Summary: Kept by the grace of God in the midst of afflictions.
In the process of composing an argument against some proud boasters who measured themselves by nothing more than one another (2 Corinthians 10:12), Paul allowed himself to engage in some rhetorical boasting which confronted his foes on their own ground (2 Corinthians 11:1; 2 Corinthians 12:11). Paul admitted, again and again, that he was playing the fool to get his point across (2 Corinthians 11:21; 2 Corinthians 11:23). Whatever heroics the self-styled super-apostles could boast, whatever credentials they could flaunt, in whatsoever sufferings they could boast, Paul would no doubt excel them all.
Yet all this glorying was quite unseemly and out of character to the Apostle. After all, we know from another Scripture (and from a well-known hymn) that Paul really desired to boast in nothing less than the Cross of Christ (Galatians 6:14). Yet before his game was over, Paul had one last ace up his sleeve: the question of visions and revelations which his opponents sported like some kind of badge of authentication (2 Corinthians 12:1).
At this point Paul slips into the third person singular (2 Corinthians 12:2-5). It was as if, in order to distance himself from what he had once experienced, he had to step out from who he was in order to take an objective view of what had really happened (2 Corinthians 12:6). That the experience was nevertheless Paul’s own experience is seen from his cautious return to the first person singular (2 Corinthians 12:6-7).
It is not appropriate that we should here speculate about what it was that Paul had heard that he was forbidden to tell us (2 Corinthians 12:4) – his own reticence should be our guide in that matter. It is like the experience of the prophet of old, who was told to seal the vision until the time ordained (Daniel 12:4).
Neither is it appropriate to speculate on the nature of Paul’s “thorn in the flesh” - except to stress that it was “given" (by God) as "a messenger of Satan" (2 Corinthians 12:7). This is a carefully crafted expression, which holds perfectly the tension between the evil origin of suffering, and the sovereignty of God. The devil is sometimes allowed to do his worst: but only according to the limits set by God, and no further (Job 1:12; Job 2:6). The dog-in-the-yard can get no closer to the mail-man than the length of the animal’s chain.
This is an example of the kind of chastening that we might expect as Christians (Hebrews 12:6), lest we also should become puffed up through our experiences. In the midst of such suffering (whatever it may be), we might indeed pray, imploring the Lord to take it from us (2 Corinthians 12:8) - but we must recognise also that God’s seeming silence could be an answer in itself. Three times Jesus asked for ‘this cup’ to pass from Him, but He was content rather to submit Himself to God’s will (Matthew 26:39; Matthew 26:42; Matthew 26:44).
As for Paul, He did at last get an audible answer, and by its inclusion in Scripture we also have our answer. If there is no way out of our suffering, God does provide a way through: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is perfected in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9). After all, what is incarnation, and what the power of the Cross, if it is not God participating in the very extremities of our weakness?