Most Christians are familiar with the “thorn in the flesh, the messenger of Satan” that tormented the Apostle Paul (II Cor 12:7 KJV). Just before this, Paul wrote at length about all the glories that he had experienced as a minister of the Gospel (an implied subtext being that he would never have experienced such things as a passionate, but lifeless pharisee). “Three different times [Paul] begged the Lord to take it away” (II Cor 12:8 NLT). This juxtaposition of highs and lows sounds a whole lot like someone struggling with self-doubt.
Paul recounts that God’s consistent response to him was “my grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (II Cor 12:9 NIV). It is noteworthy that the text does not merely say that God’s grace was sufficient in an absolute sense, but rather that God’s grace was sufficient for Paul in the very specific sense of his struggle.
I am reminded of a time roughly eight years ago (when I was still a professor at the local university). One Sunday it just happened that I was “deputized” in the moment by the assistant pastor to aid in a massive altar call. This woman wanted “forgiveness” for her divorce. I had already heard her say this at least twice before. I looked at her and said “God already forgave you the first time, you have to forgive yourself. Would you rather receive prayer that God give you that strength?”
I wonder if this isn’t what Paul attempted to articulate. Here he was, perhaps the most successful of all the apostles yet he was tormented by feelings of inadequacy. Just as we mortals are quick to blame other mortals for our foibles that we refuse to see in ourselves, maybe we are also quick to assign our spiritual frailties upon God. In other words, if we feel unforgiven, it is a whole lot easier to believe that God withholds forgiveness from us than it is to believe that we withhold forgiveness from ourselves. So maybe that is what Paul meant by “my grace is sufficient for you.” When Paul didn’t have the strength to believe in himself, God stepped in to say, “even if you don’t believe in yourself, believe in me that I believe in you.”
That sounds a lot God’s message to Jeremiah, to Isaiah, and to Ezekiel.