C. S. Lewis once said that the most frequently spoken word in Heaven will be the exclamation “OH.” As in:
“OH, NOW I UNDERSTAND”
“OH, NOW I SEE WHAT GOD’S PLAN WAS.”
“OH, NOW I SEE THE REASON FOR MY TRIALS”
The Apostle Paul wrote in I Corinthians 13:12,
“Now we see through a glass darkly, but then face to face….”
There are many things that on this side of the dark glass of time we cannot understand. Why do good people suffer so much? Why does life sometimes seem so unfair? Why doesn’t God make the faith-life a little easier?
It reminds me of Peppermint Patty in the “Peanuts Cartoon” stepping up to the store counter and saying to the clerk, “Yes sir, I need some school supplies. I need some pencils, some paper, and a loose-leaf binder. And, oh yes, I need some answers, I need lots of answers.” Don’t we all?
St. Augustine is certainly one of the most prominent Christians in all of church history. He was converted to Christianity in A.D. 386 by the writings and sermons of St. Ambrose. Ambrose was the bishop of Milan. Augustine became Bishop of Hippo on the coast of North Africa in the area which came to be known as Algeria.
One day Augustine was walking along the seashore pondering how God could be one and yet three. Suddenly he stopped and watched a child carrying a cup of water to a small hole he had dug in the sand. Augustine asked the boy, “Son, what are you doing?” The child replied, “I’m trying to pour the ocean into this hole.” Augustine laughed and said, “Son, that is impossible.” The child stared back into Augustine’s eyes and said, “Sir, it is no more impossible for me to put the ocean into this hole, than for you to try to put Almighty God into your small mind.” Touche! Great counsel for all of us when it comes to God and His ways!
Arnold Willis humorously defines a cannibal as a man who loves his fellow man with gravy. He shows his hospitality by having people over for dinner. Then Willis adds, “It is hard to explain theologically what happens when a missionary on his way to Heaven is eaten by a cannibal on his way to Hell.” When it comes to not understanding things, I guess we have just gone from the sublime to the ridiculous.
I. AN UNSPECIFIED THORN
We read of something in the Bible that we really don’t like reading about. It has been a thorny subject for many theologians and theological systems, as well as a thorny and a prickly reality in many people’s way of thinking. We read of it in II Corinthians 12:7 where the Apostle Paul says about himself,
“…there was given me a thorn in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to buffet me –
to keep me from exalting myself.”
I am not even going to venture a guess or try to propose a theory as to what Paul’s thorn in the flesh really was. The fact is that there are as many guesses as there are guessers. There are as many theories as there are theorists. There are as many commentaries as there are commentators on the thorny subject. We must have the intellectual honesty to admit that all of our guesses, theories and commentaries are just that – guesses, theories and commentaries. No more and no less! Not the greatest or most competent commentator or church historian can begin to tell us for sure what Paul’s thorn really was.
One thing we know for sure, it was a thorny affliction in his flesh. The Greek word for flesh is sarx from which we get sarcous which means pertaining to flesh or muscle. Paul had sarx suffering. Who knows? Perhaps epilepsy, or migraines, or asthma or back pains. There we go again, guessing and theorizing. Doing what I said I would not do!
Some, in order to make this passage fit their theology, try to make it mean something that is non-sarx. You know, like Paul’s constant enemies and persecutors who then could be called a pain in the neck. Come now! That is not only a stretch, it is a wrench in the works. A complete rape of the Greek text! We are dealing with sarx here, nothing more, nothing less, and nothing else.
This thorny thing we are also told buffeted him. That is important! The verb buffet comes from the Greek word kolaphizo which means most literally to hit with the fist. If you will, blows to the ole bod or face! Something in Paul’s life made his body feel like a punching bag. True, it was Satan who was doing the hitting, even as he mercilessly did in Job’s life. God could have tied Satan’s hands, but He chose not to. The pain was constant and severe. This we know by reason of the Holy Spirit’s choice of words. If left to itself, the thorn would have been unbearable for Paul. Very thorny stuff indeed!
