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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the ultimate freedom

It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.

Galatians 5

The ultimate and final freedom is found in Christ. It is the freedom to be in the process of becoming all God intended us to be as humans. And it is freeing in nature, away from the bondage that everything other than that imposes on us.

Christ in his death, as the letter to the Galatians makes clear, is what liberates us, when we enter into that freedom by faith, baptism following. We are set free, again, to be in the process of becoming all we are intended to be in and through Christ. Individually, and together with others, since we are indeed meant to be individuals within community.

As Jesus said:

…if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.

And just prior to that:

“If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”

John 8:31-32, 36

This freedom does end up being systemic, affecting all things. Toward the love of God in Christ, in God’s grace and kingdom in him. Setting us free indeed.

So while we here in the United States thank God for the freedom we have in this nation, and hope for the same for others in dark places, we know there is one freedom that we need, regardless of whatever other freedom we may or may not have. Freedom from sin’s power and consequences to God’s good world to be completed in the resurrection, in and through Jesus.

 

 

neither underestimate nor misunderstand the grace of God (nor think we can comprehend it)

For the grace of God has appeared that offers salvation to all people. It teaches us to say “No” to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age, while we wait for the blessed hope—the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good.

Titus 2:11-14

We find again and again in scripture that God’s grace is key in our lives, in the lives of others. There are differences in teaching on this, as one might and should expect. There is what theologians call “common grace,” in which God pours down his blessings on all, in sunshine and rain, and provisions for life and more. This is not the grace described in this passage which brings salvation, according to scripture.

This is a big subject, but this post will touch mainly on one aspect of it, while addressing one common misunderstanding. God’s grace is alive and well in the world, and there is the light which enlightens every person (John 1). But the goodness and kindness of God is meant to lead people to repentance (Romans 2). There is no salvation apart from faith in Christ. It’s not just that somehow in an inexplicable, mysterious way that in the end all are saved through Christ. The NIV avoids this misunderstanding in the translation above, even if less literal. God’s grace is at work in all kinds of ways, but the special grace of salvation is always linked to repentance which means a turning from sin to God, and to faith, which means a trust in God and in God’s word, the message of the good news in Jesus.

Theologians also refer to “prevenient grace” which means the grace by which people receive the good news of the gospel for themselves by simple faith and trust in Jesus. Through Jesus’s death for our sins, and resurrection. We trust in what God has done for us through Jesus’s death, and receive forgiveness of our sins and new, eternal life.

So the grace which saves, to which the passage above refers, is not a cheap grace by which people get in with no change of life. Not at all. But at the same time grace is at work in spite of us, not because of us. That’s not to say that our efforts toward understanding and entering into this grace are a waste of time. Grace termed as prevenient by theologians might well include some of this striving, making every effort to enter into God’s rest (Hebrews 4). But also we have to remember that we still sin and have indwelling sin (1 John 1). And that is all the more true of those who have yet to cross over from death into life. They are sinners, period. Maybe Christians are both sinners and saints (Luther), depending on what you mean by that. God’s grace at work in people’s lives is in spite of so many things. God in his grace accepts us completely exactly where we’re at, but in God’s good grace, he certainly doesn’t leave us there.

Grace means we’re satisfied with nothing less than God’s salvation, which doesn’t mean only the forgiveness of sins, but also new life, a new way of living. By the Spirit in the love of God. Which means a changed life, a transformation both complete at conversion, and incomplete until Jesus returns (Philippians 1:6), meaning there is a process involved.

This grace gives us hope, and helps us to get out of God’s way, simply presenting the gospel, and trying to be responsive to God’s word. But this grace teaches us, teaches others. God’s full, unmerited, undeserved favor in helping us in ways beyond us, but in ways that indeed reach us in and through Jesus.

fights or grace?

What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you? You desire but do not have, so you kill. You covet but you cannot get what you want, so you quarrel and fight. You do not have because you do not ask God. When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures.

