Grace Amidst the Thorns?

The following sermon on 2 Corinthians 12: 1-11 was preached at Golden Grove Uniting Church in July, 2006:

‘What takes you to the limit of your patience? A child crying incessantly? A person in a queue whose credit card won’t work? Someone who cuts you off on the road?

My wife, Janis, was recently waiting for a person to back out of a parking spot at the local shopping centre. When she finally cleared the spot, a man, coming the other way darted in front of her and took the spot.

I was not on board but my anger soared when I heard what happened. It was good I was not there. Janis just forgave the man and moved on, finding a spot a few places away.

One thing that stretches me more deeply to my limit is the human need of the world. There are so many causes that need support that I feel reasonably powerless to support: chaplaincies in state schools, AIDS children in Malawi, Uganda and South Africa, engineers and doctors without borders. The ten children in the Philippines that our friend, Luciano, has picked out of his church community whom he would like to see sponsored. There is Abraham Matthew, the Indian evangelist, Samaritan’s Purse, World Vision, Opportunity International, famine victims in Ethiopia and more.

And this does not mention the needs of our land that we can do something about.

I feel so overwhelmed by all those needs, many of them an outcome of corrupt and failed Governments across the world, like North Korea, that will waste money on missiles while its people starve and are kept alive by the United Nations. Or the Palestinians who when given the Gaza Strip, instead of building schools and hospitals, rain rockets on nearby residents.

There are a multitude of events, situations and people that take us to our limit, where we need to find Jesus.

Saint Paul had a couple of things that took him to his limit as well, the first being a group of people who were disparaging him to his congregation. At Corinth, along came some people who had no close relationships to the congregation and made four criticisms:

  1. He does not have a good understanding of Greek philosophy.
  2. Some orators say he is a poor speaker – bold in his letters, but timid in person.
  3. Others came along saying that we will let you into the real secrets of the faith that Paul knows nothing about. They claimed to know more and have a deeper knowledge that Paul.
  4. Jews came along and said most emphatically that Paul was leading people astray by not insisting that they observe Jewish law and have all the men circumcised.

Paul was seething when this news came to him, as he had founded this congregation in Acts 18. 2 Corinthians is all about how Paul dealt with this troublesome congregation.

The Corinthian congregation had a bad habit of giving more credibility to impressive visitors that to their founding leader. He would write in 1 Corinthians 4: 15, ‘Even though you have ten thousand guardians in Christ, you do not have many fathers, for in Christ Jesus I became your father through the Gospel. Therefore I urge you to imitate me…’

And in chapter 12 in 2 Corinthians, Paul reaches the climax in what he was saying about the battles he was facing.

No pastor likes people undermining their credibility to their congregation, and Paul was no exception. So after listing in chapter 11 all he has been through for the church and Jesus, he comes to chapter 12 where he bares his heart. Paul begins strangely, speaking of himself in the third person. He describes a great spiritual experience, different from his conversion encounter with Jesus. He uses this unusual way of describing himself, detaching himself from his own experience, ‘I know a man…’

It may be so as not to lose their attention if they think he is talking about himself. Paul remembers the date exactly, 14 years before. It was a dramatic experience of Christ, so much so that he is not sure if he was in the body or out of it.

Paul was taken to paradise, a word from the Persian language. When a Persian king, like Cyrus, wanted to confer a very special honour on someone dear to him, he made him a companion of the garden and gave him the right to walk in the royal gardens with him. This is what the Lord did for him, and the thief on the cross. In paradise, Paul heard deep things that a man is not permitted to tell.

He could boast about this, and show how superior he was to all the troublemakers, but he did not want people to think more of him than was warranted, but it all leaves for dead the false guides and their claims.

The Lord chooses to give great spiritual experiences to some; whereas he lets others walk in Christ in a quiet and unspectacular way. We would all like the visions and voice but he chooses not to give this to all of us, only those in his sovereignty that he chooses.

However, there is a cost to all that Paul was privy to, as he says the Lord saw he was in danger of becoming conceited about these things, these great revelations, so to keep him humble and dependent, free from all boasting, the Lord gave him a thorn. This word is from the Greek word ‘skolop’, meaning a thorn or more graphically, a stake, in the flesh.

