And lest I should be exalted above measure by the abundance of the revelations, a thorn in the flesh was given to me, a messenger of Satan to buffet me, lest I be exalted above measure.
2 Corinthians 12:7 NKJV
This is probably a very familiar verse to many who have studied the New Testament, and the subject of Paul's infirmity has been taught throughout church history. Some of the earliest writings we have from great men of the faith deal with Paul's struggle with his thorn. So although I doubt I could break any new ground by talking about it, I still felt this week that the Spirit was drawing my attention to it so today I want to share a few thoughts from my understanding of Paul's struggle.
One constant I seem to find when studying this passage is the attempt to identify exactly what the nature of Paul's thorn was. There are numerous possibilities that have been suggested and for the most part all of them seem to make some sense in light of the supposed evidence used to support them. Something to note about it though comes from an understanding of the word itself. When we think of a thorn most of us imagine a small irritating prick from a rose bush. However the Greek word used here is skolops, which is translated a “stake”, which is a whole different thing entirely. So whatever it was, it was a major problem in Paul's life, and not just a small irritation. Yet at the risk of being accused of being too simplistic, my personal opinion is that trying to identify just what it was is really a waste of time because if God wanted us to know He would have told us.
I truly believe the reason for this is that the whole purpose of this story is to help us understand that in one way or another we all will share in the situation Paul found himself in. As many blessings as he had received from the Lord, along with them God in His wisdom also allowed burdens for Paul as well. If you examine this verse in the context of the entire letter you will find that what Paul is addressing is the problem of false teachers coming into the church and boasting of their experiences and knowledge and special revelations. Paul wants to make the case that although if he wanted to, he could easily “outboast” all of these others, but because of the magnitude of God's blessings on his life, Paul was also given a “thorn in the flesh” in order to keep him humble. In essence what God did in the life of Paul was to bring balance by allowing him to be reminded that although He had chosen to use him in a very special way, Paul needed a reminder that it was by God's grace he was being used and not of anything he could bring to the table.
"These things I have spoken to you, that in Me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world."
John 16:33 NKJV
The Greek word for tribulation used here is thlipsis, which can be translated “affliction”. Many believers seem to feel that the life of someone who has chosen to follow Christ should be one filled only with blessings, and none of the troubles that plague non-believers. There are numerous preachers today who have built huge ministries based on that exact premise, yet it is obvious that Jesus is telling us here that although we can expect blessings, we can expect afflictions as well.
Now just like Paul, when we experience trouble our first reaction is to ask God to take it away and make things better, yet also like Paul, we need to understand that there is always the possibility God's answer will be “no”.
Concerning this thing I pleaded with the Lord three times that it might depart from me. And He said to me, "My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness." Therefore most gladly I will rather boast in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me.
2 Corinthians 12:8-9 NKJV
As I have studied these verses over the years, one of the things I discovered which has had a profound affect on my personal life is just how God can work through our troubles, and not our blessings. You see, most of us (if we had our own way) would say that a life full of blessings from God is the perfect way to show the world God's favor on us, yet in this verse God says just the opposite. Now as I thought about that over time this is the conclusion I came to. Most of us would agree the Word teaches that we are to be different from the world around us. We are commanded to let our light shine in the darkness that surrounds us by being different than the world, and to act differently than unbelievers in the situations we all find ourselves in while living in this world. But I ask you, is there really any difference to be seen between those who believe and those who don't when it comes to receiving “blessings”?
You see, for the most part we all will react the same when we receive something we would consider a positive. Yet how we react when we receive something negative is the opportunity to show the world we are different by following Paul's example and actually being glad and rejoicing in our troubles. It is when we are presented with trials, temptations, and persecutions that we have the opportunity to let God's grace shine through us to be a witness to the unbelieving world. God uses adversity to show the world His grace by giving us the strength to endure. Job said it best in response to the advise given to him by his wife.
Then his wife said to him, "Do you still hold fast to your integrity? Curse God and die!" But he said to her, "You speak as one of the foolish women speaks. Shall we indeed accept good from God, and shall we not accept adversity?" In all this Job did not sin with his lips.
Job 2:9-10 NKJV
Job understood that the adversity he was experiencing was allowed by God for a reason. He may not have understood the reasons behind it, but his faith in God was not shaken by the introduction of trouble in his life. All to often we find ourselves expecting that God will smooth the path before us and remove the things that might cause us to stumble, while showering us with blessings and answering all our prayers. The reality shown us by Paul is that the life of the believer is anything but easy, and God will certainly balance the blessings with the burdens. All too often we forget that when asking God for something in our prayers, His answer can also be “no”.
I heard something in a sermon this week that I have heard before, but needed to be reminded of. “Have you ever looked back on your life and thanked the Lord for unanswered prayer”? Of course you had an answer, but it was no. Yet can you look back and see that it was most definitely the right answer? Paul prayed three times for his affliction to be taken away and all three times God said no. Paul quit asking because he came to understand that God could do more through his life with the affliction than He could without it.
And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to [His] purpose.
Romans 8:28 NKJV
Are you struggling with something you would consider a “thorn in the flesh”? Is there something in your life that can cause you to stumble if you let it? God promises us that His strength is made perfect in our weakness. Like Paul, are you asking God to take it away rather than asking for the strength to deal with it? It was God's intent to use Paul's thorn to demonstrate His grace and power to the unbelieving world. A balanced life will have both blessings and burdens, but the burdens should never stop the believer from serving. God allows them for a reason, so accept them and be a light to the world by relying on God's strength to deal with adversity.