There is something mysterious about the scripture text for this coming Sunday. It’s that thorn. Paul says, “I was given a thorn in my body because of the outstanding revelations I’ve received so that I wouldn’t be conceited. It’s a messenger from Satan sent to torment me so that I wouldn’t be conceited.” A thorn in my body…sent to torment me. What was it?
Paul was tormented by something, which he called — in the Greek — a skolops, which is usually translated “thorn,” but can be much more excruciating than that. Some scholars suggest a better translation would be “stake.” It tormented him.
What was it? Guesses throughout the ages vary widely: Spiritual temptations? Opposition and persecution? Paul’s physical appearance? Epilepsy? Chronic attacks of malarial fever accompanied by excruciating headaches? Some kind of eye trouble?
We really don’t know, but everyone loves to try and guess. Nineteenth century theologian Soren Kierkegaard observed that this passage “seems to have afforded an uncommonly favorable opportunity for everyone to become an interpreter of the Bible.”
Why do we usually focus on the thorn? Maybe it’s because they stand out— they are easy to see. In this time in our world, there are many, many “thorns”— those things which torment. We can see them all around us and around the world and we just want to know what kind of thorn it was that stuck in Paul’s flesh and caused him to cry out to God repeatedly. It is easy to focus on the thorn because the thorn is easy to identify with. When we gather together to talk, doesn’t the conversation often turn to the hurts, to the pain, to the problems – to the thorns around us? It is so easy to focus on the thorns!
What Paul discovered though, is that there is something else in life—something besides the thorns. It very often grows among the thorns. In fact, I would say that it is one of the few things that will grow very well among thorns. But it is often there. I’ve seen it many times. More times now, I guess, than I could count. It turns up in the strangest and least likely and most thorny places sometimes. In fact, I think I’ve seen it most in the places where we least like to be. I’ve seen it in the hospitals and funeral homes. I’ve seen it in sick rooms and in homes that have been torn by grief or illness or division. I’ve seen it with men and women, the young and the old, rich and the poor. I’ve seen it close at hand and I’ve seen it from a distance.
I’ve seen it a lot and Paul has helped me to understand it. Ever since I first met Paul through his letters, I’ve wondered at his life. What was it that kept him going through the imprisonments, the beatings, the five times he received the 39 lashes, the 3 times he was beaten with rods, the stoning, the shipwrecks, the robbers, danger from his own people, and, in his own words: “danger from the Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brethren; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure” (II Corinthians 11:23-27)? On top of all that, Paul had that thorn in his flesh and he prayed for the thorn to be taken from him, but he received a different answer: “My grace is enough for you, because power is made perfect in weakness.”
Paul gives us a name for what we have seen growing among the thorns: grace. Paul uses the word all the time and it doesn’t just mean divine favor or forgiveness — it also means “power.” In fact, in most places where Paul uses the word, you could replace it with the word “power” and the passage would have the same meaning.
What Paul discovered was that God’s power is sufficient even for our greatest times of powerlessness. God’s power is enough for us even in the face of our greatest weaknesses. It is so easy to see the thorns and miss seeing the Grace. It’s so easy to see the pain around us and hear the crying prayers and miss God’s answer: “My grace is enough for you, because power is made perfect in weakness.”
Have you ever prayed for healing and received a different answer? Paul did. He said that three times (what he means is over and over again) he prayed to the Lord about that thorn in his flesh. As far as we know, Paul died with that thorn. As far as we know, Paul took that stake that was painfully driven into his flesh to the grave. Paul’s prayer was that that thorn, that stake, in his flesh would be removed from him. The answer Paul received from God was different: “My grace is enough for you, because power is made perfect in weakness.”
I invite you to commit to memory those words Paul received in answer to his many prayers: “My grace is enough for you, because power is made perfect in weakness.”
A healthy spirituality is one that causes us to recognize God’s grace and how that grace is enough for us — God’s power is made complete when we are at our weakest.
Have you had the experience of feeling as though you were at the end of your rope, your strength depleted, and God’s grace saw you through that difficult time? When you hear the word “grace,” what comes to your mind?
Grace and Peace,
Dr. Tim Bruster
2 Corinthians 12:1-10
1 It is necessary to brag, not that it does any good. I’ll move on to visions and revelations from the Lord. 2 I know a man in Christ who was caught up into the third heaven fourteen years ago. I don’t know whether it was in the body or out of the body. God knows. 3-4 I know that this man was caught up into paradise and that he heard unspeakable words that were things no one is allowed to repeat. I don’t know whether it was in the body or apart from the body. God knows. 5 I’ll brag about this man, but I won’t brag about myself, except to brag about my weaknesses.
6 If I did want to brag, I wouldn’t make a fool of myself because I’d tell the truth. I’m holding back from bragging so that no one will give me any more credit than what anyone sees or hears about me. 7 I was given a thorn in my body because of the outstanding revelations I’ve received so that I wouldn’t be conceited. It’s a messenger from Satan sent to torment me so that I wouldn’t be conceited.
8 I pleaded with the Lord three times for it to leave me alone. 9 He said to me, “My grace is enough for you, because power is made perfect in weakness.” So I’ll gladly spend my time bragging about my weaknesses so that Christ’s power can rest on me. 10 Therefore, I’m all right with weaknesses, insults, disasters, harassments, and stressful situations for the sake of Christ, because when I’m weak, then I’m strong.