Paul’s chronic condition: the thorn in the flesh

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

Yesterday I was thinking about the passage I really don’t like to go back to, but find that I should at times, this passage right here. The point I would like to make today for myself, and for anyone who might read this, is that Paul’s condition here was indeed chronic. It’s not like every moment he was tormented, not at all. But that he carried with him some condition which at any moment could be the source of experiencing that torment.

My own “thorn in the flesh” I think is at least largely anxiety. Which is the root of various manifestations. Your’s could be something else entirely different. Sometimes we can’t figure out why we struggle the way we do. Different factors are involved, surely complex. But the reality of our struggle cannot be ignored. We are all creatures of experience. Our life is lived there, of course. Not in thoughts, or things in our head, though they factor in for good or for ill.

Again, Paul’s condition was chronic. He couldn’t wish it away, ignore it, or even pray it away, as we see in the passage. It was present for a reason. The bottom line is that he had to learn to trust God in it, yes, in it. And that ended up being the source of great blessing to and through him for others. Notice too that Paul factored in with that thorn every weakness or problem in his life. Ironically the very problems that could have been his downfall ended up being his strength through God’s grace.

This is an encouragement to me. Instead of resisting it in the form of seeing it as practically choking the life out of me, which I think is at least half my problem, I want to increasingly learn to trust God in it, seeing it in fact as part of God’s grace to me. And not necessarily in the sense of passing through and out of it. Paul surely had that thorn his whole life long. The idea being that God sees us through with it to the very end, bringing good and blessing out of it for others, as well as for ourselves. In and through Jesus.

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something of the devil’s schemes

Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. Put on the full armor of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand. Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist,with the breastplate of righteousness in place, and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace. In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.

And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the Lord’s people.

Ephesians 6

Ephesians 6:10-20 is one of my go to passages I have memorized in the past, which I can go back to and repeat at least nearly verbatim. And sometimes I find that I really need to. There are times when all of the sudden it seems like I am stuck in a place I really don’t want to be in terms of spiritual warfare.

This passage could mean that we live in the evil day, or that the evil day will hit us along the way (NIV). I don’t know. I tend to want to include both, that we should be ready all the time now, and that we’re to put this into practice when we know we’re under attack. I remember that Christians have actually made a regular practice of “praying on the armor.”

Of course we have to take to heart, as well as put into practice all that the passage means, and that’s saying quite a lot. We have to find our strength in the mighty power of the Lord and put on the armor of God, what God provides for us in Christ through the gospel to stand firm. Too easily I can be duped by being taken in by the devil’s schemes, so that I give in to something less than God’s will or best.  It can be in terms of defending one’s self, rather than being open to truth, and taking the way of the cross in following Jesus. Oftentimes it’s a subtle, yet outright denial of God’s word, or God’s goodness, just as the serpent tempted Eve in the garden (Genesis 3).

At any rate, we do well to realize that this is the point in which we live, and why in part there’s so much trouble in this life. Particularly so in that we are followers of Jesus in the face of that which is in direct opposition to Jesus and the good news in him. Although in this day in our culture it’s mostly quite subtle. And the schemes of the devil include getting us off the mark of God’s will for us in Jesus. So that it might be all about defending ourselves, or something less than Christ and the gospel, rather than standing firm in the faith, and for Christ and the gospel, come what may.

Something I was not simply reminded of yesterday, but thrust into. And through which I am seeking to learn, and do better, in and through Jesus.

muddling through life

muddle through

phrasal verb

If you muddle through, you manage to do something even though you do not have the proper equipment or do not really know how to do it.
We will muddle through and just play it day by day.
They may be able to muddle through the next five years like this.

I am more or less a fan of muddling through life. I’m sure this can be misunderstood, and actually is not an easy position to come to. By nature, there’s so much in life that’s trial and error. And some of us seem to be easily overcome emotionally, or whatever is the best way to describe it. So that life itself can seem overwhelming, a challenge, a heavy burden, even suffocating at times. I’ve been there, and still am there more often than I like.

It doesn’t matter how many times you go through such an experience, it’s so awful, that although you hopefully handle it much better, and guard yourself from letting things get to you, you’re going to hate it just as much, and want to be rid of it. And if you so much as catch a whiff of it, you would like to turn tail and run, have nothing to do with it. But then you’re caught up in it again.

I would like to say you can get rid of it by the right thought, prayer, or whatever. Maybe rarely that happens, but by and large it doesn’t and won’t. We do well to address the source of it, as best we can, hopefully having light from God to understand that, and then act on it. And not give up, but keep doing that.

But I’ve found, oddly enough, that the darkness and heaviness begins to dissipate, when I simply at last come to accept it. As a wise pastor from our past told us, we can’t simply snap ourselves out of fear (or a bad experience), and neither should we act on it. An important aside. But again, when I at last accept it, and determine to live with it by God’s grace, maybe something like Paul’s thorn in the flesh in 2 Corinthians 12 he asked the Lord to remove three times, but the Lord didn’t, then, usually sooner than later, the heaviness and darkness will recede, and the light of the Lord’s joy and peace will again be more or less present.

I also find, frankly, that ordinarily I have the sense of muddling through life, since in my own experience, I’ve had to face quite a few times when I feel inadequate and lost in and of myself. But I find that the Lord is present, as I seek to do his will regardless.

I am not much of a fan of the idea that everything should be great, that we should be on a high on some mountaintop experience, that if we were living the normal Christian life, we would bring heaven down to earth, and others would catch it from us. Actually that might indeed end up being the case from learning to live in the valley, in the depths. Finding there, that in our weakness and lostness the Lord is present, and that we are experiencing something of his strength. That he resides with the broken and poor in spirit. And even want to help others through us. All of this in and through Jesus.

paying attention to life

God speaks. Primarily through the words of the Bible, and actually that is a word meant for everyone, pointing us to the Word himself, Jesus. God also speaks through life, if we will only listen.

