2 Corinthians 12:1-10.
It is an interesting fact that there are three instances in scripture, two in the Old Testament and one in the New, of saints making requests to God earnestly, which God did not answer; three distinct instances of unanswered prayers; and these too, as I say, offered by His own beloved servants.
But, while He did not answer them in their way, He gave them, as He ever does, that which was better for them, and at the same time infinitely glorified Himself; and that is far beyond merely meeting our need.
So that, whether it be desires of the heart that are expressed in His hearing, or unexpressed longings, His thought for us is to bless us according to the measure of His own glory and His affection for us — the children of His love; and if He bless us according to this measure, are we not blessed? If God gives, He gives as God. It is not only One who hears and answers, but One who meets me after the desires of His own heart; and the love in which He has revealed Himself to us in Jesus Christ is the spring from which it all flows.
Let us look at the three instances to which I refer. The first is Deuteronomy 3:23-27. "I besought the Lord at that time, saying, O, Lord God, thou hast begun to show thy servant thy greatness, and thy mighty hand; for what God is there in heaven or in earth that can do according to thy works, and according to thy might? I pray thee, let me go over, and see the good land that is beyond Jordan, that goodly mountain, and Lebanon. But the Lord was wroth with me for your sakes, and would not hear me; and the Lord said unto me, Let it suffice thee; speak no more unto me of this matter. Get thee up into the top of Pisgah, and lift up thine eyes westward, and northward, and southward, and eastward, and behold it with thine eyes; for thou shalt not go over this Jordan."
"I besought the Lord:" it is very remarkable; almost the very same words as those used by the apostle in the Epistle to the Corinthians. But his earnest prayer was not granted; the only answer was, "Speak no more unto me of this matter." There was a double reason, no doubt, why His servant Moses should not cross the Jordan and enter the land of Canaan. Dispensationally the law could never bring the people of God, such as they were, into the rest of God; it remained for Joshua, the type of Christ in resurrection, to do this. And the moral reason, of course, every one is acquainted with; "he spake unadvisedly with his lips." You may ask, How did God do a better thing for him than giving him his request, when He took him up to the top of Pisgah, instead of letting him go into the land, allowing him to see it all, which could only tantalize him? But do you not remember how in the New Testament, we read, that when the Lord Jesus Christ was seen on the Mount of Transfiguration, Moses was seen there with Him; there he stood in the land; he saw it in company with Christ in glory, and was not that far better than if in Israel's days he had crossed the Jordan? He did not say one word about it now; he could only speak about Christ. He got a far better thing than his heart could have conceived or his lips uttered. And it is just the same principle with God and His people now.
The second instance is in 1 Kings 19 "And Ahab told Jezebel all that Elijah had done, and withal how he had slain all the prophets with the sword. Then Jezebel sent a messenger unto Elijah, saying, So let the gods do to me, and more also, if I make not thy life as the life of one of them by to-morrow about this time. And when he saw that, he arose, and went for his life, and came to Beersheba, which belongeth to Judah, and left his servant there. But he himself went a day's journey into the wilderness, and came and sat down under a juniper tree; and he requested for himself that he might die; and said, It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life; for I am not better than my fathers." Here we find Elijah, the servant of God, having lost all courage through the difficulties that connected themselves with the people of God, not his own difficulties. It is not trial in the world; it is trial in the midst of God's own people. And let me say affectionately, that nothing tests the saints of God like the troubles of the people of God; people who can meet their own difficulties, are often overcome by difficulties connected with the testimony of the Lord, and give way before them. It is these that bring out the true strength of the heart. We can meet our own personal difficulties in the strength and power of God, but these try the heart in an extraordinary way. Whilst all was smooth with Elijah — whilst he could call for drought at one time and plenty at another — all went well; but if a Jezebel come in and threaten to put the iron heel of oppression on him, why, then he goes to God and says, as many a man has done since, Take away my life; I cannot go on. What a contrast is Elijah in chapter 19, to what he is in 18! In the one, he is a man remarkably above his circumstances; he has neither chariot nor driver, but he has God, and everything under his feet in the power of God. In the other, he is like a disappointed child; he goes under a juniper tree and prays that he may die. And does he die? God takes him up by a whirlwind into heaven — a chariot of fire and horses of fire! Nothing had ever entered into his heart like that! And when Moses stands on the mount with the Lord Jesus, Elijah is there too. He, too, is in the land, and that in the scene of the glory of Christ, when He reaches the highest point that it is possible for a man to reach on earth. Thus both these petitions were set aside, and far more than that which was asked was given; they were answered according to God's thoughts about them.
And now in this passage of Corinthians, that we have read, God does not take the thorn away. Let us look at the chapter for a moment; there is in it a point or two most important for our souls. The first thing we find is, what is true of every Christian; every Christian is "a man in Christ." There is no such thing as a Christian not being a man in Christ; the moment I can say of one that he is a Christian, in the sense in which it is spoken of here, there is a man in Christ — a man who, as to his standing, has entirely parted company with man in the flesh. Flesh and spirit are contrasts; if I am in the flesh, I am not in Christ; if I am in Christ, I am not in the flesh. Of course if I be not watchful, and self-judged always, the flesh will get power over me; but there is a great difference between being what is called overtaken by the flesh, and being a man in the flesh. As a man in Christ I am in a new place altogether.
