Chapter 1

God comes alongside.

In this chapter is one of the most beautiful statements in the Bible: “All praise to the God and Father of our Master, Jesus the Messiah! Father of all mercy! God of all healing counsel! He comes alongside us when we go through hard times, and before you know it, he brings us alongside someone else who is going through hard times so that we can be there for that person just as God was there for us.” (vs 3-4)

This is one of the most wonderful things about God—that He’s always with us, and never more than when we are going through difficult times. As God said through the prophet Isaiah, “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you. When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned; the flames will not set you ablaze.” (Isa 43:2)

There are plenty of hard times in this life, and nobody is immune. We all go through difficult trials and times of great loss, but as God promised, we never go through it alone. If there is not a single human being beside us through the valley of the shadow of death, God is there.

But I love that this verse doesn’t stop there. For not only does God come alongside us when we go through hard times, but he then brings us alongside someone else who is going through hard times so that we can be there for that person just as God was there for us.

This is part of the immense blessing that comes from living life with God. We don’t just get heavenly comfort in our sorrow, but we are also given opportunities to extend the very comfort we have received to someone else. In this way, God gives us a little glimpse of what it means to be Him, and what a privilege that is!

God is and always has been One who comes alongside. This is what it means to be in community with others. And God—who exists in community in His very triune nature—created us for this, to share in the love and community He was already part of. We were created to love and be loved; this is the highest calling in life.

We serve a God who not only comes alongside but also teaches us how to also come alongside.

Because of this, we never have to walk alone.

Chapter 2

God is graciously strict.

Most scholars agree that the man spoken of in this chapter of 2 Corinthians is the same man Paul wrote about in 1 Corinthians 5—the man who was sleeping with his stepmother. In that first letter, Paul rebuked the church for turning a blind eye to the blatant sin in their midst. In this letter, he gave them further instructions regarding the situation:

“I am not overstating it when I say that the man who caused all the trouble hurt all of you more than he hurt me. And in my view, the majority of you have punished him well enough. So instead of continuing to ostracize him, I encourage you to offer him the grace of forgiveness and the comfort of your acceptance. Otherwise, if he finds no welcome back to the community, I’m afraid he will be overwhelmed with extreme sorrow and lose all hope. So I urge you to demonstrate your love for him once again.” (vs 5-8)

It seems like those Christians in Corinth were quite immature in their ability to love. After all, the reason Paul urged them to strictly discipline the man in the first place was because it was the loving thing to do. The Corinthian Christians had apparently thought that the loving thing to do was to be “tolerant” of the man’s self-destructive behavior. Paul set them straight on that account.

What’s so wonderful is that Paul’s advice appears to have worked for the man’s benefit! After being subject to the corrective discipline of the church, the man apparently repented. Yet once again, Paul had to rebuke the church for either not discerning or simply refusing to follow the way of love. For after the man had repented, they refused to forgive him!

Though they had followed Paul’s instructions regarding discipline, they obviously didn’t really understand that its purpose was to bring about a change in the man. For once that actually occurred, they were determined to continue ostracizing him. They apparently held quite a punitive view of discipline.

As I read, it was surprising to realize that the Christians who had prided themselves on being so “tolerant” couldn’t bring themselves to be gracious or forgiving. And it made me wonder if these two seemingly-opposite things—strict discipline and outrageous grace—can only flow from the same heart of love. If one is unwilling to be strict and swift in discipline, can he truly be gracious and merciful? Or do both flow out from the same motivation of love, care, and concern for another?

Of course, I couldn’t help but think about God who, throughout history, has at times appeared both highly strict and shockingly merciful. We tend to see these two character traits as somehow at odds with one another, but maybe that’s not the case at all. Perhaps they both flow from God’s heart of love for His children—the heart that desperately wants to engender repentance in us (thus the corrective discipline) so we can discover how loved and accepted we are (thus the outrageous mercy).

Maybe it’s only a heart full of mercy that can bear to dole out the kind of discipline that has a chance of reaching a wayward one who is so loved. Maybe it’s only a heart so full of grace that is willing to look and sound so harsh in its effort to turn its beloved from the path of destruction.

