Thorns in the flesh sound bad, but God can - and will - use them for our good.
Last week we explored the apostle Paul’s experience in Second Corinthians. We talked about this specifically, the concept of weakness. Today we’re going to examine what is clearly one of the most unique and controversial things. It’s highly discussed by theologians, Bible teachers, and historians. They’ve always wondered what Paul was getting at when he talked about what is known as and what he called the ‘thorn in the flesh?’ What was the thorn in the flesh? We’re going to talk about this. We’re going to examine it. We’re going to look at it. Hopefully, we’re going to learn some things, think, pray, and understand.
The background to this series was birthed out of something that I experienced about two years ago when I went on a medical sabbatical. I remember how difficult that time was for me. We’ve talked about this a bit, but I don’t want to assume that everybody has heard this part of it. It was a very difficult period for me. I was hurting. I was hurting in body, spirit, and mind. I felt lost at sea, like floating on a piece of wood with seaweed on my head and no land in sight. Maybe some of us can relate to this. I wouldn’t say that I felt unloved because I had a tremendous amount of love sent my way. My wife was amazing. The church family was exceptional, beautiful, loving, kind, and supportive in every way. The board sent me away to heal up. There were still times though, where I felt very alone. Even though I had people there with me praying for me. There were certain things that were very internal, personal, and very unique to me. There will be things you walk through in your life that others can be aware of it. But they may not be aware of how alone you may feel. That there may be times, even though you know have support, a part of the struggle you’re walking through that you feel alone at a human level.
I remember writing some things down. I’m going to ask you to indulge me while I read the piece I wrote as a lead into our study. This is about my experience. We’re going to look at Paul’s in a moment. During that time, which was very difficult, loss was my theme. Loss of people, voice, control, and unsure of my future for I had always led. I had been leading this church at the age of 25, incredibly. It was the only full-time job I had ever known. My life was a life of rhythms and responsibilities. Well-worn grooves and ways of being. Rhythms and responsibilities that I was being told I needed to let go of and release to others. I felt guilty. I felt bad, but most of all, I felt sad. You would think that a six-month sabbatical would be welcomed, but it felt more like a loss to me. That’s the truth of it. I was thinking about it as I was reflecting on it. A lot of it had to do with the fact that I saw it more as a punishment. It’s one thing to request a sabbatical as a kind of reward for longevity. It’s another thing to be told, “We think you need to go on one.” Plus my nerves were afraid in ways I had never before experienced.
I knew I needed to go and rest the land so to speak. I needed to heal. Honestly, it felt like I was descending into a no-man’s land. I felt spiritually depleted, almost tormented, at my lowest places. I couldn’t talk. Which for me, was huge. My tongue was numb. I couldn’t sleep. I had to take medication. My hands got shaky. My fears grew. I started to embrace my anxiety, which only made things worse. My mind was starting to affect my already depleted body. I was disintegrating. What’s more, and this is not going to make sense to everyone, but for those who can hear it, hear it, I felt the power of the evil one around me. This was no game. At a spiritual level, it was deadly serious. I was losing or so it seemed. In my suffering, sorrow, self pity, and despair for that are how I would describe it, I also felt the sweetness. The subtle sweetness of brokenness and the scent of grace, God’s grace, subtle, real, and unshakeable. The shepherd was with me. I couldn’t quite see Him, but in my questioning shadowland, he loomed, my forever friend and unseen guide. The one who loves me was by my side. I journaled. I prayed. I sang. I cried. I wondered why. I wrestled with God until part of me died. Slowly, very slowly, I began to regain my strength. Adversity can shape us. It can open us up. It can force us into grace.
When I read what we’re about to look at and hear the great apostle Paul share about his thorn in the flesh and God’s grace, it speaks to me differently. Or at least I hear it in a different way than I used to. Perhaps some of us are going to relate to having an aspect of our life not what we want it to be. In some cases, part of our life is a struggle we despise. In other cases, it’s a trauma that we’ve learned to survive. Through it all I’m convinced, I truly am, that God’s best for us is to do more than survive and glide, but to excel, to prevail past the gates of hell. Even with a thorn in our side. That’s what I want to talk about. Let’s look at Second Corinthians 12 together. Let’s reset the context. I don’t want to assume anyone is familiar with this or was here last week. If you were here, it will help a lot. We talked about how in the chapters leading up to chapter 12 of Second Corinthians 10-11, Paul had to defend himself to the Corinthian church. This was a church that he had planted. They were now questioning his authority. They were critics that were coming up. He called them super-apostles who were saying that Paul was weak. They were questioning his authority.
