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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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.

 

a good plan and what is not, according to James

Now listen, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.” Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. Instead, you ought to say, “If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.” As it is, you boast in your arrogant schemes. All such boasting is evil. If anyone, then, knows the good they ought to do and doesn’t do it, it is sin for them.

James 4:13-17

Planning is good, and especially planning with good in mind, as in having others in mind. James’s words here are not at all undermining the value of planning. But as in the wisdom tradition we find in Proverbs, James is simply stating that in the end it is God who will determine not only the outcome, but whether or not it takes place at all. All must be subject to God’s will.

It is often a matter of wanting to be in control, in fact that is the default attitude of so many of us much of the time. I think of entrepreneurs. And of course it’s not wrong to be one. A good one will plan and yet be able to adjust with the flow of things, and figure out what it takes to be successful. And yet behind that can be either an unwillingness, or more likely, not even taking into account any possibility that God might want something entirely different.

James chalks that up to boasting in one’s arrogant schemes. And we can be sure that such plans are not in line with God’s will. There is the lack of humility in acknowledging God and God’s will. And there’s the lack of appreciation for just how uncertain life is, both in terms of what might actually happen, and whether or not one will actually live to see it. It is as if someone is taking the place of God in their own attitude. Certainly not the mind of Christ whose delight it was to do God’s will, and submitted to it even when it was against his will as he did in Gethsemane.

James is warning believers, but he’s also encouraging them to submit their plans to God. That those plans might have value in God’s eyes, so that God may see them through.

the push and pull to the illusion and emptiness of fame

…whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave— just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.

Matthew 20

A recent post on wanting to be well known even as a Christian leader is well worth the read: Pride and Humility at War. The professor who has taught many years in a well known evangelical seminary (and extensions of it) has picked up that many of the students have it as part of their drive in what their doing, that they should somehow become well known. And how this self-ambition is dangerous and at odds with their actual calling.

Greatness according to Jesus is to serve, become servant of all. And in that way to be like Jesus. Ironically, it is those who exalt themselves who will end up being downgraded by God. Whereas those who humble themselves before God, God somehow exalts. Of course the epitome of humility that God honored is Christ himself (Philippians 2:5-11).

Whenever I hear someone talk about themselves or what they’re doing, as if somehow that stands out, I wonder. Yet I’ve done the same thing myself. I always wanted to find where I fit and it seems like to a large extent, it alluded me. Though if I step back and see what I have been given to do, I can find plenty of places along the way, as well as regular, that the Lord has given me. And it’s not just what we do. Relationships end up being a big part of this, and actually more than that: they’re central.

We humble ourselves before God, and we desire that others see Christ, not us. I know for sure that for people to know me will be no help to them at all, except insofar as they find Christ in me, not seeing me, but him. There is an aspect of us through Jesus, our unique true selves which ends up being a gift to others, while we receive the same gift from God in them.

We must beware of wanting anything more than our Lord’s approval and fellowship. Among the lowly, those like ourselves. And desiring nothing more than that Christ would be made known. Something we all need more of, and want to share with all others, in and through him.

what the United States needs from us in Jesus, from the church

This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says to all those I carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: “Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease. Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.”

Jeremiah 29

God was at work through the mess of that time, judging his people, and sending them into exile into Babylon. And like all the empires of that time, Babylon was given to idols. And it was not the poster boy of virtue. Perhaps not as much a terror as the Assyrian empire which had preceded it, but still a terror to those who would not surrender and bow down to its sovereignty. Actually, when thinking about Babylon and the Babylonian exile of the Jews, one can turn to Daniel, the first five chapters, to see something of what it was like.

The nation where I live, and am a citizen of is a far cry from Babylon. The United States of America has become the world power. It doesn’t impose its will on the rest of the world like Babylon did. Yet it has been the major player in many places, usually linked to its own national interests, but not without some great sacrifice for the good of others, such as in World War II. I’m thinking especially of the Normandy invasion. The United States has had its sins from the beginning and throughout, just like any other nation. And it has done great good as well.

