Summary: Some people become defined by their hardships while others rise above their pain. We may suffer broken relationships, broken promises, broken expectations, but we don’t have to become broken people. Pain is inevitable--misery is optional.
No one knows for certain about the nature of Paul’s thorn, and there has been extensive speculation about the nature of his affliction. Explanations range from persistent temptation, dogged persecution, chronic malaria, migraine headaches, epilepsy, or a speech disorder. Because Paul dictated his letters to a scribe some think Paul may have had vision problems. The “thorn” could have even been a person, an adversary. Maybe it was his mother-in-law! Adversaries are often referred to as a “thorn in the side.” The fact that Paul goes on to say he’s able to rejoice in the face of opposition may give some weight to his thorn being a non-medical problem.
Paul prayed 3 times for God to relieve him of his affliction. When trouble comes, it comes with a purpose; God doesn’t waste suffering (McBirney). Despair is suffering without meaning or hope (Frankel). We need to realize that for our own good, God’s answer is sometimes “no”. Maybe it’s better we not know the exact nature of Paul’s difficulty. We can then fill in the blank with whatever hardship we’re encountering, and see God’s purpose in our pain. We can take our burden to the Lord and leave it there. I don’t think Paul’s advising us to stop praying after asking 3 times, but simply to accept God’s response, realizing there’s a bigger plan that what we can perceive.
God kept Paul in touch with his limitations. Paul had been given extraordinary revelations; he had access some top-secret stuff! It wouldn’t have been surprising if Paul started thinking a bit too highly of himself, taking credit for his success. So he was given the blessing of a handicap. Paul’s affliction kept him from relying on self, and kept him trusting God’s power. Paul’s thorn has been called a “breach in the thick walls of self-righteous pride” (Peterson); it cut him down to size. Often when people receive a great award, they say how humbling it is. I kind of shake my head and think, “I bet if they hadn’t received the award, now THAT would’ve been humbling!” The disappointments of life--lost love, being passed over for promotion, or physical disability--are just some of the many thorns of life.
In the Army, soldiers fill out “Assignment Preference Forms” listing where they’d like to be stationed. We call them “dream sheets.” I asked for Fort Devins and never got it. We sometimes think the personnel in the Pentagon look at these forms, have a good laugh, then cut orders for the opposite of what soldiers want. The “needs of the military” come first. In the Christian life, the needs of the Kingdom of God come first. God puts us where He wants us. We then have to learn to be content where we’re at, and not to moan and groan over how we’d rather be elsewhere. We can trust that in hindsight we’ll gain some understanding into God’s purpose. Where we are is what’s best for us.
Some people become defined by their hardships while others rise above their pain. Maybe you know people with handicaps who don’t think of themselves as handicapped? I heard of a soldier who returned from Iraq who lost a leg; he got fitted for a prosthesis and ran a marathon. Do we accept our limitations, or do we constantly complain about them? We may even discover some benefits from our “thorns”. God is discovered, not so much through miraculous displays of power, but through times of great suffering, testing, and human weakness.
We pray for people who are sick or injured, and sometimes they don’t recover. In the well-documented case of Joni Eareckson, her paralyzing injury led her to start an advocacy ministry for the handicapped, and her testimony has inspired countless people. Her paintings, recordings, radio show, and books have given insight to people who deal with chronic disability. Joni has enough faith to believe God can heal her; yet she’s convinced that God wants to use her wheelchair as a means of showing how believers can rise above human suffering. Our troubles can become a source of blessing. Joni also has pointed out, “When Christians suffer, people are watching.“
God did not give Paul his thorn; as with Job, God allowed the devil to afflict Paul. Joni has noted that at times both God and the Devil may want the same thing for opposite reasons. Satan wants us to give up on life and God, become bitter and cease living for God. The Lord sometimes shapes His saints on the Devil’s anvil. He wants us to triumph over our weaknesses and afflictions, and through them to become more compassionate and effective in encouraging others.
God’s answer to Paul is that His grace is sufficient for human weakness. How is “grace” the remedy for pain? Perhaps grace leads us to learn from our limitations. Are you going through some thorny situations? Phil Yancy writes, “Grace is for the desperate, the needy, the broken, those who cannot make it on their own. Grace is for all of us.” We can’t “fix” our pain, only God can. We can grow from our experience. No one in Heaven will look back to any part of their earthly lives and say, ‘That was not right; that was not necessary.’