2 Corinthians 12:2-10
In reading Paul’s letters, we find that he often uses his own difficulties as an example for encouragement to other Christians. This morning he writes to the community at Corinth about a particular struggle, which he calls a thorn that is in his side.
Paul writes “…a thorn was given to me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me, to keep me from being too elated. Three times I appealed to the Lord about this, that it would leave me, but he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness’ (2 Corinthians 12:9).
Now the debates swirl about the nature of Paul’s thorn, and every book has yet another theory. Some say mental illness, others say physical malady, blindness perhaps. Others say it is repeated persecutions and missionary dangers and so on. But the jury is out and will remain so because the text is simply unclear. And actually, I think Paul intentionally left the specifics out because he wants us, his readers, to not focus on HIS thorn, but on our own.
Paul wants us to follow his lead and examine those things with which we struggle, so God might use them for our own spiritual growth. Paul wants us to not only be mindful of such thorns, but ultimately, to thank God for them. Because by them we are brought low, through them we are made humble and because of them God more fully leads us.
Now these thorns are different things at different times. They may be challenging relationships, personal limitations, illness, depression, painful memories. Thorns are sometimes temporary, sometimes life-long. And Paul says this morning that they are always something by which we can grow spiritually, by leaps and bounds.
Like a grain of sand in an oyster shell- the irritations of life’s thorns, when dealt with in God, become our most treasured pearls. And how that happens, is what our Christian life is ALL about.
Now, it must be said that there are some challenges in life which should never be tolerated. These are the thorns created in sin and should never be tolerated. These are the thorns of injustice and abuse. These are the thorns of curable disease and abject poverty. These thorns are not to be endured, but fought, by all who are able.
With that said, Paul points out that there are thorns whose origins are less clear, and with which we have to live with on the daily basis.
So in the spirit of Paul’s entreaty I will share my own, perhaps greatest, thorn by which I have known such grace I never otherwise would have. I am the first to say that I was born in a family of great gifts. With a beautiful mother who modeled all her life and an athletic, intelligent father, my entire family is blessed with good looks, ambition and strength. In the South, where we are just as likely to ask eachother “who are your people”, as “where are you from”, I know who I am, grounded in a strong family tree rooted in 400 years of exciting history. As my great-grandfather was fond of saying “you have inherited 2 things: a fine family name and a feather bed.” My brother, sister and I identify ourselves as people of good fortune, great schooling, fabulous travels and a strong Episcopal education. Ours is a life of fortune that most in this world will never know… and yet, even at a very early age, we 3 children knew well the thorn in our side, which affected our home life with power and potency, and that thorn was alcohol.
Alcohol had an unrelenting grip on our parents. It was the executive director of our family drama and MAN did it love drama. Mother falling down the stairs yet again, Father staying in bed another day, and fight after fight after fight was its daily script. Naturally and instinctively we resented its power over my parents greatly. As children we declared war on that thorn and fought bravely. We hid bottles from our parents, substituted water in tall vodka drinks, made sport of hunting screwdrivers that had been hidden behind curtains, cabinets and tables. We fought, oh did we fight, tooth and nail against the alcohol and the people it gripped. We hated it, and sometimes them, for letting alcohol take up such a prominent and permanent residence among us.
We begged, we pleaded, we made promises of good grades and perfect behavior to Mom, Dad, and God if only the alcohol would be evicted from our otherwise beautiful home.
But, always, the thorn remained.
And you notice in Paul’s letter, he too, begged and pleaded with God to take away HIS thorn. He writes “Three times, I appealed to the Lord that this thorn would leave me…” and yet, it didn’t (2 Corinthians 12:8). It’s a curious thing, isn’t it, that we pray to God to free us of our thorns and sometimes God does not take them away?
