Grace in the Thorns

Philippe de Champaigne, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Synopsis: Why does God allow people to suffer- especially good people? Paul was a good person; he was one of the Lord’s greatest apostles. Yet, he suffered from an affliction. In his second letter to the Corinthians, Paul explains that no matter what we have done, God is on our side. Therefore, we can trust that there is always grace in the thorns.

Scripture Reading: 2 Corinthians 12: 2-10.

Why does God allow suffering? That is one of life’s “big questions” and one that many people struggle with the most. Why are some people afflicted and others aren’t? Why are some people healed and others not? Why do some live while others die? Why do bad things happen to good people?

Paul was certainly a good person as one of the Lord’s greatest apostles. He was the one who took the gospel to the gentiles, but still, he suffered from an affliction. He writes about this experience in our scripture reading for today, and I believe what he has to say offers answers to these questions.

Paul wrote two letters to the church at Corinth. They struggled with the Christian lifestyle because they were surrounded by idolatry and immorality. Paul wrote his first letter to deal with specific problems and moral issues within the church.

Today’s scripture reading comes from Paul’s second letter. He wrote this letter to defend his authority as an apostle because there were false teachers in Corinth who denied his authority and slandered him.

Paul’s second letter is an intensely personal and autobiographical letter. To summarize the contents of this letter briefly, Paul begins by explaining his ministry, then he defends his ministry, then he defends the collection of funds for the Jerusalem church, and finally, he defends his authority. Our scripture reading falls toward the end of his letter, where he defends his authority as an apostle.

When Paul writes, “I know a person in Christ …” he is talking about himself; he is just trying to be humble. As a humble servant in Christ, it must have been difficult for him to “toot his own horn.” He probably never intended to share this experience, but under the circumstances, he felt it necessary.

He describes an experience where he was taken up to the “third heaven.” The people of his day believed that this is the place where God dwells, beyond the atmosphere and the stars. We know today that God doesn’t really live “way up there” far away from us.

Paul calls it “paradise,” so he’s basically saying he went to heaven either in body or in spirit. We can only speculate when this occurred: maybe during those three days of blindness after his conversion or during a period of intense prayer.

Because of our advances in medicine, we hear stories of people who have experienced paradise in what we call “near death experiences.” Many report going through a tunnel; seeing a white light; joyfully reuniting with relatives, friends, and pets who have passed away; and reviewing events from their life.

Sometimes people report being gifted with profound revelations that they find impossible to put into words. Some experience these types of revelations during moments of prayer or meditation. This might be what Paul means when he writes that he “heard things that are not to be told, that no mortal is permitted to repeat.”

Why was he sharing this experience with his audience – fourteen years later? Well, he was attempting to establish his authority as someone who has been uniquely “touched by God.” God honored him by bringing him to his abode and sharing secrets with him.

What did Paul mean when he wrote in verses 5-6, “On behalf of such a one I will boast, but on my own behalf I will not boast, except of my weaknesses.” I believe Paul was saying something like, “My Christ Self is something to be filled with pride over; whereas this personal self is filled with nothing but weakness.”

Now, the biggest weakness of the personal self is its intense desire to feel special. Its job is to give us a sense of separateness, but unfortunately, the mind of me translates separateness into superiority. Remember that the mind of me holds all the mistaken ideas we have about ourselves existing separately from everyone and everything else.

Many spiritual people have desired unique spiritual experiences and gifts. But why? Why do we want them? Is our motive truly to serve God though serving others, or do we just want to feel special?

To have spiritual experiences and gifts is an honor not to be taken lightly. There comes with them a very high level of responsibility because of the extreme temptation to slip into pride: to use these experiences to glorify our personal selves rather than God and our gifts to serve ourselves rather than others.

People who use their spiritual experiences and gifts in self-serving ways can do a great deal of harm. They can cause people extreme mental, emotional, and spiritual pain – even to the point of losing their faith in God.

When I realized this, I made a deal with God: “I’m willing to accept any special spiritual experiences or gifts you want to give me – as long as you think I can handle it!”

