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"My grace is sufficient for you"

Ezekiel 36:26-27

I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws.

2 Corinthians 12:6-10

Even if I should choose to boast, I would not be a fool, because I would be speaking the truth. But I refrain, so no one will think more of me than is warranted by what I do or say. To keep me from becoming conceited because of these surpassingly great revelations there was given me a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, "My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness." Therefore, I will boast all the more gladly about my weakness, so that Christ's power may rest in me. That is why, for Christ's sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong."

The passage from Ezekiel 36 is about God's relationship with the people of Israel. The people of Israel had been rebellious against God and were in exile at this time, where they experienced a lot of suffering. Through the prophet Ezekiel, God is the one who initiates change, taking away the heart of stubbornness in the people of Israel and putting in its place a transformed heart that is willing to work with God. In the Bible, flesh is used to mean weakness as opposed to strength. In this text it is used in comparison with hard stone, which is cold. God is promising to remove the coldness that was in the hearts of the people of Israel and to replace it with a teachable heart that is willing to do God's will. God will do this by bestowing God's spirit on the people.

Second Corinthians 12:6-10 comes as a fulfilment of Ezekiel's passage in Paul's life. Paul is talking about how God humbled him by putting a thorn in his flesh after he had deep spiritual experiences with God. Paul was empowered by these experiences, and they gave him more authority as an apostle of Christ. But God controlled Paul's power and authority so that Paul would perpetually depend on God's power. God guided Paul in regard to how to use this power. The thorn in Paul's flesh transformed Paul's use of spiritual power by forcing him to focus not on what he as a person was able to do but on what Christ could do through him despite the thorn in his flesh.

The main characters in the two passages

In the Ezekiel passage, the main character is God. We know that God is relational. In this passage we are reminded about God's covenant with the people of Israel, who are God's chosen nation. God had a covenant with the people of Israel. This was an unequal relationship. God promised things to the people of Israel but defined conditions (Gen. 15; Ex. 20; Deut. 5:6-21). Throughout salvation history, God reminds the people of Israel about the special relationship they have. But on occasion, the people of Israel have disobeyed God's commands. The result was God allowing the people of Israel to be taken captive and experiencing life in exile, where they went through a very difficult time. God was now promising them restoration that would start with inner spiritual and moral transformation.

The main characters of 2 Corinthians 12:6-10 are Paul and God. Paul and God had a relationship (Acts 9). Paul did not meet the historical Jesus. In Acts 1:21-22 the qualifications of an apostle are given. According to this passage, Paul did not qualify to be an apostle of Christ. In previous passages of 2 Corinthians, Paul was accused of being a fool and weak and it was argued that his apostleship was not genuine. Paul's apostolic authority and personal integrity were being questioned. His whole ministry was at stake. Therefore, Paul was pushed into a corner to defend himself and justify his apostleship. Paul was tempted to use his extraordinary spiritual experiences as justification for his superiority over other apostles. Instead, he decided to put the emphasis on his dependency on God's grace that had carried him through his ministry.

The thorn in Paul's flesh

New Testament scholars have debated the nature of Paul's thorn in his flesh, since Paul himself did not explain what it was. Some have suggested that it was a sickness that may have been one among the following: a speech defect, an eye problem, or epilepsy. Others have suggested that it was a sensual temptation. Yet others have mentioned the constant persecutions that he went through. Whatever it was, God apparently did not see the need for us to know what it was, and speculation does not help us in any way. What is clear is that it was something that was brought about by an agent of Satan, under the permission of God, to control Paul's use of spiritual power. This can be linked to the experiences of Job, and of Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane. Paul and Jesus prayed that the problem that was facing them should be taken away. In both cases, God did not take the problem away because of God's own plans for humanity. Instead God provided the grace to keep going in the midst of these problems.

When one reads this passage in the context of Africa, where there is untold suffering as a result of social injustices based on race, gender, class and ethnicity, one is tempted to mention the agents of Satan in Africa and ask God, "Why us, Lord?" However, neither mentioning Satan nor asking God "why?" solve the problem. What is spiritually disturbing is that God allows such suffering to exist even among deeply prayerful people. The central question is, why do people who put their faith in God suffer? The majority of African people are very spiritual. African churchwomen's organizations are known for their powerful prayers that are accompanied by fasting. It is not uncommon for one to hear mothers of Africa crying before God that the spirit of poverty, incurable diseases like HIV/AIDS, crime, unemployment, violence against women and children, and so on, should be bound and thrown into the lake of fire. Yet statistics show that the poor are getting poorer and the rich are getting richer. HIV/AIDS is still spreading unabated. Violence against women and children is increasing. The questions we need to ask ourselves are these: Are such problems spiritual, and can they be chased away only through prayer and fasting? Shouldn't we combine bold prayers with bold actions that come as a result of being empowered by the Spirit of God to seek the transformation of the structures that oppress us through the misuse of God-given power?

African Christians should not forget that we operate under God's grace as we live on earth. Africa is not the most sinful continent on earth nor is it most likely to attract God's wrath. For reasons that we will never fully understand, God allows injustice and inequalities, illnesses and diseases in our lives. We live in a fallen world that is groaning like a woman in childbirth. The causes of Africa's problems are both local and international. Sometimes prayers and actions remove the sources of suffering. At other times, prayer just serves to minimize the pain. Yet there are other times when "the messengers of Satan are not always overthrown here and now by prevailing prayer, though they will be overthrown ultimately". What gives us the strength to go on struggling for the justice of God to be realized on earth is the resounding voice of God that says to us, "My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness."


We thank you, Creator God,
For empowering each one of us with
Your Holy Spirit to effect change.
We thank you because you will never leave us
Or forsake us if we put our trust in you.
Even where there is suffering you are there and
You have a plan for your people.
Your plan is good and brings life in abundance,
Even in the midst of suffering.
Thank you because you are a God of justice and
You want to see justice on earth.
Thank you for choosing us and working through us
To bring peace and justice where people are hurting.
Give us courage to do what we know is right,
And to trust you to take care of the things we cannot change.
Thank you for reminding us that your grace is sufficient
To see us through tjpse things we cannot change
In Jesus' name.

Isabel Apawo Phiri

Isabel Apawo Phiri is professor of African theology at the school of theology and religion, University of KwaZulu Natal, South Africa and the coordinator of the Circle of Concerned African Women Theologians.

How to work with these texts


Why us, Lord? Isabel Apawo Phiri points out the reasons why the people of Africa might cry out in that way.

When have you felt that the burdens of pain and injustice have been too great to bear? Or that your faithfulness seems to count for nothing, and has not been rewarded by positive results? In a group, share your stories with one another. Be careful not to tell others what their story means for them. Instead use their stories to help you understand your own experience.

Why, in Ezekiel 36, are the people described as having a heart of stone? Does this have any modern parallels in our experience? How does having a heart of stone, being stubborn and unfeeling, obstruct a relationship with God and the fulfilment of God's purposes for humanity? How does the Spirit renew us?

In 2 Corinthians 12:10, Paul says that "when I am weak, then I am strong". Is this Paul's way of coming to terms with an uncomfortable reality, or is he proclaiming a significant truth? Think of some words that could be used to describe strength. How appropriate are each of them in the light of Paul's statement? What are we praying for when we pray for the church to be made strong? Think of examples of the church finding strength in weakness. How is God's grace sufficient for us?