The Thorn’s Gift
There are certain writers whose writings I am drawn to: Philip Yancey, Elisabeth Elliot and Joni Eareckson Tada seem always to speak to my inner me. As I write these words, I have hundreds of books within my reach but the ones that I reread are written by those authors. They share a common message; the author has gone through difficult times. They have wrestled with the pain caused by those trials. They have wrestled with the promises of God—and they have chosen to believe and to trust Him. They call me to believe and to trust as well.
Philip Yancey has seen the vicious underbelly of the church and has been shaken by it. For a period of time he walked away from the church. He said that he left because he found so little grace there, he came back because he found grace nowhere else. His critical thinking on suffering has allowed him to speak to survivors of tsunamis and school shootings. He sees God in ways that have been invisible to me but they are ways that grow my understanding.
Elisabeth Eliott lost three husbands to death. The first, Jim Elliot, was doing God’s work in taking the message of salvation to the Auca Indians when he was martyred by them. Elisabeth went back with her young daughter and lived with the same Indians who killed her husband. Her lifelong ministry in her speaking and writing was about the God who keeps all of his promises, even when life hurts the most.
Joni has spent the past 50+ years of her life in a wheelchair with friends to help her get up in the morning and make her presentable to meet the day. To read Joni is to hear the depression in her words as she struggled in the early days of her paralysis with the “Why?” and the “Why me?” questions. But she did not give up, she grappled with the promises of God until she came to the place where she believed every single promise is true. God is still good when we are broken, physically or otherwise. In fact, He may be the best good to those who are broken—because they see His goodness rather than their own. One of Joni’s quotes is written in the flyleaf of my Bible, “God allows what He hates to accomplish what He loves.” Sometimes that means that He allows what we hate too.
Psalm 139 tells us that we are “fearfully and wonderfully made.” It is natural for us to be thankful for the gift of life. The problem arises for most of us when we think that the family we were born into, the talents and strengths that we have, the weaknesses we have overcome, and the things we have accomplished, all serve to give our lives, to give “us”, value. That we are truly, for lack of a better word, wonderful.
The trials of life, the wrestling with God, the proving of His Word, work together to teach us that any wonder, any “good” in our life, comes from Him. Not in our created body, but in Him shining out from our broken inner man. Joni says, “God always seems biggest to those who need Him most.” And we see that truth in the lives of people we know who have realized that God must be seen in us if our life is going to count for anything. It is as John the Baptist said, “He must increase, and I must decrease.”
I grew up thinking that I must be better than anyone else and that could be accomplished by either building myself up, or by tearing them down. But God says that I must decrease, that it is Him that others should see, not me. My mind knows that to be true, my self has not always accepted it as a viable truth—what happens to me if all people see in me is Him?
Most of us do not mind the idea that God would increase in us. It is that we must decrease that weighs heavily. John, the man that people came from town out into the wilderness to see, decreased to prison when Jesus came on the scene. Then he decreased again and was beheaded at the whim of someone he offended by preaching truth.
The lives of those around me are not going to be changed heavenward by the glitz and glamour of my life. But they are being changed for eternal good by God every day. If I truly love the Lord, do I want people to see me? Or Him? Do I want them to go through life thinking what a truly great guy I am? Or do I want them to go to heaven knowing what a truly great God their Heavenly Father is? If I truly love people, do I want people to see me? Or Him?
The trials that God allows into my life, the brokenness, the heartache, the struggling with God, all lead to fashioning me into someone who can be used by God.
God gave the words to Paul, and He wrote them to us, “My strength is made perfect in your weakness.” 2 Corinthians 12:7-10 KJV
(7) And lest I should be exalted above measure through the abundance of the revelations, there was given to me a thorn in the flesh, the messenger of Satan to buffet me, lest I should be exalted above measure.
(8) For this thing I besought the Lord thrice, that it might depart from me.
(9) And he said unto me, My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness. Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me.
(10) Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in necessities, in persecutions, in distresses for Christ’s sake: for when I am weak, then am I strong.
The thorn’s prick (verse 7) would never have touched Paul had God not allowed it to do so. This may have been one of those scenes in heaven as it was in the opening chapter of Job where Satan presents himself before God. God asked Satan what he was up to and Satan replies, “Going to and fro in the earth, seeking whom I may devour” (I Peter 5:8). God, knowing his evil intentions, says, “Have you considered My servant Paul?” And Satan is more than eager to put Paul to the test, to destroy his faith, to undo his ability to write scripture, to damage his testimony before the churches, to invalidate any hope of his winning any more souls for the kingdom. The thorn pierces Paul’s skin and the Tormenter eagerly waits for his desired outcome.
At the time he speaks of the thorn, Paul had already been whipped with 39 stripes five different times, he had been beaten with rods three times, and he had suffered stoning once. He had been shipwrecked three times and had suffered a laundry list of perils at the hands of robbers or his own countrymen. He would ultimately spend about five years of his Christian life in prison. Paul’s thorn then must have been a very serious affliction which caused him serious discomfort for he singles this affliction out above the others. This man of prayer prays three times for the thorn’s removal, and the answer to his prayer is that the thorn has a godly purpose—and it is his to keep.
Paul responds something like this, “if God’s strength is made perfect in this thorn, in my weakness, then I will be thankful for the thorn so God can do His work through me. I want God’s work to be accomplished in and through me more than I want to be free from the prick of the thorn.”
