2 Corinthians 2:12:1-7. I must go on boasting. Though there is nothing to be gained by it, I will go on to visions and revelations of the Lord. 2 I know a man 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. 3 And I know that this man was caught up into paradise—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows— 4 and he heard things that cannot be told, which man may not utter. 5 On behalf of this man I will boast, but on my own behalf I will not boast, except of my weaknesses— 6 though if I should wish to boast, I would not be a fool, for I would be speaking the truth; but I refrain from it, so that no one may think more of me than he sees in me or hears from me. 7 So to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited.
Paul is in the middle of his “anti-boast,” and from it we get one of the greatest statements about grace in weakness, the crucified life, and union with Christ in all of scripture. It comes in his description of his thorn in the flesh.
But before we try to understand the thorn, today let’s look at the vision. Paul is contrasting his vision and his thorn. Paul’s vision occured fourteen years earlier when he was caught up into paradise. This is what he should be boasting about, not the thorn. The “Super Apostles” who oppose Paul have probably had lots of visions and out of body experiences. And not fourteen years ago, probably more like fourteen minutes ago.
A spiritual experience is something that we all want isn’t it. Who wouldn’t love to die and go to heaven, and then come back and write a bestseller about it? Who doesn’t want to hear Jesus calling while we drink coffee on our front porch (am I really supposed to just drink coffee on my front porch without hearing Jesus call?)? Who doesn’t want to do some spiritual “undignified” dance in their kitchen? Who doesn’t want to climb a mountain and find God waiting for them there? Who doesn’t want to heal someone or get healed, or experience a miracle? Or go to a concert and feel something again for the first time in a long time? Or go to camp and re-dedicate? Or go on a mission trip and get “on fire” for Jesus? We all want these kinds of spiritual experiences.
Listen, I’m not saying these kinds of experiences can’t happen (well I’m not sure about dying and going to heaven and then coming back). What Paul is describing here actually did happen. He actually did get caught up into the heavenly paradise, and hear things that cannot be uttered. But this amazing experience was not his boast. It was not his authentication as a Christian or as an Apostle. Nor is his experience, or any spiritual experience, other than your co-crucifixion and co-resurrection with Christ (union with Christ), the path to real spiritual growth.
Spiritual growth occurs over time, over much suffering and weakness, and through the reception of grace. There is no shortcut. Seeking spiritual experiences is often an attempt to become Christ-like without the cross. Without the weakness. Without the time.
Experiences and blessings, though real gracious visitations from the Lord, are not sufficient to rest upon, nor should they lead us to glory in ourselves, as if we are storing up grace for a time to come, or were yet at the end of the conflict. No. Fruit ripens slowly. – George Goodman
“To live is Christ” is always the path of weakness, crucifixion, and failure, not visions or heavenly or mystical experiences. Why? Because your union with Christ is the only spiritual experience you need. And it is the way of self-denial and grace. Mystical spiritual experiences may be the result of grace, but they are never the means of grace. You don’t need them, you shouldn’t chase them, and you must never boast in them. Your flesh will only yield to the cross, not resolutions, dedications, experiences, or “blessings.” The only thing that can actually transform you into Christ likeness is the appropriation of your death with Christ, that is, receiving the grace that comes in weakness.
Do you tend to rely on spiritual experiences for your spiritual growth? Has that worked for you? How would relying on grace in weakness look different? How does union with Christ allow us to both appreciate spiritual experiences yet not need spiritual experiences for our growth in Christ?