You adulterous people, don’t you know that friendship with the world means enmity against God? Therefore, anyone who chooses to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God. Or do you think Scripture says without reason that he jealously longs for the spirit he has caused to dwell in us? But he gives us more grace. That is why Scripture says:

“God opposes the proud
    but shows favor to the humble.”

Submit yourselves, then, to God. Resist the devil,and he will flee from you.Come near to God and he will come near to you.Wash your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Grieve, mourn and wail. Change your laughter to mourning and your joy to gloom. Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up.

James 4:1-10

Jeff Manion at Ada Bible Church gave another helpful message (they’re all good from him, as well as from others there) on this passage (not yet available online, but it will be the fifth in the series).

Conflict is a fact of life. Over and over again we encounter it here and there. I’m thankful to experience little of it, but it does occur at times. Sometimes we hold it in, but that can’t last forever. One way or another, for good, but mostly for ill, it will come out. If we can let it out to God like the psalmists of old, that is good. And sometimes after we let it cool down, we might be able to address the problem, first in ourselves, and then maybe we can help someone else.

James points out that our problem is desire, maybe the desire to be right, respected, things that may or may not be legitimate, but certainly out of place here. At the heart of this is pure idolatry. James calls those who fight and quarrel adulterers, certainly meaning in a spiritual sense. His hearers/readers were at least primarily Jewish, steeped in what we call the Old Testament, in the scriptures, and knew the theme of spiritually adultery in God’s people departing from God to serve and worship other gods, which were no gods at all, but idols.

When God is God to us, then we are enabled by grace to love the God who loves us, who is love, and to love our neighbor as ourselves. But when other things become our gods, idols in our hearts, which includes a whole host of possibilities, really anything, even including ourselves, we find that getting along with others can be a challenge, or maybe not on the table at all. God brings his people together in harmony, in contrast to idols which divide, in significant part due to the demonic influence behind them, which is bent on division and destruction.

Jeff Manion’s message is much better than what I just shared, a bit of what I’ve said reflected from it. The part that especially hit home for me from what he said is how God is the God of grace, who loves to give and give and give some more. How after these strong words, it is made clear that God gives more grace. What we need to do is ask in prayer, and not to fulfill our pleasures, either. God wants to give generously, over and over again.

Then there’s a list of what we’re to do, one thing after another, at least eight in all depending on how you count. We are to respond to this word, to take action, the starting point, submitting ourselves to God, after which we can resist the devil and do all the rest. We are to get serious about our own problem, rather than focusing on the problems of others. Coming near to God with the promise that as we do so, God will come near to us.

Grace from God to help us live in submission to him in our every day lives with others. In and through Jesus.

the danger of the tongue

Not many of you should become teachers, my fellow believers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly. We all stumble in many ways. Anyone who is never at fault in what they say is perfect, able to keep their whole body in check.

When we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we can turn the whole animal. Or take ships as an example. Although they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are steered by a very small rudder wherever the pilot wants to go. Likewise, the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts. Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark. The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole body, sets the whole course of one’s life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell.

All kinds of animals, birds, reptiles and sea creatures are being tamed and have been tamed by mankind, but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.

With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness. Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this should not be. Can both fresh water and salt water flow from the same spring? My brothers and sisters, can a fig tree bear olives, or a grapevine bear figs? Neither can a salt spring produce fresh water.

James 3:1-12

Proverbs makes it clear that words can both heal and harm. James counsels restraint in what we say, the need to metaphorically bridle, or keep a tight rein on the tongue (James 1:26). We little understand the damage our words can do. The devil is not only in the details, but the results which can be devastating. And it seems that the human tongue is much more prone to bad, even evil than it is to good. And like James and the rest of scripture points out, this is indeed deceptive. After all we’re speaking our hearts, and that’s the problem, just as Jesus pointed out:

…the things that come out of a person’s mouth come from the heart, and these defile them. For out of the heart come evil thoughts—murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander.