There may come a day when God allows our life, yours or mine, to be touched with the prick of the thorn. We are then faced with the same choice of so many saints before us: walk away from—or walk towards God. Will we resent the thorn and its painful disruption of our life? Or will we, through tears, thank God for the thorn that allows Christ to be seen more clearly in us?
Our thorn may look nothing like Paul’s, or Philip’s, or Joni’s, or Elisabeth’s, or Job’s, or anyone else we have ever known. But the thorn’s prick and the weakness it brings, does not have to destroy us. Its painful effects can strengthen us more than we had ever hoped or prayed for. It will depend on whether we want Him to be seen—or us. Whether we want His life to be lived through us—or want our own life with our hopes and dreams and loves to be what people see.
A young man whom I have watched blossom into manhood in the past few years told me, “I pray every morning that God will make me the man, the husband, the father, the leader, that He wants me to be.” I love that about him. I love his desire. I love his prayer. But that prayer often comes with a cost. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, writing in The Cost of Discipleship, says “when Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” I am fearful for that young man as to what cost he may have to pay to have his prayer answered. I hate that he may have to pay the cost. I pray for him that he will pay it, that he will choose to decrease—to give room for Him to increase.
When God calls us to die, it does necessarily mean physical death.
Galatians 2:20 KJV I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me.
It means dying to self, a commitment that is easy to say and difficult, in fact it is life changing, to do. It means wanting God’s will more than our own. It means wanting to glorify Him more than satisfy self. It means giving up self’s hopes and dreams in favor of Him. It means that all of that is easy to say and to write…it most likely will be excruciating to live out. I have been at the bedside of dear loved ones and watched them pass from this world to the next. My mother’s death was laborious as she struggled to breathe. She would take a deep breath that would cause her body to tremble…then expel it…and we would wait, sometimes almost a minute, to see if that were her last breath, before another, equally laborious breath came. This process went on for many hours. Her spirit was ready to go to her new home but her body was unwilling to leave this one.
It is no less easy for our heart, soul, and spirit, to die to self and move to God’s deeper calling. We must give God every fiber of our being for His purpose. Watching someone you love go through the pain of death to self, even though you know that God has promised to work good of that travail, is just as difficult as it was for me to watch my mother die her physical death.
Think back to the travail of some of the Old Testament and New Testament men and women. Very few times do you see a “health and wealth” life; more often you see someone who has groaned in agony of heart as their old man dies to make room for the new man to have control. Hemen, the earthly author of Psalm 88 says:
“O LORD God of my salvation, I have cried day and night before thee: Let my prayer come before thee: incline thine ear unto my cry; For my soul is full of troubles: and my life draweth nigh unto the grave. I am counted with them that go down into the pit: I am as a man that hath no strength: Free among the dead, like the slain that lie in the grave, whom thou rememberest no more: and they are cut off from thy hand. Thou hast laid me in the lowest pit, in darkness, in the deeps. Thy wrath lieth hard upon me, and thou hast afflicted me with all thy waves. Selah.”
(Psalms 88:1-7 KJV A Song or Psalm for the sons of Korah, to the chief Musician upon Mahalath Leannoth, Maschil of Heman the Ezrahite.)
Hemen, in desperation calls out to the God he believes has abandoned him, yet to the God he knows is listening. And it always amazes me that the Holy Spirit guided Hemen’s hand to write these words to be one of the songs sung in temple worship. The same Holy Spirit guided David to include this Psalm in Holy Scripture. And the same Holy Spirit speaks to my heart when I read those words. God works all things together for good for His children, just as He promised. I do not know what good Hemen saw in the days or months after writing this, but I do know that God has used Hemen’s afflictions, his thorn, to give comfort to Believers down through the ages. Someday, on heaven’s shore, I will look for Hemen and thank him for the cost he paid to bring comfort to me.
We can read Elisabeth Elliot’s story, or Joni’s story, as words on a page, as days in the life of someone else whom we admire from afar for their courage and strength. And something in us says, “I could possibly do that if I were forced to.” And then we face our own thorn, and it is much more difficult than we thought. The pain is bone deep and is felt in the depths of our marrow. The depression is soul deep and seems that it will last forever. The loneliness leaves us abandoned—even in the most crowded of arenas. The few times we smile or laugh are fake—they do not represent who we know ourselves to be. It is then, at that time, when we begin the process of learning that God’s promises are true—that He really does not leave nor forsake us—even though it still seems, at times, as though He has. And the pulse of our faith, about a quarter of the size of a mustard seed, begins to beat again. Our trust begins to deepen, to recognize God is still alive—and that He loves us—just as He loved David, and Job, and Paul, and Joseph, and a million other saints in the times when they felt abandoned.
The saint who wrote Psalm 88 writes the most depressing of all the Psalms—and God includes it in the hymnbook of the Nation of Israel and the Church, for us to read over and over and over again. Our spiritual ancestors understood the loss and abandonment that you feel—and the Holy Spirit guided their fingers to write the words that will assure us that the Father God loves us. He loves us so much, that He allows us to face these soul-wrenching times that teach us how to love and trust Him more than we ever thought possible. It is in the darkest of times, when the thorn’s prick is most painful, that we truly know the depths of His promises.