So now, like Paul, I’m trying to be humble. Jean, you said to me two weeks ago how much you have been impressed by my sermons lately and that you “don’t know where I get it all from.” Now, the mind of me wanted me to say, “Oh, I don’t know Jean. Guess I’m just a spiritual genius.” I kept my mouth shut because I knew exactly what the mind of me was up to: it was trying to Edge God Out.

To be honest, some of my sermon content comes from my own reading of scholarly Bible research and spiritual literature. But where the really good stuff – the best insights – come from is far more interesting.

Once I begin the process of writing a sermon, insights start dropping into my mind. The best way to describe it in this computer age is to say it’s like a “download.” Whenever I ask for help – like when I don’t understand something, don’t know how to explain something, or need a good example – I always get it. When it happens, it amazes me every time because it’s so good. I’m like, “WOW!”

I believe these insights come from my Christ Self. As a new minister, I experienced this once in a while. I believe that’s because I was more worried about impressing you. My self-doubt was like a dam holding back the river. With the pandemic, my focus shifted to comforting and reassuring you. Since then, it’s become a constant flow.

So, I can understand Paul’s words that it is his Christ Self that is his source of pride – not his personal self – because I know where the great stuff in my sermons really comes from. This personal self, Joan Kistler, is no spiritual genius – but the Christ is. I am not special because all of you have access to the same river of Christ Consciousness.

Paul explains that God used a “thorn in the flesh” to keep him from slipping into pride. No one knows for sure what it was, but a good guess is that it was a disease of the eyes because in his letter to the Galatians 4:13-15, Paul writes, “As you know, it was because of an illness that I first preached the gospel to you, and even though my illness was a trial to you, you did not treat me with contempt or scorn. Instead, you welcomed me as if I were an angel of God, as if I were Christ Jesus himself. Where, then, is your blessing of me now? I can testify that, if you could have done so, you would have torn out your eyes and given them to me.”

If it were a disease of the eyes, you can understand why Paul begged to be healed. Imagine how much more difficult it would have made his ministry. Three times, he asked God to remove the affliction, but God refused.

Now, the personal self with its mind of me would view God as capricious and cruel for this refusal. It doesn’t buy the answer Paul received: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”

Grace? What is grace? Grace is the idea that God designed life to work in our favor. The purpose of life is spiritual growth: to free us from everything that keeps us enslaved by the personal self and the mind of me – everything that causes us to distrust and everything that makes us feel small, fearful, lacking, and unworthy.

That is what the soul is up to when life brings us certain experiences, and sometimes it’s an affliction. To the soul, a bodily affliction is nothing compare to a spiritual affliction. When we leave this physical realm, we don’t take a bodily affliction with us. We do take a spiritual affliction with us, lifetime after lifetime after lifetime, until it is healed.

Of course, the mind of me doesn’t care about that because it knows nothing about the soul. It identifies with the body. That is why it fails to see any purpose for affliction other than unjust punishment, which is exactly why it judges God to be capricious and cruel.

When someone you know is suffering from an affliction, I advise you not to say to them, “God has given you this affliction for a purpose.” That may be true, but most people don’t want to hear that. It sounds like just the religious version of “suck it up!” What they really need is your understanding and compassion. If they say something about God having a purpose for their affliction, then you can then feel free to encourage that line of thinking.

I am reminded of when Jesus healed the man who was born blind in John chapter 9. The disciples asked Jesus, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” They wrongly assumed that his affliction was some kind of punishment.

Jesus explained to them the actual purpose for the man’s blindness. He said, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.” In other words, the man’s soul made a contract with God to be born blind so that God’s glory could be revealed.

So, the cause of his blindness had nothing to do with his having sinned or his ancestors having sinned. The cause was nothing less than spiritual heroics on the part of the blind man’s soul. He chose to patiently endure blindness until the time came when God’s glory would be revealed in Jesus.

Notice that Jesus explained the cause of the man’s blindness to his disciples, because they asked, but not to the blind man himself. He just healed him.

So, you see, it’s not fair to ourselves or to others to assume that our affliction is some form of punishment. It might not even be to free us from a spiritual thorn. It could be to reveal God’s glory in some way or even to prepare for a calling in this life or the next.

