Let’s be honest, most of us would rather be superapostles (12:11) than go through all the things Paul has, which he lists in 11:23-30 and 12:10. The Corinthians have been led astray by those who contrast their own success in life to Paul’s struggles, as a sign of their better standing in God’s eyes. And people who expect the church to pay for their blessings…
Paul sees things differently. To him, the scars and memories of years confronting the authorities are a sign of his integrity and faithfulness to the gospel message. And he will boast about them, not about his successes. This boasting isn’t about what he’s been through directly, but about the fact that through all of this he’s learned to spend on God, not on his own strength.
Paul hints that he has experienced a mystical vision of God (12:1-7), but he’s aware of the danger of this wonderful experience. To keep him from getting big ideas, God gave him a ‘thorn in the flesh’ to keep him from relying on his own strength and gifts.
I can recognise some of my own experience in this. Like Paul (I think) I’m inclined to do things myself rather than depend on other people. Because of arthritis in my toes, I have to do less standing and walking than I’d like. I walk with a stick much of the time and usually preach and preside at worship sitting if possible. I’ve had to accept having a disabled parking permit, and I have to stand back from a lot of jobs and activities that I’d otherwise have just got on with.
What makes it worse is that I’m basically fit and healthy, but often have to leave moving church furniture to people decades older than me. It’s not the image of myself that I want to have. But it’s the reality of my body, and I don’t mind seeing it as a thorn in the flesh. I haven’t just prayed to the Lord three times about it, I’ve prayed and had repeated surgery and other treatments. Barring a future miracle, I’m living with “my grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.”
Like Paul, I would like to be free of this. Apart from the pain, I could do so much more for God, surely. But for as long as I’ve got this thorn in my flesh (or stone in my shoe) I’ll concentrate on receiving God’s grace, which so often comes through other people. I have to assume he knows what he’s doing.