You Asked for It 2006 - Part 1
A Thorn in the Flesh
by Greg Hanson
Sunrise Wesleyan Church
August6, 2006

 

Main Passage: 2 Corinthians 12:1-10 (NLT)

 

This is our first week in our “You Asked For It” series. All this month, the messages during our Worship Celebration will deal with topics or passages which have been requested by you. This is our fourth year doing this, and I actually like this idea. Because it adds to the breadth and richness of our services, and it gives you an opportunity to get personally involved in determining the messages. So thank you to all who submitted suggestions for this year.

This week, I’ve been asked to speak about what Paul called his thorn in his flesh. Sandra just read the passage in 2 Corinthians where he talked about this. What was he talking about? What was this thorn? Do we all have a thorn, or perhaps more than one?

Well, first of all, I don’t really think that Paul was writing about an actual thorn. I mean, I don’t believe he walked into a rose bush and lived to tell about it. Paul was using the word “thorn” as a metaphor. He was using it to describe some problem or issue or weakness in his life. Some trial… something that was tough for him to handle.

And I think that’s common for all of us. I mean, none of us are immune to these thorns. As Jennifer Aniston said…

“You can’t ask, ‘Why is this happening to me?’ It’s happening to you! Life’s tough. Get a helmet.”
~ Jennifer Aniston

And she’s right; life’s tough. Obviously Paul had something that was tough for him.

 

What Was Paul’s Thorn?

So what was it? Well, through the years there have been a lot of opinions offered about what Paul’s thorn was...
 

  • In the second century, the theologian Tertullian from Carthage wrote that he believed Paul suffered from severe earaches or headaches.

  • Joseph Klausner believes it was epilepsy.

  • Sir William Ramsay thought it was a recurrent malaria.

  • Chrysostom said it was “all the adversaries of the Word.”

  • John Calvin described it as “fleshly temptation.”

  • Martin Luther considered it “spiritual temptation.”

  • John Knox decided it was “infirmities of the mind.”

  • Catholic commentators generally say that Paul’s thorn was “lustful thoughts.”

  • J.W. McGarvey thought it might be an inflammation of the eye.

  • James MacKnight said in his commentary that there are some who believe it was “the false teachers” who opposed Paul.

  • J. B. Lightfoot suggested that Paul’s thorn might be “blasphemous thoughts of the devil.”

  • W. M. Alexander was sure it was “Malta fever.”

  • Some have suggested that Paul had a bad problem with stuttering or a stammering speech.

  • Others use verses from Galatians to argue that Paul had poor vision. (4:13-15; 6:11)

  • And still others point to the persecution that Paul endured as being his thorn.

(adapted from www.studylight.org/com/bcc/view.cgi?book=2co&chapter=12, sermoncentral.com/print_friendly.asp?ContributorID=&SermonID=63225, and sermoncentral.com/print_friendly.asp?ContributorID=&SermonID=50016)
 

So which of these had it right? Which one actually knew what Paul’s thorn was? What was his thorn, really? Well, I’m not going to tell you, and for a very good reason...
 

I don’t know

What, were you expecting something else? I don’t know what his thorn was; he doesn’t tell us. Oh, it can be fun to guess and perhaps one of those theories is actually correct. Maybe the Christians in Corinth that Paul was writing to already knew what his thorn was and so they knew what he was talking about, or maybe they had no idea. Maybe he decided not to confide in them what his weakness was. Whether they knew or not, he doesn’t tell them in this letter. And so we’re left guessing.

But that’s okay. I actually think it was intentional that Paul didn’t tell us what it was. Because if he had specified what it was, then that’s what we’d focus on and we’d miss the whole point. Because his goal wasn’t to tell us that he had a weakness; his goal was to tell us that God is God in spite of his weakness.

So Paul had some kind of weakness which he described as a thorn. We don’t know the specifics of what it was, but what is a thorn in general? Well, let me see if I can describe it for you. First…

 

What Is a Thorn?