They were minimizing and attacking him. They said Paul was more of a lightweight with God, even though he had been used. First off, it bothered Paul that he had to defend himself. I planted this church. I am your father in the faith. I shouldn’t have to explain myself or talk about why you should be listening to me. It bothered him, but he felt like he had to do it. That bothered him as well. What Paul does at the end of chapter 11, is list out the things that he’s suffered for Christ. He almost wears them like wounds. He wears these wounds like medals of honor. I’ve been through these battles. Paul says in Second Corinthians 11:22-28, “Are they Hebrews? Well, so am I. Are they Israelites? So am I.” I’m using the older version because I think it adds a poetic component to it. “Are they the seed of Abraham? Well, so am I. Are they ministers of Christ? I speak as a fool. I am, even more, the reason I’m saying that is because in labor’s more abundant, in stripes above measure. In prisons, I’ve been in more frequently. In deaths, I’ve died a number of times. From the Jews, my own people, five times I received 40 stripes minus 139, the highest that you can give under the law. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned, left for dead with a pile of rocks on top of me. Three times, I was shipwrecked. A night and a day I was in the deep.”
Paul says in journeys he was often in peril, danger, perils of waters, dangers of robbers, perils of my own countrymen, and perils of the Gentiles. He was in peril in the city, wilderness, sea, among false brethren, in weariness, toil, sleeplessness, often in hunger and thirst. “Deprived of my food in fastenings often, cold, and in nakedness. On top of all these physical things besides these other things that come upon me daily, the weight that I bear with the churches I’m responsible for, my daily deep concern for all the churches, Do I have to defend myself?” He shifts and turns it up one more notch. He says this at the beginning of chapter 12, “I need to say one more thing to you. Look, this boasting,” which he says is his honest defense here. Watch how he’s wrestling with himself. Should I do this? Should I not do this? I really don’t want to do this. I know I have to, but I’m mad that you’re making me do it. Paul says. “This boasting will do no good, but I must go on. I will reluctantly tell you about visions and revelations from the Lord. I was caught up to the third heaven. It was about 14 years ago.”
Paul starts telling about an experience he had with God. There is nothing like it in the scripture. He says, “Whether I was in my body or out of my body, I don’t know. Only God knows.” It’s almost like he’s reflecting back. “Only God knows whether I was in my body or outside of my body. I do know that I was caught up to paradise. I heard things so astounding that they can’t even be expressed in words; things that no human is allowed to tell. If I wanted to be honest, that experience is worth boasting about, but I’m not going to do it. I will boast only about my weaknesses. If I wanted to boast, I would be no fool in doing so because honestly, it’s not boasting if it’s the truth. I would be telling you the truth, but I’m not going to do it because I don’t want anyone to give me credit beyond what they can see in my life and hear in my message.”
He’s like this boxer jabbing, bobbing, and weaving. Paul says, “I’m going to boast. I’m not going to boast. I want to tell you what happened. I really don’t want to tell you. I’m going to tell you part of it. I’m going to allude to it, but I’m not going to tell you the detail.” He’s going back and forth. Paul now introduces something. He says, “In light of some of the things I’ve experienced with God, I could tell you, and I know they would overwhelm and impress you. I’m not going to share it. But what I am going to tell you is this. Unless I should be exalted above measure by the abundance of the revelations these things that God has shown me, a thorn in the flesh was given to me. A messenger of Satan to buffet me, lest I be exalted above measure. I was sent something to keep me harnessed in place, to prevent pride from getting the best of me.” Remember, that had been his pre-Christ MO. You could still say it might have been his greatest vulnerability, spiritual pride. He had been proud of his pedigree, knowledge, his total devotion, and his meticulous keeping of the law of his fathers and the scriptures. He was proud and brilliant. Proud and on the rise. Paul was a proud man. He was intellectually potent and powerful.
Paul says, “God keep me from my weakness, my pride. God has given me a thorn in the flesh.” He says, “it is a thorn in the flesh.” It’s like a messenger of Satan to buffet and harass me. What was it? People have wondered for generations, what was it? He won’t name it. He just talks about it. Many have speculated and made the case down the centuries. It was his eyesight. He couldn’t see well. Others have said, no, it was a slight deformity that he had. Others said that it was the residue of a disease that he had picked up on one of his missionary journeys that plagued him. Others said, no, it’s something more mental. It has to do with his past memories of what he had done to the believers in Jerusalem when he had persecuted and imprisoned them He split up families, he had blood on his hands and he had to interact with these people. He felt the load of that weight and guilt, things that he couldn’t do, he wanted to do.
