How do you hold up rather than fold up when the heat is on… when severe adversity strikes… when the pressures of life push you to the breaking point?
Tucked away in a mysterious passage about heavenly visions and earthly thorns (2 Corinthians 12:7-10), the apostle Paul reveals a biblical coping strategy for every child of God. Paul says that because of his exalted privileges (“the surpassing greatness of the revelations”), God granted a “thorn” to be given to him.
He identifies several keys to understanding this trial:
God’s purpose in using Satan’s messenger to deliver his own message, Paul says, was “to keep me from becoming conceited.” This was to counterbalance a potential response to the apostle’s unique blessings, which were granted him for the benefit of others, not to inflate his own ego. I.e., in allowing the challenging circumstances, God was keeping Paul humble.
Analyzing the motive behind the “thorn,” the apostle implies that Satan had evil intentions, but God had a higher purpose. This reminds us of Joseph reassuring his brothers at the end of the book of Genesis: “You meant evil against me, but God meant it for good” (Gen. 50:20).
When Paul prayed three times for the thorn to be removed, God’s answer is essentially, “No.” Instead, the Lord says to him, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Paul’s personal take on this follows: “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.”
In saying this, Paul gives us a valuable clue regarding his personal thorn. Some have suggested that he had an extra measure of psychological anxiety brought on by all that he had to endure.
Was it analogous to PTSD, post-traumatic stress disorder? Or perhaps a physical disorder of some sort? Others suggest the nagging effects of an old injury suffered while being whipped or beaten.
The best clue is found in 2 Cor. 12:10, the composite of “weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities.” Perhaps the “thorn” was having to deal with all of these challenges at essentially the same time.
Yet Paul learned that none of these things put him past the breaking point. With God’s “grace” to help him in time of need, he could withstand and even live victoriously in Christ.
For Christians, then, there is a bigger picture involved in suffering. Trials toughen us up, they shine light on the value of our humble contributions, and they open up doors that would otherwise be closed.
Through them, God is positioning us to serve him in greater capacities, to help us take advantage of opportunities and reach our full potential, and to remind us not to lose our heavenly focus.
We reach a new spiritual milestone when we can actually be thankful to God that some of the “aches and pains” of life made us better and stronger.