When The Answer Is DeniedErwin W. Lutzer | February 3, 2008
Selected highlights from this sermon
Have you ever begged God to remove a difficulty in your life? Paul did, and the Lord said “no.”
Using the story of Paul’s “thorn in the flesh,” Pastor Lutzer shows us how we can still glorify God even if He doesn’t remove our thorns—and how these thorns can actually be a blessing in disguise.
If you were to ask people why they don’t pray seriously and why prayer isn’t really that big a part in their lives, I believe that ninety or ninety-five percent would say it’s because of unanswered prayer. That’s the reason. It can happen even when you are small – little. A little girl prayed that the doll that was in her arms would become a real baby, and when that didn’t happen she was disappointed with God. Aren’t you glad that God often doesn’t give us what we ask for? The teenager who prays that his teeth will be straightened out so that he won’t have to wear braces, and then discovers that God doesn’t answer, begins to think, “Well, what is there to this business of prayer?”
Usually, of course, the issue is much more severe and much greater. It has to do with a young mother dying of cancer. It has to do with Joni Eareckson Tada in a diving accident in the late sixties, existing for over forty years in a wheel chair. That’s what it has to do with. It has to do with families and abuse and all of those things, but at the end of the day, people would say, “Why should I bother because God doesn’t answer prayer?”
Well, there’s a very interesting and famous unanswered prayer in II Corinthians 12. The apostle Paul was caught up to the third heaven. He was caught up to paradise, and there in Paradise God gave him specific revelations that were wonderful and great. In fact, Paul said, “I heard things that I’m not even going to tell you about.” How different he is from some of the folks that we see from time to time who would only be too quick to tell you what new revelation they received. Paul is talking about himself in the opening verses. He says in verse 2, “Fourteen years ago I was caught up to the third heaven. I don’t know whether I was in the body or out of the body. I know that this man was caught up into paradise,” and he says in verse 4 that “he heard things that cannot be told, which a man may not utter.” So the apostle Paul says that in light of this he received so many revelations, and of course he wrote thirteen or fourteen books of the New Testament. The author of the book of Hebrews is disputed, but Paul wrote a good part of the New Testament and he said that if he were to tell people of the revelation and if they knew that the revelation was given to him, they would give him so much honor that he would be tempted to begin to think that he was special. And so God says, “Paul, what I’m going to do is to give you a thorn in the flesh to keep you humble.”
We pick up the text in verse 7. “So to keep me from being too elated by 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 being too elated. Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, 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.” Don’t you want to say “Wow” after reading that?
Here are a couple of introductory questions. First of all, what is this thorn in the flesh? The Greek word is scolopsis (sp?). What is it? What is the thorn? Well, it’s a stake, and it was the kind of stake upon which people were impaled. It was a horrendous way to die. This leads people to think that maybe the thorn was a physical ailment. Maybe it was an eye problem. There is some indication that Paul had problems with his eyes. Maybe it was malaria, which evidently brings a pain to your head. It’s like someone taking a hot iron bar and just pressing it against your forehead, someone has said.
John MacArthur goes to great lengths to try to show that actually the thorn in the flesh was very probably a false apostle indwelt by a messenger of Satan, namely a demon who stirred up opposition against Paul. So the thorn in the flesh is not defined so that we can insert our own thorn into that particular slot. The thorn may be a health problem. The thorn also may be a person. I hope it’s not the one whom you married, but if could be a person and we’ve all known what it is like from time to time to have people who are thorns in the flesh. Paul gives us a lot of latitude. He says, “I’m content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities.” That pretty well covers what the thorn might be.
Now normally we don’t vote here at the Moody Church as to what I say. I simply assume that you accept what I say. I hope that it’s Biblical, and if you disagree with me, that’s no problem. You come up later and you have the opportunity to ask my forgiveness for disagreeing with me. [laughter] But today we are going to vote. Let me ask you this question. How many of you would say that the thorn was from Satan? Raise your hands. How many of you would say that the thorn was from God? Raise your hands. Even more hands are raised for that. How many of you have no opinion at all about theological matters? Now here’s the most important question. How many of you raised your hand twice, saying that it was both from Satan and from God? Could I see your hands please? You’re the theologians. Of course it’s both. The immediate cause, the text says, was a messenger of Satan, but the ultimate cause is God. Paul says, “It was given to me of God to have a thorn in the flesh.”