Maybe God’s discipline and His mercy are two sides of the same coin, and if we seek to discard the one, we’ll also lose the other.

Chapter 3

God is totally committed to freedom.

This chapter contains one of my favorite Bible verses: “Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.” (vs 17) It seems like a simple enough verse, but I often wonder how much time we really take to contemplate the importance of freedom and its role in the world we now find ourselves in.

Freedom supports choice. Without freedom, there would be no choice. We would be robots or slaves, unable to choose to either love God or reject Him. Although we wouldn’t know we were robots, there would be no opportunity for mutual love or friendship. Instead of living forever with understanding friends, God would have races of robotic animals designed to fulfill His needs.

Choice supports trust. Without choice, there would be no trust. And without trust, there would be no love. Genuine love can only develop in an atmosphere of trust. If a man proposed to his girlfriend and followed up his “Will you marry me?” with “You realize, though, that if you ever leave me, I’ll find you and kill you,” we would advise that girl to file for a restraining order instead of a marriage license. Nobody in their right mind would encourage a girl to marry a man who would threaten to kill her!

Love supports life. Without love, there would be no life. Life is an interdependent process that requires unselfish give-and-take. Selfish taking leads to death, not life. Selfishness self-destructs. We are dependent on others, and others are dependent on us. If we don’t give and take, life ceases. Thus, intelligent life cannot exist without freedom.

Freedom is the underpinning of the whole operation. That’s why God is totally committed to freedom. He’s committed to providing the ongoing opportunity to choose. And He is committed to respecting our choices, even when that means He loses His children to rebellion and self-destruction.

The fact that we are in this universal war is evidence that our freedom is a reality. If God didn’t care about freedom, He wouldn’t have put Himself through the pain and suffering this war has caused Him. He wouldn’t have said that He preferred friends over slaves. He wouldn’t have created us with the option of rebelling in the first place. Instead, He would have created a nice, obedient bunch of robots designed to pamper Him.

The amazing and wonderful thing about God is that He wants love. He wants freedom. He wants intelligent creatures who understand Him and choose to be His friends based on that understanding. That’s why He didn’t throw His hands up in the air and say “Forget it!” when we rebelled. He came right into the middle of our mess and fought to win us back.

He will fight for us until the very end, but He won’t force us to choose Him. Ultimately, the God who is all-powerful grants us the power to make the most important choice in life: Will we live or die? God certainly has a vested interest—He wants us all to live! But what He wants even more than our living is our choosing. While God prefers that we choose life, the choice is the most important aspect to Him.

He is totally committed to our freedom.

Chapter 4

God offers great benefits.

I have a few atheist friends with whom I dialogue about God from time to time, and they are some of the most interesting conversations I have. Believe it or not, I’m humble enough to admit that I certainly don’t have all the answers, and I would be lying if I said that there hadn’t been times in my life when I wondered if the whole “God thing” wasn’t just a fairy tale that was never going to come true.

Thus, at times in these conversations with my atheist friends, I have asked them to “sell me” on the concept of atheism from a practical standpoint. In other words, what am I missing right now by not being an atheist? If the atheists are right, if there is no God, and if everything’s just “over” when we die, what will I have missed by believing?

On the other hand, if I’m right, if there is a God and an everlasting life beyond this world, will I have missed anything by not believing in the here and now?

In this chapter, I believe Paul answers that last question with a hearty, “Yes!”

We are pressed on every side by troubles, but we are not crushed. We are perplexed, but not driven to despair. We are hunted down, but never abandoned by God. We get knocked down, but we are not destroyed. . . That is why we never give up. . . For our present troubles are small and won’t last very long. Yet they produce for us a glory that vastly outweighs them and will last forever! So we don’t look at the troubles we can see now; rather, we fix our gaze on things that cannot be seen. For the things we see now will soon be gone, but the things we cannot see will last forever. (vs 8-9, 16-18)

Everyone who trusts in God lives with the hope of better things to come. Intellectually, we know that there is a better day coming when sorrow and pain will be no more. We have the hope of being reunited with all the loved ones we have lost. We have the hope of being in a better place. We have the hope that this life isn’t “the end.”

