Pastor Eric Schroeder

Text: 2 Corinthians 12:7-10

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This past week, my older daughter and I noticed that the wild blackberries were ripening. So, we grabbed a couple of plastic containers from the parsonage and worked our way around the church parking lot looking for as many ripe berries as we could reach. By the time we were finished, we ended up with just about a pint of berries, but since I happened to be wearing shorts at the time, if you had looked at me from the knees down, you might have guessed that I had been in a fight with a cat . . . because as we all ought to know by now, blackberry bushes have thorns—lots of thorns. And I can’t say that I was thankful at the time. Today, we have the opportunity to consider thorns from a biblical perspective. Not just words on a page, though; it’s a very personal perspective, as St. Paul opens up to the Corinthians, and to us, about something difficult that he was going through in his life. Let’s read the opening verse again: To keep me from becoming conceited because of these surpassingly great revelations, there was given me a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. On the one hand, we might wish that we had more information here. What exactly is Paul talking about when he refers to the “thorn in his flesh?” Some Bible commentators take what we know about Paul’s life and try to speculate as to what it might be: for instance, we know Paul faced physical beatings, even stonings from those who opposed him; maybe his thorn was an injury that didn’t heal right or left him with chronic pain. We know that there was a time when Paul became very ill on his travels; maybe he had some lingering effects of malaria or some other disease. We know Paul wrote with a larger font than usual; maybe he had poor eyesight. We know that Paul on occasion let Barnabas or Silas (his traveling companions) do a lot of the talking; maybe Paul had a stutter or some other speech impediment. In the end, we can’t say for sure.

As much as we’d like to know what Paul’s thorn was, maybe it works better that he doesn’t tell us. Why? Because we have our own thorns, too, different from Paul’s and different from those of one other.  Ours might be a condition we were born with and have dealt with for our whole lives, or it may be from an injury or accident we suffered along the way, or it might be a diagnosis that came out of the blue at some point in life, when we least expected it. For still others of us, we may not have met our thorns yet, but they are coming. Just like blackberries, just like roses, life in this world has thorns ever since Adam and Eve’s fall into sin. They can make life unpleasant, they can get in our way, they can hold us back, and if severe enough, they can even make life seem unbearable at times. No matter what Paul’s thorn was, and no matter what yours is, we all know that suffering and temptation go hand in hand. It’s no wonder that Paul calls his thorn a “messenger of Satan to torment me.” Perhaps the easiest temptation to fall into is that of complaining. But at least Paul knew that whatever is bothering us, it’s always better to pray about it than complain about it. 

 8 Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. Do you know what that’s like? To pray for “it” (whatever “it” might be) to get better? To wait, and wait, and then pray again . . . and again . . . and again? “God, please take it away.” Maybe we have had times where God answered our prayers exactly the way we wanted him to, and we shouldn’t be surprised when he does. Other times, however, we have to wrestle with the idea that we know God can do all things—he is almighty—but he doesn’t seem to do anything at all. And I believe that this is one serious temptation for any child of God, to begin to pray with the wrong attitude, or perhaps more specifically, with the wrong order of things in mind. 

Here’s what I mean. Jesus wants all our prayers to be based on our faith in him, our trust that he can do anything and will always do what is best. But in our sinful minds, it’s so easy for us to mess it up and mix up the order—we are tempted to base our faith on the way that our prayers are answered.  And so, we might be tempted to question God and his love for us if he doesn’t seem to be listening. We might be tempted to bargain with God: “I promise that if you help me here, I’ll give this or do that or volunteer for something . . .” Or worse yet, “if you heal me, I’ll devote my life to serving you and witnessing for you . . .” One more: “God, if you spare me from the consequences of my sin, I promise not to ever do that again . . .” In other words, we want to manipulate God or use God’s power on credit where we get what we want right away and then we set up a payment plan where we might pay him back over time. 

Let this be a reminder of how naturally conditioned we are to offend God, how thoroughly corrupt our thinking is from birth. We all need to be reminded that to make demands of God before we obey his commands is blasphemous and idolatrous. God didn’t include any conditions when he gave the Ten Commandments; he didn’t tell us to worship him if we are perfectly happy in life or love our neighbor if we are pain free and worry free. We don’t have a right to give God the conditions of our obedience. The truth is that whenever we break his commandments, and we do every day, we deserve to be cut off from his love and from every blessing, now and eternally. God would be perfectly justified in answering every prayer with a resounding, “No! You don’t deserve it.”

But that wasn’t the answer Paul received, even if it might have seemed like a no at first. Thankfully, it’s the answer we all need. 9 But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Do you know what is so much better than any deal we can make with God? The deal that Jesus made with God for us. And what is better than God easing our earthly suffering? Knowing the truth that our faith is built on the one who suffered and died for us with a love that we didn’t deserve—a love that we never could have earned even if we had an eternity to work for it. And by God’s grace, Paul came to understand that God loved him enough to keep him close with a constant reminder of how much he depended on Christ; no matter how great a missionary he might be, he still needed a Savior, and Jesus fit the bill completely. 

We all have thorns. And if this suffering draws us closer to our Savior and into a more intimate relationship with our God, where we more fully realize how much we need him every single day, then those thorns are some of God’s greatest gifts to us. Isn’t that what Paul means in the closing verses? Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. 10 That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong. We all come away stronger if we learn from Paul’s example. Initially he must have thought that he would be a more effective servant of Jesus if he didn’t have to suffer. In the end, he came to realize that the humility and dependence on Jesus that resulted from his suffering made him even more effective. He understood his own weakness. He had to rely on Jesus for the strength he didn’t have. He knew what it is like to feel pain and hardship. He could identify with hurting people and heal them with the good news of heaven. 

So, too, let’s all trust God enough to thank him for the thorns, knowing that his grace is sufficient for us. In Jesus we have the forgiveness of every sin, and an eternity in heaven waiting for us. In Jesus we have divine purpose and divine perspective because we know the importance of sharing this grace with others. 

 Like Paul, may we delight in whatever draws us closer to our Savior, whatever leads us to more fully rely on God, whatever makes us more understanding of what other people are going through around us. Maybe our suffering puts us in a position to share our hope, to reach others who suffer in similar ways. Maybe our thorns give us opportunity to speak as examples of trust even though we hurt. Maybe our thorns actually increase our joy, as they lead us to live out our lives longing for heaven.

The next time I pick blackberries, I am going to look at it differently. Instead of complaining that blackberry bushes have thorns, I am going to be thankful that those thornbushes have blackberries on them. And when the thorns come in life, may we all be made strong in our weakness, as we fully rely on Christ’s all-sufficient grace, both now and forever. AMEN.