What I want to focus on to some degree might be applied by Christians of any nation, except for nations which practically outlaw the faith. But even in those cases, Christians can hope and pray for change, such as what may be and to some extent has occurred in China. It’s the idea that we’re to pray for the city, and by extension I would say the state/nation in which we reside, because their good will be our good.

“….seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.”

The church and we as Christians are to be a witness to the gospel, the good news in Jesus, come what may. That’s our calling. At the same time, we can hope and pray for the good of the nation in which we reside, and advocate that, provided we don’t get swallowed up in an agenda contrary to the gospel. Not an easy track or task for sure.

Right now in the United States we’ve reached a danger point, I believe, with a growing rift politically, which at the extremes is becoming more and more hostile. There seems to be no middle ground in which people who differ can stand and attempt to reason, and work through differences, to arrive to at least some conclusion, which in the nature of the case would ordinarily always be ongoing. I think this was what the Founding Fathers of the United States wanted as the ideal. Not that the U.S. has always lived up to that well.

The church needs to stand in that gap, regardless of where we are politically as individuals. This especially needs to be church led, and Christians should be part of it, of course. It is the salvation through the gospel, and the healing that comes with it that is needed today. What I said on Facebook yesterday:

What the church in large part needs to be here and now is a healing presence through the gospel. Salvation where needed, and the healing that comes with it, in and through Jesus. Across the political divides, and every other divide. What I want to major on and be part of.

We must confess where we’ve been part of the problem. And there is a time to speak up, don’t get me wrong. But how we do it makes all the difference in the world. If we demonize our opponents, and make it a good versus evil contest, then we fail to recognize and acknowledge our own part we’ve played in the breakdown, both in what we’ve done and left undone.

The gospel in and through Jesus is cross-centered, and we’re all included in the sin that Jesus took on himself there. We’re no better than anyone else; we’re all in need of God’s grace. Before there can be better solutions to problems, which are more God-honoring, there has to be a change in our hearts. And it must begin with us. We are the ones that must lead the way.

For it is time for judgment to begin with God’s household; and if it begins with us, what will the outcome be for those who do not obey the gospel of God? And,

“If it is hard for the righteous to be saved,
    what will become of the ungodly and the sinner?”

1 Peter 4:17-18

We must do so in the utmost humility, removing the plank from our own eye, before we even dream of trying to remove the speck from someone else’s eye. Not disengaging necessarily, unless what we’re doing is not helpful toward healing the divide, and ultimately, for the good of others through the gospel. How we do that will depend on God’s wisdom given to us, unique to each one of us, and worked out in accord and agreement with the church.

We step back, take a deep breath, pray, and then proceed. Together. Hopefully what can become a groundswell that can help bring the salvation and healing on so much that is broken. With no final answers, except the good news and what’s in harmony with that, in and through Jesus.

 

speaking against other believers unlawfully

Brothers and sisters, do not slander one another. Anyone who speaks against a brother or sister or judges them speaks against the law and judges it. When you judge the law, you are not keeping it, but sitting in judgment on it. There is only one Lawgiver and Judge, the one who is able to save and destroy. But you—who are you to judge your neighbor?

James 4:11-12

James has a lot to say about the tongue. This section follows, or perhaps (as NIV heading might suggest) is part of what preceded on submitting oneself to God, and one can see the possible connection with the opening thought on quarreling and not getting along.

To slander is to speak some untruth against someone, but the word might only mean to speak against someone, period, even if what is said is the truth. Only God knows the entire truth, and the truth through and through, so that we must beware of thinking we know in any final sense.

