the thorn in the flesh: my reluctant go-to passage

I must go on boasting. Although there is nothing to be gained, I will go on to visions and revelations from the Lord. I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven. Whether it was in the body or out of the body I do not know—God knows. And I know that this man—whether in the body or apart from the body I do not know, but God knows— was caught up to paradise and heard inexpressible things, things that no one is permitted to tell. I will boast about a man like that, but I will not boast about myself, except about my weaknesses. Even if I should choose to boast, I would not be a fool, because I would be speaking the truth. But I refrain, so no one will think more of me than is warranted by what I do or say, or because of these surpassingly great revelations. Therefore, in order to keep me from becoming conceited, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from 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 about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me.That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.

2 Corinthians 12:1-10

One of my favorite parts of the recent Paul, Apostle of Christ film was their treatment of Paul’s thorn in the flesh, and showing how it tormented him all of his life as a Christ-follower. And how that was addressed immediately after he was beheaded. Love is the only way I can describe my reaction to that. What they chose as his thorn in the flesh was a possibility I had never heard of before, and was rather compelling, at least for the film. But the main point is beside the point of what it actually may have been. The fact of the matter is that everyone who seeks to follow Christ will be living in opposition to the world, the flesh, and the devil, and we will experience opposition in terms of what is expressed in scripture from the devil, the demonic. And like Paul, these are actually allowed into our lives to keep us from becoming proud, which for reasons far less than Paul’s we are all too prone to become. To keep us humble, and dependent on Christ, and I would add, interdependent on each other.

I am faced with this myself, maybe not as much as in the past, yet it seems to come crashing in on me just as hard, usually in one form in my life. I think there is genius so to speak behind the concealing of what specifically Paul’s thorn in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment him, was. We simply can’t say for sure. There has been more than one reasonable answer. That means whatever it is that torments us as we seek to follow Christ, we can chalk up as something of the same, in fact our thorn in the flesh. Flesh could mean physical weakness, but in scripture it’s most basic meaning is one’s life. It may involve some physical debilitation or weakness, but doesn’t have to, and I would go so far to think, most often doesn’t. What it doesn’t mean is out and out sin. We deal with everything, and especially our sin through Christ’s death for us, confessing it, and receiving God’s forgiveness and cleansing as part of our ongoing walk in Jesus.

Who likes to be tormented? In the film as I recall Paul seems to be frequently tormented in his thoughts, and clearly in his dreams. And yes torment is a good word to capture this experience. I don’t so much dread it, myself, as simply hate going through it. Going through it is a good way to describe what it’s like for me. For Paul it may have been more chronic, ongoing, something present with him all the time. I tend to think so. My weakness which gives rise to this activity in my life is certainly as close to me as the next thought, which could hit me at any time when all was well, or okay before.

It’s the experience part which frankly I hate. Life is hard enough in itself, without having to feel miserable, yes tormented inside. But it seems in part what at least some of us who are believers in Christ will be up against in this life.

The necessity of hanging in there by faith, and knowing that Christ’s strength is made perfect in our weakness is key here. We realize that God is at work in this malady, even when the source of it is from the evil one, the demonic. The world and the flesh in the sense of unredeemed humanity and creation included.

To come back to this passage, and yes, the entire book of 2 Corinthians, but especially this passage is always helpful for me. To remember that the Lord in love is at work in our lives in a way that helps us live as he did, in weakness, even the weakness of the cross (see the end of 2 Corinthians). Not where we want to go, except that there we find the Lord’s power at work in our own lives, and through us into the lives of others.

Maybe someday I’ll be able to say to some degree along with Paul that I have learned to embrace my weaknesses at least much more since in them I find Christ’s grace and power, and learn to be strengthened in that awareness and reality. In and through Jesus.

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God’s grace received where we’re at

It’s more complicated than that: right? Yes it is. One has to get serious about sins in one’s life which actually violate love for God and for human beings, as well as respect for God’s creation. And yet scripture makes it clear that in and of ourselves, we can’t fix the problem. And yet we’re called to be grieved over it, but not just because of it’s destructive effect on others, as well as on ourselves, but bottom line, because it’s against our Creator.

Sometimes I have been nailed down in defeat, perhaps in part due to a condemning finger pointing at me from the enemy in an actually confusing, unclear way, but strong and relentless, just the same. Or perhaps there is a sense in which I’m undergoing God’s disciplining love over attitudes that I know aren’t right, but seem to have me in their grip, sin seeming to be a power over me at the time, which won’t let go.