If you don’t understand the relationship between God and Satan in these kinds of trials you’re never going to be able to exercise the kind of faith that you need, the kind of faith that I’m going to describe at the end of this message.
Was Job’s trial from God or from the devil? Well, it is the devil that did all of the terrible things to his family, but what does Job say? “The Lord gave and the Lord took away,” because the ultimate cause is God. Satan cannot wiggle unless God gives him permission to wiggle, and therefore, this thorn was from God.
Well, now, let’s look at the prayer itself. First of all in the specific request in verse 8 he says, “Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me.” What do we say about this request? First of all, it was very specific. “God, you have given this to me, Lord (whether it’s a person or a health issue), and I ask that it might leave me for your glory, and God, you’ll get all the credit. I’ll talk about you as a result of this. You will receive the glory. Do it, Lord.” It was specific. It was persistent. “I pleaded with the Lord.” It’s the same word that’s used in the New Testament for people who came to Jesus wanting to be healed and they pled with Jesus to be healed.
Paul says, “I am pleading with God to take it away.” The first two times, God said nothing. There was dead silence from heaven, but then after praying the third time, God spoke to the apostle Paul and gave him the reply, and in the reply in effect was, “Paul, the answer is no.” Now God didn’t say that directly, but God clearly said that Paul would keep the thorn, but that’s not the end of the story. God never leaves us stranded. He never leaves us without what we need to endure a trial.
Now notice what God says in verse 9. “My grace is sufficient for you for my power is made perfect in weakness.” God says, “Paul, I’ve got something else or you. I’ve got grace.” Paul thinks to himself, “Surely there’s a misunderstanding. Lord, I laid this on the line very clearly that my thorn was to leave.” God says, “Keep your thorn but I have grace, and grace is heavenly strength for the need of the moment. Grace is a river that runs to the soul that brings healing, and also provides calmness and a sense of acceptance and hope and even gladness, as Paul says he has after the answer. Grace is indeed given to us. God says, “I am going to take grace, and it’s going to be like an elastic band that is going to stretch over your thorn and over your difficulty in such a way that you are going to be able to endure it. That’s what I am going to give you instead.” Grace is a wonderful pillow upon which many a weary traveler has laid his head.
So God says, “I’m going to give you grace and I’m going to give you strength. My grace is sufficient for you. My power is made perfect in weakness. My power is completed. Paul, if people want to honor me and give me glory, you have to be weak, and so I sent you this thorn so that when you are weak, then my power will be displayed, and my strength will be made complete.”
Now when I was out on the farm many years when I grew up as a child we used to actually use the catalog. People don’t use catalogs nowadays, but we used to order things, and we’d send the order away, and a few weeks later the order would come back, and sometimes the company would substitute something. For example, if you ordered a sweater and they were out of sweaters, they might send you a light jacket and hope that you were satisfied with the substitution. They usually did not say, “We won’t fill the order.” They filled it with something else, and God is saying to the apostle Paul here, “I am saying no to your request, but I’m giving you something else. I am not indifferent to my answer.” When God says no, it isn’t just a plain no. It’s always “No, but there’s something else that I have in mind.” Grace is going to be given to you.
I think of Joni Eareckson to whom I referred to earlier. This woman has blessed millions. Many of you know about her because she has Joni and Friends, that marvelous ministry, and she’s been here to the Moody Church many times. Remember in that diving accident she became a quadriplegic, and after it happened as just a college student she wanted to die. She hoped and begged that people would give her some kind of pills so that she could commit suicide and get out of her misery, but nobody did, and so she want on living. And then, because she was a Christian, she learned that there were those who believed in faith healing. She attended the faith healing services, and she attended them with hope and encouragement from friends, and the passage of Scripture that she zeroed in on more particularly than any other was in John 5. It’s where Jesus heals the paralytic that was there by the Pool of Bethesda and he was there for thirty-eight years, and Jesus came along and said, “Take up your palate and walk.” That was her passage, but even though she had faith, and even though this was her passage that she would be healed, the healing never came.
