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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wisdom as skill in living

Put your outdoor work in order
    and get your fields ready;
    after that, build your house.

Proverbs 24:27

Life isn’t easy, nor is it foolproof. It sometimes seems like a crapshoot for sure. There are all kinds of self-help books to help people not only deal with problems, but navigate all different aspects of living. And knowledge is at our fingertips now with the internet.

Proverbs is the book known the most for wisdom in scripture. A significant part of the meaning of wisdom in Proverbs is simply skill in living, as reflected in the psalm quoted above. And we have the phrase, “the wisdom of Solomon,” captured well in what Solomon faced after he had received the wisdom he had asked for from God (1 Kings 3).

Remember that Solomon asked for this wisdom so that he could serve God in carrying out his duties as king, to govern with discernment, and know the difference between right and wrong. And Proverbs tells us that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge and wisdom (used almost interchangeably in Proverbs, basically synonymous there). And also that to know God is to have understanding (Proverbs 1:7; 9:10; Psalm 111:10).

So Proverbs is not at all a self-help book. And biblical wisdom has nothing to do with being worldly wise. I think of Jesus’s words, which I take not to be a rebuke against the righteous, but actually stating that God’s people can gain some wisdom from what unrighteous people do, but within the fear of the Lord:

For the people of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own kind than are the people of the light. I tell you, use worldly wealth to gain friends for yourselves, so that when it is gone, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings.

Luke 16

Jesus goes on to speak against the love of money in that context, certainly not holding up worldly wisdom as a virtue at all, but saying, I think, that we can learn something good from them as those made in God’s image. Such is the compelling, interesting aspect of wisdom within scripture, that it is complex, and something we are going to have to keep working on the rest of our lives, all within the fear of God, with faith in God.

James captures this theme of wisdom well, that book of the New Testament considered probably the closest in some ways to Proverbs:

Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything. If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you.

James 1

We are reminded here that wisdom from God is down to earth, for life, and skill in living. But it is always and forever bound and intertwined with the fear of the Lord. Apart from that one will inevitably drift into again what is called, worldly wisdom, even as sadly, Solomon did.

Let us be inspired by reading and meditating on Proverbs, and the wisdom we find in scripture, learning from God for life, in and through Jesus.

the good wake up call of Psalm 73

This is what the wicked are like—
    always free of care, they go on amassing wealth.

Surely in vain I have kept my heart pure
    and have washed my hands in innocence.
All day long I have been afflicted,
    and every morning brings new punishments.

If I had spoken out like that,
    I would have betrayed your children.
When I tried to understand all this,
    it troubled me deeply
till I entered the sanctuary of God;
    then I understood their final destiny.

Psalm 73:12-17

If anyone really knows me, they will know that I can struggle with depression or toward despair, either one. Sometimes life can seem overwhelming to me, probably too often. Just as recently as yesterday that was the case. But then I thought about our grandchildren and our daughter. My wife and my responsibility to all of them. And what triggered that was probably the psalm quoted in part above, Psalm 73.

The psalmist sees what makes no sense to his faith. Those who have no faith are prospering, and he who is a person of faith is experiencing difficulty, or seems somehow to have come up short. He questions God. One can well say he is struggling in his faith. But he realizes that more than just his own faith is at stake here. There’s the faith of others, specifically God’s children, those who are influenced by him, surely including those who were under his care.

We have to do well. It’s not only our own faith, but the faith of others which is at stake. It’s not like we can believe for them. But they need to see faith, our faith in the midst of difficulty. That we trust God to see us through.

So the fact that we might struggle is not bad in itself. But what we do in that struggle is key. We are to be a model to others, not that they may see us and our faith, but more that they might see God and God’s faithfulness and salvation in their own lives.

In all of this we walk by faith, not by sight, as was true of the psalmist here. But read on in this psalm (the link above), and you’ll find that much more is awaiting that God would reveal to us by his Spirit. That this step of faith we take will be confirmed by God.

