It's amazing how desperation can open the eyes to things never seen before. I think this happened to me recently as I studied John Owen's Mortification of Sin and then read and meditated on a scripture passage that Owen had quoted. I think that sin itself blinds us to truth but I think the conviction of sin by the Holy Spirit and gaining some idea of the depth of our depravity can lead to a state where we are humbled to the point of putting ourselves beneath the Word of God which, "is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword . . . discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart." In this humbled state we can then receive truth which we could not in a comfortable and conceited state.
In the section I read Owen writes of how we can look to Christ by faith for the killing of our sin. Owen calls Christ's blood, "the great sovereign remedy for sin-sick souls," and says that if we live in the light of Christ's great work we will, "through the good providence of God, live to see [our] lust dead at [our] feet." Owen goes on to remind the weary Christian of the riches in Christ available for God-glorifying victory over sin. Here he writes of an episode from the life of the Apostle Paul, citing a verse of which I have often thought in times of trial but also a verse the true meaning of which I think I have never grasped. Owen writes:
God strengthened Paul under his temptation, with the sufficiency of His grace: 'My grace is sufficient for you' (2 Cor. 12:9). Paul was not immediately released from his trial, yet the sufficiency of God's grace sustained him.
When I read this I turned to 2nd Corinthians 12:7-10 to read again Paul's testimony. The apostle writes:
So to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited. Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. 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 of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.
The first thing that struck me in this passage was an affirmation of the sovereignty of God in the trials of the Christian. Although it was Satan that sent the "thorn in the flesh," it was the will of God that Paul have this thorn. It was God's will, not Satan's, that Paul not become conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations he had received. Therefore God allowed this trial in the life of the apostle. But ultimately what struck me so deeply was God's response to Paul that His grace was sufficient. As I wrote earlier, I have often thought of this verse, of the sufficiency of God's grace and of His power being made perfect in weakness, during times of struggle. But even though I had often thought of this perhaps I had never taken the time to think about it.
Often in the midst of trial or temptation I have prayed to God for deliverance, having the sufficiency of His grace in mind. But often when I've thought of that sufficiency I've thought of it in terms of being delivered from the trial. But the sufficiency of grace in this passage does not refer to Paul being delivered from any trial. It is a sufficiency of grace in the midst of a trial, a "thorn," that would not cease to "harass" the apostle Paul. God's grace was sufficient for Paul in a way that even while he had this "thorn," whatever it may have been, that he could still bring the gospel to the gentiles, planting churches all over the Roman world, and write to Christians that they should imitate him (1 Cor 4:16).
When Owen cites this passage about Paul he writes as if the "thorn" were some sort of temptation. While we can never in this life know what Paul's "thorn" was I think that a scholar like John Owen must have had good reason for believing that this passage is applicable to a Christian's trials in being tempted. While Calvin in his commentary on the passage denies that Paul's thorn was the temptation "to lust," Calvin does write, "my opinion is that under this term is comprehended every kind of temptation, with which Paul was exercised. For flesh here, in my opinion, denotes - not the body, but that part of the soul which has not yet been regenerated." So it seems that Owen is in good company in believing that Paul's "thorn" could represent temptation.
As I wrote earlier, I've often thought of the sufficiency of God's grace as a sufficiency to deliver from a trial or temptation. And it is right to ask for deliverance from trials just as Paul did three times and as our Lord commanded as he taught the disciples how to pray. But what happens when we ask for deliverance but the temptation to sin is still there - or it's stronger. There have been times when, by God's grace, I've experienced a miraculous deliverance from temptation. But many times that miraculous deliverance doesn't seem to happen. At this point I can begin to feel sorry for myself or begin to justify myself in sin because I feel entitled to something from God. But it is at these times when the temptation doesn't go away that God's promise to Paul is most applicable. For Paul was not delivered either and yet God still says, "My grace is sufficient."
If we can believe that God's grace is sufficient no matter how strong the temptation and no matter what mistakes we've already made then I think a knowledge of that sufficiency will give us the real weapon to battle sin. That weapon is revealed where Paul writes, "For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities (2 Cor. 12:10)." For the sake of Christ Paul was contented! In the midst of his "thorn in the flesh," from which he asked to be delivered and yet it remained, Paul was contented. And it is a lack of contentment in Christ which causes me to be "enticed by my own desire" to sin, as James puts it (James 1:14). It is easy to believe that you are contented when things are going well, or when you are delivered from temptation, but when the deliverance doesn't come that is when the real battle begins to be contented in Christ. But if we can have the beginning of a knowledge of our riches in Christ and believe that God's grace is sufficient even in the midst of temptation then I think we can be contented in Christ even when we are tempted. If we are contented in Christ, when the world throws some temptation at us, we can, with the apostle Paul, count any gain we might think we would have in succumbing to temptation as "loss for the sake of Christ," we can count, "everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus." When it comes to being contented, John Owen offers his own advice:
I say, then, we must by faith consider the supply and fullness that we have in Christ Jesus, and how He can at any time give strength and deliverance. If you do not immediately find success in your battle, you will at least be secure in your chariot, and you will not flee from the field while the conflict continues. You will be kept from utter discouragement and lying down in unbelief, and from turning aside to false means and remedies that cannot help you in the end.