The point is, it appears that the thorn in the flesh was physical in some way. Physical because he says, “My flesh.” What he means by that is he was talking about his body. Whatever it is, it showed up in a physical, mental, or emotional way. But most likely physical. That’s pretty clear. It says his body. We’re told that he prayed. Paul says, “I prayed ferociously,” I can remember he says, “Three distinct times, I poured my soul out to God to have this thing taken away from me.” He had prayed for others’ healings, saw things happen, prayed for his own healing and nothing happened. In fact, he was told no. He talks about this. In verse 8 he says, “Concerning this thing, I pleaded with the Lord, intense lengthy times of prayer. I asked Him that it might depart from me. God said My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness. No, Paul, My grace is enough. It’s all you need for in your weakness. My strength is made perfect.” A slightly different version, the NLT, puts it this way, “Three different times I begged the Lord to take it away. Each time He said, My grace is all you need.” Look at that last phrase. Look at how it’s captured. When I first read it, I thought, I get it. “My power works best in weakness.” Take off our shoes. We’re on holy ground. My power works best in weakness. Do you want to know what my power is most on display? It’s when you’re at your weakest. My power works, Paul. No, I tell you I will not take it from you. My power in your life works best in your weakness.
Paul finishes the ninth verse saying, “Therefore in light of that, I will tell you I’ve shifted my paradigm dramatically. I then look most gladly. I would rather boast in my infirmities, my limitations, my weakness, and this thing that even plagues me, that the power of Christ may rest upon me in greater measure.” He goes, “I’ve shifted this thing. I take pleasure in infirmities and reproaches, even in needs, persecution, and distresses for Christ’s sake because when I am weak, I get something here. I don’t like what I have. I want it out of my life. But I understand that when I am weak and turned towards Him, I am strong.” Paul continues, “I’m at peace with my weaknesses now for when I am weak, I am strong.” Here’s how I’d like us to sit with it. As I was looking at what Paul was walking through and thinking about his struggle, one of the things that became apparent and evident to me is something I think could help us. Very simple principles, but I think they can help us. Especially when we’re walking through things ourselves. One of the things that’s pretty clear is there are times that God wants us to accept the adversity and reject the anxiety. There are times when we need to accept the adversity, but reject the anxiety.
I’m going to shift this back over to something Peter wrote. Peter said in First Peter:5-7, “Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God, so that at the proper time He may exalt you.” Look at the phrase, “Casting all your anxieties on Him,” why? He cares for you. The older version says, “Cast your care on Him, for He cares for you.” Looking back for a moment at my rough patch, that dark night of the soul, I’m just going to be brutally honest, I thought I did the exact opposite. I think I clung to my anxiety and fought with everything I could to control the adversity. His Word says, “Cast your anxieties on Him.” I think I was holding onto my anxieties tight, and trying to control the adversity that was causing them, rather than learning how to yield that to the Lord. It’s not like we’re saying, “now I’m defined by this.” No. Or “I just accept that. Now I’m dead and good for nothing.” Or I quit. I give up, I’m done.
It doesn’t mean you won’t feel that way at times. You may, but when you live with Christ near you in your life, you realize He calls us not to the place of being defined in defeat, clutches our anxieties, or try to control the adversity. It feels like the harder I do this, I’ll solve it. No, it won’t. Casting my anxiety on the Lord means surrendering. There’s a yielding component to this. I remember coming across a quote that meant something to me because of what I was walking through. I was thinking about what it means to yield to the faithfulness of God? I read this thing from a guy named Jean Nicholas Grou. It wasn’t directly connected, but it got my attention. He said, “The chief pang of most trials is not so much the actual suffering, but our resistance to it.” Let that sit for a moment and settle. Many times what we’re walking through may be bad, but what is getting it into the danger zones?
What’s really the real problem? I know what it’s like. The real problem is not what is happening. It’s what’s happening in us because of how we’re responding to it. Does that make sense? In other words, by clutching, trying to solve, and control it is not the way to get through something that is a defeated place in our lives. I hope I captured that. It becomes the opposite thing. It’s counterintuitive. At a spiritual level, it’s almost a paradox. Just as strength and weakness are a paradox. It’s by letting go that my main problem right now is not what’s happening. It’s how I’m responding and reacting to what is happening. That is becoming the problem.
