The Sparrow and the Heart: The Heart (Part 2)

If you’re anything like me, then maybe you have a hard time relating to the Apostle Paul. After all the cat kind of seems like a super hero of the Christian Faith. We think about all that he went through and accomplished and simply stand amazed. He experienced intense suffering: beaten, left for dead, shipwrecked, imprisoned, abandoned by his friends, and constantly threatened. He went with little food and little water, and was basically homeless. But through it all Paul remains faithful. So he is wrongfully imprisoned and what does he do? He sings hymns in jail. These are the kinds of moments where we hear Paul’s story and think, what can I learn from this super saint? After all, I don’t suffer with joy most of the time. Nor have I even experienced half of the kind of trials that Paul did. So how can I relate? 2 Corinthians give us help in that area, for here Paul gives us a principle for enduring great or little pain with faith in God.

The background of 2 Corinthians is that Paul is writing to a church to say to them that his suffering is part of his identity as a genuine follower of Christ. There were false teachers in the area of this church who were denying that Paul was an apostle, and their argument was built on the fact that Paul had suffered so much. They said something like, “Paul can’t be an apostle, look how much he suffers. Surely Jesus would not allow one of his own to experience all that pain and sorrow. Therefore, Paul must not really be a follower of Jesus.” But Paul identifies his suffering as a badge that proves He is a genuine follower of Christ.

in 2 Corinthians 12:1-10 Paul unpacks this. He begins by noting that while the false teachers may boast in the visions they’ve had Paul himself has been ushered into the very throne room of God. And he has seen things that he’s not even at liberty to repeat. He has something truly amazing to boast in, and so, to keep him from becoming a proud, arrogant man a “Thorn in the flesh was given” to Paul. There are several key words in this phrase that we must unpack if we are going to make sense of Paul’s suffering.

First, “thorn.” The word literally implies a big stake, like the kind used in crucifixion. This is more than just a brier from a rose bush. This is a serious piercing he is talking about here. Now, of course, the thorn is actually a metaphor for something else. Paul does not literally mean he is walking around with a stake hanging out of his arm, but no one is quite sure what Paul means when he references this “thorn.” Some argue for a physical malady, some argue for an emotional/psychological frustration, others a relational problem, and still others a demonic attack. I don’t know what Paul was literally referencing here, and neither does anyone else. But I think part of the reason we don’t know for certain is because the ambiguity of it allows us all to relate to Paul. If you experience the relation problem you might see a connection to Paul’s language here, the same could be true of the physical or emotional problems. The thorn is something we’ve all experienced in some manifestation or another.

Second, “in the flesh.” Since the goal of this “thorn” is to keep Paul humble then he must be referring here to his sinful nature that wants to boast and brag in the vision he has seen. God’s aim is to help Paul fight sin by giving him a thorn. That says something to us about the ways in which we suffer. God is always using our suffering to sanctify us. Whether that means keeping us from sin, or developing godly attributes in us before we sin.

Thirdly, “given.” This is a key word, for it implies that there is a motive and a mover behind the thorn in the flesh. So who “gave” this thorn to Paul? The natural impulse might be to say it is from Satan. After all a thorn in the flesh is bad and Satan does bad things, so it must be from him…right? The problem with that conclusion, however, is that the stated motive of the thorn is to keep Paul humble. Since when is Satan more interested in our humility than our boasting in our selves and our accomplishments? No, the right answers has to be that God has given Paul this “thorn,” this “mess anger of Satan.” Does that strike you as strange as it does me? But that is what the text implies.What we see here is that our principle of the wounded heart is at work: God causes the struggle.

We will flesh out in more detail what all of this means in the coming weeks, but it is important to start with this point. God does cause struggles. But remember the principle we are going to finish unpacking: When God Causes the Struggle He will also give us a Grace through the Struggle!

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