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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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.

God’s faithfulness no matter what

Habakkuk has always been an interesting book to me, some memorable lines, but most of all just the entire letter. The sky was falling, things really bad, especially with what was right in their face: injustice and unfaithfulness on the home front, and what seemed even worse looming on the horizon from an empire on the move, the Babylonians.

I guess it depends somewhat on one’s perspective, but it seem like the sky is falling to many. It’s certainly not an easy time for a good number of people. There are not only concerns, but surely much that needs to be done. And in a certain sense that seems ongoing in this life. All one has to do is open up a good, substantive history book, and one can see that troubles await on every turn, that there’s little that seems to turn out entirely right, that with the good, there’s always the not so good, and sometimes even evil.

And this is not to slap those on the wrist who are activists, and tell them to simmer down, that everything will somehow be okay in the end. There certainly is a time to speak out, as well as to be silent. This is not at all to challenge someone who might be an important player in what’s going on.

But it’s simply to say that God is faithful no matter what. That God is at work in the world: our world, the world around us, and the world at large. And like with the prophet Habakkuk, in ways that we can’t imagine or conceive. Not that everything is good in the end. And not that we don’t bear some responsibility, either. But God is at work to judge and bring salvation.

Habakkuk couldn’t see that, nor would he have if God would have shown him. It evidently would have made no sense to him; he would not have been able to track with it. I think oftentimes that’s a major part of my problem. I want to somehow see the light somewhere, which is certainly at the end of the tunnel. But I can’t. And I can’t begin to see the larger picture like God does. Perhaps what I need to envision in my mind is an empty canvas, with God being the one who is painting, perhaps over coloring which seems dark and meaningless, perhaps even chaotic. And God might use our hand a bit in the painting, most likely so if we’re open to that.

God is at work in the world. It’s important for us to trust God no matter what, and to remain in faith in God’s covenant faithfulness in Jesus. And to worship. Just as Habakkuk did in his day, the letter bearing his name preserved for us to be translated into our day. In and through Jesus.

a key part of enduring: accept

Yesterday’s post was about enduring when our faith is tested. A key and important aspect of such endurance, it seems to me, faith being a given, is simply to learn to accept whatever place one finds themselves in, including the trial itself.

One of the most difficult aspects of trials is often our resistance to them. We want to escape anyway possible, to be rid of it, and we often imagine the worst. Instead of committing ourselves to God’s care and working, and willingly walking through it.

This doesn’t mean that we are happy about the trial itself. Our happiness in the midst of it is solely in the realization that God is at work both to bless us, and make us a blessing to others. Oftentimes God’s work of character development in us toward the image of Christ, along with his work for the good of others is occurring. What is important for us is to hold on in faith. And a part of that, of our trust in God, is to simply accept the experience, with all its hard knocks and difficulties. And both the external, as well as internal facets of it.

I have often found that it’s not long before a sense of resolution either in movement, or even finality sets in. Usually my own experience in this is that my reaction is worse than the problem itself, often one of anxiety and fear. Or just feeling numb from it all.

So we’re called not only to wait in persevering in endurance in the trial. But to accept everything, believing that God is at work in it in ourselves, and in the situation, for our good and the good of others. In and through Jesus.

let go, relax, and be still, in a new orientation

He says, “Be still, and know that I am God;
    I will be exalted among the nations,
    I will be exalted in the earth.”

Psalm 46:10

In a psalm of great encouragement in the midst of the tumult and trouble of this world, promising God’s protection and help, there is the word to cease striving, let go, relax (see NASB text and footnote in link above), be still, and simply know that God is God. And that God will make that known.

We  think somehow that we have to take matters in our own hands, grab the bull by the horns, and get the job done. And there will be plenty for us to do when it’s all said and done. But it is God’s work, not our own. And this psalm puts the focus on God, and not on ourselves, or even on our part in what God is doing.

There is a time to simply step aside, be quiet and still, and look for what only God can do, not only in the world at large, but in ourselves, first and foremost. This call in the psalm is addressed to the listeners, or readers. It is a call to quit our own machinations, what we would say and do. And look to God. We can’t see the value of this, because we’re so used to looking on the plain of human endeavor, including and maybe even especially our own, so that we’re not even aware of what God is doing, since our focus is not on him. The fact of the matter is that we aren’t going to easily understand God’s hand in the midst of the affairs of life, particularly on the world stage. But what this psalm is getting at is God’s hand toward what will be the result of gospel, the good news in Jesus: God’s grace and kingdom come in our own world, as well as the larger world in all its tumult and trouble.

It is not about us, and what we’re about, and doing, but God. The word to us: Cease striving, be still, and know that God is God. So that we need not fear. In and through Jesus.

 

 

 

accepting one another, living in grace

Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God.

Romans 15:7

There is nothing quite like a genuine acceptance of each other in Christ because of grace. And there is nothing quite so stifling and cold as when we refuse to do that, or do it with strings attached.

Everyone alive has their issues. No one has arrived, of course. And we all have our particular struggles, not to mention our blind spots. We are all in process. And in the passage quoted above, it is in the section in Romans 14 and 15 about disputable matters in which Christians can differ. In the context of that day with reference to what was actually clean and unclean in terms of the new covenant replacing the old. And it’s a bit complicated.

But fast forward to where we live today, and it can be in terms of all kinds of things, but at the heart of it is an attitude of judging someone else, so that we hold them at arm’s length, and likely see them somehow as inferior to ourselves, either in their character, or in their faith.

What we need is quite the opposite. If we focus on what’s negative about ourselves or others, then we will likely miss what God is actually doing. And the well is poisoned. Instead we need to accept both ourselves, and each other, just as God in and through Christ accepts us. So that we can be open to the goodness of what God is doing even in us, as well as our brother and sister in Christ. And so we can be hopeful of God’s movement of grace in others.

The only way we can live and go on well ourselves. And something we must apply in our attitude to others as well, in and through Jesus.

difficult changes

Sometimes different plans and policies are put in place which are difficult one way or another. Change is hard. We may be so used to a certain pattern or way of doing things over the years, that all the sudden to have to drop some key element for whatever reason, even when the change had little or no direct bearing on what that was, is a challenge. Both in terms of actually doing it, and most especially in our attitude concerning it.

That’s when we should look for the silver lining, for whatever good might come out of it, some of that probably unforeseen by us. Not being in a gloom and doom mode, but rather, being upbeat about it. Even if that’s only because we’re committing it to the Lord. Sometimes God has a way of breaking in, which makes little or no sense at the time, but might be more understandable later. Or maybe not.

Just the same, we need to accept everything as from God, since nothing happens in life apart from God’s sovereign hand, either directing the change, or permitting it. We should be looking for the good that can come out of it, instead of dwelling on what we’re missing or have lost because of the change.

Of course I’m not referring to any call for change which contradicts God’s known will for us as given to us in scripture and from the gospel. Then we should make our appeal, be patient in prayer, and if turned down, seek for the discernment needed to know what to do, and what not to do. And never compromise our faith in the process.

Admittedly difficult, but all part of the call to faith that we have in Jesus.