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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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.

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.

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.

the call to prayer

Then he returned to his disciples and found them sleeping. “Simon,” he said to Peter, “are you asleep? Couldn’t you keep watch for one hour? Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.”

Mark 14:37-38

The occasion was Gethsemane, and our Lord was in desperate straits. He took his three closest disciples with him, and then went off alone to pray. He had told them to keep watch, but he expected them to pray as he was praying. Instead they fell asleep.

What Jesus did that night has some mystery to it, but it was the final wrestling in prayer before he gave his life over in the will of the Father to receive the cup of judgment he was to drink at the cross in his suffering and death. He had walked steadily toward this inevitable hour, having set his face like a flint, it says, to do so. But now it had, as it were, rushed upon him, like waters breaking in to put one in danger of drowning.

Our Lord’s habit was to regularly pray, spending much time with the Father in solitude. He was again alone with the Father, but this time with his three closest disciples not far away. He surely wanted them to note what he was going through, to learn from his example, to try to begin to emulate it themselves you would think, from what the above text says. It was certainly an occasion for teaching them, and all of us.

Sometimes for me, I wish it was less often, it seems like life is caving in in a number of ways. I can panic and take matters into my own hands, which I’ve been good at over the years. Or I can learn to do what Jesus told the disciples, and by extension, tells us even today to do. Watch and pray. So that I won’t enter into temptation to give in to what’s wrong. Because while the spirit is willing, the flesh is weak.

For me I see all such inwardly challenging times as a call to prayer. Even an opportunity for that. Not that I feel like praying, though I want to train my mind and heart in that direction. Praying for myself and for others, and continuing in prayer, seeing it as spiritual warfare, which surely was the case for our Lord at Gethsemane. And when I go through periods of time like that, I want to be devoted to prayer all the more.

It does seem like Jesus was challenged in his spirit, not wanting to drink this cup. Jesus was not willing himself, but he was indeed willing to do the will of the Father, come what may, no matter what. Jesus was weak in the flesh, in his humanity, though not having sin like we do. Jesus actually prayed like that because he needed to, so that he could bring God’s salvation to many, even to the world. If he needed to pray in that hour of trial, how much more do we need to, in the weakness of our flesh through which even our spirit can give way. So that we’ll not give in to our own will, but God’s will. In and through Jesus.

 

ignoring the sirens

I remember years ago at the Bible college I was at for a year, that a friend used to always pray whenever he heard a siren, probably for the people involved, particularly those in need, a good practice. My point is metaphorical, yet just as good, in fact quite important at least for me, in the walk of faith. I believe that there’s a sense in which we need to ignore the sirens that hit us off and on, sometimes repeatedly, over and over again for different reasons. The call is urgent and compelling; after all, I’m likening it to a siren.

Concern, even alarm, and urgent attention mark this call. Or maybe just plain dread. In biblical, and I would add, real life terms, we’re talking about what ultimately becomes a crippling fear, or an angst as in anxiousness, just plain, pure anxiety, which we cannot shake. These are all tell tale signs that something is wrong. And that these sirens in our head are getting us nowhere. If we respond to them, putting us on a never ending cycle of more and more of the same.

We simply need to ignore such siren calls, developing the discernment needed from God to tell the difference between the gentle, yet persistent promptings of the Spirit from the loud, edgy, restless, and ultimately accusatory, even condemning tones of what comes from the enemy. It might come from ourselves, and the way we have responded to life over the years, sometimes certain key factors or moments from childhood playing a part. Even so, in biblical terms the flesh and the devil, along with the world are all intertwined. I think of the world here as a system which does not acknowledge God, or God’s good rule. The flesh as our broken humanity which is set against God, even if religious, and trying to do what is well, right and good on our own. And the devil as the demonic element which while not at all equal to God, has full sway in both the world and the flesh, as depicted here.

There is no way we can simply get rid of fear and troubling thoughts from what we’ve taken in of the sirens that surround us, or come our way.  We simply have to turn our ears in a new direction, and get them in tune for a different sound all together, as well as learning to hear the other for what it really is, so that eventually we don’t hear it much at all, if at all, since we understand it’s actually a false alarm, not from God.

But in the meantime, we simply have to take the stand of faith, not letting such sirens move us. Instead, when we hear them, waiting for God’s direction, the still small voice, or gentle whispering of the Spirit (1 Kings 19:12). And accepting nothing less than God’s peace. And in that, finding God’s help to navigate all the questions, and difficult paths of life we encounter. In and through Jesus.

knowing what we’re up against

Yesterday in a helpful message on giving money (1 Corinthians 16; 2 Corinthians 8, 9), Jeff Manion pointed out that it’s important for us to know what we’re up against especially in our own tendencies, as well as simply living in a world with values which might run contrary to our own so that we might feel pressure to conform. Know and grow were maybe the two big words in these two message on giving money in The Grace Effect series.

Yes, and so important, a really good opening up and application of those passages for us today. And I have to think along with that, this is a good word to us in general. We need to know and grow. Know where we’re at, what our goal is in Christ through the word, and what opposition we have. Of course we learn all of this from the word, from scripture, as well as simply from living in life, both. Scripture is the basis for our thinking and action, and life confirms it in various ways.

It’s all ongoing. Don’t we all wish we could simply step into the full and complete victory of God in Jesus? And it’s not like we never do, or in a sense already have in our salvation in Jesus, because that most certainly is the case. But from that we grow, because we’re left in this present existence of the world, the flesh, and the devil. And make no mistake, the going is not always easy, sometimes brutally hard. And that is in large part to our own tendencies. After all, wasn’t it Jesus who insisted that his yoke is easy and his burden is light, and that we would find rest in that yoke with him (Matthew 11:28-30)?

But we know that we’re also up against an enemy which knows our weakness, and seeks to exploit it just at certain times. I definitely, and at times frequently experience that. As we’re told in scripture, we are in a spiritual battle, no doubt (Ephesians 6:10-20).

To be forewarned it to be forearmed, they say. To know does seem to be half the battle. Although in this case, knowing ends up being even more, since we have to understand our struggle, as well as what God’s will in Jesus actually is for us. Too many of us, and too often, as well as too long in our lives, settle into something far less that what God has for us in Jesus. We need to become more and more aware of that, as well as more and more aware of God’s victory in Jesus which is for us now. And how this need never ends in this present existence of the world, the flesh and the devil. But is overcome by the gospel, the good news in Jesus, through the Triune God, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. And incrementally through growth, but a growth which helps us to live fully, more and more in that salvation for us, present now in Jesus.