Living with a thorn in the flesh
“If you take this away, God, imagine how much more I could do for you this week.”
I catch myself praying this prayer at least every second day. Oh, sometimes it’s not in so many words. It could be as simple as:
“God, if you give me some more energy, I’ll go talk with that person.”
“God, take away this splitting headache, and I’ll be a less grumpy wife today.”
Or the good old-fashioned blackmail attempt:
“If you want me to [insert lofty, tenuously-God-related ambition here], you need to make me better.”
Recently, I even caught my subconscious pledging itself to several future Gospel-related endeavours (volunteering for another roster at church, going into full-time ministry, calling Nineveh to repent, etcetera…) in exchange for deliverance from the ongoing chronic illness which has prevented me from working for the past fifteen months.
The payback, I assured God, would be worth all His trouble.
It all came to a miserable end a few nights ago when it became starkly apparent that God was, yet again, not tempted to take my deal. In the middle of yet another sleepless, teary night, sitting on my bed, I remembered Paul’s words to the Corinthians.
“…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 12:7-10)
While we don’t know what Paul’s thorn in the flesh was—a physical malady, temptation or depression, the grim realities of persecution, or even the reliving of his past—it was clear that it had a humbling effect. While not a punishment for any particular sin—in the same way that Job was considered righteous and blameless—Paul’s thorn reminded him of his human frailties. It was a sign not to wait for the thorn to be plucked out, but to continue to faithfully serve God through his grace, working out his will in the midst of the thorn bush.
Since God has the power to heal any hurt, it is tempting to feel resentful when he chooses not to exercise that power. In his book, River Out of Eden: A Darwinian View of Life, Richard Dawkins uses the existence of ubiquitous suffering as evidence for the absence of God:
“In a universe of electrons and selfish genes, blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won't find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pitiless indifference.”
In the middle of the night, crouching in the middle of my prickly thorn bush, I found that I resonated with Dawkin’s words. I ruminated on God’s seeming wastefulness, not just for myself, but for others I have watched suffer needlessly. I raged against the apparent injustice.
And then, finally exhausting myself, I realised that I didn’t understand. I extended my hands and surrendered my pain. I surrendered myself. In that moment, at the end of myself, I was flooded by an overwhelming sense of God’s love, peace, and presence. I pictured Jesus dying on the cross and was shattered by the awful reality of his forsakenness. The moment of crushing weakness that somehow demonstrated God’s strength and power.
I like to think it was like the scene in The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers when Gandalf frees King Théoden from Gríma Wormtongue’s (and the wizard Saruman’s) malevolent, poisonous influence. “Breathe the free air again, my friend,” Gandalf says, smiling.
And I did. After praying, I fell asleep and had one of the most blissful sleeps I’d had in years.
What Dawkins fails to understand, amongst other things, is that the story of humanity is not a story of divine neglect, or even pitiless, blind indifference. The Christian believes that the Creator of the universe cares about our pain. That God hears our cries and grieves for the fallenness of a broken world. That he sent Jesus, who, unlike the best of us, never got compassion fatigue.
Jesus, who wore a crown of thorns for our sake.
One only needs to comprehend the gruesome horror of Roman crucifixion to understand that God is neither a god of pitiless indifference nor one who is unfamiliar with worldly troubles (Hebrews 4:15). Indeed, God’s temporary suspension of his justice and judgement—and his radical demonstration of saving grace through Jesus' agonising death—is for our good, even though it came at the cost of his own. As my lifelong inspiration Joni Eareckson Tada writes, reflecting on fifty years of quadriplegia: " Ten words have set the course for my life: God permits what he hates to accomplish what he loves."
God’s temporary suspension of his justice and judgement—and his radical demonstration of saving grace through Jesus' agonising death—is for our good, even though it came at the cost of his own.
Perfection through weakness
It was much later, to my shame, that I realised what I’d implied in my attempt to haggle with God.
You need me.
Which of course, he doesn’t. If God was the one who first thought of calculus, and the projectile motion I never quite grasped in extension mathematics, and the author of the six feet of DNA in each of my body’s thirty-seven trillion cells, then he probably doesn’t need my help, in the same way that The Castle's QC Lawrence Hammill didn’t need small-time lawyer Dennis Denuto’s paltry assistance to face-off against The High Court of Australia (although he graciously accepted it anyway).
If God didn’t need Paul’s personal assets and qualifications (which we know were extensive), he certainly doesn’t need mine. (If I think he does, "I'm dreamin'".)
As I’ve previously written, God is in the curious, and rather painful, business of taking away what’s good in our lives so that we reach out for something better—which is, as I've discovered, God himself. For that reason, I know I have to contend not only with what I can do whilst I am suffering, but who I can be in God. How, in the midst of my weakness, can I live my life embracing and depending on God’s strength? How can I wait—and even suffer—well?
If you’re struggling with a thorn in the flesh, or even a thorn bush—a chronic illness; a cancer diagnosis; the ongoing, soul-crushing grief following the death of a loved one; a relationship breakdown or separation; a hurt or habit that feels like it’s eroding your relationship with God and/or others—might I encourage you to shift your focus from asking God to take it away, to asking what God can accomplish through your suffering.
By all means, pray for healing—we worship a God who heals! But if God hasn’t taken away your thorn in the flesh, perhaps what awaits you is something a little like my midnight wrestling match with God.
Perhaps you have little thorns. Maybe you're too tired to play with your kids at the end of a long week of commuting to work. Or you bark at your spouse after a long day of dealing with narky children and feel guilty afterwards. Or you have a relative you just can't seem to smooth things over with. Where might God's grace show in the thorny parts of your life?
When we quote Genesis 50:20 to ourselves (“You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good…”) sometimes the good we are thinking of is a better job; a new, more fulfilling relationship; the unexpected reward around the corner of a hard season...the silver lining in the thundercloud. But we forget that God is our silver lining. We forget that he is our good. Ultimately, his love—and his death—is the beginning and end of everything.
And in the midst of that endless grace, we can breathe the free air.