A. A thorn is something that makes life difficult for us

It’s an irritant, it’s something that causes pain or discomfort, it’s something we find annoying or inconvenient or exasperating or infuriating. It makes life difficult for us. That was certainly the case for Paul. He said…

2 Corinthians 12:8 (NLT)
Three different times I begged the Lord to take it away.

It made life so difficult for him that he begged God to take it away.

What is it that makes life difficult for you? It could be something physical. Maybe a disability, or poor eyesight, or deafness, or illness, or arthritis, or seizures, or allergies, or asthma. It could be something emotional, or psychological. It could be a shyness that you find limiting. It could be financial, or relational. It could be an addiction you have. All of those can prove to be a difficulty or a thorn for us. Or it could be something completely different from what I just mentioned. What is your thorn? I can’t answer that for you... You have to do that for yourself.

 

B. A thorn is a point of weakness in our lives

It may even be something that we’re embarrassed about... Something that we find humbling. That’s what it was for Paul.

2 Corinthians 12:7 (NLT)
But to keep me from getting puffed up, I was given a thorn in my flesh… to torment me and keep me from getting proud.

If you look at the surrounding verses, Paul shows that he has a lot of reason to become prideful, but his thorn keeps him humble. It was a weakness that kept reminding Paul that he was just as human as the rest of us.

 

C. A thorn may be something that Satan brings into our lives

2 Corinthians 12:7 (NLT)
…I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger from Satan…

So a thorn may be something that Satan brings into our lives. I say “may be” because I think there are plenty of times that we cause our own problems. And we use Satan as an excuse... you know, “The devil made me do it.” Sometimes we create our own thorns. And perhaps sometimes even God brings them our way, because He knows there can be a benefit. We’ll come back to that later.

 

But there’s one thing that we often associate with a thorn that I don’t believe is really valid... Sin.

D. A thorn is not sin

But I was surprised how many people actually think it is. Even as I was researching this passage and reading the opinions of others, a lot of the articles I read said a thorn could be a sin. But I’ve got a problem with that understanding. Let me tell you why...

Paul asked God to remove the thorn from his life, and he asked Him three times. And then he concluded that it must be God’s will for him to live with that thorn.

Do you see the problem? God may want you to live with a thorn, but He never wants you to live with sin. So a thorn cannot be sin, at least not the way Paul was using it. You can’t justify your sin by saying that it’s just your thorn in the flesh.

On the other hand, while a thorn cannot be sin, a thorn could be temptation. Remember, temptation in and of itself is not sin. It’s only when we dwell on that temptation and give in to that temptation that it leads to sin. So a particular temptation could be a thorn for us, because it’s a point of weakness for us.

 

Now, let me take a little break here. And I’m about to step on a few toes. Isn’t it good that I warn you before I do that? But I want to talk about one temptation that is ravaging our society and that really we need to get more proactive in combating. I’m talking about lust.

It’s pretty much a universal problem. I deal with it, and I bet most if not all of you do, too. And I’m not just talking about Internet Porn and Victoria Secrets catalogues. And by the way, it doesn’t look to me like Victoria has too many secrets.

No, lust takes many forms. It can be as blatant as pornography or it can be as covert as checking out the cashier. Usually we think of this as a guy problem. Guys, where do you look when that walking cleavage comes your way? Eye-to-eye contact is good... Eye-to-sidewalk contact is safe... Anything in between, you might have a problem.

But it’s not just a guy problem, is it ladies? I mean, yes, guys can start drooling on sight. But ladies, you have your own fantasies, too. What do you find so intriguing about romance novels? Have you ever dressed to induce lust in others? Have you ever been out with the girls and ended up talking about some guy’s… tooch?

You see what a problem lust has become? It’s even forced me to resort to using the word tooch.

A few years ago Joshua Harris wrote a book called “Not Even a Hint” and it talks about maintaining purity in this area with the help of God. I just got the audiobook version in the mail last week and I’ve been listening to it. And it’s pretty good. And so here’s what I’m going to do with it... I’m going to get it to every man who’s part of Sunrise. I’m just going to lend it to one guy after the other until it’s circulated its way around.

