So, apparently Paul had this “thorn in the flesh” …
We don’t know what it was. Some people have tried to speculate, but Scripture doesn’t say. I figure if the Holy Spirit wanted us to know, he would have recorded it. He didn’t. That in itself says something to me. Although I’m sure the specifics were really important to Paul–clearly they’re not particularly relevant to the point God is trying to convey to us.
So instead of trying to speculate about what the Holy Spirit isn’t communicating, I decided to focus on what he is communicating. Here’s what we do know:
1. The thorn was “a messenger of Satan.” God did not afflict Paul–Satan did.
2. Paul asked the Lord to deliver him and clearly believed Jesus could deliver him, but–at least for the moment recorded–he did not.
You could split hairs all day long over those two simple statements. In fact, people have for centuries. On one extreme you have those whose distorted view of God’s sovereignty translates into the perception that anything bad in their lives is ultimately “sent” by God to accomplish some mysterious higher purpose or to perfect some lack in their character.
On the other extreme you have those whose distorted view of faith and favor leads them to believe that if we could just get it together and pray, speak, think, and do all the “right” things, God will be obligated to respond like a genie in the bottle and nothing “bad” will slip into our lives.
It would be nice if we could make things as black and white as either of those extremes. But life is rarely that tidy. Usually we have to live in the mystery between the extremes. Usually the truth lies in the gray area of tension that exits between two opposing view that each contain some truth and some error.
God is sovereign and he does as he pleases. And in his sovereignty he elected to give man free will–along with all the rights and responsibilities that go with it. (Oh, and we’re also living on a fallen planet with a very real enemy who hates our guts.)
Anyway, back to the thorn. Satan sent it. God could have removed it but didn’t–even though Paul asked. So what’s the message?
Maybe–just maybe–the message is grace.
Grace? How is that possible? Didn’t this thing torment Paul?
Yep, it did. But it also trained him.
It trained him in God’s sufficiency. It trained him in humility. It trained him in trust.
It trained him into a greater revelation of the character of God.
And here’s the really important thing–Paul got it. He asked. God answered. It may not have been the answer he wanted at that moment, but it was an answer. So Paul stopped asking. He knew he didn’t have to beg God. He knew he didn’t have to try to manipulate or control the situation. He knew he didn’t have to second-guess the wisdom or goodness of God. He didn’t have to second-guess the timing of God.
He just needed to trust God.
And he did. Paul trusted Jesus to reveal himself in that particular situation in a way he had not known him before. As a result, he came to know him–really know him–as the One who was strong in his weakness.
God is, and will always be, the One who takes the things Satan means for evil and uses them for good. Sometimes that means the greater good is allowing us to go through a particular situation rather than immediately delivering us from it. We’re often so focused on how to get out that we don’t stop and listen for his voice in the midst of whatever challenge we’re facing. If we did, like Paul, we just might find our way back to peace a whole lot quicker.
So these are my thoughts on thorns. We all have them. Satan sends them–not God. But hell never gets the last word. Instead, ask the One who does. Ask him how he wants to address the situation. Ask him how to pray (and even whether or not to keep praying). Sometimes you do need keep pressing in to lay hold of deliverance. Sometimes you simply need to let go and trust. Sometimes you need to rest and thank him for the victory that’s already been won. Sometimes you just need to align yourself with the timing of heaven. There is no one-size-fits-all answer. But with every thorn, always, there is redemption. Always there is a greater revelation of Jesus to be gained. Always, there is grace.
And his grace is always sufficient.
Oh, and by the way, Scripture also doesn’t say God never removed that pesky thorn. Just a thought …