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.

 

Psalm 18: holy warfare for today

With your help I can advance against a troop;
    with my God I can scale a wall.

Psalm 18

As one who is either a pacifist Christian, or almost completely so (see Miroslav Volf for his change, and why), warfare passages in scripture, specifically in the Old Testament can seen counter Jesus, and in a sense might well be considered so (though read the book of Revelation, but also see Michael Gorman’s book on it which I haven’t read). Tremper Longman in this lecture defends well the teaching of holy war in the Old Testament, countering Greg Boyd’s recent work.

Judgment is both present and future, and I let some of the hard questions go. What I’m settled in is that for the people of God today, holy warfare amounts to spiritual warfare. The apostle Paul’s words seem to address this for me:

For though we live in the world, we do not wage war as the world does. The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds. We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.

2 Corinthians 10

Nevertheless all scripture was written for us, even if not to us. I find Psalm 18 completely encouraging and inspiring for the real life I have to face. We are not called to a passive existence where we do nothing, unlike what some advocate, as if anything else is opposed to God’s grace. No. In Christ we are given strength from God to do what we must. And any holy war today would never be physical:

Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. Put on the full armor of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand.

Ephesians 6

We are in a battle no less. And like Longman points out for the actual physical warfare that went on in the Old Testament (and I would highly recommend listening to this lecture), we engage in spiritual warfare in the context of worship and submission to God as prescribed in God’s word.

Find your way to Psalm 18 in your own Bible. Read slowly, meditate, and pray. That is what I’m doing.  So that I can find my strength, what I need in God, and what God gives us, in and through Jesus.

the deeper life mystique and mistake

There is something plaguing Christianity and actually causing the shipwreck of the faith for many.* But before I get there, I want to acknowledge the importance of growing deeper in our faith, and the need for a deeper life in God. That possibility is right in scripture (Ephesians 3:14-21, one example). I have frankly thought, reflecting on myself, and what I’ve seen, that our faith can be 20 miles wide, and an inch deep. By faith we need to grow outward, inward, and through and through. And be taken into places that require God’s work of excavating what is in the way, and will only hinder what God wants to do, as well as to grow in our own walk and experience in the faith. Yes, there is indeed a depth into which God wants us to step into by faith, and begin to sink into. This kind of life has been pursued in Christianity for centuries without leaving the gospel behind, or altering it in the process, actually a maturing in the faith.

But there is either a perversion, or something that is off track and at least unhelpful that is all too common in too many Christian circles. And before you begin to think I’m referring to some specific group or movement, one must remember that there are differences and that not all teaching that might be put in this category is without some balance from scripture, so that there may be nothing at all essentially wrong with it.

But to the problem, I am referring to teaching which falls into the category of what in theological circles is called overrealized eschatology. That is a big term which means what God has promised to be fulfilled in the life to come is more or less expected now. There have been some grave errors which can be seen in the New Testament, one example: when Paul refers to those who said that the resurrection had already passed, possibly meaning that these Christians had thought they had arrived, overcoming death already.

Some examples today are those who insist on a second or third work of grace which distinguishes them from other Christians. For example those who refer to themselves as “Spirit-filled” or “Spirit-filled” churches. While an emphasis on the Spirit and the Spirit’s working might help Christians to be more open to God’s work in that way, all too often the result is anything but helpful, and far from scriptural.

A telling indication that something is wrong is when one sees their faith as better than others, or their church as better than other churches. Where the Spirit of the Lord is present there is not only freedom, but humility. Humility to understand our own ongoing need, with the realization that none of us are any better than the other.

Beware of a Christianity that emphasizes experience, oftentimes unusual experiences, and sees itself as a cut above the rest. “By their fruit you will know them.” If there’s not the humility of Christ to understand that we are in process, and always in great need individually and together, then we need to reconsider the teaching we’re receiving. And the Spirit binds us together in Christ and promotes our unity in Christ. We need to beware like the plague any teaching or church not in line with that.

At the same time, by grace we can begin to experience and grow into the fullness of God in Christ together by the Spirit in the word and the church. That is the real thing. The other is more or less phony, and needs to be rejected. But God’s grace in Jesus is present to whatever extent possible in any group. We simply have to be aware, and wary of what takes us beyond the clear teaching in scripture and the gospel. Be forewarned and avoid and help others avoid this plague. That instead we might grow up together into the fullness of Christ (Ephesians 4:13).

*From what I’ve seen, which admittedly is limited, but I am convinced myself is a pattern which at least infects our faith with something foreign to Christ and the gospel, and even results in people becoming disillusioned, and leaving the faith.

 

the fear factor

All of you, clothe yourselves with humility toward one another, because,

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

Humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time. Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you.

Be alert and of sober mind. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. Resist him, standing firm in the faith, because you know that the family of believers throughout the world is undergoing the same kind of sufferings.

And the God of all grace, who called you to his eternal glory in Christ, after you have suffered a little while, will himself restore you and make you strong, firm and steadfast. To him be the power for ever and ever. Amen.

