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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getting rid of the “what ifs” and “if onlys”

Joel is a book that can be read or listened to in less than fifteen minutes. You will notice passages which are used in the New Testament, though the fulfillment in Christ seems somehow different in that in Christ is the day of salvation, God having taking on himself the judgment deserved by the world in Christ on the cross. Nevertheless there remains a day of reckoning for all, when the decision and result of our lives will be confirmed, and as it were, sealed.

But for so many, including myself, “What ifs” and “If onlys” can haunt and plague us. And we can rightfully wish that others will do better, that perhaps we can help them by gentle, wise instruction, and above all, by prayer. But we ourselves are left with the fallout of either the poor choices we made, or the lack of good decisions as well, or likely the combination of both. There is certainly nothing we can do in the present to change the past. But we live with God’s promises to us, each and everyone of them somehow fulfilled in Christ:

For no matter how many promises God has made, they are “Yes” in Christ. And so through him the “Amen” is spoken by us to the glory of God.

2 Corinthians 1:20

Back to Joel. A book that needs to be read in its own context, and then in the context of the entire Bible, and considered in how it is applied in the New Testament. For us today in this post, it will be in terms of the “What ifs” and “If onlys” of our lives. First I want to note the call to repentance God makes to his people, one that can still echo to us today:

“Even now,” declares the Lord,
    “return to me with all your heart,
    with fasting and weeping and mourning.”

Rend your heart
    and not your garments.
Return to the Lord your God,
    for he is gracious and compassionate,
slow to anger and abounding in love,
    and he relents from sending calamity.
Who knows? He may turn and relent
    and leave behind a blessing—
grain offerings and drink offerings
    for the Lord your God.

Joel 2:12-14

This call was given in the midst of God’s judgment. Hard times had come from the hand of God, arguably through others who in the end God would judge. So there’s the prior, necessary call to repentance. We are sorry, yes for the consequences our past actions or inaction has caused. But the heart of repentance is always with reference to God. We’ve abandoned God, and we’ve lost out on God’s will for us, as well. We have sinned against the goodness of God, turning to our own understanding and devices. Or whatever we have fallen for in the past, making idols of that, rather than worshiping the true God. Whatever our past, we need to work through it in terms of repentance which gets right to our heart, no less. So that our life will follow.

And then we have God’s gracious promise to help us move away from the “What ifs,” and “If onlys”:

“I will repay you for the years the locusts have eaten—
    the great locust and the young locust,
    the other locusts and the locust swarm—
my great army that I sent among you.
You will have plenty to eat, until you are full,
    and you will praise the name of the Lord your God,
    who has worked wonders for you;
never again will my people be shamed.
Then you will know that I am in Israel,
    that I am the Lord your God,
    and that there is no other;
never again will my people be shamed.

Joel 2:25-27

Exactly how that plays out, or what it looks like for each one of us, we do not know. We have to trust God in that.

All of this is in the context of the big picture, for Christ and for the gospel. It is not about us having our own dreams fulfilled, but rather, the dreams which God gives us:

“And afterward,
    I will pour out my Spirit on all people.
Your sons and daughters will prophesy,
    your old men will dream dreams,
    your young men will see visions.
Even on my servants, both men and women,
    I will pour out my Spirit in those days.
I will show wonders in the heavens
    and on the earth,
    blood and fire and billows of smoke.
The sun will be turned to darkness
    and the moon to blood
    before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord.
And everyone who calls
    on the name of the Lord will be saved

Joel 2:28-32a

We can be assured that no matter what our past, if we repent, God will somehow restore the years, so that we can serve him in and through Christ for the gospel. As witnesses by how we live, and what we say. In and through Jesus.

the prophet

In the Bible, and specifically the Old Testament, there are the roles of prophet, priest, and king. In Jesus they are summed up and fulfilled. And today somehow shared within his body the church, through the Spirit’s working. In the Old Testament the prophet is a bit different. Like all prophets along with the gift of prophecy in the New Testament, it is essentially about speaking the word of the Lord for a specific time, with an emphasis in the New Testament on “strengthening, encouragement and comfort” (1 Corinthians 14:3). In the Old Testament there are what are classified by us as the major and minor prophets, the difference being solely in the length of the books, Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel being major prophets, and Habakkuk and Zephaniah being among the minor prophets. But David, though king, is called a prophet as well, because he spoke the word of the Lord as recorded in the psalms and elsewhere.

Old Testament prophets seem to come on pretty heavy handed in judgment, calling the people of God back to faithfulness to God and to God’s covenant with Israel as given in the Torah, and yet stretching beyond the Torah to what the fulfillment of that Torah was to be, somewhat unbeknownst to them. And their word would normally always end in God’s blessing. It is as if God’s judgment was really only a necessary means to God’s blessing, therefore judgment is called God’s strange work, because God’s heart of love is always to bless. However those who refuse God’s blessing when it’s all said and done end up under God’s curse. Of course that blessing is fulfilled in Jesus and made known through the gospel.

