Rom. 5:20); and Peter described the “manifold [multifaceted] grace of God” (1 Peter 4:10). No wonder Paul called it the “surpassing grace of God in [believers]” (2 Cor. 9:14), and was confident that “God is able to make all grace abound to [believers], so that always having all sufficiency in everything, [they] may have an abundance for every good deed” (2 Cor. 9:8).
Sadly, many evangelical churches today deny in practice the sufficiency of God’s grace for all of life’s problems, supplementing it with the humanistic theories of psychology. The idea that the grace of God is sufficient for even the most serious issues believers may face is derided as antiquated, simplistic, and naïve, like putting a Band-Aid on a broken leg. It is suggested by so-called Christian psychologists that divine grace may be sufficient for solving shallow problems, but deeper issues require therapy.
That raises some troubling questions. If God’s Word does not have the answers to all of life’s problems, how can it be perfect, able to totally transform the soul (Ps. 19:7–11)? Was Paul mistaken when he wrote under divine inspiration, “All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:16–17; italics added)? Why does the “wisdom from above” (James 3:17) need to be supplemented by the foolishness of human wisdom (1 Cor. 1:20–21; 2:5; 3:19)? If believers are complete in Christ (Col. 2:10) and have been granted in Him “everything pertaining to life and godliness” (2 Peter 1:3; italics added), what more do they need? When Paul said, “I can do all things through Him who strengthens me” (Phil. 4:13; italics added), did he have in mind only superficial, minor issues? Was he mistaken when he wrote, “Not that we are adequate in ourselves to consider anything as coming from ourselves, but our adequacy is from God” (2 Cor. 3:5)? Does God, who “knows the secrets of the heart” (Ps. 44:21), need the insights of humanistic psychology in order to fully understand people’s problems? Is “the word of God” really “living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword … piercing as far as the division of soul and spirit, of both joints and marrow, and able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Heb. 4:12)? If it is an essential tool for removing the barriers to sanctification, how were God’s people sanctified before the advent of psychology in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries? What a tragic delusion for God’s people to imagine that the answers to life’s problems lie outside of His all-sufficient and unbounded grace. (I discuss the sufficiency of God’s grace at length in my book, Our Sufficiency in Christ [Dallas: Word, 1991].)
When God declared to Paul in answer to his prayer, “My grace is sufficient for you,” He affirmed the total sufficiency of His grace for every need in life—to believe the gospel; to understand and apply the Word to all the issues of life; to overcome sin and temptation; to endure suffering, disappointment, and pain; to obey God; to serve Him effectively; and to worship Him. God’s grace was sufficient for the deepest pain Paul (or any other believer) could ever experience.
The comforting truth is that “no temptation has overtaken [believers] but such as is common to man; and God is faithful, who will not allow [them] to be tempted beyond what [they] are able, but with the temptation will provide the way of escape also, so that [they] will be able to endure it” (1 Cor. 10:13). The way of escape is the way of endurance in grace. The writer of Hebrews urged suffering believers to “draw near with confidence to the throne of grace, so that [they] may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Heb. 4:16). Deuteronomy 33:26 reminds believers, “There is none like the God of Jeshurun, who rides the heavens to your help, and through the skies in His majesty.” God’s promise of His strengthening presence to Joshua, “Be strong and courageous! Do not tremble or be dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go” (Josh. 1:9) applies to all believers, as does His promise to Israel:
But now, thus says the Lord, your Creator, O Jacob, and He who formed you, O Israel, “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name; you are Mine! When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they will not overflow you. When you walk through the fire, you will not be scorched, nor will the flame burn you.” (Isa. 43:1–2)
If God’s grace was “more than abundant” to save Paul (1 Tim. 1:14), it was certainly sufficient to strengthen him in any subsequent trial he faced.
The following anecdote from my book Our Sufficiency in Christ illustrates the sufficiency of God’s grace:
The story is told of Charles Haddon Spurgeon, who was riding home one evening after a heavy day’s work, feeling weary and depressed, when the verse came to mind, “My grace is sufficient for you.”
In his mind he immediately compared himself to a little fish in the Thames River, apprehensive lest drinking so many pints of water in the river each day he might drink the Thames dry. Then Father Thames says to him, “Drink away, little fish. My stream is sufficient for you.”
Next he thought of a little mouse in the granaries of Egypt, afraid lest its daily nibbles exhaust the supplies and cause it to starve to death. Then Joseph comes along and says, “Cheer up, little mouse. My granaries are sufficient for you.”
