Groaning or Growing?

Most travel agencies try to obtain feedback from the people who use their services. They like to rate their service and get feedback on the destinations they sell. One British agency collected their more bizarre responses and published them in a weird complaints file. Here’s just a few of the many that made agents groan and roll their eyes:

  •  “We went on holiday to Spain and had a problem with the taxi drivers as they were all Spanish….”
  • “The beach was too sandy.”
  • “It took us nine hours to fly home from Jamaica to England it only took the Americans three hours to get home.”
  • “I was bitten by a mosquito – no-one said they could bite.”
  • “My fiancé and I booked a twin-bedded room but we were placed in a double-bedded room. We now hold you responsible for the fact that I find myself pregnant. This would not have happened if you had put us in the room that we booked.”

The file ended with an ominous warning: “They walk amongst us and they vote! Be afraid! Be very afraid!” I’m afraid I agree!

Let me go to the writings of a man who really had something to complain about. in 2 Corinthians 12:7-10 Paul writes: 7 To keep me from becoming conceited because of these surpassingly great revelations, there was given me a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. 8 Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. 9 But he said to me, "My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness." Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ's power may rest on me. 10 That is why, for Christ's sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.

Study of the Book of Acts and the Epistles down through the years has refocused Paul’s life in a startling new way. The Early Church, through the lens of its main participants, allows a glimpse of these characters with a fresh perspective. I am more aware of how much the church struggled. Ministry makes me aware that all of us struggle and sometimes that comes back as complaints, verbal groanings of human frustration. Human nature seeks the safety of the shadows since we often try and make people believe that we are fine when we aren’t. First impressions may reveal a person who has everything together but a calm, assured exterior may be a mask over a life and death spiritual battle or a personal struggle. Human nature is deceptive since it uses vicious tactics. When you suffer, your mind can tell you that no one suffers like you. It can tell you that you are the only one suffering and that your cross is the heaviest.

I have also learned not to glorify the characters of the Book of Acts too greatly. In our text Paul floats from “surpassingly great revelations” to “a thorn in my flesh.” He goes from seeing the glory of heaven to being slapped around by Satan. Paul knew the gap between Paradise and pain. So often that is where you and I live. The fact is Paul’s “thorn in the flesh” drove him to his knees and produced frustration in his life.

I wish I could understand the purposes of God. If I am His and I will live eternally with Him, why in the world do I have to experience all these negatives? Why does an apostle with Paul’s agenda need a “messenger of Satan” to beat him around and make his life miserable? Couldn’t Paul have been even more effective if he didn’t have to deal with personal pressure? And what was wrong with him that he couldn’t get rid of this “thorn in the flesh” that every speculator in Christian history feels compelled to offer a guess at? Was it physical? Was it spiritual? Was he depressed? Did he have a disgusting discharge running from his eyes? Was a there a special little demon who made Paul his target? I don’t know. Every opinion is right and every guess is wrong.

I do know that Paul felt it. I know that Paul felt it came from Satan. I do know he wanted it gone. And I do know it didn’t go! The word used to describe Paul’s prayer for the thorn to be removed is very intense. The KJV says he “besought he Lord” and the NIV says he “pleaded with the Lord.” Perhaps it’s something like we do at times.

  • “Lord, save my children.”
  • “Lord, touch my boss’s heart.”
  • “Lord, find me a wife.” (Or, the converse!)
  • “Lord, send more people to Bible Study.”
  • “Lord, keep me awake during this sermon.”

The intensity of the prayer tells me Paul wanted deliverance from his “thorn.” He knew life would be sweeter without it and ministry would be easier. Yet grasp this point: Paul prayed about the problem, but at some point he stopped praying. After three times, he let go of it. The thorn stayed! He quit groaning and began growing. Here’s a provocative thought: is it possible God would have us to quit praying about some thing in our life because he has no intention of ever answering that prayer. Now let’s be careful. God is always committed to saving the lost soul, so don’t drop unbelievers from your prayer list.

I know it is not enough just to leave this point. Paul elaborates on his experience. As far as he was concerned the thorn had to stay. It was painful, but it had a purpose. Paul had witnessed visions and experiences that perhaps no one else ever did. Not even the original disciples saw some of the things Paul did. It has elements of John’s revelation. The thorn kept Paul from getting proud of his experience. It kept his feet on the ground even when his mind was in the clouds. Remember the two men who went up to the temple to pray. Paul had once been one of them!

Paul’s suffering from this thorn revealed something very essential to him. It reminded him of how weak he was in the flesh. It reminded him that his dependence was in the Lord for only in the Lord’s strength could he continue his work while he suffered the presence of this messenger from Satan. It was never that God had abandoned him to Satan, it was that God had Paul’s attention because his need was constant. God can’t use pride. It is always against His purposes.

