Each time I read of the Apostle Paul’s “thorn in the flesh,” I learn something new. Paul’s testimony of the blessing and power of adversity in his life reminds us that if we endure it well in our own lives, “God shall exalt [us] on high” (D&C 121:8).
Paul relates his lesson in four verses in 2 Corinthians 12:7–10:
“And lest I should be exalted above measure through the abundance of the revelations, there was given to me a thorn in the flesh, the messenger of Satan to buffet me, lest I should be exalted above measure.
“For this thing I besought the Lord thrice, that it might depart from me.
“And he said unto me, My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness. Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me.
“Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in necessities, in persecutions, in distresses for Christ’s sake: for when I am weak, then am I strong.”
Paul’s initial reaction to his “thorn” was probably not unlike that of many of us: “Why me?” “What have I done to deserve this?” “Please remove this from me.” “This is not fair.”
We can learn a number of important principles from Paul’s words.
In the opening verse, Paul reasons that the success of his missionary efforts and the constancy of his heavenly blessings could cause him to be lifted up and to forget to seek the grace and goodness of God. The thorn was to serve as a reminder of his dependence upon the Lord. Thus he correctly identifies the purpose of his affliction and the reason it was not removed. He is therefore not resentful nor offended by the Lord’s refusal to comply with his prayerful requests. As hard as it may be, he willingly submits. He recognizes that willing submission to whatever God imposes brings God’s grace to strengthen us and help us bear that which is imposed.
The people of Alma learned this great lesson when their prayers for deliverance from persecution and bondage were met instead with the power to endure their temporary captivity and thereby stand as witnesses that God hears us in our afflictions and provides for our needs as He perceives them rather than as we desire (see Mosiah 24:15).
Paul’s comparison of the thorn to “the messenger of Satan to buffet me” is most likely a recognition that the devil delighted to witness his distress and revel in his discomfort, “for he seeketh that all men might be miserable like unto himself” (2 Ne. 2:27). A pointed lesson to be learned from this is that although Satan is not normally the one who imposes the affliction—for most afflictions come as the result of the operation of natural laws—he rejoices in our misery and would love to see us accuse God and resent the infirmity that may be for our benefit and blessing.
Paul then quotes the Lord, who tells him, “My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor. 12:9). All men and women are bound by mortally imposed weaknesses and limitations in strength, knowledge, and power. Contrasting these limitations with the infinite wisdom and power of God brings humility. “Weaknesses are a constant reminder of our dependence upon the Lord. It is when we take those weaknesses to Him, in humility, that we can become effectively joined with Him in a great work. It is when we have done as much as we can do that His grace … can move us beyond our natural abilities” (Carolyn J. Rasmus, “Faith Strengthened in Weakness,” Church News, 26 Feb. 1994, 10). It is in this sense that God’s strength can then be made perfect in our lives. “The Lord God showeth us our weakness that we may know that it is by his grace, and his great condescensions unto the children of men, that we have power to do these things” (Jacob 4:7).
We find relevant instruction in the Book of Mormon on the meaning of the grace of God. Alma reminds his newly ordained priests that they are not to labor for money nor depend upon the people for their support. Instead, they are to receive the grace of God in return for their priestly labors, “that they might wax strong in the Spirit, having the knowledge of God, that they might teach with power and authority from God” (Mosiah 18:26).
In the Bible Dictionary we read, “The main idea of the word [grace] is divine means of help or strength, given through the bounteous mercy and love of Jesus Christ. … This grace is an enabling power that allows men and women to lay hold on eternal life and exaltation after they have expended their own best efforts” (p. 697). Paul learns that it is because of Christ’s merits that he is sustained in his adversity, not because of his own abilities or willpower. But there is a condition! The grace of Christ—His power, His strength, His help—is only “made perfect in weakness.” When a person ultimately recognizes his total dependency on Christ and lets his will be swallowed up in God’s will, then and only then can this enabling power be brought to bear in perfection.
Jacob’s words in the Book of Mormon summarize the required completeness of this surrender:
“And whoso knocketh, to him will he open; and the wise, and the learned, and they that are rich, who are puffed up because of their learning, and their wisdom, and their riches … save they shall cast these things away, and consider themselves fools before God, and come down in the depths of humility, he will not open unto them” (2 Ne. 9:42).
Understanding this, Paul “most gladly,” therefore, glories in his adversity. He takes “pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in necessities, in persecutions, in distresses for Christ’s sake” (2 Cor. 12:10), because he knows that only by enduring well can the power of Christ rest upon him. It is only when he recognizes his weakness, his inability to save himself, his vulnerability to evil and death, and his need for a Redeemer that he can then become strong, “relying alone upon the merits of Christ” (Moro. 6:4).
