When the thorn has to stay
When the thorn has to stay
It was a “messenger of Satan” (2 Cor.12.7), something for which the Evil One was responsible. Just as he afflicted Job with “painful sores from the soles of his feet to the top of his head” (Job 2.7), so in some similar way he afflicted Paul. In malice, in hatred, that he might torment him and hinder him in his work, Satan pierced him with his infamous thorn.
To get the whole picture, however, we must go much further back. Satan may have been the immediate source of Paul’s thorn. He was certainly not the ultimate source. The very language in which Paul describes the event hints at that: “To keep me from becoming conceited because of these surpassingly great revelations there was given me a thorn in the flesh” (2 Cor.12.7). It is, says one writer, “almost certainly an instance of the so-called divine passive i.e. ‘there was given me by God’” (Don Carson).
That is confirmed by the evidently divine purpose in it all. Paul had been caught up to the third heaven. There he had heard “inexpressible things, things that man is not permitted to tell” (2 Cor.12.3). And whilst that unquestionably heightened his usefulness as a servant of Christ it at one and the same time threatened it. It put him in danger of spiritual pride. Hence the thorn. Its purpose was to keep Paul’s pride in check. And that being so, there is no question as to its true origin. Who wanted and needed a humble Paul? Only God! And the thorn was his method of securing it.
So we discern a divine hand in Paul’s thorn. It was solely by God’s permission that Satan was able to afflict the apostle in the manner that he did. Paul might have said to Satan what Joseph said to his brothers: “you intended to harm me, but God intended it for good” (Gen.50.20).
As we turn now to ourselves we begin by recognizing that what God had to do in Paul’s case he has also to do in ours. He must take steps to keep our pride in check. “There is no danger”, writes Albert Barnes, “that more constantly besets Christians, and even eminent Christians, than pride. There is no sin that is more subtle, insinuating, deceptive; none that lurks more constantly around the heart and that finds a more ready entrance than pride.”
That being so the Lord must act. Otherwise we will rob him of his glory and ourselves of our Christian usefulness. And that in turn is why the apostle’s experience of the thorn is so constantly paralleled in our own lives. God has again and again to adopt like painful measures to keep our pride in check.
The identity of the thorn varies widely, of course, from believer to believer. It could be almost anything. But in broad terms our experience of it is the same. A thorn in the flesh is not easy to bear. We wish that it was gone. We cry out to God to take it away. Often! And again and again the answer is ‘no’. Paul’s thorn had to stay. So too our own.
If this is your experience you may find it helpful to say the following things to yourself:
This painful discipline is intended for my good. It was so in Paul’s case. No less in mine. If the Evil One has a hand in it there is no question as to his intention. God’s intention is completely the opposite. Satan seeks only my pain and ruin. God my holiness and usefulness.
This painful discipline must be necessary. Otherwise it wouldn’t be happening. Since the Lord does not afflict his people willingly the danger must be greater than I think. I must walk by faith and trust his greater wisdom.
This painful discipline is only a temporary thing. In heaven God will favour me as he does not and cannot on earth. I will see, hear, learn, feel, experience, and do things of which I cannot begin to dream. And since there will then be no danger of pride my life will be wholly free of thorns.
In the meantime there is grace. It is the Lord’s great word of consolation to Paul. Though the thorn has to stay the Lord’s all-sufficient grace is there for him. No less for me.