Consider for a moment this passage from Paul’s second letter to the church at Corinth:
Therefore in order to keep me from becoming conceited, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from 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 in my weakness, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecution, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.
2 Corinthians 12:7-10
- Paul was another example, like Jesus of what God is able to achieve through a person.
- He was a highly developed person: educated, multilingual and had dual nationality.
- He was also a religious fanatic and violent before coming to faith but became gentle and kind over time.
- He describes a weakness given to him as a “thorn in the flesh”. This experience humbled him and actually became the perfect way for God to display his power.
What was the “thorn in the flesh”? Some biblical scholars have speculated:
- a physical ailment
- a speech impediment
- a personality / angel ordemon sent to tempt him
What if Paul’s “thorn in the flesh”was a type of addiction or some other form of brokenness? Whatever his weakness was it caused him to rely more fully on God and it caused him torment.
When we look at history we see that many of the great reformers have had to struggle with some form of weakness that could be described as a “thorn in the flesh”. Here are some examples :
- In the 17th Century Rene Descartes a French churchman and mathematician, widely held as the father of modern philosophy, suffered from back pains that left him bedridden most of the time. At one point he tells how he felt God had called him to use his talents to write in defence of the existence of God, especially to those who did not believe in the veracity of the Bible. He chose to use reason as his tool.
- In the 17th Century Madame Guyon a young widow who after going through an arranged and unhappy 12 years of marriage began to lead many in the France to a real faith in God at a time when ritual and hierarchy in the church had often stifled faith. Masses of other people from Germany, Netherlands and England were blessed by her wisdom yet she had to endure 8 years imprisonment including time in the infamous Bastille.
- In 18th Century England the pioneer of the Evangelical revival, an Anglican vicar John Wesley was so successful as an evangelist that it is thought by historians that England was saved from a French style revolution and its attendant blood bath as a direct result of his preaching. However when we read his journal we discover how he struggled with his fears of death throughout his lifetime.
- In the 19th Century Abraham Lincoln, considered by many to be the greatest of American presidents for winning a war to preserve the Union of States and creating the legal foundation for the abolition of slavery, also struggled with bipolar disorder throughout his life. People who knew him said that “when he was down, he was unreachable but when he was up, he was undefeatable .”
- In the late 19th Century the mathematician and inventor or the discipline of statistics Florence Nightingale spent a number of years developing nursing as a respectable profession for women. All the while she reluctantly rejected her suitor who on numerous occasions proposed marriage to her throughout what must have been a difficult 9 year period. She said that she loved him but that she would not be able to follow her calling if she married and had a family.
- In the 20th Century the Albanian nun known as Mother Teresa of Calcutta, India was considered to be one of the most compassionate woman on earth for her work with the poorest of the poor, the desperate and the dying. Her journal is fascinating reading. She writes about her constant self-doubt and feelings of inadequacy.
As I observe these men and women, like Paul they achieved amazing things in their lifetimes. Yet when we take a closer look at their lives we discover that they all had significant and painful struggles.
The conclusions that I draw are these:
- Our weakness does not limit God from expressing his power fully through our lives.
2. Our weakness stop us from becoming conceited and it produces humility in us.
3. Our weaknesses should not be hidden but rather exposed and “boasted” about.
4. The ability to admit our weakness can be described as our strength.
Many of us struggle in different ways: we have been abused; we may live with addictive behaviours or partners or we may be struggle with insecurity about our gender and identity. It is important to realise that our weakness can serve to produce humility in us. If we accept it, it can cause us to rely more fully on God as we understand him.
Viewed this way Paul’s use of the metaphor “a thorn in the flesh” seem apt.
May God’s power be with you in all your struggles.
“For when I am weak, then I am strong.” Paul of Tarsus