But don’t miss what Paul is also saying in this chapter. He doesn’t only have his eyes fixed on “pie in the sky.” He isn’t only looking forward to a better day. No, he is saying that God offers great benefits, and those benefits start now. We don’t have to wait.

Today, in the here and now, in this often dark and dreary world, those who love God:

  • are pressed, but not crushed
  • are perplexed, but not driven to despair
  • are hunted down, but never abandoned
  • are knocked down, but not destroyed

These are just a few of the great benefits that come from knowing and loving God, and they start right. now. So, to my dear atheist friends, until I hear a more convincing sales pitch, I must confess (in the words of that great Andrae Crouch song) that if heaven never was promised to me and neither God’s promise to live eternally, it’s been worth having the Lord in my life.

Even if it’s all a fairy tale, it’s still the best deal you’re ever gonna find in this world.

Chapter 5

God doesn't need to be reconciled to us.

I’ve said it again and again on this blog: God is interested in having a relationship with us. But a relationship based on love requires the consent of two parties in order to flourish. If either party engages in deceit, force, or manipulation, the relationship has reverted to something other than one based on mutual love and respect.

So, God wants to have a relationship with us, but there has been a serious and significant breach in our ability to trust Him. To be clear, the breach was totally and completely on our part. God did nothing to cause this breach; He is the innocent party. Yet the separation exists.

However, God isn’t willing to just give up on the dream of having a relationship with us. Paul explains: “All of this is a gift from God, who brought us back to himself through Christ. And God has given us this task of reconciling people to him. For God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself, not counting people’s sins against them.” (vs 18-19)

I think the wording of that text is extremely important, because the idea that comes across more often in Christianity is Christ was in the world, reconciling the Father to sinners. Somehow (and I believe this is all part and parcel of our sinful condition) we have convinced ourselves that God is the obstacle to our relationship that needs to be overcome. The truth is, the obstacles to our relationship with God are all within us.

God has never needed to be (nor does He now need to be) reconciled to us. We need(ed) to be reconciled to Him.

Think back with me for a moment to the Story of the Prodigal Son, that great, famous parable Jesus told (which was more about the father than the son). The prodigal ended up far from home, separated from his father, filthy and feeding pigs. There was a great breach in his relationship with his father. There definitely needed to be reconciliation!

But who needed to be reconciled to whom?

Isn’t it clear that when the prodigal son returned home, the father in no way needed to be reconciled to him? He not only didn’t need to be persuaded to take his son back under his roof, but he immediately reinstated him into the family with all the rights and privileges of a beloved son.

The father needed no reconciling whatsoever.

It was the son who needed to be reconciled to his father, and it happened while he was still sitting in the pig sty: “So he had this moment of self-reflection: ‘What am I doing here? Back home, my father’s hired servants have plenty of food. Why am I here starving to death? I’ll get up and return to my father.’” (Lk 15:17-18)

The prodigal son returned home because he had a revelation about the character of his father. He realized that his father was a much, much better man to his servants than the man who owned the pig sty. And so the boy got up and went home, and when he arrived, he discovered that his father was even better than he thought.

This is an exact picture of us! We have caused a breach in our relationship with God, and just like the prodigal, it is the revelation about the character of the Father that has caused us to get up and return home. It was Christ Himself who provided this revelation, initiating the reconciliation that our relationship has so desperately needed.

And just like the prodigal, when we arrive home, we discover that our Father is even better than we thought.

God has never needed to be reconciled to us. Like the father from the Story of the Prodigal Son, He has been waiting and waiting and waiting and waiting with wide open arms to welcome us home. Not for one minute has He even thought about turning His back on us. On the contrary, He came to this world in the person of Jesus Christ to win us back to Himself, even though He is the innocent party.

It’s time for us to give up the idea that Jesus somehow convinced the Father to accept us. It’s always been the other way around—He came to convince us to accept the Father.

Chapter 6

God is hiring.

