September 12, 2018

The Thorn, part three

By: Larry Shaffer

This is a view from my balcony off my home office in Cordillera Ranch

The Thorn, part three 

2 Corinthians 12 

“And I know how such a man—whether in body or apart from the body I do not know, God knows –was caught up into Paradise and heard inexpressible words, which a man is not permitted to speak. On behalf of such a man I will boast; but on my own behalf I will not boast, except in regard to my weaknesses.”  

The false teachers who had infiltrated Corinth boasted and promoted themselves. We can assume they boasted about who they knew (they claimed to know Peter and the apostles who actually lived alongside Jesus), that they were sent from the Jerusalem church, what they had accomplished, miracles they had experienced, etc. Paul instead boasted of his weaknesses; sufferings, shipwrecks, beatings, etc. 

However, because he was compelled by the criticisms of the people, he wrote briefly of a supernatural experience that set him apart and above all others. He preferred to boast of his weaknesses but just this once, he needed to highlight an amazing, spectacular, out of this world experience. 

He was chosen by God to see heaven and hear directly from Jesus, verses 3,4. An experience that today would have warranted a 300-page book, TV interviews, speaking tour, etc., Paul told about the experience in one long sentence. He immediately follows up this long sentence by stating he is going to refrain from telling more, “so that no one will credit me with more than he sees in me,” verse 6.  

In other words, in contrast to the false teachers, one should ascribe to Paul validity because of what they saw in him, who He was in day-to-day life, because they know him personally, his witness, his real life.  So, after this long sentence about his vision of heaven, Paul immediately went back to boasting about his weaknesses.  

Instead of bragging about how God had blessed him, he told about how God had inflicted immense pain in his life. God used a messenger of Satan to be a thorn in the flesh to keep him humble. If you were chosen to be the one person in all history to visit heaven and talk with Jesus, then you would, no doubt, struggle with pride too. Jesus needed Paul to have the benefit of seeing heaven without elevating his pride. So, he gave Paul a thorn in the flesh “to keep him from exalting himself.” 

 What is the thorn in the flesh? It is not a physical disease but rather a messenger (an actual person) who was influenced by Satan. Most likely the leader of the false teachers in Corinth who had criticized him in other cities but was having his greatest success in Corinth.  

Satan looked around and said, “who is having the biggest impact spreading the gospel?”  Answer: Paul. Then Satan determined to unleash an on-going, systematic attack on the credibility of Paul…and GOD ALLOWED IT TO HAPPEN. What Satan planned for evil, God used for good, i.e., to keep Paul’s pride in check.

Now, allow me to discuss one other change from the way we usually think about the thorn in the flesh. Flesh has two basic meanings in the Bible: our human body or our sin nature. Most of us assumed a thorn in the flesh meant something that hurt his human body, such as an illness or ailment. However, Paul usually uses the word ‘flesh’ to speak of our sin nature. So, God was using this messenger of Satan to be a thorn or a “hindrance” to his fleshly nature, specifically a hindrance to pride.  We usually think of the thorn in the flesh as a bad thing. Which, in a practical sense, it is a very bad thing. It hurts. But can’t we all agree that something that keeps our sin nature subdued is a good thing? Yes, it is painful, but it is good.  

Further evidence is that (because it was painful) Paul pleaded with God that it be removed. Why?  Duh, because it was painful. In this case, emotionally devastating.  But God said ‘no, I will not remove it’, because it is good; it is a thorn being thrust into your sinful nature to subdue your sinful tendency toward pride.  

How then should I live? 

Here is a simple application. You and I will face trials and painful difficulties in life. Let us pray and plead that God makes it good from our standpoint (removes the trial, heals our loved one, gives us a job, restores our happiness, etc.). If he doesn’t answer as we have prayed, then reflect and embrace “the good” that He is doing in your life through this trial. That’s way easier ‘said than done’ but it is clearly the lesson to apply to our lives from this passage. And when He doesn’t remove the trial, He provides grace and promises us power to sustain us and strengthen us. God said ‘no’ to Paul’s prayer to remove the pain. Instead, God said, “my grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness.” Amen