And he said unto me, My grace is sufficient for thee. — 2Co_12:9
What the thorn was of which the apostle speaks is a question we never can answer. A hundred explanations have been given, yet certainty has never been obtained. Each age has its own interpretation, each commentator has his chosen theory, and we are still as far away from exact knowledge as ever. We may learn a little, it is true, from the language in which the apostle tells us about it. He tells us his trouble was a thorn. It was not like a cut of sword or a gash of a saber; it was something to all appearance insignificant, but how it festered! It was not in the spirit, it was in the flesh; it was a bodily and not a mental torment. Thus far Paul himself is witness; but beyond that we go at our own risk. Paul was not at all the kind of man to dwell with evident relish on his ailments. Paul was a gentleman and hid all that, kept a happy face to the wide world, and only when the cause of God demanded it, when he might help to glorify the Lord, did he touch in the most delicate fashion on the things that were given him to suffer.
But if we cannot tell what the apostle’s thorn was, we can at least discover what it did for him. It was as rich in blessing for his soul as the sweetest promise of his Lord. In the first place, it helped to keep him humble when in peril of spiritual pride; in the second place, it drove him to his knees, brought him as a suppliant to the throne; and thirdly, it gave him a new experience of the sustaining of the grace of God, “My grace is sufficient for thee.”
The Kingliness of Grace
Now, what is grace? Is it the same as love? Yes, at the heart of it, it is the same as love. When you get deep enough down to the heart of it, love and grace are indistinguishable. The difference is that love can travel anywhere, upwards, or on the levels of equality, but grace can only travel downwards. A king can always be gracious to his subjects; a subject can never be gracious to his king. He may love his king and be intensely loyal, but he can never be gracious to his king; for grace is love able to condescend to men of low estate, leaning down with royalty of pity to the lowly and wretched and lost. That is why we call it sovereign grace; it is a peculiar prerogative of sovereignty. That is why we talk of free grace. That is why, when we think of the grace of God, our thoughts go out immediately to Christ, for it is in Christ and Christ alone we learn the love of God to sinful men.
So far, then, for the setting of the words. And now I want to speak of certain seasons when you and I, as Christian people, find this text upon our hearts. True, we need its message every hour, for we are not under the law but under grace; but for the grace of God in Jesus Christ there is no hope, even for a day; and yet to us as to the apostle here, seasons come of quite peculiar need when, like a cry of cheer across the storm, we hear, “My grace is sufficient for thee.” On one or two of these seasons let me briefly touch.
The Sense of Sin
This word is full of joy when we awaken to a sense of our own sin. It is, we notice, one of the features of our age that it is shallow in its sense of sin. It does not feel the burden of its sin in the profound way our fathers did. Partly owing to that lack of quiet which is so notable in recent years, partly owing to the attention which is now directed to the social gospel, believers are not so deep in their own hearts as were the Christians of an older school. Now, that may be true or that may not be true, but this, I think, has never been gainsaid: sooner or later if one believes in Christ, he is wakened to a sight of his own sin. It may be given him at his first approach to Christ, be the cause that leads him to the Savior; or, being brought to Christ in gentler ways, it may visit him further on his journey. Sometimes he is awakened in the heart by contact with a pure and holy life; sometimes it is by the preaching of the Word or by the singing of a simple hymn. Sometimes it is in the seasons of the night when a man is alone with his own conscience; sometimes it is by reading the Bible; or it is born of great sorrow falling, not upon us, but on another; there is something in the suffering of our loved ones that makes us feel mysteriously guilty. It is in these ways, as in a hundred others, that the Spirit of God convicts us of our sin. We get a swift glimpse of what we are — see what we are for ourselves. Now there is no talk of reformation, we want something more radical than that; and for the first time we cry despairingly, “Lord, be merciful to me a sinner.” Is it not in such an hour that our text reveals the richness of its meaning? It is then we awaken to the Godhead of Christ: “My grace is sufficient for thee.” Deeper than our deepest sinfulness is the grace of God in Jesus Christ; able to forgive and to redeem is the love that was revealed on Calvary. Suppose that in the whole of history there had never been anyone so vile as you, yet even to you this very moment is offered abundant and everlasting pardon. It was sufficient for David in his lust, so terribly aggravated by his birth and station; it was sufficient for Peter when he denied his Lord who was going to shed His blood for him. The penitent thief found it enough for him. It was enough for him who had the seven devils. There is nothing that grace will not attempt, and there is nothing that grace cannot achieve. When we are awakened to a sense of sin the only word to rest upon is this, “My grace is sufficient for thee.”
Grace in Suffering
Once more this word is full of comfort in the seasons when we are called upon to suffer. It is a condition of our present life that no one ever is exempt from suffering. That is a stated part of the agreement on which we get our leasehold of the world. To one suffering is of his body, to another it may come in mind. One it may reach in his material fortunes, another through a brother or a son. In one case it may be swift and sharp, vanishing like a summer tempest, while in another it may be long and slow and linger through the obscurity of years. There are many to whom God denies success, but to none He denies to suffer. Sooner or later, stealing from the shadow, it lays its piercing hand upon our hearts. Had it been otherwise the heart of man Would never have been a man of sorrows to suffer as He suffered who is our ideal.
