Holy Thorns

2 Corinthians 12:1-10

Weakness of any kind is not what most people in our culture would call an admirable trait. If our advertising is any indication, we have a definite preference for the young, the strong, the successful—what we sometimes call “the whole package.”

The strong get to make the beer commercials and sell the latest shoes. The weak are lucky if someone will buy them a beer. This all is even scientifically provable. For example, height projects might, and that can translate into more power and more money.

It’s not just our culture, either. Power, strength and wellness are usually held in high esteem. The Old Testament’s Saul, described as handsome as any man in the nation and a head taller than anyone else, became the first king of Israel, a case of God teaching a lesson by giving the people what they wanted. (He later steered them in another direction.)

One would not expect a successful, global religion to emphasize the importance of weakness. And yet, that is what Christianity does. In our text today, we can see the Apostle Paul learned to revel in his weakness. Through weakness, the text tells us, God does some of his best work.

We do not know for sure what was wrong with Paul. He described his weakness only as a thorn in the flesh, a problem he believed God declined to relieve in order to keep him humble. He had been granted great visions—yes, we are to understand he is the man spoken of in the third person, the man given a vision of heaven—but Paul’s work was among the broken, and God didn’t want him to forget his calling.

Some people think Paul had some great temptation to sin; others think he was referencing Jewish persecution; still others think he suffered some physical infirmity. There is significant evidence for the latter. In Galatians 4, Paul speaks of his “bodily ailment” and remembers the love the Christians in Galatia showed him. “For I testify to you that, if possible, you would have gouged out your eyes and given them to me.”

Later, in the sixth chapter of Galatians, Paul takes over from his scribe, writing, “See what large letters I am writing to you with my own hand,” a wasteful use of expensive parchment, unless necessary. Put all that together, and there’s a strong possibility Paul had very poor vision, which would be poetic, considering how he was struck temporarily blind in his initial defiance of God and later was granted a vision of heaven.

Whatever the nature of the thorn, Paul not only learned to live with it, he learned to draw strength from it. He tells us he prayed for relief, only to hear from God, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”

We are reminded once again how God views the world so differently than we do. God loves to work through the weak and the broken; when great things happen through the powerless, the credit can appropriately go to just one place, God.

Most of us can think of people in our lives who were like spiritual Energizer Bunnies. Regardless of the dark moments or infirmities they suffered, grace never seemed to stop flowing through them. Oh, they had bad days, like any of us, but they never wavered in their faith that God was with them, and that God’s work could be done through them.

And as in Paul’s situation, sometimes those moments of sadness or torment turn into glory for God. I’ve said this before and I will say it again: Such a turn of events must send Satan into a rage that fans the fires of Hell.

When I was working in the Czech Republic on short-term mission trips for a few years, I got to know a pastor named Daniel Hottmar. Satan must have thought he had done a pretty good number on Daniel, who was confined to a wheelchair because of a congenital medical problem.

On my first trip, I watched Daniel go to work for the Lord from that wheelchair, using his soft voice and wry grin to great effect. As part of our week-long pastor’s school, we were staying at a small hotel run by the Czech Brethren Church in a town called Janske Lazne, near the Polish border. At least one other group stayed there at the same time.

I still don’t know precisely the purpose of the other group’s meeting, but it was not Christian. They seemed to be enjoying a lot of music. At one point they watched a magician who made paper angels and then asked his audience if they could feel heat emanating from his artwork. The whole thing seemed a little “New Age.”

Daniel saw an opportunity and convinced these people to let him speak to them. He gave his testimony about how Christ had worked in him and through him despite his physical disabilities.

As the week progressed, some of these people began showing up in our Bible studies or the worship time we had together. They even had a special request for Daniel—they asked if he could stop in a small village on his way home and offer help to a family.

A son in the family had been paralyzed in a car accident, they said, and the mother in her worry and grief was focusing so exclusively on the injured son that she was ignoring her husband and other children. The father had begun to drink heavily, they said.

Daniel quickly agreed to go there. I was convinced he was the kind of man who would roll that wheelchair anywhere God sent him, most of the time with great effect.

Daniel taught me that when Satan strikes at us in some way, and God doesn’t seem to be relieving the immediate problem, we may need to ask ourselves a new question: How do I turn this weakness into a strength?

Toward the end of his life, my paternal grandfather began to ask, “Why am I still here?” He had lost his wife. He loved to read, but in his early 90s his eyes deteriorated to a point where he couldn’t make out the words anymore.

As we talked through the question, we reached an interesting conclusion. He could still pray; already a praying man, he could devote an enormous amount of time to prayer, more time than he had ever been able to devote before. If we believe prayer is effective, then what my grandfather was left on earth to do for a time was an astonishing opportunity—he was being invited to spend his day alongside the eternal God, seeking change in the world around him.

I think of Daniel, I think of my grandfather, and I think of all of you who continue to show grace in the midst of trouble, and then I think, “Take that, Satan.”