In 2 Corinthians 12:7-10, Paul gives a humiliating testimony about a prayer of his that was not answered. Not that God did not hear him, but that He did not answer him positively. This becomes more poignant considering the purpose of the book of 2 Corinthians is to demonstrate Paul’s authority as an apostle! Here the apostle is showing this troubled church that even he receives “no” answers to prayer. What is worse, he says that he “pleaded with the Lord three times.” This was no small amount of praying on the part of Paul. Did these “three times” take the form of all-night prayer vigils, three-day fasts, accompanied by tears, cries, or even shouts at the Lord for not listening? They were probably not simple requests made in a list of other more mundane prayer items. Paul shares this with the Corinthians to illuminate the purpose of all prayer: to allow God the opportunity in our life to glorify Himself.
God’s statement to Paul in verse nine is a study in superlative contrasts. “My grace is sufficient for you…” In this short statement, God reminds Paul of the sufficiency of grace. Perhaps He is telling Paul, “By My grace I saved you from your sins, and you presume to ask for more, shouldn’t that be sufficient for you?” Better, He is telling him, “I have given you the grace to endure this and it is a sufficient amount of My grace to get you through it.” But even better still, He is saying to Paul, “I have given you this ‘thorn in the flesh’ out of My grace for you. It will, like the surgeon’s scalpel, be sufficient to work my perfect plan in your life.”
If Paul had no “thorn in the flesh,” he would have been tempted to live in his own strength. God is demonstrating to him that it is His strength and our recognition of our weakness that brings about maturity. Paul had not yet obtained maturity (perfection). He would need a daily reminder to humble himself and to always rely on God’s strength for daily living and service. This is why Paul responds that he will “take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in needs, in persecutions, and in distresses….” He recognizes that only through Christ’s strength will he be made strong (mature, complete, perfect). Paul even sees this as instantaneous, “when I am (present tense) weak then I am (present tense) strong.”
This passage opposes the “name it and claim it” thought line, that misguidedly cling to Matthew 21:21-22, as if faith is some kind of will-power on the part of the one who believes. However, faith and will-power are polar opposites! Faith is reliance upon the abilities of something or someone else to do something. Therefore, Jesus says, “If you have faith and do not doubt…” and “whatever things you ask in prayer, believing, you will receive.” Prayer can be defined as a lot of things, but essentially it is asking. When one asks, one cannot demand.
A child will many times ask for things that are not good for him, or that have been promised to other children. It is often, then, that the child will become demanding and declare that the parent does not love them, if he does not get what he wants. This is not prayer. And it is certainly not the point of Matthew 21:21-22. There are, however, prayers to which God will always say, “Yes.” The prayer for wisdom, the prayer for grace, the prayer for God to glorify Himself, the prayer for forgiveness and most importantly the prayer of repentance and faith in Christ’s atoning sacrifice. This is why Paul, though pouring his heart out to God, was not only okay with the “No,” but reveled in it. May those in the throws of infirmities or trials have the kind of faith that does not demand that God says, “Yes,” but rather says, “Yes” to God!
-Dr. Ben Olson, VP for Academic Affairs