And guys, when I give it to you, I don’t want you to tell me, “Oh, I don’t have a problem with lust.” I probably wouldn’t believe you, but even if you don’t have a problem now doesn’t mean that you’re not at risk or that you’re not feeding some unhealthy appetites. So take it and get it back to me in a couple weeks. I won’t even ask you if you’ve listened to it or not. So you could take it and hold on to it for a couple weeks and then give it back without ever opening it up. That’s up to you.

But because this is an area where so many people feel a great deal of shame, I know that if you had a problem, you might never admit it. Even if you constantly live with a sense of defeat and bondage to lust, you might feel like you have to pretend you don’t have a problem. That’s not true… you don’t have to pretend to be perfect… but you might feel that way anyway. And so since I’m going to get this to everyone, you’re not admitting anything by taking it.

Okay? So I’m going to get it to all the guys first because that’s primarily who this audiobook is for. But there are some helpful sections for the ladies, too, and so it’s going to end up in our library for any of you who want to listen to it, too.

 

We now return to our regularly scheduled program, already in progress.

So Paul wrote about his thorn in the flesh, and what he was talking about was something that was painful or inconvenient for him. It was something that was part of his life that he’d rather be apart from his life. We don’t really know what his thorn was, at least not conclusively, but it would appear to be something that God allowed and even wanted to be part of Paul’s life. Now, can God remove our thorn from us, whatever it is? Paul obviously believed he could. And I believe He could have, too. Paul’s thorn was really no obstacle for God; He could have easily removed it. But God chose not to. Why?

 

Why Does God Allow Thorns in Our Lives?

Before we answer that, let’s talk about some of the misconceptions. First, Some people today would tell you that God doesn’t remove your thorn because you don’t have enough faith. But I don’t buy that. Because Paul had plenty of faith. In fact, through his writings, he taught us what faith is. A lot of what we know about faith comes directly from his letters. He referenced faith 150 times in his letters. Paul was a man of deep and profound faith.

Or for another example, consider Job. You may be familiar with his story. If so, you know that he endured all kinds of suffering. He lost his family, he lost his fortune, he lost his health... And how did he respond?

Job 13:15 (NKJV)
“Though He slay me, yet will I trust Him.”

Job had plenty of faith. But he understood that faith was not a magic wand that he could wave over his problems and make them disappear.

Other more skeptical people might tell you that God doesn’t remove thorns because He wants us to suffer... That maybe He gets some sort of perverse pleasure from it. But I don’t buy that, either, because my Bible tells me that God loves me and wants the best for me. As God told the Israelites through Jeremiah...

Jeremiah 29:11 (NLT)
“For I know the plans I have for you,” says the LORD. “They are plans for good and not for disaster, to give you a future and a hope.”

God wants the best for us. He doesn’t want us to suffer just to suffer. There’s got to be more to it than that.

Still others would say that God doesn’t remove thorns because He can’t. Remember how Paul described his thorn?

2 Corinthians 12:7 (NLT)
…I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger from Satan…

Maybe God can’t remove the thorn because Satan put it there. And Satan’s pretty powerful. I mean, maybe he used some form of encryption so that God can’t crack it and delete it.

Well, I don’t know what your view of Satan is, but let me tell you, he’s real. And he is constantly working against anything and everything that is good and honourable and pleasing to God. And he is behind many of the thorns in our lives, as he was with Paul’s. And so maybe your image of Satan is that he is the equal but opposite of God... That they are battling to a stalemate on opposite sides.

If that’s your understanding, they you’re way off base. Yes, they are on opposing sides. But they are no where close to being equals. God is the all-powerful Creator of everything that exists; Satan is just a created being that rebelled against God. He was just an angel. He is powerful, yes... More powerful than you and me. On our own, we don’t stand a chance against Him. But he can’t even begin to measure up to God. In fact, God has already pronounced judgement on him and someday soon that judgment will be carried out. I don’t know when, but it will happen. God is in control, and Satan poses no real threat to Him. Satan can’t do anything that God can’t undo.