It is often treated in this way as if the cross of Christ does something to elevate the man. What a delusion! So far from the old nature being improved, the moment a person enters into the blessed relationship of a child of God the virulence of his old nature is ready to show itself. Who are those most worried by Satan? No doubt Christians are, and that because they are in a place where they are out of his grasp, and where all he can do is to worry. Those who are in his power he ministers unto. So that instead of anything like a diminution of the virulence of that which is opposed to God in a Christian, Satan seeks by it more than ever to worry him just because he is out of his power. We must see the difference between standing in the old thing, and standing before God in a new condition in Christ. He refers to the time when they were in the flesh: "When we were in the flesh;" but now he says, "Ye are in the Spirit." So it is "I know a man in Christ" not I knew.
Observe he does not speak of himself as Paul; this is very blessed. If he has anything humiliating to say of himself, he speaks of Paul; he will say, "through a window in a basket I was let down by the wall:" there was nothing very elevating to a man in that; it was a humiliating position; so he says "I." But the moment he comes to speak of that which is elevating, it is no more "I," it is "a man in Christ" — that which is true of every Christian. "I know a man in Christ."
After this, he speaks of that which is not true of every Christian. Every Christian is a man in Christ, but every Christian is not "caught up into paradise." The first is the real status of every Christian, the last is the possible state of a Christian. None of us have been caught up as Paul was; it was a distinct thing peculiar to himself. And then he heard "words not possible for a man to utter." "Possible" is the word, rather than "lawful." He means to say, that as soon as he returned to the consciousness of being in the body, he found that he had no vehicle of communication so as to express the greatness of the things that he had witnessed. And so it is, the deeper a thing is in our souls even the greater the difficulty we find in speaking of it; we cannot convey to another the sense, the impression, of that which we have got for ourselves. How difficult it is when we have received anything from God Himself to convey to another anything like what it is to our own heart!
This is one thing. And then comes another which brings out the watchful care of God for His servant, and is most solemn to see. The blessed God, knowing that the flesh in Paul was just the same as before — his having been in the third heaven did not alter it in the least, it was there ready to rise on the first opportunity, anticipates the working of it. I do not know anything in scripture which gives a greater idea of the preventive watchfulness of God. We all know that He restores our souls when we fail, but do we enough think of all the little things that occur in our daily life that He has prepared and arranged to the end we may not fail? It is "lest I should be exalted above measure," not bringing me back after failure, but preventing its occurrence. It was a grievous thing for Paul; a messenger of the devil. Who but the blessed God could use Satan against Satan? This very thorn, this messenger of Satan, took away from Satan the power to work upon Paul's flesh. Is it not a blessed thing to think that God can do it? We are very prone to use the language of infidelity and say, This or that happened to me. Would it not be much more blessed to say, God sent me this or that? Is there not a sweetness about anything, however grievous, when I can say, My Father's hand in watchful love brought me this thorn? "There was given to me a thorn in the flesh;" it was not a crushing trial that happened to me; it was a given mercy.
Now the first thought with the apostle was, Could not I get out of this difficulty? Saints think if they could only get out of their circumstances. But do you not know that, if you did, you would take with you the nature that makes the circumstances in which you are so trying to you? That which makes your present ones so trying would soon make just as much difficulty in the new ones. Here the apostle goes to God to change his circumstances; we often change them for ourselves. He said, Take it away, Lord, three times. What a contrast between the thrice repeated prayer of the blessed One to His Father, ending with, "Not my will, but thine be done." It was the perfection of Christ to shrink from drinking that cup. Paul imperfect, feeble, prayed: Lord, change my circumstances. The answer came in this: Do you want me to put you in circumstances where you will not need my power "My grace is sufficient for thee, for my strength is made perfect in weakness."
To any pressed one here I would say, Would you take from God occasion for displaying His power in your weakness, and from yourself all opportunity for turning to and leaning upon that power? This is really the answer of God here. He says, I will not take away the thorn, but I will give you my power. It is not merely relief; it is that I am positively put in the place of power at His own side. "My grace is sufficient;" weakness is the platform on which it displays itself: the thorn becomes the blessed occasion for Christ to show how His strength comes in. What a wonderful thing to move through the world leaning on the power of Christ! Such a poor wretched creature, if I go on at all, people can but say, What wonderful power to take such a one through! When did Jacob get the blessing? When he was crippled. He prepared for Esau, he prepared for every one save the mysterious One he was to meet, and who touched him in the hollow of his thigh, in, the very place of his natural strength. And then he would not let Him go. I cling to the One who has withered me up, crippled me, so that he might have His place in my heart. Then it shows that it has done its work. He says, I glory in being crippled, I glory in being made nothing of I glory in being broken down, I glory in my weakness. Why? "That the power of Christ may rest upon me" — may tabernacle over me.
Thus we get in the apostle an instance of the two great parts of Christianity; a man in Christ, man taken out of his old standing altogether, and then Christ in him manifested before the world. I, in Christ before God up there where He is, and Christ in me down here before the world.
Is it so with us? Or are we struggling against God's guidance? We often pray God to make us what He would have us, and then when He begins to answer we draw back. I do not think there is anything more unreal than we are in our prayers. We pray to be made like Christ, and then are afraid of the way He will take to do it. I know it is so often said, If I were to say such things, God would take everything away from me: He would strip me like a tree from branch to root. Is that the thought you have of God? I tell you that He would not take away a single thing from you that would be good for you. It is in His heart to give you everything that He sees best. I know that I must get my motives, my springs, my ability from God. But God says, If you want to get spring, power, ability, everything from Me, then I must set aside that which is contrary to it in your heart. The antidote to Christ in us is our own will, and God helps us practically to get rid of that. What a wonderful thing, that poor creatures such as we are, should be left here that the grace of Christ may be shown out in us as we pass through this world!
The Lord grant that His own Son may be displayed in us according to the power of His blessed Spirit for His Name's sake.