This chapter of 2 Corinthians opens with Paul’s reminder to his readers that they aren’t small-business owners: “Laboring together (as God’s fellow workers) with Him then, we beg of you not to receive the grace of God in vain.” (vs 1)

This is a very simple, but important, thing for us to remember: We are workers together with God, not the other way around. Paul didn’t say He works with us; we work with Him. It isn’t our plans or our work that finds success in this world, but God’s work. It just happens that God prefers not to work alone. Thus, He invites us to be co-operators with Him.

I was thinking about this recently as I heard a number of my friends lamenting about what needs to be done to “accomplish the work.” (For those of you who wonder what that means, my friends are concerned about what they need to do to bring on the second coming of Christ.)

To anyone who has had those thoughts, I refer you back to Paul: We are workers together with God, not the other way around. This means that God already is accomplishing His work in this world in His own good time, regardless of whether we help Him with it or not! Of course, He welcomes our cooperation, but His purposes will not be thwarted by our failure to participate.

I was also intrigued by Paul’s connecting work with grace in this verse. Did you notice that? Paul seems to imply here that it is God’s grace which spurs us on to work. That seemed a bit counter-intuitive, as I have often heard that grace nullifies work!

On the contrary, Paul wrote about this in his first letter to the Christians at Corinth: “But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me was not without effect. No, I worked harder than all of them—yet not I, but the grace of God that was with me.” (1 Cor 15:10)

God doesn’t give us grace because of our works; He gives us grace to encourage our works! This means that the more grace we have been given, the harder we will labor. The grace is a job incentive, not a retirement plan!

There is no shortage of work in the kingdom of God. Anyone who wants a job can have a job. He’s always hiring!

Chapter 7

God encourages returns.

Sorrow. We have all known it and experienced at one time or another—especially regarding foolish or destructive choices we’ve made in the past. There is no person on the planet who has escaped these feelings, because there is no person on the planet who is perfect.

But Paul addresses those feelings in this chapter and reminds us that there is more than one type of sorrow: “Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret, but worldly sorrow brings death.” (vs 10)

I had to read that verse a few times to really let it sink in. The first thing that struck me was the two different outcomes, and I immediately thought about Peter and Judas. Both had made foolish choices in the final days and hours of Jesus’ life, and both felt great sorrow over those choices.

But the outcomes couldn’t have been more opposite! Peter, though devastated, was eager to see Jesus again. At the news that Jesus’ tomb was empty, he ran there, hoping that their relationship might be restored. Judas, on the other hand, became overwhelmed by his sorrow and committed suicide. Instead of seeking the restoration of his relationship with God, he decided instead to end it all.

I think the difference between them had something to do with the way the two of them saw God. When Peter denied Christ and Christ looked right at him, Peter saw no hatred or judgment in His face. He knew Jesus well enough to know how forgiving and patient He was. Earlier that very night, in the Upper Room, Jesus had spoken that same forgiveness to Judas (who was about to betray Him). But instead of “hearing” that forgiveness and allowing it to change his course, he went ahead with his plans.

Thus, in the end, Judas regretted what he had done, but it seems he didn’t really believe that what he had done was redeemable.

For me, that was the truly amazing thing about this verse from 2 Corinthians: “Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret.” Can you imagine not having regret for some of the foolish, stupid decisions you’ve made? Many of the bad things we’ve done have even been done knowingly and defiantly! How could we ever come to the place where we wouldn’t regret those things?

There is only one way, and that is through repentance. This word literally means to “return.” In our sinful condition, we have turned from God, and now He is eager for us to re-turn. When we do, we discover that God is not limited by the bad things we’ve done. He is perfectly able to take everything that has been done for evil and use it for our ultimate good. This is how we reach the place where we have no regret—when we see the utter and absolute good God is able to do with all the harm we’ve done.

Unfortunately, Judas was never able to witness how God took what he did and redeemed it. His sorrow caused him not to re-turn, but to run farther away. Don’t be like that. Don’t be tempted into thinking that your mistakes (even the intentional ones!) are some sort of permanent wedge between you and God.

God doesn’t want to be separated from you. He encourages returns. No matter how far you’ve strayed, no matter how long you’ve been away, you can always come home.

Chapter 8

God delights in cheerful givers.

