Sunday Sermon: ‘Learning to Live by Grace’



From the book of 1 Peter we read something very important – “Always be ready to give an answer to anyone who asks you why you are so hopeful.” [1] Peter’s admonition reveal two very important facts:

1) Apparently there was something happening in the reader’s lives that should have robbed them of their hope

2) Yet there was something else happening in their lives that still gave them hope

Indeed Peter’s audience did have reason to lose hope. They were being heavily persecuted for their faith. Yet in spite of all of their struggles, Peter encourages them to remain hopeful; so much so that non-believers would eventually ask them why.

If what Peter says is true, then we need to know what it is that can enable us to have hope, even when having hope isn’t normal. To help us find our answer I have entitled today’s message “Learning to Live by Grace” and the text we will be studying is from 2 Corinthians 12.

I. The Problems God Allows to Come Into Our Lives

The first thing I want us to consider is that God sometimes allows pain to come into our lives. To understand this we need to look at the life of one of the greatest Christians who ever lived. His name was Paul and even though he was a great Christian, he was not immune to suffering.

2 Corinthians 12:7 And lest I should be exalted above measure through the abundance of the revelations, there was given to me a thorn in the flesh, the messenger of Satan to buffet me, lest I should be exalted above measure. 8 For this thing I besought the Lord thrice, that it might depart from me. 9 And he said unto me, My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness…

A. God Gave Paul a ‘Thorn in the Flesh’

The first thing we need to see is that God gave Paul a problem. Paul called it a ‘thorn in the flesh.’   Verse 7 “…there was given to me a thorn in the flesh…” The word ‘given’ can simply mean to give someone something, or it can mean to give someone something for a special purpose.

1. What was Paul’s Thorn in the Flesh?

A lot of people have tried to guess what Paul’s thorn was. Some say that it was a physical affliction such as a problem with his eyesight. Paul seems to indicate in the book of Galatians that he had a hard time seeing. [2] Others say that it was not ‘something’, but rather ‘someone.’ Paul refers to his thorn as a ‘messenger of Satan.’ The word messenger means angel. In other words, a demon was specifically assigned by Satan for the purpose of tormenting Paul. If it was a demon, it probably came through someone; perhaps the band of Judaizers who seemed to follow Paul from town to town in order to oppose his preaching. [3]

We’re not told exactly what his thorn was and perhaps for good reason. It doesn’t matter what it was. It could have been physical, emotional, or even spiritual. The word literally means a sharp stake often used to torture someone. Paul referred to it as a messenger of Satan sent to ‘buffet him’ which means to strike with our fist. Something or someone was causing attacking Paul and causing him lots of pain.

We should note also that the verbs here are in the Present Tense which means that it was an ongoing affliction. It was a constant harassment fueled by Satan.

2. Why Did God Allow Paul to be Tormented by Satan?

The big question is not ‘what’ Paul’s thorn was, but ‘why’ God allowed it? Why did God allow one of His choicest servants to have to deal with this constant opposition from Satan? Why did God not remove all the obstacles in Paul’s life and allow him be free and happy?

Paul tells us why God allowed it.

2 Corinthians 12:1 It is not expedient for me doubtless to glory. I will come to visions and revelations of the Lord. 2 I knew a man in Christ above fourteen years ago, (whether in the body, I cannot tell; or whether out of the body, I cannot tell: God knoweth;) such an one caught up to the third heaven. 3 And I knew such a man, (whether in the body, or out of the body, I cannot tell: God knoweth;) 4 How that he was caught up into paradise, and heard unspeakable words, which it is not lawful for a man to utter. 5 Of such an one will I glory: yet of myself I will not glory, but in mine infirmities.

Apparently at some point in Paul’s life, (he says that it was fourteen years prior to this), he was caught up into heaven and there he saw and heard things that are too wonderful a human being to utter. Some suppose this occurred during the time Paul was stoned by the Jews and thought to be dead. [4]  Whenever it occurred, it was no doubt a glorious event that Paul never forgot.

Yet this marvelous event caused a problem for Paul. According to Paul, it tempted him to become prideful and even haughty. This temptation to become prideful was fueled by the fact that Paul was constantly being attacked by his enemies as to whether or not he was qualified to be called an apostle. [5]

Therefore, Paul struggled with the temptation to blow his enemies out of the water by revealing to everyone what all he heard and saw in heaven. Yet if Paul did this, it would not be for the glory of God, but for his own glory.  In addition, Paul might also be tempted to become independent and self-sufficient. He might lose his focus on God and begin to put the focus upon himself. Therefore, God had to do something to keep Paul on track. God allowed Satan to do something that would keep Paul humble and dependent upon God.

