“So to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited. Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave 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 of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” (2 Cor. 12:7-10)
When the walls feel like they’re closing in –
When it feels like you’ve been wandering through a dark forest for too long –
When the air feels oppressive and sadness clings to you like a garment –
When the soul grows weary of the fight –
You suddenly learn all too well what Paul meant when he wrote of “a thorn in the flesh.”
And there’s good reason that he doesn’t tell us what his “thorn in the flesh” was. He uses vague, metaphorical language instead of spelling out the thing that caused him such grief because it can apply to believers in vast arrays of suffering. Whether it’s physical suffering, depression, or temptation to a specific sin struggle, Paul’s experience with weakness is our experience.
But why, my heart cried out recently – why does it have to be so painful and difficult? Why couldn’t Christ have taught me this lesson some other way?
And the Lord in his graciousness slowly revealed some answers to me.
In fervent dependency is my faith strengthened.
In desperate prayers is the heart of the Father revealed.
In darkest nights the light of Christ shines the brighter.
In utter failure the grace of Jesus becomes all the more precious.
Thus is the thorn in the flesh necessary to break me away from foolish reliance on myself – to crush the prideful idol of self-righteousness – to reveal what a pitiful savior I make for myself.
It seems cruel at first. An instrument of torture perhaps or an evil weapon against us.
But the deeper the thorn goes, the deeper still my relationship with Christ goes. I find myself needing to look at his face all the day long as the enemy taunts grow louder – and Christ is thus revealed to be more beautiful than ever he was in times of peace.
And once again I am reminded of what is most important in my life – the development of my character and relationship with Christ. And whatever it takes, he will do.
There is no temptation too strong for him; no darkness too heavy for him; no bondage too great for him.
There is no pain that presses in that Christ can’t press in even closer.
And this is why Paul says that he will boast in his weaknesses – so that Christ’s power may rest on him. If he had no weakness, he wouldn’t need to rely on Christ. And thus the thorn in the flesh is a great mercy of God to teach us humility and satisfaction in his grace and power.
This is the hardest to accept as a believer who longs to be more like Christ. We hate the sin that so easily entangles us, and our glaring flaws make us shudder with shame. Yet as we see those sins more clearly, we also see the Gospel more clearly applied to our lives because we need Christ’s atonement to cover them. The very thing that we hate is an opportunity to draw near to our Savior and put our trust in his sacrifice again and again.
So as the thorn presses into our flesh – as we weep with the pain of our fragile humanity – as we ache with longing for the testing to be over – as we mourn our weakness –
We look to the one who wore the thorns on his brow – the one whose divine nature conquered the sins of humanity – the one who endured the test when we could not – the one whose perfect strength carries us at our weakest.
He is the author and perfecter of our faith, as Hebrews 12 reminds us. He is purifying our faith and making us holy. He is producing in us a fruit that could come about no other way than through the trials of the thorn.
Our job is to keep fixing our gaze on him. We must preach the truth to ourselves relentlessly, and even when we feel nothing, we must continue to believe the promises of the Faithful One.
“Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful” (Heb. 10:23).
For my Savior loves me so. He will hold me fast.