… there was given me a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. 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 about my weaknesses… For when I am weak, then I am strong. 2 Corinthians 12:7-10
When I was a small boy in Sunday School there was a song we used to sing: “Count your blessings! name them one by one./ Count your blessings! see what God has done./ Count your blessings! name them one by one,/ And it will surprise you what the Lord has done.”
Today those words sound simplistic, even rather twee. But the more I think about them the more I feel that the message they are putting across is in fact good. Indeed, looking back over the years I can’t help wishing I had counted my blessings more often than I have.
The point, of course, is that they teach us to be positive and optimistic – to put it in modern terms, to “accentuate the positive”, to see that “every cloud has a silver lining”. I think of the football coach who has just seen his team hammered 5-0 – only to insist that “There are pluses we can draw from this defeat.” It is no doubt far easier said than done, especially when the going is tough. But the principle is sound.
It’s a lesson Paul, apparently, had to learn. He was given – presumably by God – a “thorn in the flesh”. No-one knows what that was – a sickness? a physical pain? an emotional struggle? a problem that he just couldn’t solve? the fact of regular opposition? It doesn’t matter. All that matters is that he found it extremely unwelcome. Indeed, it “tormented” him, to the point where three times he asked God to “take it away”. “Lord, I’ve had enough of this!” You know that feeling?
And God said No. He told Paul, in effect, that he would have to live with it.
But – and this is what really matters – he didn’t leave it at that. As well as that unwelcome message, he added words of encouragement: “My grace is sufficient for you…”
In other words: “Paul, with my help, which is constantly there for you, you will be able to accept this ‘thorn’, and even benefit from it. It will teach you to trust more fully in me. It will keep you humble. It will enable me to use you more effectively, because your own sense of how good and gifted you are will be destroyed, and you will depend more completely on me.”
And so Paul finishes the paragraph with that wonderful paradox – “when I am weak, then I am strong”. Isn’t that great?
Fact: there is no human life so happy that it doesn’t contain some hard and unwelcome things. We all have our thorns in the flesh. What matters is how we deal with them.
In essence, two choices lie before us.
First, there is the negative option, a kind of grumbly, grousy resignation: “Oh well, I suppose I’ll just have to lump it then. But it really isn’t fair. Why me?”
And second, there is the positive option, a determined acceptance: “Well, I don’t like this very much, and I really don’t see why this should have happened to me. But never mind! If God has allowed it, he must have a reason for doing so. So I’ll aim to learn from it, and become a better person, and a more effective Christian, as a result.”
I think of the Christian woman stricken with spinal paralysis: “At first I was always asking ‘Why me?’But then I learned to ask ‘Why not me?’ And at that point everything changed.”
As I said, it isn’t as easy in practice as it sounds. But this is the Christian way. Remember the cross! Whatever our particular thorns may be, may we learn the same lesson Paul had to grapple so painfully with.
Dear Father, as I look at my life I can see all sorts of things I wish were different. Sometimes I feel a bit hard done by, even resentful. But I do believe that my life is in your hands, and so I pray for strength to accept whatever life deals out to me with a trusting and teachable spirit. Amen.