If you’ll humor me for a moment, I’d like to share a Peanuts comic strip, you know, Charlie Brown? It goes like this… Lucy says to Charlie Brown: “Sometimes I get discouraged.” And Charlie Brown offers her the little worldly wisdom, “Well, Lucy, life does have its ups and downs, you know…” “But why?” Lucy shouts back, “Why should it?! Why can’t my life be all ‘ups’? If I want all ‘ups’ why can’t I have them? Why can’t I just move from one ‘up’ to another ‘up’? Why can’t I go from an ‘up’ to an ‘upper up’? I don’t want any downs! I just want ‘ups’ and ‘ups’ and ‘ups’!”
It’s a funny comic strip because it’s true. The fact is I would prefer my life to be full of ups, and I’m sure you would too. We tend to prefer the easy life. But the reality is that life is not easy. Life is not always full of ups. Life has many downs, and sometimes those downs are far greater and far worse than the ups. And you know that; I know that. But knowing that doesn’t really help, it doesn’t make it any easier. So, maybe instead, we need to look at our ups and especially our downs of life in a different way. Paul teaches us how to do that today.
Paul, in God’s Word, was dealing with a big down in his life, a thorn. A lot of us here likely are familiar with this section of scripture from 2 Corinthians. You likely are familiar with Paul’s thorn in the flesh, but fewer of us likely know the context in which he got that thorn in the flesh. Well, here it is…Paul at the beginning of chapter 12 talks about how some guy – it was him – received a vision 14 years ago. And this vision was just crazy hard for Paul to explain. He didn’t know if he actually went somewhere physically or if was some spiritual dream. He says that he heard “inexpressible things,” and that he was caught up to the “third heaven – sky, space, and then whatever’s beyond that which he later says is paradise. So, Paul has this vision, this experience of heaven; he was there!
Now, what does a person do with such a crazy vision from God? Because it would be easy, right? To think, “Wow, God must think pretty highly of me to give me this vision.” And, so to keep that from happening, to keep Paul from becoming proud and conceited, he tells us that was given this “thorn in the flesh.”
A couple of things about this thorn. One, we have no clue what it was. Many assume it was some physical ailment, bad vision, depression, epilepsy. It could also have been a specific sin that he wrestled, but here is the beauty of the thorn, it’s not specific so that all of us, you and me, can envision this thorn in our own lives; it can be something specific to me and what I am struggling with. Which means whatever we learn from Paul is something that we can apply to our own struggle, or trauma, or hardship.
A second thing about this thorn. Paul didn’t like it. How does he describe it? It’s this “messenger of Satan, to torment me,” he says, and in fact, he prays, he pleads three times “with the Lord to take it away.” And that tells us a third thing about this thorn. Paul didn’t know its purpose. He didn’t know that it was a good thing for him. He didn’t recognize the benefit of it – at least at first. Finally, too, it’s important for us to understand that God allowed this thorn, this thing to happen to Paul. He wanted him to be weak, so he could be strong. Which is strange, right?
God was saying to his apostle, “Look, I’m allowing a thorn in your life, and you don’t like it and you don’t want it, but it will keep you humble. It will keep you dependent on me. And I’m giving you this little thorn, so you don’t become impaled on some much larger hell-sized thorn. And you can trust me, Paul, because my son, my only son, Jesus, took on not just one thorn but a whole crown of thorns. And not just that physical crown on his head, but the thorns of every punishment of every sin on a cross. There he physically felt the pricks of that scratchy wood and the iron nails through his hands and feet. There he suffered and died for you, Paul.”Do you who have thorns in your life hear this right now? Because God’s talking to you.
Jesus died for you. And he didn’t do that, he didn’t endure those thorns, he didn’t go through the agony of hell, so that you would never suffer ever again here on this earth, that wouldn’t be helpful. No, instead God continues to allow in your life and in mine these lesser thorns, a little slice of hell. Why? Because in our suffering we become more like him. And in our suffering, we experience his presence and are reminded of what he went through so that one day all our thorns and suffering will come to an end.
And you notice that Paul gets this, but not right away. His first impulse was, “Uh, Lord, take this away, please.” Three times he pleads for that! God doesn’t though; He doesn’t take the pain away. Remember that. Instead, he says this, “My grace is sufficient for you.” And what does Paul do with that answer? Look at the middle of verse 9, he says, “Therefore, I will boast all the more gladly about my weakness – why? – so that Christ’s power may rest on me.” Paul says he will boast because his weakness reveals his need and his reliance on Christ. And one simple thing we can learn right here is that rather than do what we always do and only pray for God to remove our sufferings, and hardships, our thorns, pray also that God converts that pain into a strength, an opportunity to boast about Christ’s power in your life.
