Friday, December 9, 2011

Thorn in the Flesh

It was the strangest be-careful-what-you-ask-for story I remember hearing. A young woman came to her pastoral counselor complaining of an overwhelming feeling of spiritual oppression, of being constantly assaulted with fear, depression, and temptations to anger.

"Did you experiment with anything occult just before this started?" the counselor asked.

"Of course not! I was working hard with spiritual disciplines. I even prayed a special prayer for spiritual growth."

"What kind of growth, exactly, did you pray for?"

"Well"--she thought for a minute--"I wanted to be great in faith like St. Paul, so I asked God for a thorn in the flesh like his."

"Sounds as if you got it and found you asked for more than you could handle," the counselor told her. "A thorn in the flesh isn't something to treat casually. Remember, even Paul didn't want his."

She prayed that her "thorn" would be removed. And, unlike Paul, received a "yes" answer.

It's a rare person who becomes so eager for growth as to pray for suffering to nourish it. And an even rarer person who experiences the heights of vision that Paul notes led to the giving of his own "thorn" (2 Cor. 12:1-10). Nonetheless, all of us have parts of life--physical conditions, family background, talent or lack thereof--we consider "thorns in our flesh." Many of us are too casual for our own good, applying the term flippantly to relatively minor problems. But with others, "torment" seems too mild a word for what the thorn-bearer endures.

We don't know anything about Paul's own thorn (commentators have suggested everything from poor eyesight to active demonic oppression) except that it made his life miserable and that he nonetheless came to regard it as God's necessary instrument, even as a gift, for enabling him to accomplish God's work to a degree he never could have without. He might not have been so humble (or so rash) as to ask for suffering, but he learned to be grateful for it.

Christ wore a crown of thorns on His path to glory. Might not the "thorns" of our own lives be God's ingredients for forging the jewels in our own eternal crowns of righteousness?

Few of us are equal to great St. Paul
In our trials or in the works we do,
But one thing is common to nearly all:
We all have our thorns like the one he knew.

Some of us are sickly and yearn for health
That we might do great things to spread God's name;
But He may call us just to war in prayer,
That in the long run there be greater gain.

Some of us are timid and wish we could
Preach to crowds in public like Billy Graham;
But our own gift may be a written word
Which can go to places no speaker can.

And most of us pray for our thorns to go,
And some may vanish, but some will stay;
We must trust in God, Who alone can know
What things best will lead us along His way.

And when we all stand before His throne
And receive the crowns that are our rewards,
I believe among the jewels in those crowns
Will be some transformed from the sharpest thorns.

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