I recently read a story about a man who snapped a very unusual photo while visiting South Korea. While traveling through the countryside with a missionary friend one day, he noticed a teenage boy pulling a plow while an older man guided the plow handles. Turning to his friend, the man said, “I suppose they must be very poor people.”

His friend responded, “Yes. I know them.” The missionary then proceeded to explain that a number of months before, the church family to which the men belonged was going to erect a building, and all the members were asked to contribute something. “This father and his boy wanted to give, but felt they had nothing to offer . . . until they realized they could give their only ox. So, they sold the ox and gave the proceeds to the building fund of the church. That’s why the young boy is pulling the plow this spring.”

The man replied, “Wow, that must have been a real sacrifice for them.”

The missionary smiled. “They didn’t think so. They thought they were fortunate to have an ox to give.”

I couldn’t help but think about this story as I read the first part of today’s chapter: “And now, brothers and sisters, we want you to know about the grace that God has given the Macedonian churches. In the midst of a very severe trial, their overflowing joy and their extreme poverty welled up in rich generosity. For I testify that they gave as much as they were able, and even beyond their ability.” (vs 1-3)

This is the kind of giving God delights in. It’s not about what you give or how much you give. And it’s certainly not about whether you are rich or poor to begin with. God expects all His people—rich and poor alike—to be generous givers. That’s because the blessing in giving isn’t about what you actually give as much as it is about your attitude.

We have the tendency to take quite the opposite position on this subject. We tend to think that the rich should give “more” and the poor should give “less” (or not at all). And, in terms of actual monetary figures, that’s usually the case. The rich put much more actual currency into the offering plate than the poor.

Yet it was the widow who put two mites (nearly nothing) into the temple treasury who was praised by Jesus as having “put in more than all the others.” (Lk 21:3) Why? Because her attitude toward giving was totally different from those who had “a lot” to give.

So today, it’s worth remembering that whatever you have—whether it’s “a little” or “a lot”—came from God, and it delights His heart when we take every opportunity we have to give cheerfully to others.

Just the way He has given to us.

Chapter 9

God is an unlimited giver.

After encouraging the Christians at Corinth to be uber-generous in their giving, Paul reveals the best reason for his advice: Because God Himself is a generous giver. And in expounding on his suggestion in this chapter, we encountered that famous verse: “God loves a cheerful giver.” (vs 7)

But did you notice the verse that immediately followed? It sort of set me back on my heels: “And God is able to bless you abundantly, so that in all things at all times, having all that you need, you will abound in every good work.” ( vs 8 )

Do you think Paul was taking a little literary license here? Do you think he was exaggerating at all? Let’s break down what he said:

  • God is able to bless you abundantly
  • In all things
  • At all times
  • You’ll have all you need

Really? Do you really believe that? Do you really believe that God is able to bless you in all things (I mean, Every Single Thing?) and at all times? Is His ability to bless so limitless that it cannot be hindered by place, circumstance, or chance? Can His blessing not even be derailed by evil?

That is absolutely what Paul is saying. In blessing us, in giving to us, in working things out for our good, our God is not limited by anything.

He can bless you abundantly when you’re facing a terminal illness.

He can bless you abundantly when you’re burying a child.

He can bless you abundantly when your spouse walks out.

He can bless you abundantly when you’ve been fired.

He can bless you abundantly when you’ve been orphaned.

He can bless you abundantly when you’re starving.

He can bless you anytime and anywhere in the midst of anything.

God is an unlimited giver. Nothing can stop Him from pouring out abundant blessings in your life right here, right now, in this very moment.

So the next time you’re dealing with a situation that has you down and thinking that God is nowhere to be found, don’t forget to look around for the blessings. They’re there. They have to be, because there is absolutely nothing on the face of this earth that can stop them from coming.

Chapter 10

God is a right fighter.

If you’ve ever watched The Dr. Phil Show (a psychiatrist’s television talk show aired in America), you may be familiar with the term “right fighter.” Dr. McGraw uses it frequently to refer to people who only care about “being right,” even at the expense of being happy or showing love to others.

I don’t think God is like that. Yet, as I read today’s chapter, where Paul contrasted the “weapons of war” used by the world versus those used by God and His followers, I couldn’t help but agree that God’s methods (even in war) are “right.” He’s a right fighter.