Then of course there is the noun used for the misery. It is the word thorn which comes from the Greek noun scolops which means to impale, to crucify, to run through with a stake. The picture is this, that Paul has been impaled upon a stake, and while he is hanging there, Satan is slugging him, giving him blow after blow. Don’t screw up this picture by trying to make it fit some completely out-of-whack theology that teaches that Christians are not supposed to have flesh thorns, and if they do, they either lack faith or have sin in their life that is growing and nourishing the thorn.
Do you know where such distortions of the Word of God come from? There are those people in the church today who think that they have God all figured out. They have His entire eternity and involvement in time scripted. They have God tucked away in their nice, neat theological categories. They have portfolios for absolutely everything in His overall job description. And their basic premise is this, “Bad things only happen to bad people, and good things only happen to good people, and God must always function within those parameters.”
Thornton Wilder’s novel The Bridge Of San Luis Rey tells of a little village tucked away in South America. Each day the villagers made their way across a bridge to go to the fields. One day without warning the bridge collapsed, and six persons fell to their death. There was a priest in the village who said, “I will do research into these people’s lives and show why those six people were on the bridge when it fell.” He went on to say, “I will prove beyond a doubt that if you do bad things, bad will happen to you, and if you do good things, good will always happen to you.”
The priest studied every aspect of their lives, and he came back with this conclusion, namely, that those six people were no worse and they were no better than anyone else. He then had to correct all of his thinking. When we honestly read about Paul’s thorn, so must we. Yet there are those who try to rework the Word of God, rather than allowing the Word of God to rework them.
Now listen carefully. We don’t know what Paul’s thorn was, and that is a very good thing. If we knew what Paul’s thorn really was, which we don’t, then we would read this passage and most definitely be inclined to say, “Well of course, for that particular thorn, Paul could say that God’s grace was sufficient for him, but MY THORN IS DIFFERENT AND FAR WORSE.” You know human nature too, don’t you! If we knew what Paul’s thorny pain was for which God sufficiently graced him (II Corinthians 12:9), we would then argue, “My thorn is more complicated, my thorn is a special case, and I am sure that II Corinthians 12:7-9 does not really apply to me. I have an exceptionally thorny situation.”
The inevitable conclusion then would be, “I’m really not sure that God’s grace could be sufficient to help me bear with my thorn, which is far more intense in its pain than Paul’s ever was.”
That is why we must stop trying to put words in God’s mouth, and quoting Him with words that He never spoke. God you see in His Word is infinitely wise. Remember this principle, and it will keep us from messing up God’s Word and our thinking. It is this:
“GOD’S WORD IS AS WISE IN ITS RESERVATIONS AS IT IS IN ITS REVELATIONS.”
If you will:
“GOD’S WORD REVEALS ENOUGH TO MAKE IT PERSONAL, AND HIDES ENOUGH TO
MAKE IT UNIVERSAL IN ITS APPLICATION.”
Otherwise we would conclude that we have no message here for our most unique, exotic, one-of-a-kind, exceptional thorn.
II. OF THORNS AND PRAYERS
We also read what Paul did about his thorn. He says in II Corinthians 12:8,
“Concerning this I entreated the Lord three times that it might depart from me.”
The verb entreated comes from the Greek verb parakaleo which means to call to one’s side, to beseech. It is a very strong word. Paul besought, entreated, called out to the Lord to come to him and remove this thorn from his flesh. In fact, he did it three times. If you will, Paul pleaded with the Lord for the removal of this vexation over and over and over again. He counted the times, and in those prayers he did not simply pray for everything in general, and then as sort of a by-the-way ask the Lord to remove the stabbing and festering thorn. They were specific prayers for a specific need. This was definitive, pinpoint, precision praying.
And if Paul’s prayers were anything like his theology, they were powerful prayers that lacked very little in form, substance or sincerity. There might be those who point to Paul’s flawed prayers as being the reason for his not receiving the desired results. Defective praying or some such thing! Like he didn’t pray right, or, he didn’t use the right words, or, his spirit wasn’t pure etc.