William Sloan Coffin, a Yale preacher and pastor, whom both Randy and I love, has written on this thrice petition of Paul’s to God. In his piece “Thorns in the Flesh” he points out that some things are so challenging that you have to pray about them multiple times in order to pray them fully. The first time you pray about something vexing you, it is really just a prayer of identification. It is putting into words that which has here-to-for gone unnamed. These prayers are sweetest to God’s ears because they are the most honest ones exposing ourselves and our deepest feelings to God. God doesn’t want proper prayer, the kind that glosses over your hopes and doesn’t name your hurts. God wants the real stuff. As Blaise Pascal wrote, “Our wounds are sometimes so deep we [don’t] examined them.” And what we do not examine cannot be redeemed.
I know for me, the first time I prayed my thorn marked the first time I named my thorn. I put into words my hurt and anger disappointment and pain. Praying my thorn was the first time I took a step back and begin to survey the power and influence of alcohol in my family and therefore my life.
Coffin writes that the second time you pray, it will be a different prayer. It will be a prayer with greater perspective, deeper maturity, more understanding. Because you have already begun to pray your thorn, you have begun to really grapple with its shape, its contours and, perhaps most importantly, its limits.
For me, with prayers over the years, I began to be able to differentiate my parents from the alcohol which gripped them. While I always hated the alcohol, I learned to care deeply for the alcoholic in spite of their behaviors. Thanks to prayer and the perspective God grants in it, the thorn no longer dictated how I responded to the people who gave me life.
Coffin points out that the fruit of dedicated prayer is the grace of acceptance. Now this is acceptance in not defeat it is disarmament. It is taking the power from the thorn and returning it to God.
Only when we have found the wisdom and self-awareness to embrace the whole of our lives, every aspect of who we are and what we have gone through, and offer it to God wholesale, thorns and all, only then will we feel the immediate response of God’s complete and total embrace of who WE are, thorns and all.
Our lives have always belonged to God.
Acceptance means submitting to the one whom we can always trust, God, no longer refusing the joy inherent in life’s imperfections. Paul knew he had found acceptance when he finally heard God say “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in [your] weakness.” and Paul came to bear a mantle of humility that kept his penchant for pride in check.
With acceptance I learned forgiveness and compassion. I finally saw that no matter the arguing, trickery or fighting, I could not cure my loved ones of their illness. And this acceptance made me free…free to love them, free to grant them the dignity they deserved…free to seek the fullness of life lived outside of the influence of alcohol.
For many who live with the thorn of alcohol, the ultimate prayer of such acceptance is the serenity prayer. “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change. The courage to change the things I can and the wisdom to know the difference.”
My parents were never cured of their addiction, sadly, it proved their end. But God used the thorn of alcohol to bless me with a depth of compassion for them that I had not known existed. He gave me eyes to see my parents with the compassion of Christ and wholly separate from their drunkenness. He populated my life with people who cared for me when my parents could not and he freed me from the hellish game of blame and resentment. And gracefully, I was able to bury them both as the beautiful children of God they were. The gracious gift of compassion continues to be a driving force in my life that has carried me into so many wonderful ministries. Be they prisons filled with the addicted who carry sins not unlike my parent’s or in churches like this one with good people struggling with their own thorns, God drives me as a witness to the power of God in prayer. God said to Paul “”My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in [your] weakness.”
Paul’s witness to us reveals an imperfect life lived perfectly in God. Would that we all be remembered in the same way.
I needn’t remind you that we have friends and neighbors who are vexed by their own thorns, great and small. And we are all in different stages of struggle with them. And as with Paul we can never know the full extent of such thorns. Pray your thorns, pray for the thorns of your neighbors, faithful that those prayers will be heard And “God grace will be enough for us all”. God has begun a good work in each and every one of us, and we need only trust that that work continues on, blessedly and joyfully. So I commend these words of Paul’s to share with our fellow thorn bearers “we are afflicted, but not crushed, perplexed but not driven to despair, persecuted but not destroyed; We are always carrying in the body of Jesus so that the life of Jesus might shine in us” (2 Corinthians 4:8-10).
Thanks be to God.