In Paul’s second letter to his Corinthian friends, he gave some insight into his own spiritual struggle. He writes:
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. 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. (2 Corinthians 12:7-10)
Paul was a great servant of Jesus Christ. He exhausted himself in expounding God’s Law, driving men to repentance, soothing them with God’s grace, and ordering Christ’s local family called “the church.” He was an Apostle who received “surpassing great revelations” from the Living Christ and presented them to Christ’s people. And it was through his ministry that individuals, families, cities, and cultures were transformed. Paul was the total package; he was a bold preacher, an ambitious church planter, a zealous missionary, a brilliant apologist, and a compassionate shepherd. Indeed, there was much to praised in the life and ministry of God’s faithful ambassador to the Roman empire.
However, Paul was a great sinner. He was not one who faithfully kept every part of God’s ethic. He could not be said to have loved God with all his heart all the time. No, Paul was like you and me; he was a daily, wretched, transgressor of God’s Law, and in his particular case, one of his chiefest sins was that of arrogance. Now, I hear you asking, “Joe, how could you possibly come to the conclusion that Paul greatly struggled with arrogance and pride?” Well, other than this being a universal epidemic faced by all sons of Adam, Paul specifically stated his spiritual struggle; he did so twice in verse seven.
Therefore, in order to assist Paul in his worship, discipleship, and ministry, God troubled his sinful saint by means of a “fleshly thorn.” Yes, the all-seeing, everywhere-present, all-powerful, all-good, all-loving, and sovereign God sent a “messenger of Satan” to harass his faithful servant. Exactly what it was, we do not know. Paul left the description vague, and we are not sure if it was physical (eyes, back), spiritual (besetting sin, temptation, demonic oppression), or relational (people issues). However, whatever it was, God would not relieve Paul of this devilish thorn even though Paul persistently prayed for such. To Paul’s prayer of rescue, God said, “No!” However, that was not all said by God. He also encouraged his beloved sinful servant with these words, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”
As time passed, and Paul grew in his spiritual understanding, he learned to laud that which he loathed. He actually boasted, with incredible gladness, about his “messenger of Satan,” his “devilish thorn,” or his “weakness.” Why did Paul cheer God for sending such trouble his way? Because Paul knew God’s devilish thorn was a means of blessing and improvement. Through God’s “devilish thorn”, Paul received:
- An increased awareness of his own weakness and sin
- An increased passion for and dependence upon God’s grace
- An increased passion for and dependence upon God’s power
- An increased passion for prayer
- An growing internal and external humility
- An blessing for his ministry, for pride greatly harms the household of faith
Paul boasted because God’s devilish thorn was also God’s gracious thorn.
Friends, what is the “messenger of Satan” or “devilish thorn” plaguing you today?
- Is it a physical disability, a mental decline, a viral illness, or a growing cancer?
- Is it an impoverished position in this world?
- Is it a spiritual sin that consistently raises its ugly head?
- Have you people causing great strife and anguish?
As you cry in pain, do not distrust the great Lover of your soul. He foreordains whatsoever comes to pass. He sees all that takes place in his planet and in your life. He has the power to keep devilish thorns from coming your way. He has the power to remove devilish thorns with a mere word or thought. But today, he has not chosen to do so. Therefore, you must come to this conclusion: Any devilish thorns that trouble you (physical, provisional, spiritual, relational), they are only in your life by way of God’s sovereign decree, providential power, fatherly compassion, and they remain for his glory and your improvement.
Therefore, hurt, cry, pray, and watch God’s devilish and gracious thorns accomplish his very good purposes in your life.
- Rejoice that your weakness and sin is being made bright yellow by God’s highlighter.
- Rejoice that you are becoming more impressed with his grace.
- Rejoice that you are becoming more needful of his power.
- Rejoice that you are wanting to spend more time in dependent prayer.
- Rejoice that you are becoming less internally and externally conceited.
- Rejoice that you — weak and wretched sinner — are being improved for his ministerial service.
It is a very good thing that God uses his devilish and gracious thorns to curb the conceit found in all the hearts of his beloved children.