Life is hard. Beset by sin and its consequences in our lives and in the world around us, we experience real hurts through our circumstances and relationships. As if that is not enough, we also contend with emotional, psychological, and physical suffering. Over the last 15 years, my own personal experience of suffering has manifested itself in what has been diagnosed as IBS, hypothyroidism, depression, generalized anxiety disorder, insomnia, panic disorder, hyperlipidemia, arthritis, laryngopharyngeal reflux, migraines, and dermatitis. A variety of medications and therapeutic strategies have been applied to these problems, but it is a rare day that I feel “well.”
You may be suffering far worse. And maybe you’ve been encouraged by a Christian friend to “give it to God.” It’s biblical advice. The Apostle Paul says, “Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God” (Philippians 4:6). By prayer, we can hand over our suffering and burdens in requests to God and know that he will answer and work for our good because he has promised in his Word to do so (e.g., Luke 11:1-13).
Maybe you’ve heard it said that God always answers prayer, sometimes with a “yes,” sometimes with a “no,” and sometimes with a “not yet.” Even though I pray “thy will be done,” I must admit that, deep down inside, I am really only satisfied with one answer: “yes.” And when it seems like God has not answered my prayer, when it seems as if he is distant from me, if my suffering has not changed for the better, I tend to call this a “not yet,” because I don’t want to face the “elephant in the room” possibility: that God’s answer is NO. But, if “…we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28), then a NO from God is always for our best, even when it hurts and it will go on hurting until the end of our earthly lives. How can this be? A NO from God to a prayer for relief from suffering is always coupled with a YES for something far better.
Paul had good reason to pray against anxiety. His experience of suffering is well-known: imprisonments, beatings, stoning, shipwrecks, robberies, sleepless nights, hunger, thirst, and exposure, all while dealing with false accusations against him in the church. More than that, “…I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me” (2 Corinthians 12:7). Some theologians have conjectured that this “thorn” may have been anxiety or depression, temptation, guilt, or regret over his previous persecution of the Church, or a chronic illness. While we don’t know what his specific suffering may have been, we do know, by this description, that it was painful and ongoing. There was no earthly solution and Paul heeded his own encouragement, calling out to God in prayer.
“Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me” (2 Corinthians 12:8). Paul didn’t just pray for its removal; he pleaded for its removal. He prayed and prayed and prayed. And, on the third time, he got his answer: NO.
“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 about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me” (2 Corinthians 12:9).
God said, “NO. I will not remove it.” Why? God said, “My grace is sufficient. My grace is a far better answer to your suffering than even the removal of the suffering entirely, because my power is made perfect in weakness.” At the end of his rope, at the end of his strength, Paul found Christ’s strength.
“That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:10).
Contrary to how all of us naturally think, Paul now delighted in suffering—but not in some masochistic way. He hated his pain and had pleaded with God to take it away. But when God said, “NO, my grace is enough,” Paul experienced a radical change at the core of his being. Where there had been weakness, now there was Christ.
The old nature prays, “Give me less suffering.” The new nature prays, “Give me more Jesus.” And he will not leave you alone. “So do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand” (Isaiah 41:10).
Jesus’ power extends even over our greatest suffering—death. “‘Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?’ The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Corinthians 15:55-57). The victory is Christ’s alone, and he has given that victory to you. When everyone else is boasting in their strength, you can boast in your weakness, because when you are weak, then you are strong in the power of Christ.
Paul says to the Corinthians and to us, “You may see depression; I see Christ. You may see anxiety; I see Christ. You may see guilt; I see Christ. You may see chronic illness; I see Christ.”
Think about this. Maybe you are seeing your suffering all wrong. Maybe in praying that God would take away your suffering, you are asking him to do something he will not do. If he does not take away the thorn he has given you, it is to keep your eyes and hopes solely on Christ and his power. And maybe this is not only so that you will more clearly see Christ and his work for you, but also that others will more clearly see Christ and his work IN you.
Let’s be honest. Most of us have prayed to God FAR more than three times to take away the thorns we’ve been given. Unlike Paul, we don’t accept NO as an answer. But maybe, like Paul, there should come a time when the content of our prayer changes from “give me less suffering” to “give me more Jesus.”
It may be that I will rarely experience a day again in which I feel “well,” but God has promised grace that is more than enough. May we all be content and trust God when he says NO, for it is in our weakness, not our strength, that Christ’s power rests on us. And that is enough.
Michael Edwards is Senior Pastor at Good News Lutheran Brethren Church in McAlisterville, Pennsylvania.