And so we must awaken to the faith God has for us in the midst of the trial of our faith. Because it is for the benefit of others. Realizing we need to bless to them can end up blessing us. Just as we are indeed blessed to be a blessing. In and through Jesus.

the formative days of childhood: Jesus’s words of encouragement and warning

At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Who, then, is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?”

He called a little child to him, and placed the child among them. And he said: “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever takes the lowly position of this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. And whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.

“If anyone causes one of these little ones—those who believe in me—to stumble, it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea. Woe to the world because of the things that cause people to stumble! Such things must come, but woe to the person through whom they come! If your hand or your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life maimed or crippled than to have two hands or two feet and be thrown into eternal fire. And if your eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into the fire of hell.

“See that you do not despise one of these little ones. For I tell you that their angels in heaven always see the face of my Father in heaven.”

Matthew 18

Proverbs tells us more about the training children can receive from their parents, and we can find it in places elsewhere. Like where Fathers are not to exasperate their children, but bring them up in the nurture, training, and instruction of the Lord. Jesus’s words here put the spotlight on children, not only what they need from us, but on what we can receive from them. And Jesus minces no words when it comes to those who would hurt children in any way.

What more important thing can we do than spend time with our children and grandchildren and invest into their lives, our love and careful thoughts, and simply enjoy them and what they do? And we have to be an advocate for those children who are used and abused by others, wanting to see justice done to the perpetrators, even as we hold out the gospel for all.

Children. A wonderful time with its own challenges for them. We need to be present with them, even as our Father is present with us. And we actually need their presence, too. In and through Jesus.

breaking through into prayer

I, Daniel, was the only one who saw the vision; those who were with me did not see it, but such terror overwhelmed them that they fled and hid themselves. So I was left alone, gazing at this great vision; I had no strength left, my face turned deathly pale and I was helpless. Then I heard him speaking, and as I listened to him, I fell into a deep sleep, my face to the ground.

A hand touched me and set me trembling on my hands and knees. He said, “Daniel, you who are highly esteemed, consider carefully the words I am about to speak to you, and stand up, for I have now been sent to you.” And when he said this to me, I stood up trembling.

Then he continued, “Do not be afraid, Daniel. Since the first day that you set your mind to gain understanding and to humble yourself before your God, your words were heard, and I have come in response to them. But the prince of the Persian kingdom resisted me twenty-one days. Then Michael, one of the chief princes, came to help me, because I was detained there with the king of Persia. Now I have come to explain to you what will happen to your people in the future, for the vision concerns a time yet to come.”

Daniel 10

There are times when prayer seems to come easy, most of the time not, and then there are times when it seems like impossible to pray, or that one can’t really pray at all. This passage in the book of Daniel reminds me of that.

Daniel was engaged in spiritual warfare no doubt. A heavenly messenger sent from God, an angel, seemed to be active in accordance with Daniel’s humbling of himself before God, and prayer. God was at work, and there was a battle going on in the heavenly realm. Daniel was seeking insight from God for the benefit of God’s people, and ultimately the mission of God for the world. Yes, every part of the message we find in scripture is one way or another to that end.

I have found at times, and this can go on for days, and it can seem especially so at critical times, but I’ve found that sometimes I simply have to accept the heavy burden, or weakness of my heart and mind, just accept it, and pray. And that can be the turning point for me, to break through out of the doldrums, and actually impasse, so that I can begin to really pray.

It’s not like there isn’t value in praying, and trying to pray when it seems completely empty. Maybe that’s something of half the battle. However one can begin to despair, and give up, exactly what the spiritual enemy wants. They can’t stand up to faith in God in true prayer. They will try to resist that, but they will flee as well, when we resist them through God’s word and the gospel.

