The Apostle Paul had encountered the risen Jesus, he was powerfully converted, and he was used by God to bring countless millions to faith through his missionary work and his writing of the letters we find in the New Testament. If ever there was someone who had a little bit to be proud of, a little bit to brag about, it was Paul.
But God wanted to keep Paul humble, so he had sent him a “thorn in his flesh” as Paul relates in 2 Corinthians 12:7. Paul prayed three times asking God to remove this thorn, but the answer came from God, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” In other words, God replied that this thorn was God’s means of showing his glorious strength through the weakness of Paul. Or as Paul puts it in verses 9-10, “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, the I am content with weakness, insults hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak then I am strong.”
When we are at our weakest, it is then that God is seen at His greatest both in our own hearts, and in those around us. So Paul rejoiced that he was humbled in this way, because what he desired most (that God would be made much of) was taking place through it. So it is with ever true believer.
But there is something in all this that we should be careful not to miss. When Paul spoke of the thorn in his flesh, he tells us through whose agency God is bringing about this hardship. It is, Paul says in verse 7, “a messenger of Satan.”
Wait, what? The thorn in Paul’s flesh, this thing that God is using to keep him humble, this thing Paul pleaded with God to remove, is the work of the devil? Satan is working against Paul, and God not only refuses to restrain him, but tells Paul this is being used for his good?
How can these things be?
First, God is in control, even over Satan. God and Satan are sometimes portrayed as two equals battling it out, Yin and Yang, good and evil, but this is inaccurate. Satan is at the mercy of God. There is coming a day that with a word God will cast Satan into eternal torment. Even now, Satan can do nothing apart from God’s permissive will. We see in Job 1 & 2 before Satan can do anything against Job, God must permit him to do it.
Second, what Satan intends for harm, God uses for good in the life of the Christian. Satan wants nothing more than to ruin us. God desires us to be sanctified and made ever more after the image of Christ. God over-rides the purposes of Satan in the life of the Christian so that even the devils most vicious assaults work good for us. Joseph saw this when he said to his brothers, “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good.” (Genesis 50:20)
Finally, like Paul, we can rejoice in our sufferings. When we realize that when suffering, hardship, and calamity happen, God remains in control and is turning it for our greatest good, there is deep joy to be found. As Romans 8:28 says, “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.” James adds in James 1:2, “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness.”
The Christian’s greatest joy is to see Christ made much of. Christ is seen as the all them more as the bedrock hope of the Christian when trials come and strip away hope in everything else. Moreover, it is through trials that we are sanctified after the likeness of Christ.
The end of the matter is this: Even Satan’s worst against us brings about good for the believer. If this is indeed the case, there is nothing that can crush us. It is joy if God blesses, it is joy if God takes away. As Job declared, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return. The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.” (Job 1:21)