2 Corinthians 12: 7-10
Therefore, in order to keep me from becoming conceited, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. 8 Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. 9 But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. 10 That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.
In seminary I happened to go to a new age church to just understand its worship patterns. I am not generalizing anything here. I loved the energy of the worship which could give any rock band a run for their money. After an hour of great singing, it was sermon time. I seriously do not remember what bible portion this gentleman took. But I remember he asked “Is there place for suffering in a Christian life?” The people did not know how to answer that and they found it very convenient to chant loudly “Praise the Lord, Praise the Lord.” And I did not understand the point of the exercise. Again the question was repeated and the answer was the same. So I learnt that if you do not know an answer this congregation Praises God. That’s not bad. So the pastor went ahead to explain. He said “Christ called me in a vision to heavens and told me in a thundering voice ‘Tell your people that I have borne all the sufferings for the people on the cross. So there is no more suffering. Suffering now that you have is because of lack of faith and prayer.” And there was a deafening roar of “Praise the Lord, Hallelujah, Jesus come soon.” I was stunned at the message.
Now why did I take this as the starting point is very simple. This is the majority belief of Christians. Good people will not suffer. Bad people will be punished. If one suffers, it is because we have little or no faith. People say that because we do not pray. Such a view has really hurt many people and destroyed many lives. So this is a very dangerous and flawed understanding. Let me also give you another example. I recently met a youth who has been struggling to get in terms with her/his father’s death a few years back. This struggle really derailed the faith journey and when people very glibly said “Your father’s death was God’s purpose for the best” this youth just could not take it. What kind of a God is this who is cruel and sadistic? These are authentic faith questions where if we simplisticly reduce faith to cause and effect, we simply miss the point. The question of suffering is truly a big one that needs to be maturely answered. There are thse bumper sticker faith truism that needs to be shown the door. For eg “God will give you only as much you can handle”. This is a statement that gives a lot of comfort as it means if you are suffering, God believes that you can handle it. Is this true? I feel I have seen people who just cannot handle the suffering. They are just out of wits and end of resource. How do you answer that then? So the question is where did this statement or belief arise? The only temptation that has come to you is that which everyone has. But you can trust God, who will not permit you to be tempted more than you can stand. But when you are tempted, he will also give you a way to escape so that you will be able to stand it. (1 Corinthians 10: 13) This is the root for such a popular belief. But hello hello, there Paul is talking about temptation and not suffering. So that settles it.
Now with such a background we come to the passage that is in front of us. We see Paul as a champion of faith, who is saved from snake bites, who is released from prisons, who has survived ship wrecks. So one would imagine he has all things resolved and is very intimate to God. We totally believe that if one prays, God will answer. This is true to some extent. God sure answers, but the answer may not be to our liking or plan. Paul the champion of faith prays 3 times for the removal of thorn in the flesh. It sure shows that Paul is suffering and not happy with the thorn. He wishes to be released from it. Now some say that thorn could be malaria, eye sight problem or mental torment. We do not know for sure. But what we know is that he prayed thrice and he did not get an answer to his liking. In that sense the original intention of the purpose of his prayer is defeated. But the answer he got echoes in our head. “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Boom. As far as I am concerned, I love the first part. My grace is sufficient. Sounds great. But I tend to struggle with the second part. My power is made perfect in weakness? Weakness is something that needs to be hidden and minimized is what the society teaches us. Weak people are of no use. We like strong leaders, strong sportsmen, idealized beauties. Weak and frail are losers in our culture. And who likes to be a loser? But Paul is hearing the voice of Jesus who chose weakness over strength. Jesus who communed with weak people and useless losers. Saul before his conversion was a strong person breathing hatred and killing people. Scholar from Oxford, belonged to the best order, a man who was in control. Encounter with Jesus made his realize his weakness and the necessity for grace. As an apostle of Christ, Paul was not in control. He let go off all securities. Interestingly when Saul was encountered the purpose of God was made clear in the following statement. “ I will show him how much he must suffer for my name.” Acts 9: 16. Sufferings and trials in life is a time when we are not in control. We love to be in charge of our lives. But in weakness, Jesus promises that His power is what transforms us.
There may be people reading this who are undergoing a tragedy that has shaken your life. There may be someone you know who was doing well and suddenly they have been detected with cancer. I hear this everyday and I do not know how to answer or assure. There may be some who have been trying for a job, but you are not getting it. All your friends are settled but you seem to be nowhere and this upsets you. Some of you wish to marry, but things have not gone the best way. There is pressure from family to marry but you want a suitable partner and things get tense. Some who have married discover that life is not as they had imagined. There are some who have married and want to start a family. But things do not go as planned. Questions about ‘good news’ mount and you feel depressed as you do not know what to answer. Some who have big dreams about the future of their children, but they do not match up to your expectations. There are many many scenarios in our lives where we are completely weak and totally out of control. If Paul could say something to you I am sure he would not say “You are not praying enough” or “You lack faith o faithless generation.” Or “You have sinned and therefore suffering.” I am sure he would lovingly look at you and say “I understand. I have seen suffering and been there and done that. When I am not in control, My Lord is. His grace is sufficient for you,, for his power is made perfect in your weakness.”
Let me end this meditation by a testimony that deeply impacted me. Pradeep David is the Mission coordinator of Mumbai Diocese of the Mar Thoma Church. At the age of 19, he hears the voice for mission and embarks his journey to Jammu. For many years he was associated with Indian Evangelical Mission (IEM) and worked among the Kolaam tribes. He is a polyglot who knows 7 languages. His passion for mission and rural work sets him apart in his zeal. He married Shiny, his wife and equally zealous faith partner. A wonderful family life they embarked. Years passed by but a child was not in sight. This caused serious questions. They prayed and started taking treatment but to no avail. It was in this midst that they were at Chandrapur, Maharashtra and God prompted them to take over a hostel of 19 tribal children. Pradeep says “I was clear that God was leading us. There we stopped our treatment. God was answering us in a different way than we expected. He called us to be parents to 19 children. This was not a project. Shiny became a mother and I father, to 19 children. We took this challenge of parenting. God made us parents to 19 Children. Jesus was using our weakness and perfecting us with His strength.” I was in tears listening to this testimony when he shared in our just concluded Annual Convention. His wife Shiny also shared that “Parenting 19 children was not an easy task. We had a lot of struggles and there were many questions. But God’s grace we witnessed and his strength we have seen.” Today, Pradeep and Shiny are not jus parents to 19 children, but spiritual parents to many children and youths and a wonderful inspiration to many through their lives. Their life is a great example how God transformed their suffering into a blessing for others.
My dear friends, I truly hope that if you are suffering or feeling weak, God speaks to you through His powerful Word and let us keep struggling and grasping in our journey of faith, where in our weakness, God will make us perfect through his strength. May God Bless you.
Rev Merin Mathew
Bethel Mar Thoma Church
Kolar Road, Bhop