One time at Founder’s Week a few years ago she was here at the church and she told this story, and I could not even keep back the tears. She said, “Recently I was in Israel.” This is now thirty-five or forty years later, and she said, “I was wheeled next to the Pool of Bethesda, and when I looked at that pool, I thanked God that he had not healed me in those thirty-five years because of all the grace and because of all the ministry he gave me as a result of my infirmity.” God says, “Joni, I’m not going to heal you, but I’m not going to just leave you there hopelessly. I am going to give you grace.”
I think of a family that has a child with a huge disability. I won’t even describe it to you. It’s not just a normal disability, but far beyond that, and these parents lovingly take care the child in exasperation, and they watch the child suffer. They have the best of medical care but there’s nothing they can do for that suffering. You say, “Well, Pastor Lutzer, would you have the grace to look after a child like that?” I don’t have that kind of grace. I don’t, but hear me carefully. If God had given us a child like that, I believe that God would have supplied the grace. Grace comes in the midst of our need, and God says, “Paul, the answer is no, but it isn’t a harsh uncaring no. It is grace that I am giving you.”
So what is Paul’s response now? We’ve looked at the request. We’ve looked at the reply. What is Paul’s response? He says in the middle of verse 9 now, “Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest on me.” He says, “If I receive grace I also receive power. I accept it. I’ve prayed that I might be rid of it but now I’ve made friends with it.” Now, theologically you need to think very carefully at this point. Remember that this thorn was a messenger of Satan, a demon in point of fact.
If Paul had lived today with some preachers, he would have been simply told “You just need to ask that demon to banish because we have authority over all evil spirits, and we’re told that we can even cause all the evil spirits in Chicago to leave, etc.” We do have some authority but our authority is not unlimited, and there are times when God says, “I want you to live with your infirmity.” As far as we know Paul died with it, but God said, “My strength is going to be perfected in that weakness,” and Paul said, “The demon who is clearly my enemy, who wants to destroy me, who is thoroughly irredeemably evil, becomes an asset to me because of what God is going to do in my life as a result of his persecution and harassment.” Wow. That’s what the apostle Paul says.
It has often been said, you know, that what cannot be cured must be endured. Paul is well beyond that. Look at what the text says. He says, “I will boast all the more gladly of my weakness.” This isn’t simply a stoic endurance. Paul says, “If through my weakness the power of Christ is seen, if through my weakness grace is given, then I can understand that I was asking for a kernel, but it is God who gave me a harvest. I was asking for a trinket, and God said, ‘Paul, I want to give you true wealth. I want to give you something far better than deliverance from your thorn. I want to show you my grace and my strength,’ and you’ll notice that he says, ‘and I will receive then God’s power.’”
Now there are two ways to make a burden bearable. Let’s suppose that someone were to ask you to carry a hundred pounds. I don’t know about you, but I doubt very much that I can carry a hundred pounds, and quite frankly, I don’t want to try. But let’s suppose that you can’t do it, and there are two ways to get us to do it. One way is to lighten the load. God comes along and says, “It’s no longer a hundred pounds, but now it’s thirty,” and I say, “Okay, thirty I think I can do.” God lightens the load. Sometimes God does that in our lives. He lightens the load, but there are other times when God simply says, “I’m going to ask you to carry the load but I’m going to give you the shoulders upon which you can carry it. I am going to strengthen you. And I’m going to give you the same kind of shoulders that the Patriots are going to need this afternoon if they clean up on the New York Giants.” So God says for one of those players, “It’s not hard to carry a hundred pounds. I will either lighten the load or I will supply the grace for you to bear it,” and so the apostle Paul acknowledges that.
