This morning, I read a private journal entry from one year ago. In it, I was processing (ok, venting) about a source of pain and frustration in my life. It is almost verbatim what I wrote over the weekend about the same source of perpetual discouragement. And similar entries are peppered throughout my journal dating back several years.
I often find myself thinking about the Apostle Paul, who wrestled with a metaphorical thorn in his side. There is some debate as to what the thorn really was. Some think it was a physical ailment such as migraines, epilepsy or a pain condition. Some suggest it was a temptation that perpetually plagued him. Others believe it was a person who is the source of pain. Either way, I can identify with his relentless thorn.
A thorn is an apt metaphor for a painful experience, condition or relationship. Even a tiny sliver can harass you, let alone a thorn. You have to move gingerly to avoid a sharp poke. You are constantly aware of it’s presence. And despite your best efforts, you perpetually get caught off guard and zapped with pain until the offending sliver is removed.
Because I don’t relish pain, physical or otherwise, I’ve begged God to take away my thorn. I’ve devoted prayers, tears, emotional energy and grief to it. I have even given the Creator of the universe helpful suggestions: he could remove the thorn, he could let me walk away from the thorn or he could change the thorn.
Thus far, God has not taken me up on any of my ideas. The thorn has remained. I have remained. And the journal entries bear witness to the truth that the thorn is not changing. At least not in any way I can appreciate or see. But, like Paul, I have learned a lot about living with a thorn.
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.
Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave 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 of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.
1 Corinthians 12:7-10
Some themes and lessons stand out to me from this passage.
1) Paul begged God to remove the thorn.
Its human nature to want to run from hard things. We do everything in our power to avoid physical pain, emotional pain or relational conflict. We sidestep prickly people and flee from difficult relationships. There are times when it is absolutely the right thing to do. But sometimes we are stuck with the thorn.
2) The thorn affected every aspect of Pauls’ life.
Paul lists what he endured as a result of the thorn: weakness, insults, hardships, persecutions and calamities. Paul could be summarizing my journal. Because all of them have befallen me thanks to that miserable thorn.
3) God uses the thorn as Paul’s teacher.
Paul states twice that his thorn was there to keep him from becoming conceited. The greek word in the text is hyperairōmai which means to exalt oneself. Apparently, God used a thorn to keep Paul from getting too full of himself. And through the lens of time, I can clearly see that God using my thorn to do the same.
Paul was an insanely smart and talented individual. His life and ministry point to someone who was zealous (both pre and post conversion) and capable. He could write, speak, lead and stand up to authority. This is exactly the kind of person who is at high risk of self-dependence and self-importance. So it would be understandable for God to use a thorn to keep him from becoming conceited.
Ever one to state the obvious, I want to lament, “But God! I am no Paul. I’m just an average person and I don’t need a thorn to keep me from becoming conceited.” But that wouldn’t be true. Not for me and not for you.
God has gifted each of us differently. But we are all made in His image and run the risk of becoming puffed up with pride and self reliance. Since the fall, mankind has clamored to be like God, know what God knows, impress God and pursue success on our own. We don’t have to be exceptional like Paul in order to be tempted by our own success. So God allows the thorns.
Life is full of painful situations: Impossible people. Unyielding obstacles. Physical ailments. Financial struggles. Loss. Grief. Disappointment. And some thorns take up permanent residence despite our prayers and petitions for their removal.
But there is hope.
God’s Word teaches us that what we view as painful, He sees as a gift. While we beg for comfort, He refines our character. He loves us too much to allow us to wallow in our conceit. He doesn’t want us puffed up with pride. He wants us to run to Him and find shelter in the shadow of His wings.
Ultimately, thorns force us to face our weakness. And it’s only in a full understanding of our weakness that His power is made manifest. He is willing to use a forest of thorns to accomplish this because he is always after our hearts – not our comfort.
Through the lens of time, I can appreciate how God has used my thorn in mighty ways. As I wrestled with it, God has softened my heart and strengthened me. He has taught me things about myself, my past and my future. He has shown me when I need to repent and when I need to forgive. He has taught me when to sit quietly and when to stand up and speak. And He has shown me the depth of His tender care when the tears just wouldn’t stop.
I won’t lie. In my humanness, I still want the thorn gone. But I also know that God is never in a hurry to do deep, important work in my heart. So I am learning to yield to its teaching. No matter how long it takes.