There have been 50 different attempts to guess what the thorn was – from migraines to malaria, from blindness to epilepsy – but we do not know. All we know is that this was a great source of spiritual and physical pain to Paul.

He calls it in verse 7, a messenger from Satan. Often the Lord allows Satan to do his dirty work such as allowing Satan into the heart of Judas to betray Jesus. God let Satan test Job, and Jesus in the wilderness, and he lets the same things happen to keep you dependent on Him.

Not that Paul does not say, ‘If I am going through this trauma, you must have abandoned me Lord.’ No, every single moment of his life, in everything that happens, every part of his physical and spiritual life has something to do with the Lord.

When you go through the valley, it is not a sign that the Lord has abandoned you, but something that He can use to deepen you, if you will work with it and not against it.

R.T. Kendall has written a book on the subject called The Thorn in the Flesh. He says, most Christians have some thorn in their flesh. He lists the possibilities under a number of headings such as loneliness, unhappy employment, an enemy, a handicap or disability, unhappy living conditions, sexual difficulties, an unhappy marriage, a chronic illness, personality problems, money matters, or an unwanted calling. The more we grow in Christ, the more certain that we will have one or more of them or other troubles.

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Paul’s ‘stake’ in the flesh, physically and spiritually oppressed him, so he followed the advice he gave to his churches and prayed about it. Not a casual request, but three earnest times he interceded for himself and his needs.

I think we find it harder to pray for ourselves than for others. Sometimes we don’t have much self-knowledge, or much introspection. We don’t know what to pray for or how to do it, but Paul did it as he was honest with the Lord. Paul wanted his thorn taken away. Three times he prays, but the Lord had a better idea. He seems to let people endure what they can handle and still remain faithful to Him.

He sees someone like Paul will be a greater witness to Him as a sufferer, than someone healed. Paul can bear that.

God may let you go through what you do because you will be a better witness to Him through your pain, your grief and your battles than if you overcame your obstacles and joined the Christian cheer squad.

He comforts Paul by saying two things: ‘my grace if sufficient for you. If you have my grace through my cross, you have all the victory you need and all the power to endure that you will need.’ And, ‘says the Lord, my power is made perfect in your weakness.’

In weakness we have to pray more, need others more, seek their help and prayers more, and spend more time in the Word when we know our need and vulnerability.

These words from the Lord completely turned Paul around. His attitudes and actions changed. Now ‘he will boast more gladly in his weaknesses.’ His pain, his speaking, his knowledge of philosophy and more. He will boast about this because Christ’s power will rest on him. Now, ‘he delights in his weaknesses, in being insulted, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties.’ He goes far beyond his original thorn in his flesh to all those things. Why? Because when he is weak, then he is strong.

How do we continue knowing these things? For Christ and His truth we will ensure insults, attacks on our faith and difficulties because then we are more dependent on the Lord. It is not pleasant, but pleasure and rest are never the goal of the Christian.

Whatever is a source of pain to you, you can add it to the list. Ensure those things for Christ’s sake.

One of you told me last week how a man came and abused you at your workplace. Instead of raising your voice to match, you sat back and let him go at it. He ran out of puff and left, and you felt good that you had not compromised yourself. Tough, but all growth is.

Paul grew through his pain; suffering, agony, relationship problems. He summarises what he has done in verse 11, ‘I have made a fool of myself, but you drove me to it. I ought to have been commended by you, for I am not in the least inferior to the “super apostles”, even though I am nothing.’

Let’s close in prayer:

Lord, help our faith to be deepened through unanswered prayer. Help us to believe and trust. Help us to be like the old saint who said, ‘I have served the Lord for so long now I can hardly tell the difference between a blessing and a trial.’ Help us to see what we want taken with eyes of faith.

Will you help us to be able to thank you for unanswered prayer? Lord, we give you our various thorns, our weaknesses, our trials, the things you have let happen that we don’t like. Only with the power of the Holy Spirit can we endure them with faith and be saved from depression and despair.

Amen.

By George Robert Iles

9th July, 2006

 

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