It is good, even important to pray to God during such times, to grieve, mourn and wail, as James puts it, as we seek to cleanse our hands (acts) and purify our hearts (attitudes). Even to confess our faults to one another, and pray for each other, so that we might be healed (James 5).

In the end it’s only God’s grace which will prevail in our lives, and make the difference needed. God certainly accepts us where we’re at, but just as certainly, God won’t leave us there. And we have to leave the convicting work of the Spirit in God’s hands, as well as the final judgment of everything. Paul refused to even judge himself, much less someone else. That’s not at all talking about dealing with sin along the way, but probably referring to the final judgment to come, when God will make known all our hidden motives. But along with that thankfully is God’s grace in Christ, so that God does indeed convict and convince us of our sin, so we can confess such sin to God, and receive God’s forgiveness and cleansing. And go on, not at all competent or confident in ourselves, but trusting in God, and God’s promise to us to always meet us where we’re at as we seek to come near to him, in and through Jesus.

old sins

My wife and I saw Paul, Apostle of Christ yesterday, and we found it good. I thought it was outstanding in portraying Paul, good acting, good plot, faithful to the biblical text.

An interpretation, as I understood it from the film was one I can’t remember hearing of, intriguing, and which played through to the end. I really don’t want to spoil it for those who have yet to see it. So I won’t go into certain details. But namely, that Paul’s thorn in the flesh was his memory of all the Christians in whose deaths he had not only willingly participated in, but directed. He would often it seems be tormented in dreams, seeing those in Christ whom he had killed with no peace and joy.

This got me to thinking on old sins. We know they’re forgiven. But we also know, and sometimes experience their consequences. There is no question that we can be haunted the rest of our days. Whether or not this interpretation of Paul’s thorn in the flesh is correct, there has to be some value in trying to grapple with this subject.

Yes, as far as the east is from the west, so far has God removed our transgressions. But consequences remain on those who were hurt, as well as the one who sinned. The clearest biblical example of that of course is David’s sin against Uriah and Bathsheba, and all that followed surely the rest of his life. Uriah was cut off from this life in death, and others more or less followed David’s example. Surely, as I heard someone say recently, David was closer to God after this. Or at least we would hope so. Yet that can be a struggle. One can feel tormented, condemned. And God can seem far away. Yes, Satan can have a heyday wreaking havoc on someone’s soul.

In our day sins are too often seen as private affairs. The church should be involved insofar as that’s possible. All too often people escape to another church. It used to be you had one church, and that was it. But now we have twenty or more churches close enough for us to attend. God’s way for the best handling of sin is through the church, so that a frank, full, yet not unnecessarily detailed admission of sin can be made, guided by church leadership. And then a process of restoration can be undertaken.

Back to the film, of course Saul of Tarsus, later Paul the Apostle of Christ, did these things before his conversion to Christ. It does seem different than when someone sins grievously after conversion. Yet something one might take from the film, which I think is rooted in scripture, perhaps even in David’s story is that one goes on the best they can, in God’s grace and power to live and finish well. The sin makes that more of a challenge. But as difficult as this sounds, and is, there can be some good found to be taken out of it.

One can be more aware of dangers, so that they might possibly warn others. And in prayer for those who have been directly affected. And cast more than ever on God, since nothing can really undo the damage that has been done. Although God can redeem all that is lost. Through our one hope and Savior, indeed our life, as it was for Paul: Jesus.

learning the language and heart of contrite brokenness

Have mercy on me, O God,
    according to your unfailing love;
according to your great compassion
    blot out my transgressions.
Wash away all my iniquity
    and cleanse me from my sin.

Psalm 51:1-2

Psalm 51 is the great penitential psalm, attributed to David in the aftermath of his terrible sin in committing adultery with Bathsheba, and being complicit in her husband Uriah’s death. We know the story from scripture, and the fallout which followed. Once when I was going over the psalm and rather overcome by its magnificence, I made the statement that it arguably never would have been written apart from David’s sin, but sin is never ever worth whatever good might come out of it. Yet God is the redemptive God, in the work of redeeming sinners, and even bringing good out of what forever remains evil.

There is what’s called soaking in God’s presence. I think it’s good to soak in scripture, as well, to soak in God’s presence in scripture. And in this passage, which can help us learn both the language and heart of a contrite brokenness. Contrite in the sense of being sorry, but not sorry just over the consequences of sin, but over the sin itself, especially in the sense of being against God, and then from that, grieving over its hurt and loss it has inflicted on others. Not to suggest that we don’t find salvation even in the midst of this, as is quite evident in the psalm itself.

