God’s Purpose for Thorns

Roses are some of the most beautiful flowers in the world. You can now buy them in a myriad of colours and intensity of aromas. They are the standard flower used to express love between people. Almost everything about them is beautiful from the flowers to the strong stems that hold them. But there is one fault regarding roses… the thorns.

When I read the letters of Paul, there is one passage that I relate to on a daily basis. In saying that, there is a negative to it in it always makes me cringe. In 2 Corinthians 12:7-9  we read: “To 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.” Why do I relate to it? I too have a “thorn in the flesh.”

I do not like it. I often wish I did not have it. At times I am frustrated by it. It makes almost everything harder, daily dragging me down as I carry out my roles as husband, father, grandfather and pastor. In almost every aspect of my life, it weakens me and deprives me of joy. I often feel that I would be more effective and fruitful without it. Over the years I have pleaded with God, sometimes in tears, for it to be removed or for more power to overcome it. But it remains.

Now, I am not going to explain what it is. The reality is, the details are not related to the point I want to make, and I think they would actually make this article more about myself rather than God. We each have our own thorn in the flesh, or if you live long enough you will be given one or more. Yours will be different from mine, but its purpose will be similar. For we are given thorns that significantly weaken us in order to make us stronger.

We really do not know what Paul’s issue was. Some thought it was a physical affliction, possibly due to all the persecution he endured? Others think it was an eye condition from his comments in Galatians 4. But it also says that it was a harassing “messenger of Satan.” This might have pointed to a psychological or spiritual struggle due to the suffering he endured – maybe a form of PTSD?

The important point for us to understand from this passage is we understand the “thorn” was given to Paul to keep him humble and dependent on God. The fact that we really do not know what Paul’s thorn was turned out to be both merciful and instructive to us. It is merciful because, given the various possibilities, we all can identify with Paul to some degree in our struggles. It is instructive because what Paul’s thorn was is not the point. The point is what God’s purpose was for the thorn.

Paul makes two amazing, and somewhat initially disturbing, statements about his painful thorn — in the same sentence. In verse 7, he says the thorn was given to him and that it was delivered by a messenger of Satan.

The first amazing claim Paul makes is that God gave him his thorn. From the context, Paul identified God as his thorn-giver, not Satan. And he understood that God’s purpose was to keep Paul humble and dependent on Christ’s power. As one author put it, “God disciplines his children with affliction in order to protect them from having their joy destroyed by pride.”

Paul taught and experienced many amazing things in his journey with God and we can identify with many of them, When we read about some of his sufferings, our experience is usually much different. But with that being said, our thorns are still thorns. Just as with Paul, God’s purpose in our thorns is similar.

Pride, in all its manifestations, is our most pervasive sin and the most dangerous to us spiritually. Anything God gives us to keep us humble and prayerfully dependent on him is a great gift — even when that gift causes us pain. And here we see clearly that God disciplines his children with affliction in order to protect them from having their joy destroyed by the sin of pride. Ponder that: pain can protect us from pain; redemptive pain can protect us from destructive pain. Again, another commentator made this observation: “The most redemptive gift of pain in history was given to us through the most evil means.” God has a purpose for pain…

But here is the part that is cringing worthy. It is a bit shocking to see that the messenger of this pain was from Satan. This takes us from God allowing suffering to God using someone or something evil to dole it out. For me, it is going from the shallow end of a pool to the deep end. And the way Paul deals with this gives the impression that he clearly expects Christians to be able to swim here.

Let this settle in: “Satan pierces us with a thorn from God?” The answer is, “Yes.” Does this trouble us? Does it trouble us that it did not trouble Paul? Paul feels no need to qualify or explain how God can give His child a redemptive gift of pain through an evil means. Why? Because this phenomenon occurs throughout the Bible. Paul knows his Old Testament like the back of his hand, and it has truths like this woven throughout it. Remember Joseph’s words to his brothers after revealing himself to them? He said, “you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good”. And Paul knows that the most redemptive gift of pain in history, the death of Christ the Lord, was given to us through the evilest means.

Our redemptive thorns also may be delivered by a satanic messenger. But we can know this: our God is so powerful and so wise that he can work all things, including our satanically delivered thorns, for our good. As Romans 8:28 says, “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.” Trust in this kind of sovereignty is what fuels our joyful, confident contentedness while experiencing the weakness and weariness of our affliction. With this attitude and understanding in mind, our agonizing thorns end up producing greater joy in us and ultimately make us more effective and fruitful.

Just like Paul’s, our thorns weaken us. Sometimes they are visible to others, but often they are hidden from public view, known only to those who know us best. And they are never romantic, never heroic. Rather, they almost always humble us in embarrassing rather than noble ways. They not only seem to impede our effectiveness and fruitfulness, but they also are more likely to detract from rather than enhance our reputations. That is why, like Paul, we ask God to remove them.

Although we may wish things differently. But in many ways, this is the way our thorns have to be. Because if they were noble and heroic, if they enhanced our reputations, they would be of no help at all in guarding us against falling into pride. Which is why, as with Paul, God often answers our pleas for deliverance with a “no.” Because without the thorn, we would never experience that God’s grace truly is sufficient in all circumstances and His power is made perfect in weakness.

This is the reason we have our thorns. There is a saying, “What does not kill you makes you stronger,” fits in here. Without them, we would choose a weaker strength and miss experiencing the glory of God’s powerful grace and realize lesser joys as a result. It is just one more kingdom paradox: our agonizing thorns end up producing greater joy in us and ultimately make us more effective and fruitful. The more we press into this paradox, the more we will say with Paul in 2 Corinthians 12:9-10, “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.”

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