We have to remember that this is ongoing. We won’t simply break through never to struggle again (see Ephesians 6:10-20). There will be times, probably strategic, in which it will seem impossible for us to pray. Or times when it can seem more or less empty, just something we do with not enough life or light in it. And then there will be those breakthrough times back into the norm, or something special, something more from God. In and through Jesus.

 

persistent prayer

And Elijah said to Ahab, “Go, eat and drink, for there is the sound of a heavy rain.” So Ahab went off to eat and drink, but Elijah climbed to the top of Carmel, bent down to the ground and put his face between his knees.

“Go and look toward the sea,” he told his servant. And he went up and looked.

“There is nothing there,” he said.

Seven times Elijah said, “Go back.”

The seventh time the servant reported, “A cloud as small as a man’s hand is rising from the sea.”

So Elijah said, “Go and tell Ahab, ‘Hitch up your chariot and go down before the rain stops you.’”

Meanwhile, the sky grew black with clouds, the wind rose, a heavy rain started falling and Ahab rode off to Jezreel. The power of the Lord came on Elijah and, tucking his cloak into his belt, he ran ahead of Ahab all the way to Jezreel.

1 Kings 18

God was confronting Israel over its idolatry and the evil that came with that. The land was suffering from drought. We see in this chapter what probably Elijah is best remembered for, God making himself known as God, and Baal as no god.

What follows that is most interesting. Elijah tells King Ahab (his wife, Jezebel) that there is the sound of heavy rain coming. There’s not a cloud in the sky. And then Elijah goes off and prays, literally on his knees. And his request is for rain. He was surely led to thus speak to King Ahab, and then to pray. But it didn’t come easily.

Six times Elijah prayed with seemingly no answer. But the seventh time a small cloud emerged. Elijah then somehow knew God had answered, and sent word to King Ahab to be ready, precisely to escape the downpour. And then we read more Elijah like stuff. God’s power comes on him, and he runs by foot, and actually outruns King Ahab on Ahab’s chariot. Remarkable stuff.

But we can’t forget the entire narrative, what follows. Elijah is paralyzed in fear over Jezebel’s threats, and comes crashing down into a depression in which he asks God to take his life, feeling in despair and clearly exaggerating that he was the only follower of God left. James points to this incident for our application today:

Elijah was a human being, even as we are. He prayed earnestly that it would not rain, and it did not rain on the land for three and a half years. Again he prayed, and the heavens gave rain, and the earth produced its crops.

And notice what preceded that:

Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective.

James 5

We’re to pray, and keep on praying until God’s answer comes. Really pray. What people used to call, “pray through.” We may need to pray only one time. But ordinarily we’ll have to pray repeatedly for whatever reasons. Something God has given us, a vital role for us to play here and now, in and through Jesus.

Jesus blesses children

Then people brought little children to Jesus for him to place his hands on them and pray for them. But the disciples rebuked them.

Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.” When he had placed his hands on them, he went on from there.

Matthew 19:13-15

I’m not sure what happens when we become adults. We easily become hard and cynical. And with the idea that we more or less have the measure of things. And it’s hard not to be that way in a world where so much is wrong, and in which we carry some of that wrong with us, even right in our hearts.

Jesus’s words here concerning children speak volumes to us, as to what God wants us to be, and how we will be when we fully arrive in the life to come when we see Jesus, and become like him in a finalized sense. And this is dynamic, by the way, and not static, so that there will be an ever increasing growth in the fixed state we’ll be in there. Exciting of course.

Jesus always spoke of God as Father, and taught his disciples to pray to God in that way: “Our Father…” And he taught that unless we change, are converted, and become like little children, we will never enter God’s kingdom (Matthew 18:3). We’re to have the faith of a little child.

And Jesus loves children. There is surely a special blessing from him for them, even to this very day. Childhood is an opportune time for children to meet Jesus in a new and lasting, eternal way. So that through the rough patches that come their way later, and through possible bad turns, God can help them come back to the life that is truly life. In and through Jesus.