Thorns, weaknesses, strength and victories
I have received such wonderful revelations from God, but to keep me from becoming proud, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger from Satan to torment me and keep me from becoming proud. Three different times I begged the Lord to take it away. Each time he said, “My grace is all you need. My power works best in weakness.” So now I am glad to boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ can work through me.
(2 Cor. 12:7-9 NLT)
Weakness! Everything shies away from the thought of it! Thorns in the flesh – Aargh! The last thing we want to contemplate! But since quite a few of us will have been through trials and ordeals in the past year – and are equally likely to have things that challenge and buffet in the coming year – it is worth giving some serious thought to matters that we cannot pray away. Forewarned is forearmed!
Why be surprised that we, like St Paul, are called to pass through many ordeals, or that we often feel “pinned back” in the face of them? The question is, can we find ways to ally our sense of helplessness to the power of God?
Someone very dear to me has recently been through a particularly testing time. At one point in a long saga a friend had a dream that she was on a platform trying to catch a train whose doors were wide open. (We knew exactly what this picture corresponded to). He had a sense that it was very important for her to catch the train, but the people milling about on the platform were deliberately manoeuvring in order to prevent her from catching it. Unable to get on, the train pulled out – leaving her heartbroken. The guidance she had received about the whole matter, however, had been so clear (and the implications of missing what this train represented were so catastrophic) that I encouraged her to keep praying for the Lord to somehow bring about a miracle of resurrection. Quite, amazingly, in response to much fervent prayer, the “train” returned to the platform, making it possible for her to get on board this time round. The intervening period certainly drove her to seek the Lord with renewed urgency!
“Stop that man at all costs!” (Sheriff Lucifer’s instructions to his posse)
At the height of his ministry, when the Lord was using Paul to found numerous churches in Asia Minor, his opponents appeared to get the better of him when they had him whipped and imprisoned. But even then Paul refused to be daunted. Picking up his pen he wrote letters of extraordinary depth to his converts in the infant church; epistles that now form the backbone of the New Testament. Whether preaching to world leaders or explaining the way of God to multitudes, here was a man who was causing hell to rock on its foundations. No wonder Satan pulled out all the stops to rid himself of this thorn in his flesh.
We know about quite a few of the specific battles Paul went through, but he summarised it like this: that a specific angel of hell was stirring up opponents to buffet and torment him. That this was no once off battle is clear from the fact that the Greek word means “to strike repeatedly”.
It is these “buffetings” which caused Paul so much strain and that explains the sharp thorn in Paul’s flesh we read about in 2 Corinthians 12:7. Those who are most used by God to advance the Kingdom often face relentless pressure – at least for specific seasons. Instead of rallying round to protect them from these demonic attacks, all too many fellow believers in the Body of Christ set out to demolish them still further by finding something they do not happen to agree with – which they use as their “justification” for denouncing them. So many ministers today, like St Paul himself, find themselves obliged to devote much precious time and energy defending themselves and their ministry against these repeated criticisms, when all they really want to do is to get on with the work God has given them to do. Let’s do our very best in this coming year not to side with the taunts and accusations of the evil sheriff’s posse!
Prayers that even God can’t answer!
Much as we are often inclined to do, Paul prayed fervently for the Lord to take this unwanted pressure away. “Fervent” isn’t enough in itself however. The truth is that God could not answer these passionate prayers, in the way that Paul had hoped because God could only grant Paul’s request either by taking him home to Heaven – (and the time for that had definitely not yet come) or by withdrawing him from the spiritual front line. And what a triumph for the enemy that would have been!
If things suddenly ease in our relationship with someone at whose hands we have been suffering, we can be exceedingly grateful, but that does not mean that satan will not succeed in coming up with some equivalent “awkwardness.” The nature of the warfare is such that just as Jesus and Paul faced constant opposition, so too will all who work on the front line. In Paul’s case, as for many of us, it came from several directions at once: both from the rabid opposition of the Jewish leaders (who hated him passionately for “betraying” the faith and following this new way) and, more painful still, from those inside the church who envied him his pre-eminent position, and who constantly sought to undermine him. Outward opposition often stirs us up to fight in faith, whereas pressure from within the Body of Christ often proves more subtly demoralising.
Either way we must seek the Lord for strategies for ways to turn enemy inspired action into faith filled advance – and refuse to allow him to distract us from our God inspired endeavours.
Beware Green Eyes the Envious!
We can be sure that envy lies at the root of so much of people’s hostility. There are always people who to think that they could do a much better job of being an apostle than mealy mouthed Paul, and that more of the limelight should be coming their way – woefully unaware how unfitted they are to bear the pressures of such apostolic ministry, or that they have not received God’s specific anointing and appointing.
Let’s be clear: although Paul unquestionably did suffer from various ailments (particularly in the eye) closer study shows that this thorn in the flesh could not primarily have been a physical weakness. When the Lord gives His answer to Paul’s complaint, He reassures them that “My strength is made perfect in weakness,” there is a subtle nuance in the Greek between astheneo, which describes a person who is feeling weak, distressed and unsettled or needy, and asthenes, which would be the word used to describe physical ailments. (See Sparkling Gems from the Greek, Rick Renner, p. 856)
In other words it was contact with these opponents, and their opposition behind-the-scenes that was causing him to feel so unsettled and distressed. So how are we to bear these times?
Getting into the meat of God’s Word
“My grace is sufficient for you; for My strength is made perfect in weakness.”
A cynic might think that what the Lord showed Paul here was a copout; those who are more experienced in seeking Him know it to be the most profound and reassuring truth of all. Two things in particular stand out to me here. First of all the Greek word used to describe God’s grace as being sufficient clearly implies that there it is strong enough not just to help us get by and survive, but rather to give us all the necessary help and protection we need.
Secondly, the word for strength, dunamis, likewise speaks not just of a once off moment of strengthening, but rather of something which God desires to give us moment by moment as we seek Him for it. How much better is that than accepting the enemy’s assessment of things and caving in?! The problems and difficult people we are up against are not too strong for Him – or for us in Him.
Look to the Lord and his strength; seek His face always!
Those who look to Him are radiant; their faces are never covered with shame. (Psalm 105:4, and 34:5 NV).
How much should we reach out to those who are hindering us?
In the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, we command you, brothers and sisters, to keep away from every believer who is idle and disruptive and does not live according to the teaching you received from us. (2 Thess. 3:6 NIV)
There can be no blanket formula answer to this question. The wonder of God’s love is that it so often enables us to display persistent unconditional love that reaches out to “difficult” people as if they held a special place in our hearts, and finally wins them over. It is certainly wise to remember that it is all but impossible to resent someone we are actively praying for. It is a wonderful way to make their ministry ours. There are times, however, we are better off following the clear instructions that both Paul and John give us, and to keep well away from divisive people who are doing so much to undermine and speak against us.
“Keeping a distance” runs counter to much of our normal thinking as Christians, but even John, “the apostle of love”, is quite clear that this is sometimes the best and wisest way forward. (1 John 2:7-11, Titus 3:10)
We are certainly not called to denounce and avoid people for minor differences (as so many do out of mistaken zeal for Christ) but to be wary of people whose whole way of life draws people into their own orbit and away from Christ and the well-being of His Body.
Things that take the wind out of our sails will continue to come our way, but may we have the resilience to seek and find the Lord’s specific strategy for each situation that we face in the coming year. May we open wide our hearts to Jesus, and see His power winning many wonderful victories in this coming year – overcoming evil with good in many different scenarios. (Rom. 12:21)