There are many purposes. Our personal self can only guess at them, and usually, it’s wrong or only partly right. It can’t know for sure. However, Spirit may reveal the purpose to us if it is for our good.

And how can power be made perfect in weakness? That makes no sense to the mind of me. To answer that, let’s go back to that passage in Paul’s letter to the Galatians. Paul was with them when he was suffering from an eye affliction. The people loved him so much that they seemed willing to tear out their own eyes and give them to him.

Now, if Paul had been with them in perfect health, do you think the people’s hearts would have been so open to him? He was persecuting Christians only a few years before his first missionary journey to Galatia, so I’m sure his disability helped him appear far less threatening to them. Their hearts opened in going out to him. It makes sense that Paul’s weakness was necessary for the power of God’s love to be able to perfectly and powerfully touch the hearts of the Galatians.

People who suffer from afflictions are often the most loving, accepting people. In their vulnerability, God’s love flows powerfully out of them. I can think of no better example than people who were born with Down’s Syndrome. They are perfectly powerful conduits of God’s love, aren’t they?

We don’t turn to God so much when we are strong; we turn to God more when we are weak. We rely more on God. We are forced to trust God. That is when God’s power is revealed to us and in us – when our small personal self is brought to its knees.

Think about the power of God released in Jesus’ resurrection. As Paul writes in the next chapter of this letter, chapter 13, verse 4, “For to be sure, he was crucified in weakness, yet he lives by God’s power.”

So, how can we learn to accept God’s grace in the thorns? First, we need to stop trying to figure out why. That is an exhausting mental exercise that takes us nowhere and accomplishes nothing good for us. The personal self isn’t supposed to know what the soul is up to. The soul knows why, and that has to be good enough for us.

Next, we need to stop judging ourselves and others who are experiencing afflictions. This becomes a whole lot easier once we stop trying to figure out why. Really, it’s none of our business why – that goes for both ourselves and others.

The reason is between the soul and God, but we can say for sure that it is NOT a punishment. Paul writes in his letter to the Romans chapter 8 verses 38-39, “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” In other words, no matter what we have done, God is always on our side.

Finally, we need to place our complete trust in God. We must fully believe that God is on our side. When we are feeling strong in our abilities and resources, that is when pride slips in, and we start edging God out of our lives. We start thinking we can live our lives apart from him – without his help.

We need to pray for healing and trust our bodies to God’s care by being still and calm as much as possible. Being still and calm opens us up to receive healing, and it also helps to relieve stress. And please, don’t be afraid to ask Spirit for what you need. Make it a regular thing you do – not just when you’re desperate.

We all live by God’s power. When we choose to live our lives in partnership with God, we can do so much more than our small, personal selves could ever do. I believe that is the grace-filled lesson thorns teach us, and it’s a wonderful lesson.

That is why Paul is content with thorns, as he writes in verse 10, “Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.”

Grace is in the thorns of not only our personal lives, but also our collective human lives. I know much of what is going on in the world these days is sad and frightening, but I would like for you to try to view it from the perspective of God’s grace.

The suffering all of humanity is experiencing today is for the purpose of freeing humanity from everything that keeps us enslaved by the personal self and the mind of me – everything that causes us to distrust and everything that makes us feel small, fearful, lacking, and unworthy.

That can’t happen until what is keeping all of humanity enslaved is revealed, and much is being revealed now. As painful as it is to see this ugly stuff, it is necessary in order for it to be confronted and healed. You might feel like the world is going insane. Actually, the world has always been insane; it’s just that the insanity is being brought to the light now whereas before, it was mostly hidden in darkness.

Be content with the thorns. It’s all good; it’s all God; it’s all grace; it’s all love. Let it be as it is, and be at peace.

Let’s pray together: Lord, we are willing to depend on you in all we do. We acknowledge our personal weaknesses and your amazing strength and wisdom. Help us to be content with the thorns in both our personal and collective human lives, trusting fully in God’s grace and love for us all. AMEN.

Life Application Study Bible.  Zondervan, 2011.