I remember when I was in seminary, I went to seminary a couple of times. Early on, I was working on a master’s degree. Later on, a number of years ago, I was working on a doctorate. I had a really good professor who, at the time, I don’t think I appreciated enough. As I thought, I wish he would talk more about the Bible. I’m a Bible guy. I want to live my life on the basis of the scriptures. I believe in the teachings of Jesus. He that hears and does these sayings of Mine, I will liken this person to a wise man, or a wise woman who builds their house on a rock and the storms will come, that house will stand. Principally speaking, I want to live out of the scriptures, not out of the culture. The scriptures inform how I think about success. The teachings of the Lord inform my understanding of what love is. The teaching of the scriptures informs my understanding of morality, sexual identity, and all these things that are hot-button issues in our culture. I live by His words. My professor said this thing and I thought it doesn’t mean anything. Dr. this is mumbo jumbo stuff. He said, “Hey, Terry, what you won’t let be, won’t let you be.” I said, “What is that? What you won’t let be won’t let you be? I went to seminary to learn that?” I said, “No, come on, Doctor.”
He said, “You think about it. Now the Bible says, as a person thinks, so they are.” Philippians 4:6-8. You can read it. It talks about the power of prayer, alignment in thinking, and the way we think how it affects us. It does not just affect our mind, it affects our body I believe. It certainly affects at spiritual levels. The idea is to position ourselves in such a way where we’re aligning our thoughts with the Lord and not becoming our own enemy. Sometimes if we’re accustomed to fighting our way through stuff, we will end up hindering ourselves. The way of success in the Lord often has to do with not fighting harder, but surrendering better.
Secondly, working from what Paul taught us, some of us are going to say, “This makes no sense to me at all.” Some of us, if we’ve not followed the Lord for any amount of time, I realize some of us are in the process, are just beginning to follow Jesus. Some of us just opened up our lives to Him. Some of us have no background whatsoever in the scriptures, but one of the things that Paul alludes to here is the reality of evil and the evil one. One of the things I want to point out is when we’re under times of deep pressure at a spiritual and emotional level is to beware of the whispers of the evil one. Beware of the whispers of the evil one. What are you talking about? There are times where you will start to hear things in your mind if you’re sincerely following the Lord in difficult places. You may hear things in your mind like, “God’s not real. God’s not for you.” Voices will hound us in our despair and discouragement, pounce on us in our weaknesses, and push us into negative thinking, negative faith, speaking negatively, or help us stay in that gloom.
In Paul’s case, he was aware that the enemy was present in his affliction. He refers to his thorn being literally connected. He said, “But it was God who’s also in this entire thing that I’m experiencing was also given to me by God, lest I be exalted above measure, a thorn was given to me.” But then he says, “But it’s also a messenger of Satan sent to buffet me.” What is it? It’s his body and mind. The Lord is in it, working on his pride. The evil one is present, trying to hurt and damage him. He says, “all of these things are working in some way in this experience that I’m walking in. This thorn in the flesh, God is in it. He’s using it, the evil one’s there trying to damage me. My own body is experiencing it. I might even be at war in my own mind on this issue that is playing itself out and how I feel.” Each of those things is connected.
In other words, some things are easier. We must always use humility to decipher. I’m going through this because I made these choices. I live in a broken world, bad things happen. In a sin impacted world, things don’t go always right. Other people made this decision, it’s having an impact on me. I clearly feel at some level I’m under spiritual attack. I feel warfare around this in my life. Or I sense God is trying to discipline me, correct me, and get my attention. In Paul’s case, he’s saying all of these things are interacting simultaneously. He’s not going to say, “Oh, this is this.” He says, “It’s all in there. I’m clearly under some degree of oppression on this. There’s clearly stuff happening to me. I feel it. I know it’s going on. I want Him to get it out of my life, but God clearly is using it in some way for my good. How do I walk through that?” What he’s basically saying is, “What Satan has used to harass me, God is using to harness me.” I’m afflicted, but I’m not abandoned. I’m unhealed, true, but I’m not unloved.
We’ll leave it with this. God can and will use our thorns for good to bind us to Him. In Paul’s case, he said his thorn was a counterweight to his pride. For some of us, it may be a way that God keeps us from drifting from Him. It’s almost like there are certain things in our life that tether us. I’m tethered by my weakness to Him. For others, it might be that this area of struggle in our lives that we seem to get so frustrated with it, softens our hearts to the struggles of others. It creates empathy at a level that may be in compassion, kindness, or reduced arrogance. At least, a less likelihood of us being judgemental because we ourselves know what struggle is like. It doesn’t mean we’re excusing things. It just means we have tremendous sympathy, understanding, and share that understanding of what a wound is.