1 Peter 5:5b-11

1 Peter is referring to persecution suffered by Christians. To see a letter and passages (verses) in context is important. We will misinterpret them if we don’t. So I include some context here to the part I wish to highlight on this post.

Even though persecution is a main theme, and the reason for the fear here and whatever might be involved in the devouring, I think this applies across the board as one of the schemes of Satan (2 Corinthians 2:11).

Simply put, it’s the fear factor. The devil here is likened to a roaring lion, perhaps referring to an older lion which no longer has the spring of step, or agility it once had, so that in order to catch prey, it needs to rely on instilling a paralyzing fear. Then, in the spiritual realm, the enemy can take over and begin its destructive work. At least keeping us from being effective in our faith.

Just this realization is half the battle. But what the original readers faced, and what causes us to be afraid now are real problems, or at least we’re convinced they are. We’re told in the text that we’re to resist the devil (also James 4:7). Just how, we’re not told. We can gather from our Lord’s temptation, that a key element of that is to stand on God’s word, directed by the Spirit, and the gospel truth at the heart of it.

What this means in practical terms is that we best get on with life, and not allow ourselves to be overcome with fear, instead trusting in God. God will help us in the midst of all of this, to get beyond it. Something we will need to do again and again during this life. In and through Jesus.

 

a God-ordered undertaking

For the director of music. Of David the servant of the Lord. He sang to the Lord the words of this song when the Lord delivered him from the hand of all his enemies and from the hand of Saul. He said:

I love you, Lord, my strength.

The Lord is my rock, my fortress and my deliverer;
    my God is my rock, in whom I take refuge,
    my shield and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold.

I called to the Lord, who is worthy of praise,
    and I have been saved from my enemies.

Psalm 18:1-3

I ran across a lecture by one of the best Old Testament evangelical scholars, Tremper Longman III, entitled, “God is a Warrior: Coming to Terms with Divine Violence in the OT.” If you have any interest in this subject at all, it’s well worth your time. And it grapples with something of the heart of the same issue which Greg Boyd works on in his The Crucifixion of the Warrior God and the concise version of that, Cross Vision: How the Crucifixion of Jesus Makes Sense of Old Testament Violence.

A major point I took away from it, was that the violence undertaken in the Old Testament was limited in scale and quite purposeful in intent, ordinarily God’s judgment. The main point for me being that those of Israel engaged in such, had to prepare themselves according to what God prescribed, so that in a certain sense they were set apart by God to participate in something of God’s work (my own way of expressing it).

Of course in this age the only warfare Christians can be involved in, as Tremper Longman III made clear is spiritual, against forces and entities not human, opposed to God, to the gospel, and to humankind.  Although Longman sees an argument for Christians serving in the police force and the military. And how when Christ returns, something of that ban will be lifted, when Christ subdues all the enemies of God and humanity, perhaps even with just the breath of his mouth.

The main takeaway, or direct application for me here is this: We are in a spiritual battle and undertaking, for sure. And we need to go about it according to what God prescribes for us in scripture, for us in Jesus, in the New Testament. But how we need all of scripture, the Old Testament as well, maybe in ways we can’t understand at times, but like here, in ways which can help us understand what God’s people should do, what we’re to do. And it encouraged me to see the Old Testament, and specifically passages which we may not easily track with as “a message to be understood,” rather than “a problem to be solved.”

Psalm 18 therefore is not to be relegated to some lesser status, even if supposedly inspired scripture, according to Boyd. While it was of a different era, it has direct bearing on us today. In and through Jesus.

one of the devil’s biggest lies (in my life)

Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows. Whoever sows to please their flesh, from the flesh will reap destruction; whoever sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life. Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up. Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers.

Galatians 6:7-10

A long time ago (it seems now), I lost heart and gave up in my life. Somehow I had failed to step across the doorway, or more like the abyss, by faith, of what I perceived to be God’s calling for me. There are so many factors in this; it’s not all that simple. But the giving up part was one key part of what turned out to be the devil’s deception (not to mention self-deception: see James 1). There was more to the deception than that. But that was a major aspect of it. And I would add here, the act of faith required was not just a step, but a continual walk, plodding along day after day come what may. We are never clear of the possibility of the devil’s deception.

This passage in Galatians captures something of the heart of this, and important aspects of it. It’s a matter of not sowing to the flesh, but instead, to the Spirit. It’s one or the other. Destruction is what is reaped from sowing to the flesh. Eternal life is reaped from sowing to the Spirit. So we’re to not become weary in doing good, since we’ll reap a harvest at the proper time, if we don’t give up. And then the great application: We’re therefore to do good to others: to all people, especially those who belong to the family of believers.

It’s so easy even now, and it was so for myself at a key point in my life, just to think all is lost, or there’s no use. Really, one has to know better. But we are human, like sheep so easily led off the path, and especially so when we get off on our own apart from the needed help of the Lord through others (Galatians 6:2). We need to keep on keeping on. Which sometimes means getting up, dusting ourselves off, and proceeding. Yes, by the Spirit; the Spirit present to help us help each other in and through Jesus.