Recently I was involved in a deep conversation with a small group of women friends. We were each sharing current life circumstances that bring on the temptation to be afraid. Many of these surrounded family relationships. There was an adoption story, a foster mothering story, marriage stories, toddler stories, and stories of adult children who seem to make one poor decision after another. One friend remarked that she is keenly aware of an extra measure of grace in her life to manage situations that would otherwise seem impossible. My mind went immediately to Paul’s thorn in the flesh.
Many have advanced hypotheses about what afflicted Paul. He didn’t reveal it, and maybe there is a good reason for that. It suggests that if he had revealed the exact nature of his chronic irritant, readers might not see the deeper relevance of the text or its application. If he wrote that he had gout, or warts, or migraine headaches, or eye problems (as many people guess), those of us that have never experienced those particular afflictions might get distracted from his real message or fail to apply it.
God’s message to and through Paul has a few aspects. One is that sometimes we don’t get the answer we think we want or need, even after praying over it several (or one thousand) times. Imagine that–we can’t boss God around! Paul had been through so much in his ministry, from great surges of revelation and triumphant power to days on end of hardship and rejection. He had learned, as he wrote to the Philippians, “the secret of being content in any and every situation” (Phil 4:12). His life was so surrendered to God’s mission that he didn’t attribute the lack of removal of the thorn as a judgment from God. This requires some maturity in the Lord—to cling to the knowledge of God’s goodness even when the thorn remains.
Secondly, sometimes God does seem to allow his children to struggle with difficulties as he teaches and disciplines them. Many don’t like this thought, and it does arouse theological controversy. Paul wrote that the affliction was sent as “a messenger of Satan” to bring torment. Why did God allow this? Paul was God’s apostle and faithful servant! Paul’s answer was that it was to keep him from becoming conceited because of the abundance of revelation given to him. God allowed Paul to experience demonic torment to keep him humble? That seems to be Paul’s perspective.
Apparently, our covenant with God does not stipulate that we will never have to fight demonic forces. In fact, Jesus makes clear that advancing his kingdom includes frequently confronting demons. I’m not saying God sends demons to torment us. But neither does he prevent us completely from experiencing some of their trouble-making in our lives. We can trust that if God is allowing it, He has a reason, whether we understand it or not.
It is a legitimate response to pain and suffering to seek freedom and deliverance as soon as possible. But we can also choose to remain alert to the opportunity to grow in character and discipline through our suffering until our answers come. The Christian walk requires perseverance most when the road is most difficult. Or when a thorn is causing throbbing pain.
Finally, we come to the heart of the matter. Paul was not delivered of his thorn, after thrice praying. Instead he received the response, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor 12:8). Grace is sufficient. His power shows up perfectly when we acknowledge our dependence upon Him.
When we are weak, he is strong. And when we are even weaker, he is even stronger. Grace fills in the gaps between our own ability and the “all things are possible” promise of God. God’s grace more than compensates for our lack of ability. With or without the thorn.