It reminds me of the mother who said to her little boy, “Now say your prayers.” The little fella responded to his mother, “But mom, I don’t know the right words.” Mother said, “It is not a matter of words son. It is a matter of heart, and God knows your heart.” The boy replied, “Good, seeing God knows my heart and that I believe in Him, then I will just say the ABCs and let God put the words together.” I am afraid that there is more truth and wisdom in the little lad’s words than many want to admit.
People, even religious people, come up with formulas for everything, even prayer. And if we follow the prescribed formula, then every problem can be solved. A farmer visited his son’s college, and was watching the students in a chemistry class. The farmer was told that they were attempting to create “A Universal Solvent.” The farmer asked them, “What in the world is a universal solvent?” The answer came back, “Oh that is a particular liquid that will dissolve everything and anything that it touches.” The farmer responded, “My, that is great idea. But may I ask you a question? When you find that universal solvent that dissolves everything that it touches, what are you going to keep it in?” I am afraid that God just keeps on in life dissolving the formula-containers that we put Him in, including our prayer-formula containers.
Staying with Paul’s three times praying for a moment! I don’t believe that Paul is talking about three short little prayers. Rather, I believe that he is talking about three extended occasions in which he went to God about this thorny agony. I sense that he was recalling three intense and prolonged seasons of prayer in which he pleaded with God about this nasty nemesis. He at this moment is remembering those times in which he implored God to relieve him of this impalement. They are very vivid to him, and he is reliving them here.
I thank God for Paul’s honesty. It is terribly important for many in our congregations. This was pressure praying, that is, pressing into God again and again and again. Many can relate and need to hear this, for they have in fact lost count. For them it seems more like three hundred times.
III. A DIFFERENT KIND OF YES
Let’s face the facts folks. We all have thorns in our flesh of one kind or another and at one time or another. Everyone one of us without exception! More than that, there are those times when the answers we receive to our sincere and earnest entreaties to God seem to be an out and out NO.
Then when the thorn is not removed, we make so many false assumptions which we hold to in some instances all of our lives. We conclude things like, “God can’t hear us,”or “God is too busy with others,”or “God doesn’t care,” or “God isn’t real after all,” or “The Bible just isn’t true.” Some even assume that the Lord has so many prayers coming to Him at the same time, that He cannot pay attention to every one. He must not have heard my particular prayer which simply did not get through to Him and got lost in the prayer shuffle.
However, if you examine the Word of God closely in relationship to Paul’s prayers for thorn removal, you will find that God’s answer to Paul’s pleadings was not a categorical no! Okay, it was kind of a no, however:
“GOD’S NO WAS A DIFFERENT KIND OF A NO, A NO WITH A YES AT THE HEART OF IT.”
Paul wanted the thorn totally removed. He wanted the throbbing discomfort in his flesh to depart. God didn’t say no! He said yes in a different way! His yes!
She prayed that the drunken husband would sober up and stop drinking. He prayed that the critical wife would become complimentary. They prayed that the snotty and intolerant boss would turn to Christ and sweeten up. Paul prayed for Divine thorn removal. However, God wanted to show Paul a different kind of yes, a different kind of miracle, a miracle greater than the removing of the thorn. Hang in there now and stay with me.
There is a natural law which Jesus one day articulated. He stated it in Matthew 7:16 when He said:
“…Grapes are not gathered from thorn bushes,nor figs from thistles, are they?”
While He affirms that this is true in the natural, it is not necessarily true in the supernatural. He wants to show us:
“THAT SOMETIMES IN OUR LIVES THE SWEETEST GRAPES AND FIGS COME FROM
THE WORST THORNS AND THISTLES.”
So here was God’s answer to Paul’s prayers in II Corinthians 12:9,
“…My grace is sufficient for you….”