Now, what is the bottom line? Why should we be changed forever because we’ve heard this message? Why should this message be so transforming that we never look at our thorn in the flesh quite the same again? Let me give you some life-changing lessons. First of all, with burdens come blessings. God doesn’t willy-nilly give you a burden without giving you grace and giving you a blessing. There is a reason why that thorn will not go away. There is a reason for it, and God says, “Yes, I have a reason, and the reason is grace and strength – perfect in weakness.”
Hudson Taylor said these interesting words. “It matters little to my servant whether I send him to buy a few things or more expensive articles. In either case I pay the bill.” God says, “You walk close with me, and whether your burden is heavy or light, I will be there to meet your need and my grace will be sufficient. It will fill up what it is that you need to walk with me.” So that’s the first lesson. The first lesson is that burdens can bring blessings and do bring blessings.
Secondly, burdens are specifically chosen for us. Notice that the apostle Paul said, “There was given to me a thorn in the flesh.” That’s in verse 7. Well, thank you very much, Lord, for your gift. I was expecting something else for Christmas quite frankly, but God said, “Paul, this is given to you.”
Now Timothy maybe had another burden. God says, “This burden is for you specifically.” You know all of my suits are bought just off the rack, but more than twenty years ago I was in Hong Kong, that great and wonderful city, and somebody convinced me to have a suit tailor-made. So I had that suit tailor-made and it fit for a while, but afterwards as the years went by it began to shrink so horribly [laughter] that there was no possible way that I could get into it, try as I might. So I think we’ve given it away, but here’s the point I want to make. When God sends you a trial it is not one just off the rack. It is tailor-made for you. Remember you are number one on God’s list of things to take care of in the universe, and so it is apportioned to you. “Paul, it is given to you that you have you this thorn in the flesh. This is yours. I have another one for others, but this is yours, Paul.”
Do you realize that God is specifically interested in you? He’s not just interested in the body of Christ somehow namelessly. He’s interested in the body but he’s interested in individuals. Earlier the choir sang so beautifully, “Jesus, lover of my soul, let me to thy bosom fly.” My, how I love those words because that’s what it’s all about at the end of the day. It’s relationship with Christ, and he is the lover of YOUR soul if you know him, and so what God wants is for us to walk with him and to know that burdens are specifically chosen by God for us.
Number three and most importantly, you can be changed forever if you listen carefully. Sufficient grace comes with sufficient faith, because here’s what some of you are saying. You are saying to me (be honest now because I can read your minds like the innards of a clock), “God’s grace isn’t sufficient for me.” You’re like a widow by the name of Doris who loved her husband, and he dropped over dead in his forties, and she looked at other women in the church who weren’t madly in love with their husbands, and said to herself, “Why mine?” She parked her Buick in the church parking lot, dried her tears, came into church, sang the songs and did all the right things, got back into her car and wept all the way home saying, “Your grace is not sufficient, your grace is not sufficient, your grace is not sufficient.”
Some of you are going through bitter divorces. Some of you are in situations, which if we knew the details, we would be amazed at the pain that is represented in this room, and in our wider audience on the radio and internet. We would be amazed at the pain out there, and there are some people saying, “God’s grace is simply not sufficient,” and the reason is because (and I’m not being judgmental because I’ve been there thinking God’s grace wasn’t sufficient) you and I simply do not have the kind of faith that embraces what God gives us and accepts it as from his loving hand, even if the devil is involved. And that becomes more complicated. I wish I could talk about that more. I don’t want to be misunderstood. We should not have anything to do with the devil, and I do believe in rebuking him, but instead of being able to accept our thorn and most gladly rejoice in our infirmities, because we don’t have the faith.
What happened to Doris? She went into a prayer room during a time when the church was hot with revival. She stayed there an hour and that’s about a good length of time to get rid of the garbage, and she spilled out all of her anger at God, her loneliness and she said (these are her words), “Cart-fills of self-pity,” and she came out and she used to give her testimony in churches around the country, and her theme was, “God’s grace is sufficient.”