2 Corinthians 12:7 And lest I should be exalted above measure through the abundance of the revelations, there was given to me a thorn in the flesh, the messenger of Satan to buffet me, lest I should be exalted above measure.

B. God Sometimes Gives Us a Thorn in the Flesh

Though we think that just because we are a Christian, we should be immune to the problems of life; the Bible teaches us that God sometimes allows us to experience thorns as well. Another way of stating it would be – God sometimes puts a gravel in our shoe in order to remind us that He is God and we are not.

II. The Prayers We Make to God to be Delivered From Our Problems

A. Paul’s Prayers for Deliverance

2 Corinthians 12:8 For this thing I besought the Lord thrice, that it might depart from me.

Paul prayed the prayer every one of us prays whenever a thorn comes into our lives. “Lord, remove this thorn immediately so that I can go on with life.” No one likes a thorn. Thorns interfere with our idea of happiness. It doesn’t make sense to us why God would allow us to experience thorns. Surely God want us to be perfectly happy all the time – right?

Paul says that he prayed three times for God to remove his thorn. Actually the words he uses here indicates that he begged God to remove it. Actually I think that it was probably more than three statements in one prayer, or even three prayers. I believe that it was probably three intense seasons of prayer when perhaps even fasted.

Here is something very important about prayer that the Lord has tried to teach me. Sometimes we pray and the answer comes so quick and so easy that we even forget that we had a problem. But then there are other times when we have to pray and pray and pray. We have to ask and keep asking. We have to seek and keep seeking. We have to knock and keep knocking. We have to persevere in our prayers.

Jesus said that we should pray and never stop praying. The King James says, “Men ought always to pray, and not to faint…” [6] The word used here seems to imply a weariness and losing heart. Men faint because they do not pray. But, it could also be said that men fail to pray, because they faint. In other words, they get tired and give up. Yet the Bible teaches us that perseverance is an absolute necessity for having many of our prayers answered. The reason I chose Hebrews 11:6 to be my life verse is because of the last half of that verse. “God is a rewarder of those that diligently seek Him.” God rewards those who are constantly searching for Him.

The Bible is full of examples of those who persevered in prayer. Perhaps you will remember that Jesus went back and fell on His face three times in the Garden. It seems to me that the first two times Jesus got up with the answer in His head – “Not my will but thy will be done.” Jesus said that twice, yet He had to go back immediately and pray again. Why? I believe that He had to do what some call ‘praying through a matter.’ It’s one thing to have God’s answer in our head, but something else to have it in our heart. Someone has said that the purpose of prayer is not to get earth’s will done in heaven, but to get heaven’s will done here on earth. And sometimes it takes more than one prayer of the same matter in order for us to embrace heaven’s will.

B. Paul’s Prayer for Dependence

Paul began praying for deliverance, but then something amazing happened. He stopped praying for deliverance and instead he started praying for dependence.

2 Corinthians 12:8 For this thing I besought the Lord thrice, that it might depart from me. 9 And he said unto me, My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness.

I’m not sure at what point Jesus spoke to Paul. I am inclined to believe that it was during his third season of prayer.  Somewhere along the way Paul learned that Christ’s answer was not, “I am going to deliver you from this thorn”, but “By this thorn I am going to teach you how to live dependently upon Me.”

As far as we know, Paul was never delivered from this thorn. He may have well died with this thorn, whatever it was. This is for sure, as long as Paul needed the thorn in order to stay humble before God and dependent upon His grace, the Lord allowed the thorn to remain.

III. The Peace We Can Find Through Learning to Live by Grace

2 Corinthians 12:9 And he said unto me, My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness. Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. 10 Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in necessities, in persecutions, in distresses for Christ’s sake: for when I am weak, then am I strong.

Do you see how the prayers of Paul changed? No longer was he praying for God to remove his thorn so that he could live a carefree life. Now he is praying for Christ to be glorified through him, regardless of what it takes.

Paul did not arrive at this point easily. Just like most of us, it had to work his way through him; or perhaps I should say that he had to ‘pray his way through it.’ It took several prayers for Paul to begin to understand why the Lord had allowed him to have this thorn and even more so, why the Lord wasn’t going to remove it.

