[Originally published in the Monroe News on July 2, 2021]
Some of you avid readers of the Holy Bible might be familiar with the 2 Corinthians passage where St. Paul talks about a “thorn in the flesh.” If you haven’t heard this one before go give it a read in chapter 12. Its a profound passage.
St. Paul speaks of boasting and humility and how he has wrestled with the two. He then makes this interesting statement: “To keep me from becoming conceited … a thorn was given me in the flesh.” Theologians and scholars have long wondered what Paul meant by this. Most at least agree it wasn’t a literal thorn. We all know that as painful as they can be, they are also easily removed. Some believe it was a speech impediment that would have drastically affected a man like Paul who so frequently spoke in public. Others believe it to be some kind of a chronic health issue. Nobody really knows for sure. What we do know is it greatly affected Paul. So much so he tells us he pleaded with God three times that it be taken from him. More on that in a minute.
If we were to each take a minute to contemplate our own lives we too might find some kind of thorn in our flesh. Is there a particular weakness, an ailment, a life struggle that plagues you more than any other? I’ve given this thought regarding my own life. For me it is not really easy to just narrow it down to one. I could name any number of weaknesses that make a given day more challenging than I would like. If I were to list them all where would I start? I’ll share one with you just for the sake of discussion. I wrestle with a fear of failure. I can think of any number of projects or opportunities in life that I couldn’t even get myself to start because I was afraid of it failing. This kind of fear can be a nasty self-fulfilling prophecy. A fear of failure often leads to more failure. Definitely a pointy thorn to have in one’s life.
Much like Paul, I would love to see this thorn in my flesh removed. I too have prayed with the Lord about it. As aforementioned, Paul prayed about his thorn pleading three times it be removed. He was given a clear answer from the Lord about it. And much to his initial dismay, it wasn’t the answer he wanted. Jesus basically told him no. I will not remove this thorn as you have asked. When we hear an answer like this from God we can’t help but ask why? Why not remove it? If you love Paul, if you love me, why not take away this burden? Why? Why? We might similarly ask if a good God is all-powerful in His providence and care for this world, why doesn’t He remove all burdens and thorns and sin and evil and death? These are some grandiose “why” questions.
Here was Jesus' answer to Paul and I believe it to be an appropriate answer to the bigger “why” questions as well: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness. (2 Cor. 12:9)” Jesus’ grace is His free love for us poured out from His death on the cross in which He paid the terrible, condemning price for the sins of mankind. He told Paul, as He is also telling us, that many of life’s hardships and struggles are here to stay. But! This is not a sign He doesn’t love us or care for us. Quite the opposite. In His wisdom He understands that it is in our weakness that we are most ready to fully believe in and follow Him. It is in our weakness that we receive Him and are most made ready to become strong in Him instead of strong in ourselves.
It is a tough pill to swallow for our sinful human nature. But it is a needed one. Jesus is the master at working good out of evil. He knows what the thorns in our flesh are like. He is not cold or distant to our plight. He has lived it too. He knows what it is like to be in your shoes. He loves you, He cares for you. He wants nothing more than for you to know Him and be with Him always. And He has prepared a place for you where the thorns of the flesh and every other ailment and evil and hatred and death will be gone forever. I know that the thorns in my flesh might be with me til my last day on this earth. If that is the Lord’s will for me or for you then so be it. But I also know that I have His grace and it is sufficient for me. He loves me perfectly and wonderfully, warts and thorns and other imperfections and all. Knowing He loves me in my weaknesses is what will make me truly strong all my days.
To God be the glory.
Mark Witte is the pastor at Grace Lutheran Church. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org