You see you and I will fret with God, we’ll pray the same prayers over and over again, and then we’ll investigate to see whether or not God is doing anything, and it goes on and on and on, but what we will not do is commit and accept. That we will not do, and God says, “You know, for you my grace doesn’t appear to be sufficient.”
In the fall I flew from Chicago to Frankfort on American Airlines. Once you are on the runway and you’re going up into the sky you can holler, you can press all the buttons, and it doesn’t make any difference. Nobody is stopping for you at this point. You’re committed.
There’s a story of a woman who, flying for the first time was frightened to death. She looked out the window constantly at the motors, constantly fretting about the motors until a young man said to her, “Lady, if you want to sleep, I’ll watch over the motors for you for a while.” [laughter]
But now let us suppose that I’m on American Airlines and I say to the flight attendant, “I think that maybe (because now we’re beginning to cross the ocean) the pilots might fall asleep. Would you go and check to see if the pilots are awake? You know, years ago before security was such a big issue that was easier than it is today and I can imagine that she goes and she checks and she says, “You know, all three of them are awake,” and I say, “Oh, okay,” but a half hour passes and I say to myself, “You know, people have fallen asleep in a half hour, I’ve fallen asleep in less than a half hour and if one falls asleep, the other will get drowsy and all three of them might be asleep.” “Flight attendant, would you check to see whether or not the pilots are awake?” She does it again and she comes back. Twenty minutes later I can’t ask her to do that again, because she’ll think I’m a little crazy, so what I saw is, “Could you tell me what time the flight arrives in Frankfurt?” She gives me the time and then I say, “Well, that’s good. Are we on time?” (Yeah, we’re on time.) “Well, since you and I are talking would you just check to see if the pilots are awake?” It doesn’t take long until she says, “Look, I’ll make you a deal. I’ll pour you a cup of coffee if you’ll go outside and drink it.” [laughter] And what she says if she’s really honest is, “You are insulting our pilots,” and you and I insult God day after day after day. We commit something to him and then when things go bad and they get worse, before they get better, we say, “Oh, now what’s God doing?” So we wake up early and we spend three or four hours worrying before we get out of bed, and then we don’t see God doing this and we continue to pray, pray, pray and our prayers are nothing but an expression of our unbelief because we refuse to commit and we refuse to accept and to say, “This has come to me from God. Thank you, God. I commit it into your hands [applause] and I’m going to leave it there, and I’m not going to be checking everyday to see whether God’s awake and whether he’s doing anything.”
God is saying to many of us, myself included, “You let me do it. You wait on me and I will work for you.” That’s what the Bible says. “I’ll work it out but it has to be my timetable. It has to be my agenda, and what you are doing is you are coming to me with your timetable, your agenda, your self-will, your desire to run your life, and then what you’re saying is ‘Where’s God’s grace?’ in all of this.”
Paul says, “Okay, it is a messenger of Satan. Okay, it does harass me (that’s the word in the text), but I asked God and God said no, but God says, “Paul, I’ve got something better for you. My grace is sufficient for you. My strength is perfect in weakness,” and Paul says, “I am so wholeheartedly committed to God, I so believe in the greatness of God and that this couldn’t happen apart from his will, even if the devil is involved, that I’m going to accept it and I’m going to thank God for it most gladly. I will therefore glory in my infirmities, and I’m not going to insult God by telling him that he’s not doing anything. I’m going to leave that with him.”
So where are you today? What part of your circumstances or people have you not accepted? What stands between you and God today? Your husband? Give him to God and then say “Good riddance.” Your circumstance? You commit it to God. You’re on the plane and the pilot never slumbers or sleeps.
Father, we ask in the name of Jesus that you’ll make us people of faith. So often we’ve insulted you because we’ve refused to give up the control of our lives, and then you’ve not come on board and we’ve blamed you. Give us, Father, that sense of faith that says, “Lord, as I wait on you I’ll let you work for me.” Oh, we need that, Lord. Grant it we ask in Jesus’ blessed name. Amen.