Brothers and sisters, the God and Father of the Lord Jesus, blessed be He forever, knows that I do not lie. In Damascus, the governor under King Aretas guarded the city of Damascus in order to seize me, but I was let down in a basket through a window in the wall, and escaped from his hands.
It is necessary, but not profitable, to boast, but I will go on to visions and revelations of the Lord. I know a person in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven - whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows. And I know that such a person - whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows - was caught up into Paradise and heard things that are not to be told, that no mortal is permitted to repeat. On behalf of such a one I will boast, but on my own behalf I will not boast, except of my weaknesses. But if I wish to boast, I will not be a fool, for I will be speaking the truth. But I refrain from it, so that no one may think better of me than what is seen in me or heard from me, even considering the exceptional character of the revelations. Therefore, to keep me from being too elated, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of satan to torment me, to keep me from being too elated. Three times I appealed to the Lord about this, that it would leave me, but He said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for My power is made perfect in weakness.” So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me.
Let's go part by part of this excerpt of Saint Paul's letter to the Corinthian Christians.
Paul went from someone who persecuted and actively sought out Christians to imprison them, to someone who himself was persecuted and sought out to be imprisoned because he became a follower of Christ. Hence, when he was in Damascus, he had to secretly escape the city at night by being lowered in a basket through a window in a city wall. Imagine that!
Nowhere in the whole Bible is boasting mentioned as frequently as it is mentioned in the Second Epistle to the Corinthians. Even in the ancient times, people knew that a person who boasts about his non-existent virtues looks like a fool. However, it was not considered ridiculous or insane if a person boasted about his real virtues. And so, a strong person boasted about his power, a wealthy one - about his wealth, a righteous pharisee - about his supposed righteousness.
So Paul also boasts. But what does he boast about? He boasts about things that the people in the society tried to avoid talking about in order not to lose street cred, as we would say today. Or in other words, in order not to lose dignity in the eyes of others. Paul boasts about his adversities and hardships, about the fact that he was imprisoned, about the fact that he was beaten with sticks and stones, about the fact that he starved and almost froze to death. In short, Saint Paul boasted of things that in the eyes of his contemporaries looked humiliating and discrediting. Such as him sitting in some basket, in which he is being lowered from a wall because he is running away from danger.
Paul does, however, boast about one extraordinary event in his life. His opponents would boast of ecstatic experiences, which they presented as obvious evidence of their spiritual authority. Paul shares one such event from his own life, but in order to divert the attention from himself, he talks about it reluctantly, as about something that happened to another person he knew. How it all happened, "whether in the body or out of the body," Paul leaves the knowledge of these mysteries to God alone. He can't even retell what was heard in "the third heaven."
Meaning, Paul's ecstatic experience was not meant for the public, for his preaching, or for boasting. He mentions it, however, because it was a real experience, it was not made up. But Paul's words do teach us that any extraordinary religious experiences should be judged with extreme caution. Therefore, he does not boast about his admiration. Rather, he wants his life to be judged in his weaknesses in Christ. Among these weaknesses, he mentions an acute pain that constantly tormented him like a thorn in the flesh.
We can only guess what this illness, or weakness, was that Paul had to ask the Lord three times to be delivered from, as from "a messenger of satan," as he calls it. His prayer was heard, even though, in such a way that we may say that it really wasn't. He received an answer - the Lord did not relieve Paul from his pain, but gave him strength to live with it, overcoming it.
"My grace is sufficient for you." If this was an answer from God to our pleas to be delivered from the torments of our life, how would we respond? Does Christ's answer to Paul mean that suffering is something positive? No, not really. Any suffering is evil, yet unavoidable in our world. People strive to eliminate pain and suffering. That's why some Eastern religions, such as Buddhism, and medications, such as pain killers and drugs, and now euthanasia, are becoming ever so popular. At the heart of these is one thing - get rid of suffering, spread joy. It sounds romantic, but it is delusional and impossible because, in some way, life is suffering. The only way not to feel pain and suffering is to be drugged all the time (and I mean 24/7 drugged) or die (both of which are the same, by the way).
Paul desired to get rid of his own pain and suffering, and so he escaped in the basket down the wall, he prayed to God to be delivered from it. But just like Jesus prayed in the garden of Gethsemane, so should we, "Abba, Father, for You all things are possible, remove this cup from Me. Yet, not what I want, but what You want" (Mark 14:36).
"My power is made perfect in weakness" - this is a paradox. How can power be in weakness, let alone made perfect in it? As the late Father Tom Hopko used to say, "Orthodoxy is paradoxy." Do you want to live? You must die. Do you want to be first? You must be last and servant of all. Do you want to have power? Perfect your weaknesses.
When we realize that we are not in control, that we are in fact weak, that we can't do anything on our own, only then can God come in and perfect His power in us through our weaknesses. Christianity does not strive to eliminate suffering and pain because they are unavoidable. Christ did not eliminate them, He transformed them. Pain, suffering, and death used to be brutal and pointless. In Christ they become salvific. In Christ the tragedy of our life finds meaning. In Christ, no messengers of satan, no infirmities or pain or suffering can "separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord" (Romans 8:39).
Your fellow sufferer in the Lord,
Father Aleksey - your friendly Singac priest