It seems to me that there are several things Paul had to learn that enabled him to embrace his thorn:

A. Every Thorn is an Opportunity for Christ to Display His Grace 

No longer does Paul view his thorn as an obstacle. It is now an opportunity for Christ to be glorified by demonstrating His grace.

But this truth goes even further. It’s not just about this particular thorn that Paul is currently experiencing. It’s about every thorn the Lord allows to come into our lives. Notice that Paul said – “Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities…” ‘Infirmities’ is written in the plural. It’s not just this thorn Paul is referring to. It’s all the thorns God allows to enter into his life. All the thorns are opportunities for Christ to display His grace and to receive glory. “Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in necessities, in persecutions, in distresses…” (vs. 10) Regardless of what the problem was, Paul viewed it as an opportunity for Christ to demonstrate His grace. Perhaps Paul even reached the point somewhere along the way that whenever a problem occurred, the first thing he prayed for was for God to give him grace. Rather than always praying for deliverance, perhaps Paul began to pray even more for dependence.

B. God’s Grace Will Always Be Sufficient for Every Thorn

“And he said unto me, My grace is sufficient for thee…” 2 Corinthians 12:9

Are there some thorns too big for God to handle? Are there some thorns to painful for God’s grace? Jesus told Paul that His grace would always be sufficient, regardless of the thorn.

The word ‘sufficient’ is very interesting. First of all we need to recognize that the way Paul wrote this, the Lord told him that His grace would always be sufficient, regardless of the situation. It’s in the Present Tense and Indicative Mood. As surely as God allows the thorn, He will also supply the grace.

Secondly, the word sufficient means: to be enough, to suffice. Here is Christ’s answer to our question ‘Are there some thorns too big for God to handle?’ The answer is no. Jesus told Paul that His grace would always be sufficient to help him handle every problem.

C. It’s Only in Our Weaknesses That We Come to Realize the Strength of His Grace

Most of us view a thorn as an interference. A thorn is prickly and painful and therefore something to be avoided at all cost. However, Paul learned that thorns can also be powerful. The thorn itself is not powerful. It’s the grace of God that comes with the thorn that is powerful. Consider our passage once again.

2 Corinthians 12:9 And he said unto me, My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness.

Notice that the strength is not ‘our’ strength, but ‘His’ strength. His strength is made perfect in our weaknesses. What does that mean that His strength is ‘made perfect?’ It does not mean that His strength will be made better. His strength is already perfect. What it means is that our thorns give Him an opportunity to reveal just how strong His grace really is. Our weaknesses provide His grace an opportunity to accomplish what His grace alone can accomplish. Here’s something else that is very important for us to understand. Kenneth Wuest translated this as ‘My grace is …moment by moment coming to its full energy and complete operation in the sphere of weakness.’ The best illustration I can give you for what this passage is saying is that grace is like an IV that provides us with God’s strength – ‘drip by drip.’

Paul also said,“…when I am weak, then am I strong.” Again I refer to Wuest’s translation for an explanation of what Paul was saying. “For when I am weak, then I am filled with ability and power.” Here’s a very sobering truth that we must learn and understand. If we were never weak, we would never realize His strength. It’s only in the moments of weakness that we see His strength.

Philippians 4:11 …for I have learned, in whatsoever state I am, therewith to be content. 12  I know both how to be abased, and I know how to abound: every where and in all things I am instructed both to be full and to be hungry, both to abound and to suffer need. 13  I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me.


I don’t think that we can grasp or understand what Paul is teaching us without the practice of prayer. Sometimes prayer is a process that we must go through in order to come to this point.

No doubt there will be times when we begin our prayers with – “Lord, take this thorn out of my life immediately. It’s an inconvenience and I don’t like it.” But then, as the Lord patiently works with us, He may help our prayers to change. I don’t think we’ll ever say, “Lord, pour on the thorns.” Thorns will always be painful and they will debilitate us. Thorns will weaken us of our personal strength. Thorns are meant to reveal just how weak we are. But thorns also provide God an opportunity to empower us with His strength. And therefore, over time, our prayers may change to – “Lord, the thorn is still painful; yet I trust in You to give me Your strength.” And thus, through prayer and the intense study of God’s Word, we will come to experience His grace – drip by drip.


[1] 1 Peter 3:15  (author’s translation)

[2] Galatians 4:13; 4:15; 6:11

[3] Acts 15:1

[4] Acts 14:19

[5] See 1 Corinthians 9

[6] Luke 18:1

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