Paul came to an understanding that it wasn’t going, but that he could continue to grow despite that problem in his life. We had better we careful that we don’t try and short-circuit God’s plan for us by insisting on our way or no way. Like gold is refined in fire and metal bent under fire and pressure, we are shaped by the pressure exerted on us. Ask a blacksmith about his tools. I fixed my barbeque recently. I clamped a piece of it in a vice and brought it back in line. Then I drilled it and riveted it. It was returned to a useful state, but pressure and force had to be used. Your thorn in the flesh is not something we compete with God over, it is something God uses to make us useful to Him.

We may be acting against God when we spend our prayer time seeking to be rid of something that God finds valuable in shaping us into what He wants us to be. Joni Eareckson Tada is still in her wheelchair, but from her paintbrush and from her soul has come comfort for millions. Fanny Crosby endured her blindness, but it sharpened her vision for a day when she would be changed and see her Lord. It’s in her famous song, “Blessed Assurance.” She wrote, “Perfect submission, perfect delight; visions of rapture now burst on my sight ….”  What an expression of dependence and faith for a blind woman! Paralysis and blindness does not retard the spirit of God. Living on earth is not the end of life, but only a dressing room for eternity.

Paul leads me to a conclusion and here let me tread on very dangerous ground. Perhaps some of the faith-healers of our day are trying to remove from people, the very things that God is using to preserve them from pride and its downfall. Perhaps they should quit groaning and begin growing. Pride is worse than a wheelchair. Maybe deaf ears actually help people listen to God better. God’s consoling message to Paul should be enough for us: “My grace is sufficient for you.” Not always does God change circumstances, but He often changes us through them! If it’s not gone yet, perhaps it’s not going to. Is that a lack of faith? No! It may take more faith to trust God for what we have than to trust ourselves. No physical impairment will ever keep you out of the presence of God. It’s our lack of dependence that has yielded some of the more devastating effects of life! Trust His provisions.

Paul progressed through his experience. He went from praying to understanding and then to changing. He began by pleading for his infirmity to be taken to glorying in his infirmity. Rather than gripe about weakness, he grew through it. It must have been a wonderful moment, but at some point he was transformed by the knowledge that God was being glorified through a life that was plagued by a terrible weakness. Paul had thought the trial he suffered only led to misery, but God used it to produce ministry.

Here’s the reality of a thorn in the flesh. Satan used it like a club to hammer the apostle, to defeat him or embarrass him or, at least, to discourage him. Yet God’s grace and provisions turned Paul’s weakness into strength and over three missionary journeys he evangelized the Roman Empire and was accused of “turning the world upside down.” How’s that for victory over the world, the flesh and the devil?

What God did with Paul is totally consistent with the message of the cross. God used pressure, pain and death – the weaknesses to most minds – to produce the greatest single act of strength this world has seen. Jesus was impaled with thorns, his back laid open with a scourge, his hands and feet spiked to a cross and his side riven with a spear – is there a greater picture of human weakness? Yet from the cross flows forgiveness, redemption and eternal life. God uses weakness to show His strength. Let us be aware that the absence of pain or pressure does not translate as strength. Strength is not readable until it is tested. It is true of faith. You do not know what is bearable until you learn to trust the One who is able to bear the greatest weight and cry tetelestai – “It is finished … I am victorious.”

It is a perversion of the Christian message to ever say, “Trust Jesus and your troubles are over.” Reject the message that says, “Prosperity is the measure of God’s blessing.” That message belongs on Wall Street and Bay Street. The real message comes from the streets of Jerusalem as a beaten man struggles with a cross on his way to the Place of the Skull. Rather, the message is, “Trust Jesus and your trials will never be so great that He cannot use you in the midst of them.” He grows us through adversity. That’s the meaning of “the fellowship of his sufferings.” That’s the kind of power that makes a dying Savior turn to a thief and rescue his soul minutes before painful death claims a victim.

I am no fan of thorns. I do not relish the thought of a cross. Flesh always likes to deny pain, but there’s no glory without Gethsemane, no victory without a battle and no rising without dying. The late evangelist C.M. Ward writes that a class of children was told the story of Gethsemane. One of the children was surprised with the words of Jesus when He told the disciples to “go back to sleep” after He had already awakened them twice to watch and pray with Him. The teacher was lost for words, but the child had heard the story clearly. The young student proposed, “Teacher, I think I already know. It was because He had seen His Father’s face, and He didn’t need their help any more!” We need a child’s trust!

Does the thorn in your flesh render you ineffective for the Kingdom of God? Are you preoccupied with suffering? Perhaps it’s time to stop groaning and begin growing. Can we move beyond the greatest preoccupation of our life? We need the sufficiency of the grace of God. Then we can say with Paul: “Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ's power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ's sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.”