1 John 4:4 (CEV)
God’s Spirit is in you and is more powerful than the one that is in the world.

 

So then, why would a good, all powerful, loving God leave us to cope with thorns in our lives? Well, first of all, that premise is wrong. God does not leave us. He never leaves us. Whatever thorns we’re coping with, He’s right there coping with them, too. In fact, earlier in 2 Corinthians, Paul wrote…

2 Corinthians 4:8-9 (NLT)
We are pressed on every side by troubles, but we are not crushed and broken. We are perplexed, but we don’t give up and quit. We are hunted down, but God never abandons us. We get knocked down, but we get up again and keep going.

So we don’t deal with our thorns by ourselves. God’s right there with us and He wants to help.

Psalm 46:1 (NLT)
God is our refuge and strength, always ready to help in times of trouble.

So why doesn’t He just zap that thorn and get rid of it? I mean, sometimes He does, and there are plenty of stories of God doing incredible things and removing thorns from lives. But then, there are times that He doesn’t. Why? There must be a reason. There must be some good that can come from it. I want to suggest to you that there are four good things that can come from our thorns.

 

1. Thorns remind us of our need for God

You know when people are closest to God? In my experience, people are closest to God when they’re going through a dark valley of the soul... When they’re dealing with a crisis or difficulty in life. Why is that? I think it’s because when things are going great we get complacent. We go about our happy little lives and we forget all about God.

In fact, without thorns, we might get full of ourselves and start to think of ourselves as “Super Christians” and get all prideful. Thorns are a great antidote for pride.

Read through the Old Testament and you’ll discover a pattern. When things weren’t going so well for the Israelites, they’d cry out to God and their prayers would deepen and they’d draw close to God. But when things were going well, they’d get prideful and they’d get apathetic and they’d stop praying and they’d drift away from God in search of other things.

What did Paul do when he was afflicted by his thorn? He sought God. Paul recognized that he had a lot of abilities and a lot of valid reasons to brag, but for him, his thorn reminded him not to place his faith and hope in himself, but to place it solely in Jesus Christ. And so he even learned to value his thorn, because it reminded him of His need for God. And so he wrote…

2 Corinthians 12:9 (NLT)
So now I am glad to boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may work through me.

You know what that verse tells me? That God’s not looking for perfect people. He’s looking for people who are real, are authentic, are broken, are vulnerable, are honest, are available, and who know that it’s in their weakness that God is strong.

David, in the Old Testament, saw God work in his own life during his times of struggle and weakness. And he wrote…

Psalm 40:1-2 (NLT)
I waited patiently for the LORD to help me, and he turned to me and heard my cry.
He lifted me out of the pit of despair, out of the mud and the mire.

The thorns and difficulties we face in life have a value. Because instead of relying on our strength, we are reminded to rely on God’s strength. Because when you’re flat on your back, there’s no place to look but up.

 

2. Thorns provide for the experience of the grace of God

Paul learned this first hand. If it weren’t for his thorn, he may have never learned what God’s grace really is. Look again at what he wrote…

2 Corinthians 12:8-9 (NLT)
Three different times I begged the Lord to take it away. Each time he said, “My gracious favor is all you need. My power works best in your weakness.”

Your thorns can help you learn that His grace is real, and that it’s enough. You may have several thorns in your life.... Several problems and difficulties and obstacles... And God may not take them away. Instead, He’ll do something much better. He’ll help you overcome them. Jesus Himself said…

John 16:33 (NLT)
“Here on earth you will have many trials and sorrows. But take heart, because I have overcome the world.”

If not for the difficulties we face, we would never really experience the grace of God beyond salvation. But because of our thorns, we discover that God’s grace is not just good for the afterlife... It’s good for the nowlife.

 

3. Thorns are essential to our personal and spiritual growth

Thorns may not make you happy. But God’s main goal is not to make you happy. His goal is to make you holy. That’s actually what we’re going to be talking about next week, because someone requested that we talk about holiness.