Life itself needs interpretation, actually scripture does as well. We have to depend on God for both, sometimes directly, but most often through others, through the church. In the end it has to be mediated to us. We are recipients of it. Certainly scripture itself interprets life.

And so this is an ongoing project.

What are we learning, not only from the pages of scripture, but also in our every day lives? About ourselves, and others, and the world around us.

Stay in scripture, in God’s word, but also pay attention to what we can learn from others, from experience, and what God might be saying to us through it all. In and through Jesus.

 

holding on to the vision

Yesterday the post about what (or who) were looking at, along with the post the day before, no condemnation or corresponding fear for those who are in Christ Jesus, present a vision which actually speaks of both the reality and possibility for those who are in Christ.

It is difficult to really get hold of a vision, so that one catches a glimpse of what really changes everything. And even more difficult it is to hold on to that vision.

What we’re considering here is like a getaway in which we have a mountaintop experience, followed afterward by life in the valley, where sooner or later the hard facts of life, including our own mistakes and the aftermath, again take over, and grip us, so that the vision is lost.

First of all, visions as in experiences do come and go. Someday in the life to come, the experience will surely remain with all the variables mixed in that. But in this present life we have to deal with factors which depending on what they are, and on our own disposition, can bring us down into a kind of heavy, crushing darkness.

Again, we have to get back to basics, and determine by God’s grace in Jesus to live there. Those basics are not dependent on our circumstances, nor on anything else, but on God’s promise in Jesus, the good news in him, period. God’s heart of love is expressed in that, and is indeed unwavering toward us. But living down here often makes it seem otherwise.

Faith is essential here. Truth remains the same, but faith lays hold of it in the sense that it lives accordingly. God’s gift of forgiveness of sins and new birth in and through Jesus with all that is involved in that (justification, sanctification, etc.) is ours. And that does make a difference, even when we feel like it doesn’t, even when we’re in the darkest depths. But God wants us to live in another reality, according to the promise given to us in Jesus. And through that, God wants to give us another vision of how things really are, how the new life in Jesus, even the eternal life impacts us now, so that we can live to praise of the glory of God’s grace in a way which is renewing and life-giving, not only to ourselves, but potentially to others, as well.

Something I’m working on through the word and prayer, along with meditation and reflection, now. What thoughts might you add to this?

being willing to be in process

Yet you, Lord, are our Father.
    We are the clay, you are the potter;
    we are all the work of your hand.

Isaiah 64

One of the most necessary aspects, indeed realities, in being a Christian, in following Christ, is being in process, unfinished, but on the beginning track of being conformed by God into the image of his Son, Jesus. This can be quite uncomfortable at times, and we can bail out of the hard places by flinching from them, rather than setting our face like a flint and going through them. Not easy, nor fun, I speak from experience.

We are people of experience, especially it seems, in this time. Existentialism to some extent, has gained the upper hand. “If it feels good,”, or it works, and we seem to be doing fine, we don’t give many things that maybe we once questioned, or even thought were wrong, a second thought. Of course God is a God of grace who will work in our lives in spite of us. Just the same, we do reap what we sow. And God’s word means what it says in its words of warning, as well as encouragement.

A most important thing to note here is that God is at work. This can help us in faith to hang in there, counting on God’s faithfulness. If we persevere, then God can do a lot that otherwise would not be done. So that later down the road, we won’t be back at the same place which wasn’t completed earlier. Each part is a juncture toward the end when God will complete his work in us, in and through Jesus.

I thank my God every time I remember you. In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now, being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.

Philippians 1

the word and experience

I believe in the Bible as God’s word written. I can’t sort out everything discussed theologically from that, but base it largely on what Jesus says, and from what we can gather from his words,what he believed, and on what the Bible itself says. And first and foremost, the Spirit gives God’s people a witness of its truth through their own experience or intake of it.

But I also believe that we don’t understand the Bible in some kind of objective, isolated sense. Everything is subjective, actually, lived and understood within time and space, therefore there being no such thing as “timeless truth” strictly speaking, though when that term is used, it means truth which transcends periods of time, and maybe time itself, God himself having created time. I would prefer to call it “timely truth,” if we’re going to use something like that term at all. It is truth written within a certain time and place, but for all times and places. And I prefer to see this truth as within story, with the task left to us to understand its meaning for our story, and better yet, how our story fits into the whole, God’s story.

But the main point I want to make in this post is that our experience is a huge factor in approaching and understanding God’s word. It’s not at all like we simply go to the parts of scripture, maybe books, or more often I think for people, verses, to help us in the problems we face in life. Though there really is a place for that. But it is imperative that we press on throughout all of scripture, even if and inevitably when we have no clue at all how that passage relates to our lives. The question ought to be not how it relates to our lives as much as how our lives can relate to it. We need the Spirit for this both directly to us, and just as importantly, through the church, since we are all in this together. The Spirit speaks primarily to the churches, therefore to the church as a whole, not primarily to individuals. Yet we do individually receive what the Spirit says to the churches. Not to say that the Spirit doesn’t speak directly to us.

So experience is vital. That is why those who are in ivory towers, shielded from real life might not have much to say of any value or use to others. Everyone needs to participate in life, though life has a way of working its way into everyone’s experience. One can’t escape real life. The question then becomes just how we participate in it. And the best answer for that is within the fellowship of the church, of believers, being dependent on the Spirit, and patient over time for the Lord to teach us.

The word and experience go hand in hand. I need that word to get me through each day, and all the pitfalls that day may bring. All of this in and through Jesus.