I am in this psalm right now, working on memorizing it to begin with, and then in prayer, offering it to God. So that it must become not only the psalmist’s prayer, but my prayer as well.

A new thought did dawn on me, something that had never occurred to me, or hit me in the same way, something I want to pray through, and perhaps somehow act on. Whatever my own thoughts and wishes, my intention is not to be in a hurry, but let this language become my own, so that the heart from that language might be my own heart, too. In and through Jesus.

keep on forgiving

Forgive us our sins,
    for we also forgive everyone who sins against us.

Luke 11:4a

Forgiveness is not something we withhold from others. We at least need to forgive everyone for whatever wrong they’ve done to us from our hearts. But there’s what I have called a functional forgiveness as well. Meaning that we forgive them only when they acknowledge their fault to us, being sorry that they did it. That kind of forgiveness is for their good. For some things, and especially concerning those in the church, people need to be held to a certain standard. And our Lord teaches us to do that (Luke 17:3-4; Matthew 18:15-20). But forgiving others from the heart includes both the functional forgiveness we extend, as well as forgiveness for all the other wrongs done to us, even by our enemies who might want to harm us all the more.

We might say that the functional forgiveness is primarily for the good of the other, the one who has sinned against us, while forgiving from the heart is not just for their good, but primarily for the good of the one who forgives. It’s a heart matter.

And being a heart matter to me suggests that it is more than functional, which we automatically do when someone acknowledges repentance to us. It is something we may well have to work through, in a heart by God’s grace of love, yes, forgiving them. But the wrong done to us may have been so bad, and perhaps the perpetrator is not even sorry they did it, that such forgiveness we may have to struggle through, and do again and again. God does this for us, and we need to do it for others.

We need to remember the example of our Lord on the cross when he prayed for his enemies, even for those who put him there, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34). But we also need to be honest to ourselves and to God, that there will be times when we are once again struggling to forgive someone for the wrongs they have done, either real or imagined by us. Once again, it’s a heart matter. Psalm 51 is a great passage to read about heart change. We often sin, and actually probably always do, when others sin against us. So that confession to God will be necessary, and perhaps to the person who sinned against us, if we responded in kind against them, returning evil for evil. If we just harbored it in our hearts we need to confess such to God, and work through it. We do this on the basis both of God’s mercy to sinners (Luke 6), and because of the cross where we find that God reconciled the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them (2 Corinthians 5).

And we may have to keep forgiving someone again and again. If we’re repentant ourselves over our struggle to forgive, God’s grace will be present, as it actually already is, to help us so repent. God will help us, and if need be again and again, to forgive the wrongdoer. It will probably take us awhile, and maybe will be something we keep doing the rest of our lives. Even if reconciliation with them is not possible. We forgive them, and release them into God’s hands, praying for their salvation, and for God’s good will to be accomplished even in the midst of evil, or what is not good. All of this in and through Jesus.

the breath of the Christian: prayer

Devote yourselves to prayer, being watchful and thankful.

Colossians 4:2

Not to be confused with the Christian spiritual practice of breath prayer, which I personally have nothing against from what I understand of it, we as Christians, believers and followers of Jesus, need to make prayer a vital part of our lives throughout the day. When I say prayer, I’m thinking primarily of petitions to God for others, and also for one’s self, but it certainly ought to include worship and praise of God, as well as confession of sin, and as we’re told in the great passage on spiritual warfare in Ephesians 6, we’re to “pray in the Spirit with all kinds of prayers and petitions.” It’s good to utter the Lord’s/Our Father’s prayer regularly, daily, and that helps keep us on track in what and how we should pray.

Charles Spurgeon, the pastor and great preacher in London used to be known as being a busy man in pastoring the church, and in teaching at the school his church had for pastors. It didn’t seem like he would have much time for prayer, but he said that there was always a prayer under his breath. And it’s interesting that it seems like he had a gift of the Spirit of faith for those who were ill, maybe a gift also of healing. It was said that there were more people healed through his prayers than through all the medical doctors in London. And he was a Baptist, and therefore not given to any special emphasis in that direction. It was just a gift he had.

Let me also note that kindness and generosity toward others, even when it would be easy to do otherwise, ought to mark our speech, beginning with our thoughts of others. We also need to remember that we all need mercy and grace. Instead of criticizing someone who may even well deserve it, we need to bite our tongues and pray for them. We need to be in prayer left and right for everyone and everything.

