Let’s Pray together: Lord, help us to not lean on our own understanding but in everything acknowledge you so that you can direct our words, understanding, thoughts and actions. Give us a measure of your strength so that we might not give into discouragement, deception and doubt. Help us honour you in all your ways. Amen.
After my last time Pocket Preaching, I was walking out to the car park wondering what I would talk on next. The words came to me “The thorn in your flesh”. My only reference at that time was conversations held back in a women’s bible study many years ago when I was new to church. The discussion was around whether or not the disciple Paul’s thorn in the flesh in 2 Corinthians was a type of chronic infirmity, annoyance, or trouble in his life, that impeded his ministry. No conclusion was reached.
As I began to research the scriptures I discovered that thorn was used as a metaphor 3 times in the bible. If you like to follow along in your bible, here are the scriptures.
2 Corinthians 12:6-10 (NIV)
6 Even if I should choose to boast, I would not be a fool, because I would be speaking the truth. But I refrain, so no one will think more of me than is warranted by what I do or say, 7 or because of these surpassingly great revelations. Therefore, in order to keep me from becoming conceited, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. 8 Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. 9 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. 10 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.
Joshua 23:12-13 (NIV)
12 “But if you turn away and ally yourselves with the survivors of these nations that remain among you and if you intermarry with them and associate with them,13 then you may be sure that the Lord your God will no longer drive out these nations before you. Instead, they will become snares and traps for you, whips on your backs and thorns in your eyes, until you perish from this good land, which the Lord your God has given you.
Ezekiel 28:24 (NIV)
24 “‘No longer will the people of Israel have malicious neighbours who are painful briers and sharp thorns. Then they will know that I am the Sovereign Lord.
Paul does not mention the nature of his thorn, and his other letters do not address the topic directly. Through the centuries Christians have speculated about what Paul referred to, some have thought epileptic seizures, poor eyesight, or the temptation to disbelieve. We don’t know what it was, but we can examine our own lives to discern the thorn in our flesh.
On reading the commentaries for the three scriptures I was able to identify some qualities of the thorns that we may come across. One quality is that it will discourage us. We would feel a constant prevention from moving deeper into the abundant and blessed life the Lord leads us into and it creates challenges that we cannot overcome without the Lord. Another quality is that it hinders us. Think of times when you feel impeded, or lack the ability to overcome your day-to-day circumstances. In this instant, to identify a thorn in your life today, think about something or someone that is upsetting you. It may be that your thorn is illness, or changes you’ve had to address in life, mental health challenges, family challenges and so on.
We know that Paul prayed earnestly for the thorn to be removed. We can know that God intends the thorn for good, and that God’s grace is sufficient as we pray. Prayer provides a salve, it’s soothing, and we pray until we receive an answer. We have to be willing to see our weaknesses for God’s grace to manifest. Then we will find God’s grace is comforting, enlightening and enlivens us, it is sufficient to strengthen us, to support our souls and to cheer our spirits in all pain and affliction.
The verse in Joshua 23 plus the following 2 scriptures are what gave me an even greater understanding of the thorn in my flesh.
Psalm 139:13-16 (NIV)
For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well. My frame was not hidden from you when I was made in the secret place, when I was woven together in the depths of the earth.
Your eyes saw my unformed body; all the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be.
1 Corinthians 6:18-19 (NIV)
18 Flee from sexual immorality. All other sins a person commits are outside the body, but whoever sins sexually, sins against their own body. 19 Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own;
In the verse from Joshua 23 I discovered how Joshua was warning the Israelites not to break covenant with God, and if they did slowly but surely their lives would turn away from God. Joshua details how the impact of breaking covenant would slowly and progressively bring sin into their lives. For me I began to see how I was born into this type of toxic family. A family where we weren’t raised knowing God, had had multiple generations already of divorce and substance abuse on both sides of my family. I could literally see that for me the influences from a very young age were only of sin.
Psalm 139 in full gives me hope and strength in the Lord, and certainly these particular verses I read tonight have been my strength during the toughest of times in my life. Divorce. Twice. I clung to these verses as truth that if God knew me so intimately then there had to be a rhyme and reason for all that I’ve been through, since conception. And I don’t say this lightly. We live in a time where we know now that the baby takes on board what is happening for the mum. I was conceived in 1965, outside of marriage, and there were long conversations about my future between all family members on both sides. When I was born both my mum and I were very sick. The stress of the time quite literally came out into the physical.
And 1 Corinthians 6 really impacted me on just how much sin gets in. Sexual sin does have deeper effects on the body and soul. For me, I’ve searched for answers for decades, and now I can understand how from a young age there’s been, for want of a better analogy, a conflict inside of me. Sin wanted to win, but due to God seeking me out I kept fighting for God’s way of life. For a life of wholeness, a life of unending love and compassion and my absolute passion is to live out God’s plan and purpose for my life.
All three verses combined spoke loudly to me of the importance of those who are around me, who influence me, of discerning those who come into my life, whether they are leading me closer to the Lord or away, and that overcoming thorns is a life long process that I do with God for His glory.
So, what do we do, what can we do, when the circumstances of our young lives impact the very decisions we make as adults due to what were once circumstances beyond our control? In answer to this I recently came across Paul’s prayer in Philippians 1:9-11 “And I pray this, that your love may abound even more and more in knowledge and every kind of insight so that you can decide what is best, and thus be sincere and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ to the glory and praise of God.”
What we do, quite literally, is never become satisfied with how loving a person we are growing into, our love abounds more and more. By never getting satisfied with how loving a person we have become we will experience God more and more, thereby our knowledge and insight increases, giving us greater measures of discernment. Then we are able to see what will happen 3 or 4 steps after we make the decision what will happen, before we make the decision. I think every husband must wish for this greater gift of discernment on occasion.
We also never get complacent in our walk with God as there’s always another door to be opened. We choose to pursue an endless exploration of an infinite God. We never think or believe we’ve arrived at the end of knowledge and we do as Paul did, we pray without ceasing so that we can know what our thorns are, and how we need to go about dealing with them, relying always on God’s grace to soothe us.
Why do we do this? We do this so that each time a thorn in our flesh is presented to us we become more discerning as to the decisions we need to make, to ensure our hearts and bodies become more holy, more pure, and we stop repeating mistakes that lead us into death, darkness and decrease. As we walk closer with the Lord he shows us what will happen if we make certain decisions, thereby giving us a choice to walk His way and fulfill the plans and purposes He has for our lives, or make a mistake that veers us away from Him.
With all honesty I can say this process works. Recently I had to make a decision and sat, prayed and wrote about the situation and the Lord gave me insights I would never have thought of. It empowered me to make a decision not to pursue a path, and for that I’m incredibly grateful. All glory to Him.
As Sean said this morning, Paul had an experience with the Lord that no one else saw, but we now know many have come to believe, as his wisdom down through the centuries is still touching and healing our hearts and souls. Most importantly we remind ourselves when our thorns appear that the Lords grace is sufficient for us and His power is made perfect in our weakness.