What a wound is for someone here may be different for someone else. You’ve heard me say this a lot, my wound may be very different than your wound, but the fact is we may be struggling in different areas. Maybe my area would be nothing for you and your area would be nothing for me. But when we’re serious about following the Lord, getting better, growing, and moving forward, there are areas of our lives that become places of vulnerability, weakness, and struggle. I have sympathy for that because I have my own areas. We need grace. We need God’s power and provision at work in our lives. For others, it might be like Paul. God really wants to balance out what has been his strengths with enough of a sense of his weakness so that he doesn’t become the independent man who doesn’t need God. Who sees his identity, accomplishments, raw intelligence, and capacities. God’s saying, “No, you have a weak zone and I’m not taking it from you. It’s meant to drive you to me in humility and it will bind you to me.”
I remember reading Psalm 23 and teaching a series on it a while back. One of the things I remember reading about was a shepherd who was talking about the sheep. Jesus would often refer to us as sheep. In the shepherd Psalm, Psalm 23, it’s about sheep. I was saying, “Well, Lord, couldn’t you pick a better animal to use as an analogy?” Sheep have no real defense system. It’s not like they have any teeth or claws. They don’t have a shell that they get into. They’re not fast. They get run down by predators. In fact, they have hair, whatever they call it, wool. They wander off so easily, They get stuck in thorn bushes and stuff. They can’t get out. They’re so vulnerable. The reason the Lord uses the analogy is that we wander off so easily.
I was reading about one shepherd who knows every sheep by name. He knows their names. He’s named them like we would name a pet. They all look the same to me, but no, they know the difference. The sheep know the shepherd’s voice and know that they will not follow, but they do wander. They get themselves into trouble and have natural predators that will kill them. Some sheep are very stubborn. I was reading about one shepherd. He was talking about how to save his sheep, out of love, he broke its leg so it couldn’t wander off the way it used to. He’s carrying him. I want a picture. Sheep are prone to wander.
The song we use as the intro to the message that we share, in the third verse from the Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing, says, “Oh to grace, how great a debtor I am constrained to be.” These words were written in 1757 by a guy named Robert Robinson. It’s fascinating. Times have changed. Technology has changed. History has changed. Nations have risen and fallen, but the human heart is almost essentially the same. “Oh to grace, how great a debtor daily I’m constrained to be, let that grace now like a fetter, that binds me like we were chained together. Band my wandering heart to you, to thee. Prone to wander. Lord, I feel it. Prone to leave the God I love. I am. Here’s my heart, oh, take and seal it, seal it for thy courts above.” In other words, I want to live my life for You.
There is so much pressure to pull us away from Him. It’s not even intentional. The culture right now disregards the Lord. In some places, you can’t even talk about Jesus in real ways. I’m not mad. I’m just saying it’s the way it is. The entertainment we see on a regular basis has no one representing a healthy life of following Jesus. With many of our social conversations, you almost have to be very careful. What I’m saying is, externally there’s a lot of things that would disconnect us from staying in love with the Lord. One of the real values in coming to His house and having groups of people that we connect with reaffirms and strengthens our faith in the Lord. Our heart stays close to Him, but we can wander off.
We can wander off sometimes in our own choices and in our own hearts as we lose our first love. We can actually wander off while we’re doing the right things. We begin to lose our heart for God. The Lord will often use the bad things that He did not create. In some cases, though, He will use that adversity as a mechanism for keeping our hearts soft, open, broken, dependent, and leaning towards Him. It becomes our gift. It becomes our gift because it keeps our hearts from drifting. It’s the broken leg. We wrote the closing prayer just for the series. We were writing a prayer for the week. We called it the Daily Prayer. We wrote it for every message. This is the last one I wrote, but I want to pray it together. Have our time of giving the closing song, which connects right on. Together we pray this.
Lord, of my greatest need, and Lord of my greatest fear. He knows what they are. We have some right now. By saying Lord to me it’s like I’m saying, God, I place you above these things. Lord, of my greatest need. Lord, of my greatest fear, bind me to you. That which I would run from, look at this, the thorn that afflicts me, hurts me. My wound, let it succumb to your grace. Remind me that what the evil one would use to harass, you would use to harness. May the thorn in my side keep me by your side. Yes, Lord. Yes, Lord. May it bind me to You, the one who loves me most. In Jesus’s name, Amen.