I believe there are a few voices now and then, here and there who speak prophetically today, even echoing to some extent the prophets of the Old Testament. They sometimes speak in a way which seems to be a stretch, yet they mean every word of it in making their point. At the heart of it is often the idolatry of God’s people, and a call to repentance. And included in that is an indictment against the whole world for its sin and evil due to its waywardness from the Creator God. But true prophets speak a message of hope, even if in the current times all seems at least bleak, and darkness has set in. The end of the story we find in scripture is bringing to full circle what was true in the beginning of an idyllic picture of paradise in a garden (Genesis 2) broken at the fall (Genesis 3), the heavenly city, the New Jerusalem added, as heaven and earth become one in the new creation when Jesus returns (Revelation 21 and 22). So no matter what is happening in this life, we can be assured of God’s goodness winning out in the end, and bringing in full justice and restoration of all that is good in the kingdom to come in Christ when shalom will be the reality at work in all relationships on earth.

In the meantime the prophet continues to wail –this message being part of the teaching ministry of the church as well– with calls to repentance, pointing to the promise of a better day, even as they hold God’s people, and the world to the standard God set in creation. But with an emphasis on living in the hope of the new creation in this broken world in which we live. A new creation present now in Jesus through the gospel, witnessed to and the beginning of it lived out in the church, in and through Jesus.

blessed to be a blessing

Scripture foresaw that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, and announced the gospel in advance to Abraham: “All nations will be blessed through you.”[d]

Galatians 3

There is no doubt that through faith in and baptism into Christ that we are all blessed. But what was the good news to Abraham? That all nations would be blessed through him. And greater is the one who blesses, than those who are blessed (Hebrews 7:7).

Abraham was blessed by God to be a blessing to others. He is the father of us all in not only being the source of blessing through the children which came through him, ultimately fulfilled in Christ, but also in being the example to us of faith, so that we’re to walk in his steps. I take it, not only in receiving the promise, but in seeing that promise extend to others. So that ultimately, we’re to be like Jesus, who did not come to be served, but to serve, and of course to lay down his life as a ransom for many (Matthew 20:28).

That is why we’re blessed in and through Jesus, to be a blessing to others. And “it is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35). Something we’re to keep in mind to live out in and through Jesus.

scripture and God

“What does scripture say?” is an important question not just for Bible readers, but for anyone who wants to know God and what God says. If one wants to find the intersect of God and life, then one needs to turn to the pages of scripture. In a rather mysterious way, if one perseveres, they will indeed find that, with the challenge and possible blessing which follows.

Scriptural or Biblical interpretation, called hermeneutics, is certainly important in all of this. We exegete in the sense of letting the text speak for itself, taking pains to not read into the text our own biases, or what we want to get out of it ourselves. Instead we determine to “listen”, and we try to both learn and proceed from that.

Scripture by which I mean the Bible ultimately points us to Jesus and the good news in him. That is at the heart of both its point and fulfillment of creation in the new creation. It is essential to simply read it as is, but also to read it in light of its trajectory or goal. It ultimately points us to Christ and to God’s fulfillment of his promises in him. It really is not meant to be used as a guidebook for this and that, like how one handles their finances, or eats. Even if one will find some wisdom in those areas, like be generous and save, and don’t be a glutton.

And so we need to give ourselves anew and afresh to scripture, so that we can find the God who speaks to us in and through its pages. In and through Jesus.

finding the wealth in poverty

Now when Jesus saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him, and he began to teach them.

He said:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit,
    for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Matthew 5

Scripture and especially in the way of Jesus is full of paradox in which the normal order of things seems upside down. What works in the world isn’t at all what works in the way of the Lord. Unless somehow the world’s values are imposed on the church, which all too often is the case, and which we need to guard against both in our personal lives, and together, in the life and witness of the church. Of course that’s not to say that somehow we don’t try to connect with others in following Paul’s example of being all things to all people to by all possible means save as many as possible (1 Corinthians 9).

The way Jesus starts out the Sermon on the Mount is especially near and dear to me, since most all of my life I’ve really struggled internally. And scripture and especially the gospel does answer much of that struggle, for example the Lord gives us his peace in his presence in the Father’s love by the Spirit which is for all of us, for all who believe.

I find over and over again that accepting the struggle and hard places of life, instead of trying to find an answer past or around them is key for me. I find the Lord in those places, his strength in my weakness. I also have found again and again that the Lord meets me in the depths, in the hardest places. And that I shouldn’t be afraid of either pressure or even controversy, both inevitable even as simple followers of Jesus. But I am more than happy for those times which are relaxing and in which there doesn’t seem to be a care in the world.

The poor in spirit is an apt description of myself and my own spirit and spiritual state. But I find that’s where faith is born, and grows, and even thrives. Not in a world in which everything is awesome with high fives. But in a place of struggle which encourages humility so that we’re cast upon God.

