In 2 Corinthians, Paul refers to what he calls a “thorn in the flesh”—not a little prickly thorn, but a damaging, debilitating thorn. Paul mentions it as part of his defense of his apostleship. Apparently, his apostleship was being questioned by self-acclaimed super apostles who were making inroads and gaining influence in the Corinthian congregation (see 2 Cor. 12:1–10).
Paul does not name or explain it, probably because whatever it was, the Corinthians knew exactly what he was talking about. It was probably some sort of physical ailment or disability that could not be hidden, but we don’t know. The interesting part is how Paul interprets it.
On the one hand, he says that it is “a messenger of Satan” sent to torment him. Paul is speaking metaphorically of course, like when my nephew calls his little dog a manifestation of Satan, which I would not dispute. The difference between my nephew and Paul is that my Nephew is joking, Paul is not. This is metaphorical language, but still, it is strong language. Paul says that the purpose of his thorn is to torment him, to oppress him, to do him harm; it has evil intent.
But then, on the positive side, it has actually served a useful purpose. It has kept him, he claims, from becoming too elated and conceited as a result of his mystical encounters and spiritual experiences. It has served to keep his ego in check.
It seems to me that Paul ventures into dangerous territory when he starts trying to explain and interpret his sufferings. He is talking about his own experiences and not someone else’s, but still, this is dangerous terrain. I have heard some addicts talk about their addictions as necessary suffering. Some have said that if not for their alcoholism or drug addiction or whatever, they would have never found God or understood grace or experienced redemption. I’m sure that is true. Still, I have a hard time believing that an enslaving addiction, or chronic pain, or debilitating illness, or anything else of such an oppressive nature is a blessed gift from God. Though, I have to admit that I have learned more and grown more through my failures and faults, hardships and sufferings, than I have ever grown through my achievements and successes.
I am certain that we have no business interpreting someone else’s experience, and we are probably better off if we refrain from interpreting our own (the Apostle Paul not excluded). I have visited with people going through terrible suffering who say, “I know there is a reason for this.” It’s not for me to tell them that there is or there isn’t a reason. Who am I to say? If a person needs to find a reason for their suffering, I’m not going to be the one to tell them there is no reason. On the other hand, I will not assure them that there is a reason either. The fact is, I don’t know if there is or there isn’t.
But if one were to ask me for pastoral counsel, I would say: “Don’t waste time searching for explanations. Face what is honestly and look for ways to learn and grow from it.” In my experience, I have found that those who seem to make the best use of their sufferings are those who spend very little time and effort asking why, looking for reasons, and spend most of their time dealing with their suffering realistically in faith and hope. The most redemptive and transformative response, I believe, is to simply deal with what is (whatever is is) and look for ways to grow.
What Paul and many others have discovered is that God’s grace is sufficient in dealing with all the cruddy stuff of life. What we learn from Paul and other great spiritual teachers, and if we are awake and receptive, we learn from our own experience, is that grace is just as pervasive in our world as sin and suffering, that grace is just as real and present as evil and injustice. But if we do not have eyes to see, as Jesus says, we will miss it, even when it is right in front of us. The cross of Jesus is a vivid demonstration of the power, dynamic, and wonder of God’s grace right in the middle of pervasive hate, violence, and evil.
Grace is our spiritual oxygen. It is as real and necessary as the air we breathe. It is what supports, supplies, and sustains a spiritual life.
Paul claims that on three separate occasions he cried out to God for deliverance from his debilitating and oppressive thorn, but instead of release, he found that God’s grace provides the power to live with it. He concludes that God’s power is made perfect in weakness. He says, “Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.”
Paul’s conclusion may seem a little over the top, but I have no doubt that he is saying something important and true. Looking for reasons and constantly asking “Why?” are not helpful strategies in dealing with our debilitating sufferings. Trusting, celebrating, and clinging day by day to God’s grace enables us to survive and possibly even thrive.