Have you thrown away something useless…and then realized later that you needed it? I have. I do it all the time! I find myself looking for notes from a class that I threw away, because I was sure that I’d NEVER need them. It turns out I did need them! I always seem to find the perfect use for something…the week after I’ve gotten rid of it.
Often we fail to see the real value of things. There are things that we are convinced are completely worthless, and we fail to see how useful they really are until it’s too late. I do it all the time with notes, music, papers…all kinds of things. I imagine I’m not alone in that.
I think we do this in a spiritual sense as well. We all have circumstances that frustrate, anger, sadden, or discourage us. We look at these circumstances the same way I looked at my class notes in college: “This is completely useless…I can’t get any good out of this…I just want to get rid of it!”
It’s a very understandable reaction. Be honest, none of us enjoy trials or suffering, or painful circumstances that cause you to wonder where God is in your life; but the truth is that even our most painful and perplexing circumstances can be of great value and use to us.
The Apostle Paul could relate to this. He suffered a trial that he called “a thorn in the flesh”. Paul relates to us in I Corinthians 12: 7-8 that he asked God on three separate occasions to remove this thorn from him:
And lest I should be exalted above measure through the abundance of the revelations, there was given to me a thorn in the flesh, the messenger of Satan to buffet me, lest I should be exalted above measure. For this thing I besought the Lord thrice, that it might depart from me.
Paul does not tell us what exactly this thorn was. Some have speculated it could be a physical ailment, perhaps related to his eyesight. I’ve even heard some speculation that it could have been something akin to PTSD, brought on by the intense guilt and shame Paul surely felt because of his persecution of Christians prior to his conversion. It may have been a particular person that continually caused problems for Paul. Whatever his thorn was, Paul doesn’t tell us, because that isn’t the point.
God denied Paul’s requests for its removal, and I’m sure this seemed perplexing to Paul. Likely, Paul looked on his thorn the same way we look at our painful circumstances: a worthless thing that brought him only pain and suffering. Why would God allow Paul to continue suffering with his thorn? I believe this passage goes on to show us three ways that God brought value out of Paul’s thorn, and that He can bring value from our thorns as well.
- Thorns can help keep us humble.
Paul begins I Corinthians 12 by describing an incredible experience he had…a visit to heaven!
I knew a man in Christ above fourteen years ago, (whether in the body, I cannot tell; or whether out of the body, I cannot tell:God knoweth;) such an one caught up to the third heaven. And I knew such a man, (whether in the body, or out of the body, I cannot tell:God knoweth;) How that he was caught up into paradise, and heard unspeakable words, which it is not lawful for a man to utter.
Paul describes being caught up to the third heaven(Paul says even he did not know if he physically went to heaven or not) where he saw awe-inspiring things that he was not even allowed to repeat to others. What an incredible experience!
It’s easy to see how Paul could have become lifted up with pride due to these visions…I struggle with my pride, and I’ve certainly never experienced anything like Paul’s visit to heaven! Paul states explicitly in verse 7 that one of the reasons this thorn was given to him was to help keep him humble. This thorn reminded Paul of his own weakness and dependence on God. It reminded him that he was only a man, and all glory and honor rightly belongs to God.
In the same way, our thorns can help keep us humble and dependent on God…if we let them! We all struggle with being lifted up with pride in different aspects of our life. Perhaps you’re tempted to take pride in your financial status…a financial catastrophe could lead you to greater trust and dependence on the Lord. Perhaps you tend to glory in your talent or ability…God could use a circumstance that you can’t control to teach you that your own strength and ability is insufficient for the storms of life!
C.S. Lewis once wrote, “According to Christian teachers, the essential vice, the utmost evil, is pride. Unchastity, anger, greed, drunkenness, and all that, are mere flea bites in comparison: it was through Pride that the devil became the devil: Pride leads to every other vice: it is the complete anti-God state of mind.” Pride will inevitably lead to destruction; anything that helps keep us in humble dependence on God is really a mercy!
- Thorns help keep us close to God.
Similar to the first point, thorns can draw us into deeper fellowship. Be honest…when do you seek God the most? When do you pray with the most fervor? When you have a thorn in your life. When you have a trial or circumstance that is out of your control and causing you pain. We all tend to turn to God more at those times than we do when things are tickety-boo.
Paul states that he turned to God for help and relief from his thorn. He asked God on three separate occasions to remove his thorn from him:
For this thing I besought the Lord thrice, that it might depart from me.
And he said unto me, My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness.
God denied Paul’s request, but he offered him something else: grace. Had God simply removed Paul’s thorn, that would have been the end of it. I’m sure Paul would have been thankful, but he would not have felt the need for God’s grace and power in his life with the same acuteness. By allowing the thorn to remain, God gave Paul the impetus to draw closer to Himself.
Our thorns work in the same way. Yes, God could remove all of our difficult circumstances; but would we still learn to trust Him? Would we still draw close to Him with the same fervency? Would we still learn that His marvelous, infinite, matchless grace is sufficient for our every weakness? I trow not.
In the words of Warren Wiersbe, “In the Christian life, we get many of our blessings through transformation, not substitution. When Paul prayed three times for the removal of his pain, he was asking God for a substitution: ‘Give me health instead of sickness, deliverance instead of pain and weakness.’ Sometimes God does meet the need by substitution; but other times He meets the need by transformation. He does not remove the affliction, but He gives us His grace so that the affliction works for us and not against us.”
- Thorns can bring glory to God.
Paul said something really incredible about his thorn in the flesh: he actually gloried in them and took pleasure in them!
Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in necessities, in persecutions, in distresses for Christ’s sake: for when I am weak, then am I strong.
This doesn’t mean that Paul was some kind of masochist who literally enjoyed experiencing pain. It means that Paul was joyful because he realized that his thorn provided an opportunity for God to receive glory from his life. Paul was grateful not for the pain itself, but for the opportunity it presented for God to make His power known in Paul’s life.
When we are faced with a thorn, whether it’s a physical weakness, trial, or distressing circumstance, we can be joyful because God has an opportunity to show His power in our life. Our desperate situations reveal God’s provision for His children when He delivers us. Our pain reveals God’s grace and care for His children when He comforts us. Our difficult circumstances reveal God’s goodness, when we find our joy in Him.
Our thorns also allow us to be a testimony to the lost, and a help to other Christians. When we choose to trust God and have joy in the midst of a trial, we preach a living sermon about the righteousness, love, and goodness of God. Paul writes later in II Corinthians 1:4 that God “comforteth us in all our tribulation, that we may be able to comfort them which are in any trouble, by the comfort wherewith we ourselves are comforted of God.” Have you ever realized that the thorn you’re experiencing right now will one day allow you the opportunity to help others who suffer from the same thing?
There is a beautiful song called “Redeemer of the Rain” that states in the chorus, “the Lord will never waste our pain.” We all face, as Paul said, infirmities, reproaches, necessities, persecutions, distresses, but God never gives those thorns without using it for our good and His glory. Paul’s example should be an encouragement to us that God will use our thorns in the flesh much like He used Paul’s.