15. Paul’s “Unanswered” Prayer

Praise and Prayer

 PRAYER varies greatly in the Scriptures, like all truth, to agree with the administration in which it occurs. Incalculable disappointment and distress have come to sincere saints who sought to be scriptural by copying the example of those in another era. As a whole they have the mistaken conception that, if we persist and persevere in prayer, we will certainly obtain what we want, otherwise, there is something radically wrong. The best concrete reply to this is the experience of the apostle Paul.

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Paul entreated the Lord thrice, that the splinter in his flesh should withdraw from him. It is well that we are not told exactly what it was, but we know that it was not a selfish desire for some forbidden or harmful thing, but rather the removal of a physical infirmity, which, the apostle probably supposed, would hinder his ministry. Can we imagine a more laudable motive? To begin with, why should God use a messenger of Satan to give Paul an infirmity, when his strength was so much needed in his arduous task of making known his gospel? Most of us would consider this a prime necessity. It is not easy to realize that it is even more important to be kept down. It was given to him lest he should be lifted up (2 Cor.12:7).

This should appeal especially to those of us who, like Paul, have had a glimpse of the transcendent revelations which he received, as set forth in His prison epistles. No doubt his bonds in jail were also a special dispensation to keep him humble, for why, otherwise, reveal them in such a contrastive environment? Some of us have wondered why, with such a glorious message, while we are not enclosed within prison walls, we should be so constricted in our efforts to make it known. Moreover, we, like the apostle, cannot help entreating the Lord to enlarge our sphere. It seems to be more important that His servants should be kept down, than that they should be strong and free to work their will.

In Paul's case, and doubtless in all other such situations, there was a combination of two distinct causes for his weakness, both flesh and spirit. The physical side of it doubtless caused pain and suffering, for this is the effect of a splinter or “thorn.” On the spiritual side, it was occasioned by a messenger of Satan, and his “buffeting” would consist of blows of a spiritual nature. The word buffet suggests punishment inflicted by those with whom there is close contact, as in the case of our Lord when tried before the chief priest (Matt.26:67; Mark 14:65), and, hidden, in Paul’s own experience (1 Cor.4:11). But Satan'’s messenger would be limited to Spiritual blows, dealt by men'’s tongues rather than their hands, such as the reviling and calumniation, which made him the offscouring and scum of all! (1 Cor.4:11-13).

We, who look forward to be with Christ among the celestials in the future, should consider the path which He trod on earth to reach His high office. He first came down to suffer pain and shame during His earthly life, quite apart from that which was His as a Sacrifice for our sins by death. He also prayed to have a cup carried aside from Him, but added, “not My will, but Thine, be done” (Luke 22:42). It is our privilege to have fellowship with Him in these sufferings which come to us through the opposition of the Adversary, yet are apparently due to the blows of men, and very often struck by saints who are seeking to exalt themselves in the estimation of the world.

Let it be very clear in our minds that the great grace we have received is not intended to lift us up now, in the estimation of the world. God is making a background now in order to display His grace. He does not call many wise or powerful or noble (1 Cor.1:26) so that there can be no boasting. And His servants must be kept down, to properly portray His grace. Otherwise, a man like Paul, instead of being an obscure prisoner in Rome, should have been seated on Caesar's throne, with seven diadems upon his brow, or at least have the triple crown of the supposed successor of Peter, for his ministry far transcended that of the chief of the apostles.

We are told that he prayed thrice for the removal of the splinter, the messenger of Satan. He was not answered immediately. There can be no doubt that he was heard the first time. This must have been humiliating to him, before he realized that this was intended to heighten his humiliation. God does not always “answer” the prayer of even the best of His servants without delay. It does not imply some sin or offense, as the associates of Job insisted. Like the splinter itself, it was part of the gracious discipline to keep the apostle from being unduly exalted by the transcendent revelations.

If we need special strength for doing the work which God has given us to do, and some physical weakness interferes, it is quite in order to pray for its removal. At least, in the writer's own experience, God has answered his petitions for increased vigor, in order to do His work.

Prayer should be the constant attitude of the human heart. But specific petitions, such as this one, should not be constantly repeated, as if God were deaf or indisposed to bless. Suffering and infirmity may be a token of His care and a means of ultimate blessing, as in the case of Job. Nor does it follow that bodily weakness is used to humble in all cases. If the task assigned to a slave requires strength of body or of mind, God has other means of keeping us down. Indeed, the Adversary, being a spirit, is adept in the use of spiritual say-spears [reviling] and vilification. Job may have suffered more from his false friend's accusations than from his physical infirmity.

Twice Paul repeated his request. Is that recorded as the limit to which we should go? By that time we should carefully weigh the situation, and consider whether the evil of which we wish to rid ourselves is not a blessing in disguise. If it humbles us, that is one of the greatest of boons. Even weakness may be a means of displaying God's power. We are only an infinitesimal fraction of humanity, and partake of a minute portion of God's purpose with the whole. He created evil in order to provide a background for blessing, and to reveal Himself through it. So that we should not ask to have all evil extracted from our experience, but rather inquire as to its ultimate effect. Then we may be able to thank God for it, rather than entreat Him to remove it.

Paul's specific request was not granted so far as we are aware. But who of humanity, except His Lord, came anywhere near being as powerful as he? Nothing else can compare with the power of his prison epistles. His infirmity only exemplified the grace it reveals and emphasizes the transcendent power it unveils. So that, instead of persevering in prayer for release from his fleshly infirmities, Paul gloried in them and took delight in them and the outrages and persecutions and distresses which came to him for Christ's sake. Instead of praying for their cessation, He gives thanks for the privilege of bearing them. His request was refused, his prayer was not “answered,” his desire was not granted, but his spirit was enlightened and his heart was humbled, and he bowed in subjection to God's will, which is the great ultimate of all God's creatures.

A. E. Knoch

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