We must see here that God’s grace is more than unmerited favor, though it is indeed that. God’s grace is also God’s victorious and all-sufficient enabling in the midst of great trials and nasty thorns. God’s grace is Divine peace and enabling power in the midst of human suffering. So then, God did not say to Paul, “My grace is sufficient for the THORN.” That is, “My grace will remove that thorn.” No, not at all! He said to Paul and to all of us, “My grace is sufficient for YOU.” If you will:
“GOD’S GRACE IS NOT HERE FIRST OF ALL DESIGNED TO REMOVE THE THORNS OF LIFE,
BUT TO ENABLE US TO LIVE VICTORIOUSLY OVER THE THORNS.”
If you will:
“GOD’S PLAN IS NOT HERE FIRST OF ALL TO MATCH HIS GRACE TO THE NEED, BUT TO
GRACE US SO AS TO MATCH US TO THE NEED.”
If you will, not only to match us to the thorn, but to overmatch us to the thorn! If you allow the Holy Spirit to take you into and begin to live into God’s dealing with Paul here, it is absolutely liberating and freeing. Do you see it? It comes down to this, or should we say, it lifts us up to this:
“GOD DOESN’T ALWAYS GIVE US A MIRACLE, BUT HE ALWAYS WANTS TO
MAKE US THE MIRACLE.”
Now do you see it?
“MY GRACE IS SUFFICIENT FOR YOU.”
We are getting into the heart of authentic Christianity here! Some have never in their life heard of such truth. All that they hear preached today is the removal of discomfort, when all the while there is something far more honorable. God is much more interested in Paul’s life that he learns how to triumph over the thorn than simply having relief from it. God wants us first to be overcomers in rather than escapees from the trial
So it was and is with the martyrs for Christ, who bring Him greater glory by singing His praises while being fed to the lions or burned at the stake, than by expediency, arbitration and even compromise of their witness. If you will, He is after character before comfort, which has always been the “Divine Grace Priority.” If we fail to see this, embrace this, and teach this, we will counterfeit the Christian faith, and spiritually impoverish our people. That is exactly what is happening in modern Christianity. But the truth is this, even though it is being ignored to our great detriment:
“WHEN GOD ALLOWS US TO GRAPPLE WITH THE ENEMY, ONLY THEN DO WE FIND
SOMETHING IN US FAR GREATER AND MIGHTIER THAN ALL HIS BLOWS –
THE ALL-SUFFICIENT GOD OF GRACE AND GRACE OF GOD.”
I think now of one of the great men of God in all of history, and he is Richard Wurmbrand. You may recall that he was imprisoned for many years beneath a beautiful and massive building in Bucharest. He was in prison below the ground level. There was one pipe that brought in enough air for him to breathe. He was given tiny portions of food, and the guards wore felt over their clothes and shoes so that he could not hear them. Periodically he would hear beautiful music – beautiful Romanian music. Against that backdrop he would hear the screams of his wife being tortured somewhere else nearby.
Would you believe that Richard Wurmbrand testified that he had the peace of God under those incredibly painful circumstances? God’s peace that passes understanding despite the torture of his wife! God’s peace that passes understanding despite being there in dark solitary confinement! Not peace that the world gives, for that isn’t real peace. Not the false peace that comes from external comforts and conveniences. Rather the gracious bestowal of God’s miracle peace in the midst of unutterable pain. Richard Wurmbrand didn’t receive a miracle, he became one. He was truly a trophy of God’s grace. So was the Apostle Paul!
IV. GOD’S CUSTOMIZED GRACE
We must be exact here, and say precisely what we are reading in the Word. Paul makes it first-grade reader clear that the thorn itself had a Divinely Customized Purpose. II Corinthians 12:7 states:
“…for this reason, to keep me from exalting myself.”
This was God’s overriding purpose, namely, to keep Paul humble and dependent upon Him. Paul had been a pompous Pharisee to begin with, and now with all of the revelation he had received from the Holy Spirit, he might be tempted to go back to his haughty, high-minded self. So we must conclude that while God allowed Satan to have at Paul, the thorn that Satan stuck in Paul’s flesh was a Divinely Customized Thorn. Don’t try to figure out how God does that? You will surely develop a thorny migraine.