I get in trouble when I am trying to find the spiritual secret to getting out of my mess. But when I accept the poverty, then ironically I find the Lord’s hand to help me to a place that seems more like Jesus, in him. Paul’s thought in Philippians comes to mind here:

I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death…

Philippians 3

Over and over again, we find this to be true in the witness of scripture, and in life. With that comes the danger of caving in, and not having the right attitude in the midst of difficulty. Instead we need to press on in faith, and learn to rest in Jesus and the Father’s love in him. Accepting poverty so that we might find true riches in and through Jesus.

dependence on God and the peace that follows

You will keep in perfect peace
    those whose minds are steadfast,
    because they trust in you.
Trust in the LORD forever,
    for the LORD, the LORD himself, is the Rock eternal.

Isaiah 26:3; NIV

You will keep the mind that is dependent on you
in perfect peace,
for it is trusting in you.
Trust in the LORD forever,
because in the LORD, the LORD himself, is an everlasting rock!

Isaiah 26:3; CSB

You keep completely safe the people who maintain their faith,
for they trust in you.
Trust in the LORD from this time forward,
even in Yah, the LORD, an enduring protector!

Isaiah 26:3; NET Bible

The NET Bible note on one key difference in the translation we’re focusing on here (see the entire note for explanation of why the nation is in view rather than individuals):

In this context שָׁלוֹם (shalom, “peace”), which is repeated for emphasis, likely refers to national security, not emotional or psychological composure (see vv. 1-2).

We are blessed today with reasonably priced Bible tools on line. My guess is that the Logos Bible software is as good as they come, but I haven’t looked into it. Yet it’s amazing what we have at our fingertips that is completely free (the first level of Logos is free as well). I use Bible Gateway, and sometimes the NET Bible with its substantial extensive notes.

Putting all of this together on this well known verse of scripture, it seems that what is probably spoken of here is the shalom which includes all human flourishing. Yes, safety from enemies, in the note above, “national security,” but contrary to that note, “emotional” and “psychological composure,” as well. The Hebrew Bible context of shalom is a fulfillment of what a people, including individuals were created to be: blessed to be a blessing. So that actually both the NET Bible rendering, along with the more traditional understanding of that passage are likely apt together. Although the same word can have different meaning depending on its context.

A key help for me is from the CSB rendering which brings out the need for dependence on God. Add to that this insight from John N. Oswalt in the first volume of his outstanding Isaiah commentary:

To experience the security of God’s city one thing is required: a fixed disposition of trust. This is the opposite of James’s “double-minded man” (Jas. 1:6-8) or Jesus’ servant of two masters (Matt. 6:24). This person has cast himself upon God without any reservation. To trust one’s ability partly and God partly is the surest prescription for insecurity and anxiety (8:11-22; 57:19-21). That person will never know the wholeness (shalom) which having all his or her commitments in one place may mean. This is not to say that we denigrate or deny God-given abilities. But it is to say that we refuse to believe the lie that we are independent and have in ourselves the keys to ultimate success in life. The person who…steadfastly looks to God can know an inner oneness which makes possible a confident outlook on the darkest scene. For our mortality, short-sightedness, and weakness, we receive in exchange God’s immortality, omniscience, and omnipotence. That is security.

So the crux of the matter of entering into and holding on to a faith which lives in this peace is a complete dependence on God. Of course not denying our own abilities, but not depending on them, either. Our very thoughts as well as actions are to be dependent on God, and not on ourselves, or anyone else. That’s of course not to say that God won’t use other’s thoughts, maybe even our own seemingly, to direct us. The point that must not be lost by us is that we need to commit ourselves to a dependence on God which is fixed, regardless of how we feel and the circumstances we are going through. It involves a commitment which is to help us to a fixed disposition in which we live.

One of my go to passages again comes to mind:

Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

Philippians 4:6-7

That is one concrete way we can deal with the inevitable problems and troubling thoughts that will come our way. And we’re to cast what burdens we have on the Lord.

For me, again, the bottom line is dependence. If I depend on God, I won’t be depending at all on myself. If there’s even a little dependence on me, then my dependence on God for all intents and purposes is null and void, empty.  And in all of this as God’s people, when we consider the Isaiah 26 passage along with the rest of the Bible, we’re all in this together, so that somehow there is an interdependency among us all. One indication in Galatians 6 where we’re told to carry each other’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.

And so if I am troubled over something, that’s a sure sign that I need to hand what troubles me over to God, to relinquish any thought that I might somehow be able to figure out and fix the problem. Of course, I may factor into God’s answer. But my part and set disposition should be to trust it entirely into God’s hands and therefore to simply do nothing, to let it go. Until I get a sense of what God might want me to do.

Something I continue to aspire to and work on so as to confirm and grow in the change into which I’ve recently entered. In and through Jesus.