Note too that prayer is not some great way of praying on our part, so that God accepts it. No, no, no. It is just a simple prayer to God in all of our weakness, perhaps pain, and even sin. We just pray to God with simple prayers in all our own weakness and brokenness. Maybe having a hard time sometimes even uttering a word, or thinking it matters, but just doing it, and doing it again and again, so that hopefully it becomes a habit of life.

I like to be in the word all day, both reading it, and especially throughout the day going on to the next phrase in another kind of Bible reading. Ironically, I shouldn’t let even that get in the way of praying. With the kind of job I have, I can sometimes easily take the next phrase and shove my small Bible back into my pocket. But other times I’m so busy, I can’t do that. Those can be times where I can practice prayer all the more. However it works out for us, what we need to do is pray, pray, and pray some more. And never stop praying. An important exercise of our faith, and for helping us live in God’s will with others in and through Jesus.

the love that overcomes (in anticipation of Martin Luther King Jr. Day)

13 If I speak in the tongues“[a] of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast,b]”>[b] but do not have love, I gain nothing.

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in partand we prophesy in part, 10 but when completeness comes,what is in part disappears. 11 When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me. 12 For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.

13 And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.

1 Corinthians 13

Martin Luther King Jr. Day is just around the corner (Monday), so I’ve been been listening to his speeches, and remarks from witnesses of his time from Martin Luther King: The Essential Box Set: The Landmark Speeches and Sermons of Martin Luther King, Jr.. This morning I listened to his message, Paul’s Letter to American Christians.  And from that comes this.

We look back on him and what he did, and we see him as a kind of prophet from God for his time. Although true prophets are for every time, which is no less the case with him. But what marked him above all, and gave power to his prophetic words was the love which marked all of those words and actions which followed.

People nowadays say (and it’s on car bumper stickers), “Love Wins,” but it’s the love of Jesus Christ found in the gospel that wins, period. Other love might win in some ways, but only the love of God in Jesus is victorious against all the hate and wrong in the world.

We get on our bandwagons, and we might give lip service to certain causes, one quite noble cause being the integration of all peoples, so that no one ethnic group or category is marginalized. But is there heart and hand service to go along with that? It is noteworthy how some of us can be so zealous for political positions, but our personal lives calling into question our professed allegiance to such causes.

But this is where the church through the gospel of Christ is to make the needed difference, or more precisely, to show the difference that the power of God for salvation is to make in the world. 1 Corinthians 13 quoted above is in the context of church relations, so that it is not really about this love in the world, but in the church. Only in and through Jesus can God’s love be manifested in the way described by Paul. Paul is pointing out that all of the spiritual gifts spoken of in 1 Corinthians 12 and 14 are empty and mean nothing apart from this all pervasive love. And he even suggests when you consider the end of 1 Corinthians 12, that love is a way that is superior to the gifts. I don’t think in the end he’s making the case for either or, but again that love is to pervade all that is done in the church. How we love each other demonstrates to us and to the world the power of the gospel.

Racism is a grave and serious sin. It is to have no part in our hearts, and particularly in our churches. But we need to begin with the truth that we are all prejudice in that we all hold to certain myths which affect our view of others (listen to the January Series talk by David R. Williams, “Unnatural Causes: Is Inequality Making Us Sick?”). Myth used here in the sense of ideas which may or may not hold some water generally speaking, but fail at a most basic, needed level. Racism is especially bad because it flies in the face of love; it denies love, and in fact stands in opposition against it. And most often it is not blatant, but subtle. And it’s evident in our neighborhoods, and even in our churches– sad to say.

The love of Jesus Christ through the good news, the gospel in him is the only hope to heal all of the wounds, and help us begin to live well together. All barriers are broken down by that gospel, so that we can learn to love and listen, listen and love. And that should begin in our neighborhoods, and at our workplaces, so that the power of that gospel can have its full effect and be seen in our churches. Different cultures brought together in ways which impact us all for good. In this way we are more human, since inherent to our humanity are relationships marked by love which sees us through the thick and thin; the good, the bad, the beautiful, and the ugly. So that we’re committed to each other, and to the gospel for all peoples in a humility marked by this love.

We are all surely on a learning curve, some of us on a steeper one than others. So we have to pray and think, and work at this. We don’t bale out when we fail or see just how far we miss the mark. Instead we use that as a means of seeing God’s salvation through our commitment to ongoing confession of our own sin and change through repentance into a new way of thinking and living. No less than in the way of love in and through Jesus.