There is nothing in our lives left to chance or happenstance. Some of you are struggling with this, namely, that God would deliver Paul over to Satan for this thorny humbling. Hang in there, for that is exactly what God the Father did to His Son, only for a far greater purpose and a worse beating – crucifixion. We read in Acts 2:23,
“This man, delivered up by the predetermined plan and foreknowledge of God, you nailed
to a cross by the hands of Godless men and put Him to death.”
The horrid crucifixion of our Lord was not left by God to chance or uncertainty either. God does not leave His Son, and He does not leave His sons on the sea of life to the random battering of the adverse winds and waves. In short:
“THE DIVINE PILOT ALWAYS HAS AN INTENDED PORT AS HE STEERS HIS COURSE.”
Not only was Paul’s thorn a Divinely customized one, but the grace given him by God to deal with it was a Divinely Customized Grace. Once again we read the words of God to Paul in II Corinthians 12:9,
“My grace is sufficient for you.”
In other words:
“For you, just for you Paul, there is Divine grace specifically for you.”
God is saying that He has grace for Paul, exactly what he needs, exactly what I need, and exactly what you need. God is also the Master Psychologist, as He gives grace to fit each one of His children’s needs. I’m sure, as it is with me, so it is with many of you, our thorns hurt worse at some times than at other times. And God is promising us:
“I’VE GOT SUFFICIENT GRACE JUST FOR YOU, TIMED TO THE TICK OF THE CLOCK,
DESIGNED FOR THE NEED OF THE MOMENT, AND TUNED TO EVERY
BEAT OF YOUR HEART.”
From the early days of the Christian martyrs, there is the story the condemned Christian is in his cell at night. He is scheduled to be burned at the stake at dawn. How could he possibly endure to the end and not deny his Lord? How could he find the strength? For all of his life, he had one great fear, and that was the fear of fire. And so in the agony of his cell that night, he looked over in the corner where there was a little candle giving light to the prison cell. Crawling over to that light, he put the end of his little finger in the candle flame. Then he quickly drew his finger out of the fire and gasped in pain. He said to himself, “I know I’ll deny my Lord tomorrow, I’ll not have the inner strength to face it. How will I endure it, not only my little finger, but my whole body in the flame?”
However, the record of history is that the morning he walked to his death, he did so with his head erect and his voice lifted in praise to God. Encircled by the flames, he did not deny his Lord, but instead sang his Savior’s praises and preached to the people about Christ. For the Lord has said:
“MY GRACE IS SUFFICIENT FOR YOU, JUST FOR YOU, HOW YOU NEED IT, WHEN YOU
NEED IT, NOT A SECOND LATE, AND NEVER TOO LITTLE.”
Dwight L. Moody was holding meetings in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. A man came up to him in one of those meetings and asked him, “Brother Moody, do you think that you have enough grace to be burned at the stake?” Moody responded, “No, I don’t have enough grace for that.” The man responded, “Well, don’t you wish you had that much grace?” Moody said, “No, I don’t need grace for that right now, and that is why I don’t have grace for that right now. I’ll tell you what I need right now. I need grace to live in Milwaukee, and to hold these meetings, and the way things are going, it is going to take as much grace as being burned at stake.”
Former slave trader turned pastor, John Newton, was sent from his small country church to a big church in London, England. There this composer of Amazing Grace started praying, “Lord, give me London grace.” When someone asked him what London grace was, he replied, “London grace is grace of a very high degree! A very intense grace! A very special grace! It is a grace strong enough to make it possible for me to live a Christian life even in London, England!”
You see, God’s grace works differently and in different ways in different lives. Two men were both alcoholics, and they were converted to Christ on the same night in an inner-city mission. Then their ways drew them apart, and they went to work in other city missions. Twenty years later, after working to help other alcoholics to find freedom from their alcoholism in Jesus Christ, they met again. It was a sweet reunion as they reminisced about that night in the city mission when they were saved by grace. They both had gloriously met grace in a person, and His name was the Lord Jesus Christ.
