2Co 12:7 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.
2Co 12:8 Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me.
2Co 12:9 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 of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me.
2Co 12:10 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.
Of course, this is one of the most well-known and loved passages in the Bible as it explains some of the whys and hows of suffering for saints. I want to focus on verse 8 for the moment. Paul has been taught that what he thinks of as a weakness and as something that would therefore hinder his service is actually how the Lord is going to use him and at the same time be the one who receives the glory for what Paul does. His enemies were saying that his suffering and seeming inability to speak as well as they do and whatever thorn in the flesh he is speaking of in these verses were signs of God’s displeasure but the Lord told Paul that his sufferings and physical weaknesses were actually a sign that he was being used by the Lord.
He also says that he asked the Lord three times for him to remove this supposed hindrance but that the Lord told him no because it is working great things in Paul. I was reading someone who was speculating as to why Paul only asked three times. He thought perhaps Paul was following the Lord’s example in the Garden of Gethsemane when he asked for the cup to be removed three times and then asked no more. Perhaps, but let me speculate some as well. There is no doubt that after the third prayer Jesus perfectly accepts the Father’s will and moves on to the cross.
As far as Paul is concerned it is quite possible that it wasn’t until after the third time that the Lord gave his answer to Paul thus making any more prayers for deliverance to be sinful rebellion. To continue to ask for it to be removed when the Lord told him plainly that he was not going to do so and why would be to refuse to be content in the Lord’s will. Certainly Paul gives us an example of full acceptance of God’s will even in trials.
I would imagine that Paul prayed more than three times about this but these three “pleadings” were perhaps special times of prayer and fasting, but we don’t know that. What I find significant is that there were a specific number of times that he prays and then he no longer needs to pray.
Afflictions, embarrassments, troubles are unpleasant and there is nothing wrong with asking for relief. But there is a much greater thing to be concerned about other than relief and that is usefulness. The Bible speaks about being able to accept suffering when the Lord doesn’t see fit to take it away soon, if at all. Here we see Paul learning this lesson. I don’t think we must assume that because Jesus prayed only three times and Paul did as well that the Bible is teaching us that we can only pray three times for something and if we don’t get it then we shouldn’t ask anymore because the answer is final. I think all that goes beyond the main purpose of the passage.
But in both cases it was a short time before they realized it was time to focus on serving and not relief. Prayer might continue but the willingness to accept the situation and see what the Lord will do with it became the focus, 9-10. Whether Paul ever prayed for relief or not after these three times isn’t as important as him rejoicing in his weaknesses and being content in them because they made him an effective servant in the Kingdom of God.
And so the practical application is that too often we might spend years and years and much time and money trying to get out of an affliction. We might spend much time in prayer and asking others to pray for us but we don’t spend nearly as much time and energy looking for ways to use the affliction for the Lord’s glory. In other words, the three prayers of Paul and only three prayers lets me know that he had learned to move on and accept the situation and make the best of it and not assume that it wasn’t the Lord’s will and so focus on relief and not service. He doesn’t tell the Corinthians that he continues to pray for relief and ask them to pray as well; he is rejoicing that his suffering has a glorious purpose even if it continues until death.
I think about the health and wealth “ministries” that spend all their time trying to alleviate suffering and actually telling the gullible that the Lord doesn’t want you to suffer when Paul was told the exact opposite. Afflictions are painful and we are told to come to Christ for relief but very often the “relief” will be strength to endure the trial, not the end of the trial. Pray for relief and help but very soon pray for opportunities to use the pain for the glory of our Lord.