For me, the first thing was to realize that Paul wasn’t talking about physical war: “For though we live in the world, we do not wage war as the world does. The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds. We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.” (vs 3-5)

Paul is describing the difference between worldly methods of persuasion and God’s methods of persuasion. For isn’t that where the spiritual battle really is? It’s in the mind! It’s in our beliefs and thoughts—what we think about God, the nature of reality, and the truth about what’s happening in the world. And God is very interested in persuading us to see things His way.

But He will only use certain methods to accomplish that goal. In Ephesians 6, Paul lists these “weapons” God uses:

  •  truth
  • righteousness
  • gospel of peace
  • faith
  • salvation
  • Spirit

With these six weapons, God exposes and destroys every single falsehood we cling to in our minds. It’s important to note, however, that this never removes our freedom to continue on in our sinful ways. Though the truth is revealed to us, we are still free to reject it.

But if we do, and if we continue to reject it again and again, there will come a point when God has exhausted all the avenues He has of reaching us. Why? Because He is a right fighter, and He will not use “worldly” methods of coercing us into changing our minds. And what are those “worldly” methods?

  • deceit
  • manipulation
  • flattery
  • authority
  • coercion
  • force

Whenever we are tempted to use such methods, whether it’s in our relationships or in our evangelism, we will not succeed. Oh, we may think we are. We may see some temporary “success,” but it is only God’s methods that have “divine power to demolish strongholds.” (vs 4)

Only the methods of truth and righteousness have the ultimate power to strip away the lies and expose reality while leaving people free to decide for themselves. Only the methods of truth and righteousness have the power to change hearts and minds without force.

And that’s why God only uses the methods of truth and righteousness (though it’s a whole lot messier and it takes a whole lot longer).

He’s a right fighter.

Chapter 11

God doesn't bother with appearances.

In this chapter, Paul utters a sobering revelation: “For such people are false apostles, deceitful workers, masquerading as apostles of Christ. And no wonder, for Satan himself masquerades as an angel of light. It is not surprising, then, if his servants also masquerade as servants of righteousness.” (vs 13-15)

Satan masquerades as an angel of light? This isn’t how we usually think of Satan. We’re probably a little more familiar with Peter’s description of Satan: “Be alert and of sober mind. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour.” (1 Pet 5:8)

No doubt Satan will take on whatever appearance he believes will best suit his evil purposes at the time, but it’s a bit alarming to consider that he has the power to take on a righteous appearance. If this is the case, we had better be prepared to base our judgments on something other than appearances!

This is precisely why, throughout Scripture, God has warned us to do just that—not judge a book by its cover. Instead, He invites us to “come and reason” (Isa 1:18) with Him, to consider evidence, to meditate on substance, not style.

In his famous description of the coming Messiah, Isaiah included this bit of information about Jesus: “He grew up like a tender shoot, and like a root out of dry ground. He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.” (Isa 53:2)

When Jesus came in the flesh, He didn’t come as an angel of light! He did not come with anything—other than the beauty of truth—that would cause people to go after Him. He didn’t want them to be allured by what was on the outside, but by what was on the inside.

God demonstrates a chronic disregard for appearances. I think this is how we Bible-readers can get into so much trouble with the Old Testament. In those stories, with those barbaric people, God was doing what He needed to do for the best good of His people and the world—without regard for appearances. So while we know that He only and always acts in love, we have a lot of difficulty when the things He has done don’t appear to us to be loving.

But here’s where Paul would caution us: Don’t just assume that something which appears loving is actually loving, for Satan can and does masquerade as the most “loving” being in the universe! And if we’re conditioned to only base our judgments on appearances, we could end up being deceived.

God doesn’t bother with appearances, and that’s why He cautions us not to make much of them either. Things are not always what they seem. People could be just the opposite of what they claim.

You might see an angel of light and not realize it’s the devil.

You might see a bruised and battered man hanging on a cross and not realize it’s the King of all Creation.

Chapter 12

God doesn't always heal.