And when we speak in that way we also somehow put ourselves in the place of God. God alone gave the law, and God alone can make judgments based on it. Our judgment invariably won’t measure up to God’s, nor will our application of the law. In fact we will be so amiss, that we in effect will be judging the law itself. Exactly what that means is hard to pinpoint, except to say that our judgment on others inevitably means we are judging the law, and not getting at the true meaning of it, making the law into something other than it is. It is for living according to God’s will in love. We simply are incapable of making any such judgments on others.

And that’s what might be key to understanding the passage. It is referring to judging others in a sense in which we can’t. There are necessary judgments in life which we must make and receive. And best to do so together, always in a prayerful attitude.

What we might take home from this is simply to be cautious, so that if and when we speak we will do so in complete humility, emphasizing mercy, and God’s work in the entire process. Only God can convict the wrongdoer, and bring them to repentance. We can’t. We may necessarily have to confront someone, but we do so gently in love, realizing that we can easily fall into sin ourselves. But we are included in God’s work of restoration (Galatians 6).

We must beware of taking matters in our own hands, and brashly applying the law, when inevitably we who judge do the same things ourselves (Romans 2). When we stand in that kind of judgment of others, inevitably we not only distort what they did due to our own sin, but we also distort the law itself, somehow making it conform to our own understanding, beset with a heart not right, and therefore not seeing everything clearly. Only God can judge, convict, sentence, and redeem. We can’t.

So we best take a cautious attitude. And not slander or speak against our brother or sister even when our gut reaction is to do so. When we have to consider problems, we best do so before God, and when necessary, together. And not tolerate anything that doesn’t accentuate mercy along with the utmost humility concerning our own weakness and shortcomings.

who is wise and understanding among you?

Who is wise and understanding among you? Let them show it by their good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom. But if you harbor bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast about it or deny the truth. Such “wisdom” does not come down from heaven but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. For where you have envy and selfish ambition, there you find disorder and every evil practice.

But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere. Peacemakers who sow in peace reap a harvest of righteousness.

James 3:13-18

Who is wise and understanding among you? We ought to stop there and meditate on that. What is our own take on just what that means? Does it line up with what’s said here and elsewhere in God’s word? Probably many of us know the truth well enough so that it’s good to stop dead in our tracks and consider our own lives in light of that. We likely through Jesus will see some movement in our hearts and lives toward that ideal, but will also most certainly understand that we fall short of experiencing any of it at times, and need to grow both in depth, and in consistency in practicing such.

Remember that this word of James is in the context of what he was saying about the danger of the tongue (entire context: chapter 3 in our Bibles). We are good at talking, but not so good at walking. And our talk easily gets off track and out of hand. So James counsels slowness to speech and eagerness to listen, not to mention slowness to anger as well.

It’s our lives that will speak volumes, and either validate or invalidate what we profess, or say. Our words can certainly drown out our profession. “I hear what you say, but I see how you live.” On the other hand, our lives can make people want to know just what makes us tick. We show we’re receiving this grace from God through how we live in mostly small and larger ways each and every day.

Gentleness or humility is what should characterize us, demonstrated with good deeds. This is wisdom; this is understanding. It’s not a long or even short discourse that enlightens others. It’s our lives that speak, out of hearts receiving wisdom from God in God’s grace to us in Jesus. And it’s not something we can hardly put our finger on. We certainly can’t take credit ourselves. Perhaps we could say it’s shutting our mouths, and getting out of the way, so that we can finally be in God’s way in Jesus. Growing and living in that way.

A false wisdom, surely looked at as great, but phony is out there. Wrong ideas of greatness, and how to get there. Worldly wisdom which is linked even to the demonic. We can’t separate what scripture calls the world (system), the flesh, and the devil.

Then there’s the real wisdom, that which is from above, from God. Full of love and active for others in accord with what’s given to us, and needed by them. Marked by making peace in a way that promotes or at least doesn’t get in the way of righteousness. And we receive from others that good ourselves. Something always needed, which we need to grow into and begin to live out more and more and never let go of, in and through Jesus.