Because here is a mind-blowing truth we learn in this lesson: sometimes God wants us to be weak. God wants us to be weak so that we can know his power. Because right there in that narrow space where there seems to be no way out; right there in that time of trouble and sorrow, when you’re down, where you’re conscious only of your need and completely overwhelmed by want, right there Jesus is near, and he promises. He promises his grace. That’s what we see with Paul’s thorn.
So, what is your thorn? And what are you doing with it? You have one, some of us multiple. And you didn’t choose it. You didn’t ask for it, and I’m guessing, like Paul, you have prayed that God would take it away, but often rather than do that God chooses to accomplish something greater through your weakness. He chooses to make you stronger through it and reveal his grace to you through it. But, like Paul, we maybe don’t always see that, at least not right away.
Instead, often our reaction to our thorns takes on a fright or flight kind of reaction. Right? You have that horrible thing happen in your life and you act like some martyr. “This is horrible, but I’m tough. I don’t need anyone’s help.” Another reaction might be to run away from the pain from the depression – whatever it is – deny it really. Maybe you get bitter. You’re just a bitter person. God’s out to get you. Everyone’s against you. Or do you give up?. That thorn defeated you, and you’re stuck.
I don’t know about you, but I don’t like any of those options. And those don’t need to be our options to our thorns in life. You see, what if your trauma could be transformed into favor and the confusion of your life circumstances into contentment? The grace of God does that. Okay, how?
You need to understand that you have a God who has such compassion for you that he would rather die in your place than allow you to suffer in any way. I have a God who loves me undeservedly which means there is nothing I can do to force his love away because I never earned it. And here is the paradox. God showed that love on a cross – the worst place ever! There he took the worst moment in history, Jesus’ suffering, and death, and made it the best moment in history. And it wasn’t just some random death on that cross, it was for you, and you don’t deserve that – that’s the grace! Finally, he did the most unexpected thing ever after that as he transformed death to life which means, if he can do that, he can somehow in some way take this current thorn in my life, that is in my mind killing me, and make it something good for me.
Now, God does this for you, but in your down and thorny moments, you can throw all this out the window by falling back into those fright or flight reactions to pain and suffering that I mentioned earlier. So, here is maybe two or three ways to keep Christ front and center when you’re up or down.
First, do this: admit it. Admit what? Your thorn. The sin you are wrestling with that no one else knows about, the depression, the addiction, the lying habits, the gossip, the guilt; you need to admit your problem – first to yourself and then to someone else. Find someone you trust, someone whom you know will react to your confession with love and compassion. If you don’t know anyone like that, please speak to me or Casmer, or Kolander. Confession meets a human need. You need to tell someone what is happening to you. Because look, if you believe what God tells you about confession, which by the way isn’t just telling people what you’ve done wrong but includes sharing the wrong things that have happened to you – there is so much healing in that. So, that’s the first thing. The second and third things are intertwined.
Paul prayed for his thorn to be removed, but he accepted God’s answer of “no.” That’s what we need to learn to do too. Ask God to take the pain but accept what he decides. God makes incredible promises to his children. He “will prepare a place for you.” He “works all things out for your good. So, if God is trying to bless you in the long run, it may look like pain in the past or pain in the present, but you know God’s character, who he is, what he has already done, so trust the guy who knows your future and will do what is right for you. That’s how we need to approach God in prayer about everything, especially our thorns.
Finally, I hope all of that gives you perspective. Paul took his thorn, “that messenger of Satan,” and made it a strength, a boast. I heard this once. Whenever a thorn pops up in your life, it’s like you just received an email with two attachments. The first is from Satan, and he says, “You deserve this pain. You had this coming to you. Clearly, this thorn means God doesn’t love you.” These are lies. The devil’s lies. But then there is that second attachment; It’s from God. He says this: “My grace is enough for you. I wouldn’t have gone to a cross for you, I wouldn’t have suffered hell for you if I didn’t love you. And the power of that undeserved love can only reach its full strength in you when you are conscious of nothing but your own personal weakness. So, stay humble. Rely on me and watch me turn this pain, this thorn into something different, into glory.” I pray you open that attachment from God every time you’re feeling down. Amen.