In this chapter of Corinthians, there is a well-known verse, yet we often don’t really want it to apply to us: “Therefore, in order to keep me from becoming conceited, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’” (vs 7-9)

In other words, though Paul begged God to remove his suffering, God ultimately said no. And the reason God said no was because, in this circumstance, to remove the suffering would have been to deprive Paul of a gift. Notice the wording Paul chose in verse 7: “I was given a thorn.” He didn’t say, I was cursed with a thorn. He didn’t say, a thorn was inflicted upon me. He describes it as a gift, because that’s how he ultimately came to see it.

This is hard for many of us to grasp, not only as we look around our world and see a lot of suffering, but especially as we experience personal suffering that we would prefer not to go through! In times like that, we do just what Paul did—plead with God to remove it from us.

Sometimes God’s answer is yes.

Sometimes God’s answer is no.

When His answer is yes and we get what we want, we praise Him and thank Him. But what about when His answer is no and we don’t get what we want? Have you ever thanked God for not removing your suffering? Have you ever expressed gratitude for His decision not to heal?

That probably never even crosses our minds, but Paul eventually got there: “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.” (vs 10)

Perhaps the reason Paul ultimately gave thanks for God’s refusal to heal him in this situation is because he finally realized that God was in fact healing him. It’s just that God was interested in healing something that Paul didn’t have in mind. Paul wanted the “thorn” to be healed, but God was actually using the “thorn” as a healing agent in Paul’s life!

[A side note: In case you're tempted to think that Paul's "thorn" was simply some trivial thing that didn't cause him much grief, you'll be interested to know that the Greek word translated "thorn" in this verse literally means tent stake. This wasn't just some annoying irritant to Paul. It was a major hurt!]

So, I guess it’s misleading to say that God doesn’t always heal. The truth is, God is always healing us. And He is going about it in the way He knows best, because He is the Great Physician. Sometimes, our requests for the healing we want might match up with His treatment plan, but often, they don’t.

And in those times, we can choose to stand with Paul and trust that God knows what He’s doing. Whether He says yes or no, He will always do what’s right.

Chapter 13

God isn't afraid to raise His voice.

For quite some time, it seems the Corinthian Christians had been slightly underwhelmed by Paul. He wasn’t like other “typical” apostles of his day. He didn’t throw his weight around. He didn’t demand that his ministry be supported, but worked to support himself. When he was with the people, he treated them kind and graciously.

The Corinthians weren’t impressed.

They accused him of being weak and timid: “By the humility and gentleness of Christ, I appeal to you—I, Paul, who am ‘timid’ when face to face with you, but ‘bold’ toward you when away! I beg you that when I come I may not have to be as bold as I expect to be toward some people who think that we live by the standards of this world.” (2 Cor 10:1-2)

Perhaps Paul didn’t care for personal confrontation. But as his third visit to the city of Corinth approached, he promised to deal with the Christians assembled there in a way they could relate to—even if it took him out of his comfort zone: “My coming will not mean leniency for those who had sinned before that visit and those who have sinned since. It will in fact be a proof that I speak by the power of Christ. The Christ you have to deal with is not a weak person outside you, but a tremendous power inside you. He was ‘weak’ enough to be crucified, yes, but he lives now by the power of God. I am weak as he was weak, but I am strong enough to deal with you for I share his life by the power of God.” (vs 2-4)

In other words, if the Christians in Corinth would only respond to aggressive authority, then Paul would meet them on their terms.

The Corinthians shouldn’t have mistaken Paul’s meekness for weakness, and neither should we mistake God’s meekness for weakness! Eugene Petersen summed it up well in The Message when he wrote: “God is kind, but he’s not soft. In kindness he takes us firmly by the hand and leads us into a radical life-change.” (Rom 2:4)

God isn’t afraid to raise His voice with us when necessary. He doesn’t shy away from tough love. Though He prefers to deal with His children in gentle ways, if His meekness is unimpressive or underwhelming to us, He will find more dramatic ways to get our attention.

God tailors His approach to us based on what we need, not on the methods He prefers. If we need to be shouted at, He will shout. If we can respond to a whisper, He will whisper. If we need a period of strong silence, He’ll be quiet.

He will do whatever it takes to get through to us.