A Thorn

thorns-1What is the nature of our identity? How do we know what’s inside of us? What if what we feel inside seems different than what’s outside? It seems that these questions continue to come up every day as we read the news. While it would be nice to say that we’ve wrestled with them, I have a tendency to think that we’re not wrestling with them as much as we are simply assenting to the voices of the majority.

As headline after headline tells us of people following their heart’s desire and inner passions, I grow more uncomfortable every day. While some of it might be just a general discomfort with change, some of it seems like more than that to me. A common criticism of Christians and believers in Jesus is that they check their intellect at the door, refusing to wrestle with tough questions, not providing answers but simply believing.

It’s an old argument and one that I wouldn’t necessarily refute. I do think that there is a tendency for people within the church to simply hang their hat on traditions rather than wrestling through questions in a new way. At the same time, faith is believing in what is unseen, it’s an assurance of the things that are hoped for. While faith seems to have been relegated to belief in God, I think that faith is required for more than just that…..but that’s another post all together.

Yes, there may be a propensity of Christians towards simple assent without a wrestling, but the same can be said of many things. Crowd mentality can drive us towards ways of thinking that we simply assent to rather than really thinking through. I wonder how often we take things at face value versus digging beneath the surface to really think through all of the ramifications of our ideologies and beliefs. Regardless of your viewpoint or stance on certain issues, I wonder how often you’ve looked beyond the headlines and wrestled with what’s just beneath the surface.

Information is at our beck and call, within our fingertips. We have more information coming out us within minutes and seconds than some of the past generations saw in a month’s time. It’s nearly impossible to sort through it all, so I think that we may have a tendency to simply believe what we read without necessarily digging deeper.

Thinking about this challenge for myself, the challenge to wrestle with difficult questions, I’ve had to rethink a lot of things over the years, especially in the area of my faith. The Apostle Paul wrote of working out our salvation with fear and trembling, not as a means to earning it but as a means to personalizing it. As the son of a pastor who was immersed in Christianity from the moment of my birth, I still had to come to a place where I thought through what I believed and why I believed it. I had to make sure that I was not resting on the faith of my parents but that I really believed all of the things that I said that I believed.

I’ve also wrestled with who I am and what’s inside of me. Again, the words of the Apostle Paul in his letter to the Roman church seem to resonate with me. He wrote, “For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing.” Based on this, I would guess that Paul experienced some struggles with belief, identity, and temptation. He knew what things were supposed to be like but what was inside him seemed to contradict that. He wrestled with who he was inwardly and how that was manifested outwardly.

I can relate to Paul. If I followed through with every thought, notion, craving, or temptation that I felt inside, I would most likely not have the job that I have, the family that I have, or the life that I have. While the overwhelming emphasis among society is to encourage people to embrace who they are and what they crave, there are some limitations that have to be drawn for if we don’t draw those limitations, we will find ourselves at odds with something, be it relationally with others or legally with the law of the land.

This wasn’t Paul’s only mention of the inner struggle that he experienced. In fact, in another of Paul’s letters, writing to the church in Corinth, he spoke more specifically (although not as specifically as some of us may have wanted) about his inner struggle. He wrote of a “thorn” that had been given to him, something that he considered a weakness. He wrote, “So to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited. Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. 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 of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.”

Paul’s use of the word that is translated in English as “thorn” does not occur anywhere else throughout his letter or in the Canon of Scripture. It’s what scholars call a hapax legomenon, a fancy way of saying that it only occurs once. Scholars and theologians have speculated for years on what Paul’s weakness actually was. Some have considered it to have been something physical. Could his eyes have been weakened after his Damascus Road experience? Did he have a speech impediment? Others have thought that it might involve something spiritual. Did he struggle with inner demons? Did he have a temptation that seemed overwhelming to him?

As much as we would like to have an indication of the specific struggle that Paul had, we don’t. But it’s interesting to me to think about Paul’s weakness in terms of his own context and then the context in which we are living today. In Paul’s time, there was no means by which he could change his weakness, he had to live with it. There was no getting rid of it, no removal of it was possible, and regardless of the specifics of this weakness, we know that it served as a distraction to Paul. It was a distraction enough that he pleaded not once, not twice, but three times to God to remove it from him.

I don’t know about you, but something’s got to be a pretty big deal for me to ask God for its removal three times. Paul’s response to this weakness, this thorn, should be enough to give us a clue that it was a big deal. He wanted to move on past it, he wanted it to be removed from him. He didn’t want to have to think about it or deal with anymore. The best thing that he could have hoped for was to have God remove it from him.

But that wasn’t God’s response to him. In his weakness, Paul’s sense was that God was telling him that it wasn’t his strength that he should be relying on, that he needed to realize that in the midst of weakness, in the midst of powerlessness, Paul’s reliance needed to move off of his own strength and on to the strength that God gave him.

Paul did not have the chance to do something about his weakness. He couldn’t change it. It simply served as a constant reminder to him that he was weak. Some might criticize God for not removing the thorn from Paul. How could a loving God do this to one of his most faithful servants? Why would he not just answer him this one, simple request?

We like to feel adequate, don’t we? We like to feel that we can accomplish anything? Most of the time, we want to make sure that everyone knows that we can accomplish everything on our own. Spend some time with a toddler when they are entering the independence stage and count how many times you hear them say, “I can do it myself. I don’t need help.” Asking for help and acknowledging our shortfalls, that shows our imperfectness, doesn’t it? We don’t want anyone to see that, do we?

But Paul writes that the distinct answer he heard from the Lord was that in his weakness, he was not to be reliant on himself. He had already found out that a reliance on this weakness would end up in failure. No, instead he was to rely on a strength outside of himself, he was to rely on a divine strength that would come to him in the midst of that weakness.

Paul, throughout his letters, speaks of a change, a difference that takes place in those who are in Christ. In fact, earlier in this letter to the Corinthian church, Paul writes, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.” While we might not look different or even always feel different, when we are in Christ, we are different, we are changed, or more to the point, we are changing and being changed.

How was Paul to live with something that was so difficult for him? How could he go on with this thorn in his flesh, this distraction? Somehow he did, didn’t he? He continued on and it served as a constant reminder that his accomplishments, his feats and successes were not through his own strength, but through a strength outside of himself.

So, why do we always feel the need to fix everything? We are a nation of “fixers” who like to step in and bring resolution, even when resolution isn’t the best thing. We want to fix things and move on, remove the distraction, get it out of the way. And Paul’s final words about the matter seem to sum up the approach that he takes, that he embraces. He writes, “For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.”

Can we really be content in weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities? Can we really leave a struggle to remain? Can we let it remain a lifelong struggle?

Is it possible that sometimes we are given circumstances not to solve or fix or remedy, but rather to live with in order that we can learn how to live differently? Is it possible that in the midst of us living in the tension of what is and what we would rather it be, that we can grow stronger, develop character, and even have the ability to minister to others who may have similar struggle, whose “thorns” may somewhat resemble our own?

Somehow the Apostle Paul was able to live in that tension and survive through the struggle.

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