God wants you to be holy, and so He gives you a thorn instead of a throne. He allows some difficulty in your life because He knows that it will lead to growth.

A pearl is formed through irritation. A diamond is created through pressure. Gold is refined through fire. Your irritation… your pressure… your fire… your thorn… is forming something of great value in you.

Romans 5:3-4 (NLT)
We can rejoice, too, when we run into problems and trials, for we know that they are good for us—they help us learn to endure. And endurance develops strength of character in us, and character strengthens our confident expectation of salvation.

James 1:2-4 (NLT)
Dear brothers and sisters, whenever trouble comes your way, let it be an opportunity for joy. For when your faith is tested, your endurance has a chance to grow. So let it grow, for when your endurance is fully developed, you will be strong in character and ready for anything.

When we face adversity, we always have a choice. We can either marinate in a pool of our own self-pity, or we can persevere and trust in God and overcome whatever comes our way. And when we make that choice to persevere and overcome, that leads to growth.

That’s why God allows trials and thorns to come our way... So that with His help we can overcome them and grow just a little bit more.

I came across a poem this week that illustrates how God is able to use our thorns to help us grow. It’s called…
 

“A Creed for Those Who Have Suffered”

I asked God for strength, that I might achieve.
I was made weak that I might learn humbly to obey—
I asked for health that I might do great things.
I was given infirmity that I might do better things.

I asked for riches that I might be happy.
I was given poverty that I might be wise.
I asked for power that I might have the praise of men.
I was given weakness that I might feel the need of God.

I asked for all things that I might enjoy life.
I was given life that I might enjoy all things.
I got nothing I asked for, but everything I had hoped for.
I am among men most richly blessed!
 

Our thorns can lead to growth. And number four…

 

4. Thorns provide the opportunity for a miracle

You know, God chose not to remove the thorn from Paul. But there are other times when He chooses to remove those thorns. There were plenty of blind and deaf and diseased people that Jesus healed, and He’s still in the healing business today. And He said of His followers…

Mark 16:17-18 (NLT)
“These signs will accompany those who believe: They will cast out demons in my name, and they will speak new languages. They will be able to handle snakes with safety, and if they drink anything poisonous, it won’t hurt them. They will be able to place their hands on the sick and heal them.”

And so there are people of faith who are miraculously healed from their thorns... And there are people of faith who, like Paul, have learned that God’s grace is sufficient for them.

So what it comes down to is this: God knows what’s best in every situation, and so we can trust His judgement. And at the same time, He welcomes us to come to Him with our difficulties, with our problems, and ask Him to care for them.

Even Jesus did that with His Father. He called His thorn His cup of suffering, and He asked for it to be removed from Him. But then He added, “Not My will, but Yours be done.”

So sometimes God leaves the thorn and grants to us a measure of grace so that we can live in peace with it. And sometimes He performs a miracle and brings healing to that area of our lives.

And so in one month, we’re going to have a healing service. This service will focus on physical or emotional or spiritual healing, and if you have something in particular that you’d like prayer for, then on that morning we will anoint you and pray over you, just like the Bible talks about in James...

James 5:14-15 (NLT)
Are any among you sick? They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord. And their prayer offered in faith will heal the sick, and the Lord will make them well.

 

That’s what we’re going to do in four weeks. But right now, I’d just like to lead you in prayer. And I’d encourage you to pray along with me silently and ask God to either remove your thorn or give you the grace to live with it. You can pray something like this…

Father, thank you for caring about me. Thank you for caring about the thorns that are part of my life. I know that you are the all-loving, all-powerful God, and I know that you are fully capable of removing this thorn from me. So I ask that you will do that. In fact, like Paul, I beg that you will do that, if it fits with Your will for me. But if you have something else in mind… then I trust You, and I even thank You for it. If You want to use that thorn to help me grow or to show Your grace and power… then I know that your grace will be sufficient, and that You will be strong in my weakness.

 

 

 

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