Paul had many things about which he could have boasted. His experiences were incredible. He lists some of them in 2 Corinthians 11:22–28 to illustrate that, while he above others might have reason to boast in his own flesh—his experiences and his abilities—he would only boast in Christ. Paul recognizes that we have no real power in ourselves except for Christ in us, and he explains in Philippians 3:4–7 that, even though he has quite a list of impressive achievements, he counts all those as loss for the sake of Christ. They are worthless—even having negative value—in comparison to the joy of knowing Christ.
In 2 Corinthians 12:1 Paul provides an example of how a person should not find his or her identity and confidence in personal achievements because only God’s grace is sufficient. While showing mercy means not giving to someone what he does deserve, showing grace means giving to someone what he doesn’t deserve. God shows grace in giving us life and providing for us and strengthening us for the path ahead. That grace is sufficient—it is all we need.
To illustrate the principle, Paul tells of a man who was caught up to the third heaven and saw and heard indescribable things. This man was remarkably privileged, and it seems apparent in the context that Paul is talking about himself. He adds that, because of the greatness of the revelations he was given, he was also given a thorn in his flesh that would keep him from exalting himself (2 Corinthians 12:7). While Paul tells us very little about the nature of this “thorn” (what he also refers to as a messenger from Satan), he makes clear that its purpose was to help ensure his humility. Paul begged God that this thorn might go away, and God repeatedly said no to Paul’s request. God’s response to Paul is found in 2 Corinthians 12:9—“My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”
God was reminding Paul that the strength behind Paul’s ministry was not Paul’s experiences or abilities, nor was it the absence of difficulty. On the contrary, Paul’s ability to be faithful in ministry and survive incredibly difficult times was due to God’s grace. God’s grace is sufficient. When we are weak, God’s strength is even more evident. Paul could rejoice and boast in God because Paul knew the power that God exerted in Paul’s life through God’s grace. Paul could then boast in God’s strength, recognizing that, even when we are weak, God is strong. He provides the strength for us to withstand whatever challenges are before us.
Paul illustrates this same idea in Philippians 4:11–13. He explains that he has learned how to be content in any circumstance no matter how severe. When things are going well or when things are going badly, Paul knows that contentment doesn’t come from circumstances—contentment comes from recognizing that we can do whatever God intends for us to do through Christ who strengthens us. God is so gracious to provide strength when it is needed so that we can find our identity, our confidence, and our contentment in Him. This is what God meant when He said that His grace is sufficient—it is all we need.