Then he thought of a man climbing some high mountain to reach its lofty summit and dreading lest his breathing there might exhaust all the oxygen in the atmosphere. The Creator booms His voice out of heaven, saying, “Breathe away, oh man, and fill your lungs. My atmosphere is sufficient for you!” (pp. 256–57)
God Uses Suffering to Perfect His Power
“for power is perfected in weakness.” Most gladly, therefore, I will rather boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Therefore I am well content with weaknesses, with insults, with distresses, with persecutions, with difficulties, for Christ’s sake; for when I am weak, then I am strong. (12:9b–10)
God not only wanted to display His grace in Paul’s life, but also His power; He not only wanted the apostle to be humble, but also strong. Because “power is perfected in weakness,” it was necessary for the fires of affliction to burn away the dross of pride and self-confidence. Paul had lost all ability, humanly speaking, to deal with the situation at Corinth. He had visited there, sent others there, and written the Corinthians letters. But he could not completely fix the situation. He was at the point when he had to trust totally in God’s will and power.
It is when believers are out of answers, confidence, and strength, with nowhere else to turn but to God that they are in a position to be most effective. No one in the kingdom of God is too weak to experience God’s power, but many are too confident in their own strength. Physical suffering, mental anguish, disappointment, unfulfillment, and failure squeeze the impurities out of believers’ lives, making them pure channels through which God’s power can flow.
Though his circumstances had not changed, Paul could still exclaim, Most gladly, therefore, I will rather boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. In 1 Corinthians 1:27 he reminded the Corinthians that “God has chosen the foolish things of the world to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to shame the things which are strong.” The apostle himself had ministered among the Corinthians “in weakness and in fear and in much trembling” (1 Cor. 2:3). Paul’s weakness was not self-induced or artificial; it was not a superficial psychological self-esteem game he played with himself. It was real and God-given. He did not love the pain caused by the false apostles, knowing it was satanic in origin. Yet he embraced it as the means by which God released His power through him.
Verse 10 summarizes the truth of this passage. Eudokeō (well content) could be translated, “pleased,” or “delighted.” He was thrilled with the weaknesses, insults, distresses, persecutions, and difficulties he endured for Christ’s sake, not because he was a masochist, but because when he was weak, then he was strong.
Having a proper perspective on trouble, trials, and suffering is the cornerstone of Christian living. Focusing all one’s efforts on removing difficulties is not the answer. Believers need to embrace the trials God allows them to undergo, knowing that those trials reveal their character, humble them, draw them closer to God, and allow Him to display His grace and power in their lives. They should heed the counsel of apostle James to “Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance. And let endurance have its perfect result, so that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing” (James 1:2–4).
9. He said to me. It is not certain, whether he had this answer by a special revelation, and it is not of great importance. For God answers us, when he strengthens us inwardly by his Spirit, and sustains us by his consolation, so that we do not give up hope and patience. He bids Paul be satisfied with his grace, and, in the mean time, not refuse chastisement. Hence we must bear up under evil of ever so long continuance, because we are admirably well dealt with, when we have the grace of God to be our support. The term grace, here, does not mean here, as it does elsewhere, the favour of God, but by metonymy, the aid of the Holy Spirit, which comes to us from the unmerited favour of God; and it ought to be sufficient for the pious, inasmuch as it is a sure and invincible support against their ever giving way.
For my strength. Our weakness may seem, as if it were an obstacle in the way of God’s perfecting his strength in us. Paul does not merely deny this, but maintains, on the other hand, that it is only when our weakness becomes apparent, that God’s strength is duly perfected. To understand this more distinctly, we must distinguish between God’s strength and ours; for the word my is emphatic. “My strength,” says the Lord, (meaning that which helps man’s need—which raises them up when they have fallen down, and refreshes them when they are faint,) “is perfected in the weakness of men;” that is, it has occasion to exert itself, when the weakness of men becomes manifest; and not only so, but it is more distinctly recognised as it ought to be. For the word perfected has a reference to the perception and apprehension of mankind, because it is not perfected unless it openly shines forth, so as to receive its due praise. For mankind have no taste of it, unless they are first convinced of the need of it, and they quickly lose sight of its value, if they are not constantly exercised with a feeling of their own weakness.
