By Paul Koch –
There has always been an element of the Christian faith that seeks the big experience. Do you know what I mean by the big experience? Back when I was in High School we would go to these youth gatherings where some tragic individual would get up and share a powerful testimony about a moment in his life where the Lord broke into his consciousness and dramatically changed things. It might have been a powerful dream, or a near death experience, or hitting rock bottom and having a stranger speak words of hope. But there was always this big experience: this big glorious moment that he could look to and say, “There, there was the moment that it all changed for me.” For many, in fact, a part of their life of faith was either recalling such an experience or creating another one or offering guidance to their neighbor so that they too could have the big experience.
There is a story told of Martin Luther when he had the big experience. As the legend has it, he was alone in his chamber on a Good Friday evening. He was deep in devotion, contemplating how much Christ had suffered for us. All of a sudden, almost like an Old Testament prophet, he found himself caught up in what seemed to be a celestial vision. For before him appeared a vision as real as his own flesh: a vision of Christ himself with all five wounds clearly visible. Now as the story goes, Luther didn’t write down steps for others to achieve such a spiritual sight. He didn’t hold conferences to inspire others by his own experience. He didn’t publish books about it or preach about the experience. No, he spoke to the vision saying, “Go away, you confounded devil. I know no other Christ than the one who was crucified, and who in his Word is pictured and presented unto me.” And when he said this, the vision disappeared.
Now that story of Luther wouldn’t have done much to inspire me, or the youth of the church. His story, while intriguing, just told me to find Christ where he promised to be: in the Scriptures. No big experience necessary, no grand moment to bend my personal story around. No call to the clerics to have it confirmed as a miraculous event. However, his reaction to the vision is not entirely without precedent.
In 2 Corinthians, St. Paul spends a great amount of time speaking about what he has suffered as an apostle. He boasts of the afflictions he has endured: being shipwrecked, stoned, beat with rods and lashes. He talks about the sleepless nights, the hunger pains and dehydration. He mentions the extreme cold and the exposure in the wild, but then he turns his attention to visions and revelations of the Lord. He speaks of a man, who is most likely himself, that had an incredible experience, a really big experience. He was caught up in the third heaven. Whether that was a literal ascension in the body or a spiritual vision we do not know. But this man goes up to the highest parts of heaven, to paradise itself, and there he sees things and hears things that cannot be told. In the end Paul says this is truly worth boasting in, but of this he will not boast.
This is certainly not the same thing as Luther condemning a vision as the work of the devil, but it is striking that this very real experience of Paul is not the things that chooses to boast in. Though he receives and rejoices in it as a blessing of God, he boasts in something else entirely. For God did not just give him divine revelations. He says, “To keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh.” It is this thorn in his flesh that becomes the object of Paul’s boasting. It is not the big and grand experience but the painful and harassing thorn in his flesh that takes center stage. For he goes on to say, “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 weakness.”
In the end St. Paul says, “For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insult, hardships, persecutions, and calamities.” Notice he doesn’t say he is content with powerful visions, or moving spiritual moments that others would love to emulate. He is content with weakness, he boasts in a thorn. And why? Well, he simply says, “When I am weak, then I am strong.” He is content with the thorn in his flesh, content with the weakness, for there he finds true strength.
Now this may seem strange at first and in fact it is absurd to our world to speak this way, to find strength in weakness. But to us who have been born again, to those who have died and risen anew with our Lord, this gets to the heart of our confidence. This statement by Paul of being strong when he is weak is exactly what the faith is all about. We don’t know exactly what Paul’s thorn was. There are all kinds of theories as to what it might have been, but listen to what he says it is. He says that the thorn in his flesh is “a messenger of Satan to harass” him. Satan is the great accuser of God’s children. He works upon us without ceasing to bring doubt and separation between the promises of God and our confidence in them. He accuses you again and again of your sin, pointing out your failures and your inadequacies, your lack of compassion and desire.
God calls you His own dear children, His beloved, His holy ones, but Satan and his messengers are right there every step of the way. They whisper into your ears, “Really, you, a child of God? Look at what you’ve done. Look at your sins. You know you are not worthy. You know the things you’ve said in hatred. You know the regrets of your life. How dare you claim to be the brothers and sisters of Christ!” Ah, this thorn we all know too well. He never leaves us alone. He is the constant reminder of your brokenness and your shame. He would have us turn in on ourselves and fix all the wrongs in our life before we believe the promises of Christ.
But in this very moment of weakness our Lord has done His great work. Satan may desire us to turn within to find the answer to our assurance, but Christ comes again and again from outside of us. As Luther exclaimed, “I know no other Christ than the one who was crucified, and who in his Word is pictured and presented unto me.” So as Satan accuses us, as that thorn twists and turns in our flesh, illuminating our imperfections, we find there is only one who can save. There is only one in whom we can have confidence: Christ our Lord.
When we are weak, we are strong. For when we are weak, we are in complete and total need of our Lord. Our Lord is one who comes to the weak to the broken, to the downtrodden and the despised. He comes to you and to me and He calls you sisters and brothers. He takes your imperfections into himself and dies for them all. In return for this He clothes you with His robes of righteousness. To boast in our weakness is not to boast in despair, but in the strength of the one who speaks forgiveness into your ears and your hearts.
When Satan comes accusing, you can stand tall in Christ and shout back, “So what? So what if those are my sins and my failings? For I have died to them already! I am a baptized child of God. I have been crucified with my Lord and live anew in His glory.” His power is made perfect in your weakness. For there He saves, there He forgives, there He declares that you will experience paradise itself.