Self-sufficiency is an American trademark. I suppose we come by it from the pioneer spirit of our early heroes: Daniel Boone, Lewis & Clarke, Davy Crockett. Our motto is often the line from William Henley’s poem “Invictus”: “I am the master of my fate; I am the captain of my soul.”
The essence of sin is self-sufficiency. The essence of Christianity is God sufficiency. In order to diminish our self-sufficiency and develop God-sufficiency, God brings suffering in our lives.
Paul was no stranger to suffering. Yet his approach to it some may find strange. Paul bragged about his weakness which came in a strange form: a thorn in the flesh!
2 Corinthians 12:7-10 interrogates us with a probing question: Are you strong enough to be weak and weak enough to be strong?
Humility is God’s goal for us all.
Lest Paul grow dizzy with spiritual superiority at the recollection of those heavenly heights on which he had walked, God gave him a thorn in the flesh. What was Paul’s thorn?
A gallimaufry of guesses saturates the pages of theological literature. Among the candidates are psychological anxiety—the pangs of a conscience about his pre-conversion persecution of Christians; anguish over Israel’s refusal to believe the gospel; or depression. Others suggest the thorn was persecution by the Jews or Roman government. Others surmise the thorn was some sort of physical malady. The list reads like a medical dictionary: deafness, epilepsy, gallstones, gastritis, gout, headaches, hypochondria, leprosy, malarial fever, ophthalmia; rheumatism, sciatica, speech impediment, and trachoma. Most are possible, some are plausible, none is provable.
By its very lack of specificity, it is a type of your thorn of suffering. Thorns come in many shapes and sizes. Suffering is universal and suffering is infinitely varied.
Our thorns can be painful beyond measure. Unbearable. They darken our whole spiritual sky. You think it will cramp or cripple your usefulness—“If only I didn’t have this _____, I could really serve you, Lord!”
In God’s seminary, Suffering 101 is a required course. Professor Pain is the teacher. He is a tenured professor. There are no course substitutions. It is impossible to upgrade from suffering to first class. Paul worked harder, had been in prison more frequently, been flogged more severely, and been exposed to death again and again. If there were a way to upgrade our status as Christ’s disciples, Paul would have been sitting in first class.
Like Paul, when you first encounter the thorn, you pray long and hard for God to remove it. He doesn’t. Then your prayer session leads to a powerful lesson: subtraction is not God’s spiritual mathematical operation in this case; addition is—sufficient grace! His grace! Oh the blessing of the everlasting present tense: “My grace is sufficient!”
Never do we insert our spiritual ATM card for a grace withdrawal and see the words flash on the screen: “insufficient funds!” God never has to make deposits into his grace bank! Go ahead and write that check on God’s account; there is abundant supply to meet your need!
At the throne of Grace you come to understand the meaning of the thorn of grace.
This sufficient grace is transforming grace: it transforms your weakness into God’s power! God’s power reaches its plentitude in your weakness. That’s grace!
In the Christian life, there is no such thing as painless power. Pain is the medium of God’s power. It deepens you and sweetens you. You can’t drink the grapes; they have to be crushed. Pain becomes a chisel in the tool box of the Master Craftsman and the result is Christlikeness.
The thorn never embittered Paul. It never caused him to doubt the goodness of God. Paul’s thorn blossomed!
God is able to make more use of you thorned than thornless! Stop praying to escape suffering. Pray to enlist suffering! Stop praying for pain’s removal and start praying for pain’s conversion! Change your groaning into glorying! The purpose of the thorn coupled with God’s grace is humility, dependence, and usability. Without your wound, where would your power be?
Authentic ministry is God’s power in your weakness!
Because Jesus wore the crown of thorns, you can wear the crown of life! Rejoice!