Finally one man said to the other, “You know it is so wonderful, since that night when Jesus came into my heart, I haven’t had the slightest desire or taste for a drink.” The other brother said, “That is just wonderful! For in the last twenty years, I have over and over again had a taste for alcohol. But since that night twenty years ago, I have not had a drink either.”Grace, customized grace, just for you!“
V. THE DIVINE MY AND THE HUMAN YOU
We return to the heart of the passage recorded in II Corinthians 12:9 where we read,
“And He said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness.’”
We must see the contrast here between The Divine My and The Human You. If you will:
“MY GRACE – SUFFICIENT – FOR YOU.”
Or again the contrast between:
“DIVINE POWER – PERFECTED IN – HUMAN WEAKNESS.”
One commentator, writing about this passage, says that there is touch of reverent humor in it all. He put it this way, “We not only have here amazing grace, but a touch of amusing grace.” If you will:
“MY GRACE POINTS TO GOD’S ABSOLUTE INFINITE POWER, AND FOR YOU
POINTS TO MAN’S ABSOLUTE FINITE WEAKNESS.”
If you will:
“IT IS LIKE THE MIGHTY OCEAN SAYING TO A LITTLE BOY PLAYING ON THE BEACH,
‘MY OCEAN DEPTHS ARE SUFFICIENT FOR YOU TO FILL YOUR LITTLE
If you will:
“IT IS LIKE A GREAT CORNFIELD TALKING TO A LITTLE MOUSE, AND SAYING, ‘MY
HARVEST IS SUFFICIENT FOR YOUR HUNGER.’”
If you will:
“IT IS LIKE GOD STANDING WITH A MAN ON THE TOP OF A HIGH MOUNTAIN. GOD
SAYS, ‘DON’T WORRY, GO AHEAD, TAKE A DEEP BREATH. BREATHE
DEEPLY EVERY MOMENT, YOU WILL NEVER BEGIN TO
EXHAUST MY ATMOSPHERE.’”
I think back to the 19th century and an attorney named Horatio Spafford who lived in Chicago at the time. Immediately after the great fire of 1871, in which much of Chicago was destroyed, Horatio Spafford sent his wife and four children on a ship to Europe so that they would not be there during the clean-up and the great rebuilding. Halfway over the Atlantic Ocean, their ship collided with another ship. Mrs. Spafford saw all four of her children drown. Then the mast of the ship fell on her, knocking her unconscious and seriously wounding her, though she would eventually recover.
When Mrs. Spafford woke up, she was floating on debris in the water from which she was rescued. As soon as she could, she wired the words to her husband, “Saved Alone.” Her husband Horatio instantly booked passage to Wales where his wife had been hospitalized. On the way over to what the navigators calculated as almost the exact spot where the two ships collided and his four children drowned, this devoted man of God walked up and down the deck and composed one of the greatest hymns that was ever written. You know the words well:
“WHEN PEACE LIKE A RIVER ATTENDETH MY WAY, WHEN SORROWS LIKE SEA BILLOWS
ROLL, WHATEVER MY LOT THOU HAST TAUGHT ME TO SAY, IT IS WELL,
IT IS WELL, WITH MY SOUL.”
Oh yes, there is deeper meaning in that song than that which first meets the eye. So much of the pathos is hidden from view. For it was in overwhelming loss, sorrow and pain that Horatio Spafford felt throughout his life that he found a gracious bestowal of God’s peace. Without that all-sufficient peace, he would have drowned as well in his own tears. Instead he could sing over and over again:
“It is well with my soul, it is well with my soul, it is well, it is well with my soul.”
How often I have talked with God’s children in moments of deep pain and loss, as well as lingering thorny lifestyles, and they have said that they felt like they were being literally pillowed in God’s loving arms. There is only one glorious explanation for this, and that is God’s declarative and triumphant promise:
“MY GRACE IS SUFFICIENT FOR THEE.”*