Matthew 15:18-19

On a more hopeful note, Jesus also said:

 A good man brings good things out of the good stored up in his heart, and an evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in his heart. For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of.

Luke 6:45

And James does get to that (3:13-18). But first we must settle in well on the fact and reality that our heart, and the thoughts which come from it are often helpful to no one. Heart in the New Testament, by the way, and in scripture includes thoughts and disposition. We certainly need to fill our hearts with good things. And God is at work to change our hearts to become more and more Christian, like Christ, and to be increasingly attuned to what’s good, and sensitive to what’s not. But again, we have to hone in on the truth that there’s a certain proneness in ourselves toward what ends up being destructive, along with a certain deception inherent in that, and with awful, hellish consequences. James minces no words on this, and considering the rest of the letter, does lend more words to the subject than what one might expect, with supporting words dotted here and there elsewhere.

When we have even a yellow flag up in our minds about a certain subject, we should at least stop, and consider. Red lights, no, even if someone ought to say something. Maybe it’s not we ourselves. Perhaps someone will be gifted by God to help as needed in a situation, but we may not have the call and gift that goes with that to do so. It is best on those occasions to simply pray, not only for what troubles us, but for ourselves, and our response to that. James would say that we should at least be slow to speak, quick to listen, slow to anger (James 1). That we should speak words that are helpful to the hearer. And if there’s a needed word on a hard subject, we must look for wisdom from God and God’s word for ourselves first. Maybe after we’ve taken it in well for ourselves, God might be able to use us to help others. But it will mainly be through our lives. The point James gets to next.

don’t blame God (or the devil)

When tempted, no one should say, “God is tempting me.” For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone; but each person is tempted when they are dragged away by their own evil desire and enticed. Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death.

Don’t be deceived, my dear brothers and sisters. Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows. He chose to give us birth through the word of truth, that we might be a kind of firstfruits of all he created.

James 1:13-18

We are our own worst enemies. If only we would understand that, and take it to heart. It’s not like there isn’t a tempter out there, or that the stuff life throws our way makes it easy for us. Not at all. And reality is that the world (system), the flesh, and the devil are linked; you can’t separate them in reality. At the same time, we are sinful enough on our own; we need no help from the devil. That realm of evil, the demonic, does throw gasoline on the fire we’ve already lit.

James doesn’t so much as mention the devil here, though he does later in this letter (4:7), and chapter 3 definitely alludes to the demonic when speaking of the tongue as set on fire by hell itself. We are more than capable all on our own, just the point James makes here. It’s our own desire, tainted by sin which results in death. And the problem certainly doesn’t come from God, who instead is the giver of all that is good.

James turns our focus from ourselves and our sin to God and his goodness. But we must not be in a hurry to get to this point. We need to take seriously every letter and line James writes about temptation, and our own blame in giving into it. But then we need to remember God’s gifts, and especially the gift of his regenerating work through the word of truth, the gospel. Through that work we are made new, so that we can not only begin to understand the problem, but also overcome it. Otherwise why would James write this letter? He does so with the pastoral intent of helping us do what we hear and profess, as well as confess. In and through Jesus.

following through

Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like someone who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. But whoever looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues in it—not forgetting what they have heard, but doing it—they will be blessed in what they do.

James 1:23-25

Not sure the direct analogies we can draw that are intended. Certainly the word reveals ourselves, and our flaws in not conforming to God’s will, our sins. And that’s of vital importance. And when you consider not only the immediate context, but the entire letter, change in our lives is a major focus. But it’s not only change to get rid of vices, but also to develop virtues, particularly related to relationships, how we treat each other.

James wants us to look and keep looking, with all the intent and follow through of actually practicing or doing what “the word” tells us to do, God’s word no less. Called “the perfect law that gives freedom.”

And with our attempts to do so, as imperfect as they inevitably will be, we’re promised God’s blessing. A blessing we want not only for ourselves, but for others. In and through Jesus.