Why does the Lord allow adversity, hardship, and personal pain and suffering in our lives? To help answer that question, we must first understand the purpose of mortality and our ultimate destiny in the kingdom of God.
The Lord has promised, “All that my Father hath shall be given unto [you]” (D&C 84:38), and “he who doeth the works of righteousness shall receive his reward, even peace in this world, and eternal life in the world to come” (D&C 59:23). Can any promise be greater than these? But there was a cost, an enormous cost:
“The atonement … is the occasion on which a God paid the ransom to reclaim fallen man. … In it, the Only Begotten made amends for a broken law, satisfied the demands of justice, and took upon himself the sins of all men on conditions of repentance. Through it, all men are raised in immortality while those who believe and obey are raised also unto eternal life in the kingdom of the Father. The atonement makes possible a reconciliation between God and man; it provides a Savior and a Redeemer for mortals; it gives man an advocate and an intercessor in the courts above. The atonement is the great and eternal plan of redemption” (Bruce R. McConkie, A New Witness for the Articles of Faith , 107).
Such a cost demands more of people than a simple confession or acknowledgment. It requires proof that we will “abide in [his] covenant. … For if ye will not abide in my covenant ye are not worthy of me” (D&C 98:14–15). President Lorenzo Snow (1814–1901) remarked, “The Lord seems to require some proof on our part, something to show that He can depend upon us when He wants us to accomplish certain things in His interest” (in Conference Report, Oct. 1900, 2).
The Lord seems to have several purposes in giving us trials: First, to test and prove us, to see if we are loyal to Him and to our beliefs. Second, to give us the opportunity to prove that we love Him more than any other thing. Third, to teach us something about ourselves and our commitment to remain true and focused on the eternal nature and possibilities of our lives, our families, and the mission of the Church.
Sister Sheri L. Dew, former second counselor in the Relief Society general presidency, put into vital perspective what that proof entails:
“This life is a test. It is only a test—meaning, that’s all it is. Nothing more, but nothing less. It is a test of many things—of our convictions and priorities, our faith and our faithfulness, our patience and our resilience, and in the end, our ultimate desires” (“This Is a Test. It Is Only a Test,” BYU Women’s Conference, 1 May 1998).
In late 1833, the Saints in Missouri were suffering great persecution. The Prophet Joseph Smith, unable to understand why so great a calamity had come upon Zion and what the cause of the affliction was, inquired of the Lord. The response indicated that part of the reason was the consequence of their transgressions. The Lord laid out a strong principle: “Therefore, they must needs be chastened and tried, even as Abraham, who was commanded to offer up his only son. For all those who will not endure chastening, but deny me, cannot be sanctified” (D&C 101:4–5).
We are also reminded that part of the purpose of mortality is to “prove them herewith, to see if they will do all things whatsoever the Lord their God shall command them” (Abr. 3:25).
President Harold B. Lee (1899–1973) once remarked: “Don’t be afraid of the testing and trials of life. Sometimes when you are going through the most severe tests, you will be nearer to God than you have any idea, for like the experience of the Master himself in the temptation on the mount, in the Garden of Gethsemane, and on the cross at Calvary, the scriptures record, ‘And, behold, angels came and ministered unto him.’ (Matt. 4:11.) Sometimes that may happen to you in the midst of your trials” (in Conference Report, Munich Germany Area Conference, 1973, 114).
As we come closer to the Lord, we also draw greater attention from Lucifer and encounter greater turbulence in our lives. Elder Bruce C. Hafen of the Seventy explained the effects of growth through meeting the challenges of life:
“We learn as our knowledge grows that the wind whistles loudest around the highest peaks. It is in this stage that we learn the difference between cobwebs and cables. But as we nourish our seedling testimony, building on our portion of sure knowledge by stretching further the reach of our faith, our confidence matures and our perspective broadens. Our learning from experience over time yields knowledge having a special kind of depth, for the maturing of our spiritual understanding reflects itself in the maturing of our own character” (The Believing Heart , 38).
When we understand the principle of opposition in all things, reasons for adversity and disappointment, and the blessings of trials, we can accept the daily events of our lives with greater hope and desire to endure well and to look unto Christ, that His power may rest upon us and see us happily through our mortal lives. Is it any wonder then that Paul glories in his infirmities or takes pleasure in reproaches, persecutions, and distress? These are among the vital means of growth and the development of true Godlike character.