A Thorn in the Flesh

What was Paul’s thorn in the flesh?

What makes us think it was a physical thing? Look at Paul’s list of sufferings many years into his ministry. 2 Corinthians 11: 22-27 Are they Hebrews? So am I. Are they Israelites? So am I. Are they offspring of Abraham? So am I. Are they servants of Christ? I am a better one—I am talking like a madman—with far greater labors, far more imprisonments, with countless beatings, and often near death. Five times I received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. How could a man who experienced ALL THIS be pleading with God about his eye sight or his lack of oratory or some other pesky physical annoyance?

Read Paul’s writings and Acts. Especially Galations, 2 Corinthians and Philippians. What was the one problem that surfaced early in his ministry and that hounded him all his life? It was a certain person or group of persons who made it their mission to follow Paul around wherever he went and started churches. They would throw shade on Paul, cast him as illegitimate and insist that his message was theologically incorrect, and that the law of Moses was still a requirement for salvation. When Paul first heard about what had happened when these guys visited the Galatian churches he became very agitated and it appears that he would have been quite willing to do surgical procedures on them with his pocket knife without any numbing compound mind you, if he could only figure out who they were and lay his hands on them. Maybe Paul’s thorn was not a physical defect or a sickness or anything that Paul carried on his person at all. Maybe Paul’s thorn was a person. An adversary. A jealous rival with all the creds and pedigree. (2 Corinthians 12:7,8 So to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited. Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me).

2 Corinthians was written many years later than Galatians. He had pocketed his knife. His adversaries had continued to come behind him harassing him, insulting him, persecuting him. And worst of all deceiving the vulnerable among his new churches. (2 Corinthians 11:28,29 And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches. Who is weak, and I am not weak? Who is made to fall, and I am not indignant?)  But God said, I can handle this. You build with gold and your work will withstand the fire. I will give you grace. This ultimate test of your ministry, with all the anger and frustration it brings you, with all the aftermath it leaves in your, no, My churches is for your good. My power is revealed in your weakness. In your inability to control the situation, your powerlessness to bring revenge on your haters I am glorified. (2 Cor. 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 of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.)

No Paul’s thorn was not a petty physical problem. It was far worse than that. No doctor could help him with this problem. He was entirely powerless to deal with it an therein lay the Power!


Finding the truth

In a world deluged with information how do I find the facts? Conspiracy theories are chased around the internet resulting in adherents doing the most bizarre things. Click bate sensational headlines abound. Governments hide information or provide misleading statistics. Narrow echo chambers are created in which the same tired soundbites ping from wall to wall.

Are there ways to sort through the maze of voices? Or should I stick my head in the sand and let the world go by? Or just pray and read the Bible, news and the devil be damned?

I suggest there are a number of ways to come to a reasonably balanced understanding of the things that are happening in our world:

  1. Beware of any poorly documented conspiracy theory. I think this is one of the first places we lose our way. There are forces of evil trying their best to destroy and overthrow all that is good, sacred and meaningful. Many traditional and highly valued morals and ethics are being desecrated and outright attacked. But there are also forces of good at work in the world. Charities, churches, families, ethical and conscientious individuals. Community services, volunteer groups, medical care providers, law enforcement to name a few. And if you’re a Christian believer the ultimate good is a God who is reclaiming the whole realm of creation back to Himself through Jesus. This becomes the ultimate end in which “evil will be overcome with good”. Romans 12:21. Test any conspiracy theory from this matrix. Good will ultimately defeat evil. Defeatism and escapism are deadly worldviews.
  2. Don’t take news headlines at face value. Read carefully, looking for the facts not the sensations being sold. The facts sometimes come as admissions near the end when the journalist is forced to admit them to avoid being accused of fake news. There is such a thing as fake news, but there may may an abstract of truth even there. Be wise. Listen for hidden (and in these times not so hidden) agendas.
  3. Read to know what’s true, not only to find support for your politics or world view. Walk around the tree or the proverbial elephant and see (or feel) it from another angle. Try switching places with your opposite. How does it read to them? Especially do this when reading articles or books, or listening to podcasts or broadcasts you know you agree with.
  4. Closely related, don’t restrict yourself to an echo chamber where all you can hear is affirmation of your own foregone conclusions. This is easy to do, but dangerous.
  5. Cross examine your information. Look for confirmation from reputable sources. Is it designed to instill fear? Is it about money? Is it hopeful?

These are just a few ideas. No one can no with absolute certainty that they have it all right. But it is possible to point ourselves and others in a good and hopeful, albeit realistic direction if we determined to be honest. For believers, faith, hope and love should be our guiding premise. Let the dark domain do it’s worst. It cannot extinguish the Light. Study history. Look for patterns. At the darkest moments light has intervened time and time again. Study scripture. But interpret scripture and history with the hermeneutics of Love, to borrow from N.T. Wright. 7.8 billion people inhabit the earth. God is not willing that any should perish. Like Jerusalem of old he would gather them together “as a hen gathers her chicks under the shelter of her wings.”


Sage Shortage

We’ve got a supply problem. Our world has a shortage of sages.

What is a sage? Can you and I be sages?

A sage is a person who possesses wisdom, good judgment (discernment), and experience. I love how Ben Witherington III describes a sage: “wide of ear” and “broad of heart”. Jesus describes these as having “ears to hear”. Well, to be sure, what else are ears for? But this is where the heart comes in. We are both body (ears) and spirit (heart).

Most of you probably don’t think of yourself as a sage. I don’t think of myself as a sage. But a wise person will “increase in learning.” A wise person will “prove all things.” We should apply ourselves to become sages. Sages-in-the-making are learning how to live, how to love, how to heal, how to comfort…how to suffer, even how to die. They have ears that hear the cries of desperation and hearts that care. To the sage no moment is meaningless. Time is opportunity.

As the world careens toward godlessness and self-destruction it is in increasingly desperate need of sagacious men and women. In an era when the west sleepily succumbs to encroaching secularism and the subtilty of totalitarian thought – coming not the least (ironically) from our most esteemed centers of learning – folks who are “wide of ear” and broad of heart”, and who understand their time are vital.

Where do we look for wisdom? How can we proceed? King Solomon was brilliant. The ancient Greeks were known for wisdom. We can learn much from a line of great thinkers in more recent times. But I think Jesus was “The Sage.” At the surprisingly young age of thirty-three. And long before. At twelve he wowed the learned of His day with His quiet understanding. We do well to read the wisdom literature of the ages. We do better to study Him.

Quiet, steady, relaxed, poised.

Loving, caring, healing, weeping

Raising, filling, blessing.

Rejoicing, trusting, resting.

We can become sages too; if we choose. We should, because our generation needs ears that hear and hearts that know.

“Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.” Matthew 11:28,29

“In returning and rest you shall be saved; In quietness and confidence shall be your strength.” Isaiah 30:15