Now when we are called to suffer there is nothing more beautiful than quiet fortitude; to take it bravely and quietly and patiently is one of the noblest victories of life. There are few sights more morally inspiring than that of someone who has a cross to carry; someone of whom we know, perhaps, that every day must be a day of pain, yet we never hear a murmur from him, he is always bright. He is so busy thinking about others that he never seems to think about himself. I have known people such as that; I do thank God that I have known them! There is no sermon so moving in its eloquence as the unuttered sermon of the cheerful sufferer. Among all the thoughts that God has given to make that victory possible to us, there is none more powerful than this, “My grace is sufficient for thee.”
A friend of mine not long ago was visiting one of the hospitals in London. She was greatly touched by the look of happy peace on the face of one of the patients in a ward. A little while afterwards she asked a nurse who was the greatest sufferer in that ward, and the nurse, to her intense surprise, indicated the man she had first noticed. Going up to him, she spoke to him and told him what the nurse had said, and how she admired his courage when night and day in such pain. “Ah, miss,” he said, “it is not courage; it is that,” and he pointed to his bed head, and there was a colored text with this scripture upon it.
It was that which upheld him in the night; it was that which sustained him in the day. It was the love of God in Jesus Christ making itself perfect in his weakness.
Grace in Temptation
Then there is the hour when we are assaulted by temptation. Like suffering, temptation is universal, and like suffering, it is infinitely varied. Probably in all the human family no two are ever tempted quite alike. It is true that temptations may be broadly classified, clustered, as it were, around common centers. There is one class that assails the flesh, another that makes its onset on the mind; yet every temptation is so adapted to the person tempted that perhaps in all the ages that have gone no one was ever tempted just like me. To me there is no argument so strong as this for the existence of a devil. There is such subtlety in our temptations that it is hard to conceive of it without a brain. We are tempted with incomparable cunning; temptation comes to us all so subtlety and so sure that nothing can explain it but intelligence. Temptation is never obtrusive, but it is always there. It is beside us in the crowded street; it has no objection to the lonely moor; it follows us to the office and home; it dogs our footsteps when we go to church; it insists in sharing in our hours of leisure, and kneels beside us when we go to pray. At one and twenty we are sorely tempted, and say, “By-and-by it will be better; wait till twenty years have passed away, temptation will no longer assail us.” But forty comes and we are tempted still; not now as in the passion of our youth, but with a power that is far more deadly because it is so hardening to the heart. There is not a relationship so sweet and sacred but temptation chooses it for its assault; there is not an act of sacrifice so pure, but temptation meets us in the doing of it. It never despairs of us until we die. So tempted as we are, is there any hope for us at all against that shameless and malevolent intelligence? Yes, we are here to proclaim that there is hope in unremitting watchfulness, there is hope in every breath of prayer. “Satan trembles when he sees the weakest saint upon his knees”; but above all there is hope in this: when we are tempted and are on the point of falling, we can lift up our hearts to Christ and hear Him say “My grace is sufficient for thee.” Was He not tempted in all points like as we are, and yet was He not victorious? Did He not conquer sin, lead it captive, and lay it vanquished at His feet forever? And now you are His and He is yours; that victory which He had won is yours. It is at your disposal every hour. Say to yourself when you are next tempted, “He is able to keep me from falling. He that is with me is mightier than they that are against me.” Better still, say nothing, but just listen as He rises up beside His Father’s throne and calls to you, His tempted children, “My grace is sufficient for thee.”
Grace in the Hour of Death
Again, shall we not need this word when life is ending, when we come to die? There is no pillow for a dying head except the grace of God in Jesus Christ. When I was a young minister in Thurso I was called into the country one beautiful summer day to the bedside of an elder who was dying. He was a godly man, a grave and reverent saint, a man whose only study was the Bible; summer and winter he was never absent from his familiar comer in the sanctuary. And now he was dying, and, as sometimes happens even with the choicest of the ripest saints, he was dying in such a fear of death as I have never witnessed since that hour. Outside the open window was the field with a shimmer of summer heat upon it; far away there was the long roll of the heavy waves upon the shore; here in the cottage was a human soul that walked reverently and in the fear of God, overmastered by the fear of death. Well, I was a young man then, very ignorant, very unversed in the deep things of the soul, and I tried to comfort him by speaking of the past — what an excellent elder he had been; and I shall never forget the look he gave me, or how he covered his face as if in shame, nor how he cried, “Not that, sir, not that! There is no comfort for me there.” It was then I realized for the first time that the only pillow to die on is free grace. It was then I felt how all we have done is powerless to uphold us in the valley of death, for all our righteousness are as filthy rags and bring no ease upon a dying bed.
This is our only stay: “My grace is sufficient for thee.”