It’s common for some Christians to say to others who suffer, “Rest assured, God will not give you more than you can handle.” But I often wonder what they really mean and whether it’s true. If what they mean is that God’s love toward us is so protective that he will never give us more than we can bear, then the statement is false. But if what is meant is that in the midst of indescribable suffering which brings us to our weakest point, God empowers and equips us so thoroughly in the inner person that we are able to bear up under it—with his strength—then the statement is true. I do not believe that God gives us only what we can handle. Instead, he intentionally gives us what we cannot handle, in and of ourselves, so that we are driven to depend upon him and the all-sufficient resources that belong to us in Christ. If God gave us only what we could handle, where would the glory be? Who would get the credit? Instead, God receives greater glory when we humbly receive the gift of suffering, since it systematically breaks down more and more of Self, so that Christ may be all in all. A prime example of this principle is seen in the life of the apostle Paul, who writes,
Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this [“thorn in the flesh”], that it should leave me. 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 of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.2 Corinthians 12:8–10
In this chapter the apostle is describing a revelation that he received from God, and what Jesus said about its purpose in his life. Read the verses above again.
In the previous verses of this chapter, Paul speaks about his experience in the third person, as if he is not the man he is describing. He does this because he’s reluctant to tell others. In fact, he’s been silent for fourteen years. But because his accusers have pushed him to the wall, he no longer has a choice. For the sake of the integrity of the gospel and his ministry, he must now disclose his experience.
The enemies in Corinth were “super apostles” who claimed they were better than Paul, who was an inferior man in their eyes. They had already criticized him for being an unpolished speaker (2 Corinthians 11:6), so this would only have given them one more thing to ridicule. That is why he says “Boasting is necessary” (12:1 NASB). Now it was necessary for him to open up about this revelation, because the welfare of the gospel ministry was at stake. Paul says he was taken up to the third heaven, which is the dwelling place of God.
Scripture describes three heavens. The first heaven is the sky and the atmosphere that most closely surrounds us, the air we breathe. The second heaven is the travel space for the planets and the solar system. Yet there is a third heaven that is beyond all that we can see. Like Jesus, Paul calls it paradise. To the repentant thief on the cross who looked to Jesus with the eyes of simple faith, the Savior said, “Today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43).
When he was caught up to the very dwelling place of God, Paul saw and heard things that were beyond being inexpressible, but was commanded not to talk about them. Paul’s great revelation was then followed by a particular affliction: “So to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited. Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this . . .” (2 Corinthians 12:7–8). In these verses, Paul now shifts to the first-person pronoun, revealing that he indeed is this man. Because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, Paul would have been tempted to exalt himself. Therefore, God gave him a thorn in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment him.
What was this affliction? He describes it as a “thorn” (scolops in the Greek, referring to a long, sharp stake). Whatever it was, it felt as if a pointed stake was being driven through him. It seems best to understand this as some kind of physical weakness that regularly beat him up.
Paul’s response to his thorn in the flesh was passionate prayer. Three times he begged the Lord to take this affliction away, but God refused. Instead of removing the thorn, Jesus said to Paul, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (12:9). That is shorthand for “No, Paul, I will not take it away from you.” Paul was brought to a necessary place of submission to the will of God. In this way, Paul was becoming conformed to the likeness of Jesus, who cried out three times in the garden of Gethsemane, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me. Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done” (Luke 22:42). Each time the Lord Jesus surrendered his will to the Father’s good plan. Three times Paul cried out to God, “Remove this from me.” But God said, “No, I won’t remove it,” so he didn’t ask a fourth time.
Paul recognized that even though his physical disability came through Satan, it was ultimately from God. Satan was the agency through whom the problem came, but he was the secondary cause. He was merely the delivery boy, the messenger used to deliver the “package of suffering” to Paul; he was not the ultimate source. God was the “principal cause,” as he was in the book of Job. Satan most certainly thought the affliction would drive the apostle away from the Lord, perhaps in anger, resentment, and bitterness. But he was wrong. Instead, it propelled Paul to an even closer walk with God.
[From my new book with Joni Eareckson Tada, When Disability Hits Home: How God Magnifies His Grace in Our Weakness and Suffering]