Most gladly, therefore. This latter statement confirms the exposition that I have given. I will glory, says he, in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Hence, the man that is ashamed of this glorying, shuts the door upon Christ’s grace, and, in a manner, puts it away from him. For then do we make room for Christ’s grace, when in true humility of mind, we feel and confess our own weakness. The valleys are watered with rain to make them fruitful, while in the mean time, the high summits of the lofty mountains remain dry. Let that man, therefore, become a valley, who is desirous to receive the heavenly rain of God’s spiritual grace.
He adds most gladly, to show that he is influenced by such an eager desire for the grace of Christ, that he refuses nothing for the sake of obtaining it. For we see very many yielding, indeed, submission to God, as being afraid of incurring sacrilege in coveting his glory, but, at the same time, not without reluctance, or at least, less cheerfully than were becoming.
10. I take pleasure in infirmities. There can be no doubt, that he employs the term weakness in different senses; for he formerly applied this name to the punctures that he experienced in the flesh. He now employs it to denote those external qualities, which occasion contempt in the view of the world. Having spoken, however, in a general way, of infirmities of every kind, he now returns to that particular description of them, that had given occasion for his turning aside into this general discourse. Let us take notice, then, that infirmity is a general term, and that under it is comprehended the weakness of our nature, as well as all tokens of abasement. Now the point in question was Paul’s outward abasement. He proceeded farther, for the purpose of showing, that the Lord humbled him in every way, that, in his defects, the glory of God might shine forth the more resplendently, which is, in a manner, concealed and buried, when a man is in an elevated position. He now again returns to speak of his excellences, which, at the same time, made him contemptible in public view, instead of procuring for him esteem and commendation.
For when I am weak, that is—“The more deficiency there is in me, so much the more liberally does the Lord, from his strength, supply me with whatever he sees to be needful for me.” For the fortitude of philosophers is nothing else than contumacy, or rather a mad enthusiasm, such as fanatics are accustomed to have. “If a man is desirous to be truly strong, let him not refuse to be at the same time weak. Let him,” I say, “be weak in himself, that he may be strong in the Lord.” (Eph. 6:10.) Should any one object, that Paul speaks here, not of a failure of strength, but of poverty, and other afflictions, I answer, that all these things are exercises for discovering to us our own weakness; for if God had not exercised Paul with such trials, he would never have perceived so clearly his weakness. Hence, he has in view not merely poverty, and hardships of every kind, but also those effects that arise from them, as, for example, a feeling of our own weakness, self-distrust, and humility.
9–10 These two verses form the climax of 12:1–10, just as 12:1–10 is the acme of the whole “Fool’s Speech” (11:21b–12:13). The answer to Paul’s prayer did not take the form he had expected. The thorn remained, but so too did his recollection of the divine reply (eirēken, “he has said,” v. 9a). In the distressing weakness inflicted at various times by his ailment, he would never lack sufficient grace to be more than a conqueror (cf. Ro 8:35–37). This grace of Christ (2 Co 13:14) was adequate for Paul, weak as he was, precisely because (gar, “for”) divine power finds its full scope and strength only in human weakness—the greater the Christian’s acknowledged weakness (i.e., acknowledgment of one’s creatureliness and of one’s impotence to render effective service to Christ without his empowering), the more evident Christ’s enabling strength (cf. Eph 3:16; Php 4:13). But it is not simply that weakness is a prerequisite for power. Both weakness and power existed simultaneously in Paul’s life (note vv. 9b, 10b; cf. 4:10–11), as they did in Christ’s ministry and death. Indeed, the cross of Christ forms the supreme example of “power in weakness.”
With this spiritual lesson well learned, Paul would gladly boast about things that exposed his weakness (“insults … hardships … persecutions … difficulties,” v. 10) rather than pray for the removal of the “thorn” and its attendant weakness. It was not, however, in the weaknesses themselves that Paul took delight but in the opportunity that sufferings endured “for Christ’s sake” afforded him for Christ’s power to rest on him and form a protective cover over him (v. 9b).
 MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (2003). 2 Corinthians (pp. 402–406). Chicago: Moody Publishers.
 Calvin, J., & Pringle, J. (2010). Commentaries on the Epistles of Paul the Apostle to the Corinthians (Vol. 2, pp. 377–380). Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software.
 Harris, M. J. (2008). 2 Corinthians. In T. Longman III &. Garland, David E. (Ed.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Romans–Galatians (Revised Edition) (Vol. 11, p. 533). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.